What was purchased as a home became a restaurant, and the restaurant became an institution for diners, a party-place for special events, and a welcome, friendly breath of relief for folks needing time out from the daily stresses of life.
And now, that restaurant is closing its doors.
Sherry Heath and Brenda Hix purchased the house in 1983, opened The Durning House in 1989, opened first as The Main house in what is the smallest of the three dining rooms. A year later, they opened the larger restaurant. And then, in 1995, they built the Sunday House bed and breakfast. Both share a love of everything historic or antique, and so the building is decorated uniquely in the treasures they have found and accumulated over the year.
Hix said she handled most of the maintenance. “If a pipe breaks, I climb under the house and fix it,” she said. Heath handles the more creative side, including the various and seasonal decorations that greet the patrons who come in every day. She decorated it all in Christmas elegance this last time, with not a nook or cranny left unadorned.
Carolyn Elliott Herring said she has fond memories of playing at the Charles Durning home as a youngster. History has it that the first Charles Durning moved to Texas following the Civil War, and worked hauling freight from Jefferson to North Texas. The Durning home was built around 1900 from lumber hauled around the turn of the century. Charles II, and then Charles Durning III lived in the house, and it was from III that the ladies purchased it. “He was 81 years old when we came for an estate sale. A lady had rented it from him for 31 years, and it took a while, but we finally talked him into selling it to us. It had always been in the Durning family,” Heath said. They’ve added several cabins south of the main building along the way, expanding the bed-and-breakfast portion of their building.
They didn’t take the naming lightly for the business. “We asked permission to use the name,” Heath said.
They also, over the years, purchased the old funeral home. It’s back and side yards abut up to the Durning House property, because they needed the extra parking and drive space for the Durning House. “It sat empty for 15 years. Somebody had bought it before and gutted it, but stopped there,” Heath continued. We did it totally, electricity, plumbing, and made offices out of it.
The Durning House has a charm and elegance not seen in today’s décor magazines, and that’s because there is no central theme or modernization to any of it. Instead, it’s got a welcoming charm, no matter which room sports the decorations.
For instance, in the southern-most dining room, there is the front end of a vehicle, an 18-wheeler, sticking out of a wall. That came, the ladies said, from a relative of Brenda’s. He got it from his dad’s wrecking yard, and was going to use it as a headboard for his son. But, the boy’s mother rebuffed that idea. So, it became a part of Durning House décor.
Antique signs abound. “Pepsi — More bounce to the ounce,” one reads. There’s a tall and narrow Dr. Pepper sign, a Hires Root Beer, numerous automotive-related signs, even one touting the adage “Live is short — Eat dessert first. Heath said she expects these will go rapidly when they have their estate sale, following their closing.
Heath uses crystal and other unique glassware in much of her decorations. And some of it is already up for sale, displayed in the Party Room. “Christmas is always a favorite.”
A favorite was the Halloween decoration, outside, of a witch who crashed her broomstick into the utility pole. They created this where her pointy nose appeared as if it went all the way through the pole and protruded out the other side. Hix said she had to get a tall ladder to put that one up, because it needed to be up high where people couldn’t grab the nose off.
They also have gardened extensively and taken pride in many of the unique plants that adorn it.
And there are two antique portraits of a man and a woman in the living room. When asked if those were the original Durnings, the answer was given with a laugh, “No, I found those photos in an attic. I was preparing a home for an estate sale. I carried them down and the family didn’t even know they were up there. So, I got them and just added them here,” Hix said.
Highlights over time
When asked for a couple of their most memorial guests or occasions, Heath was the first to speak up. “The most touch was a B&B guest from New York. She was in a wheelchair and a male came with her. We have a little book for people to write in about their stay. She wrote that she had very little time to live, and that her dream was to come to Texas and stay in a B&B, and that she adored everything about her stay.
“I believe God had a hand in that. All we had was the little room open then,” she added.
