When Marion and Rhoda Sommers relocated from Missouri to Gold Creek, Montana back in 2004, little did the locals know what a positive impact this Mennonite family would make in terms of attracting visitors to their tiny community.

The Sommers family created The Dinnerbell, a bakery, espresso bar, deli, bulk food store, and, on Thursday evenings, home-style restaurant. The first Thursday of the month features meat loaf, while the remaining Thursdays are their popular chicken dinners. The all-you-can-eat suppers are served with mashed potatoes and smooth-as-silk gravy, salad, vegetable and homemade rolls, followed by homemade pie served with ice cream.

I’m down for some fried chicken, so I headed over early on a Thursday. Rhoda tells me they have peeled 70 pounds of potatoes early in the day and made between 25 and 30 pies. Marion and crew are breading 120 pounds of chicken mid-afternoon that will go first into the fryer, and then the oven. Daughter Melody is setting tables in the two adjoining dining rooms.

As early at 5 p.m., folks wander in, checking out the bulk goods and making purchases of everything from Montana-made jams and jellies, to bulk candies, flour, spices, pectin, soup mixes — the list is all but endless.

There is an unusual assortment of canned items to