Another favorite memory was when the two were in that little room and a lady came in. Heath said, “This was way back when Catholic nuns wore habits. We were open at night and this lady walked in. She looked a little off the street and was looking for a specific preacher here in town. I called him, and she went to see him. Then she came back. I knew right away something was wrong.
“’I’m on my way to Tulsa to pick up some habits for our diocese,’” Heath said the lady told her. “Her car was packed to the hills. We fed her, let her have a place to stay for the night, and she drove away the next morning. God appears in a lot of different forms. She left more than she took. You have got to be nice to everybody.”
But their stories and memories didn’t end there. Hix remembered, “At Valentine’s Day one year, a man got down on his knees and proposed to his lady in front of everybody.” And they got a call from a couple who had spent their honeymoon at The Durning House 20 years before they called, wanting to come back. “We want to stay up front, this is where we spent our honeymoon,” the lady said when asked for a reservation.
“Now, let us tell you a funny story,” Heath said. “We used to do murder mystery dinners, with eight people here. Everyone dressed up in styles of the year of the murder mystery. One particular night, Garth Brooks was to perform in Dallas. That night, the guests came here in a limousine and instantly the phone calls began coming in.” She and Hix said the callers were convinced that it was Garth Brooks having dinner at the Durning House. “Well, I can’t really say, but there is a professional singer in this group,” we told a caller, and that was a true statement. And they took it from there. Cars lined up all around the corner. We did keep telling callers it wasn’t Garth Brooks, ‘I’m not lying to you,’ and such.
“Three hours, the murder mystery guests all got back in their limo and they drove off, with dozens of cars following them. The callers all just knew we were lying. We weren’t,” Heath said.
And the duo remembers the kind words people have said to them over the years. “Here, it feels like you are going home,” and “A good place for a little respite,” and others such as that.
One group that has met every Tuesday morning, early, for coffee, has been the Love Ladies. Hix said she believed it was Donna Spies who started the group when she and her husband, John, who was the superintendent of schools, moved to town. “She started it for people, like her, who are new in town. It was a great place to meet people. Many who have moved here came in from different states. And many of these are some of the best volunteers in the city.” The Love Ladies are looking for their new home and have a couple of promising options already, said one of the regulars.
Building a restaurant and menu
“Neither of us could cook,” Heath said. “And it was just Brenda and I. I bought all three of Mary Pittman’s cookbooks and started out with those, searching for recipes. I saw a spinach salad with strawberries, and figured I could do that. It grew and we added more recipes.”
Hix’s Aunt Opal baked their pies, famous throughout the town, for 25 years. “She was 93 when she made her last pie,” Hix remember. “Sherry would go over and try to learn it.” Heath picked it up from there, saying “She told me to get ‘a dash of this and a pinch of that and get the flour in the hands. Watch me.’ I came back and tried, but it was disastrous.” When Aunt Opal passed away, Heath picked up the pie-baking chore and has it mastered now. “I learned,” she said with that ever-present smile.
They learned so much that they produced their own cookbook, now sold out.
And a popular day for several years now is Bubba Lunch days on Tuesdays, where the menu includes at least one robust entrée.
One thing the ladies both said they’ve been very fortunate to have had, and that’s really good people working with them. “We’ve been really fortunate that everybody has been really good. It’s hard to get people nowadays who are loyal and who work their tails off,” Heath said. Michelle Childers is one of those loyal staff members, and has been with them for 28 years.
The building, the property is up for sale. And after The Durning House is all closed for business, they will host an estate sale with almost all their treasures being offered. Hix is not a stranger to estate sales, having worked many for families over the years as her sideline vocation. After that, what comes next?
“Well, we want to travel. We have friends in Washington, Utah, Virginia, and we have other destinations we want to visit, too,” Hix said. “We’ve been so tied down for so long.
“We had a good run. The best thing about it has been the people So many of our customers have become dear friends.”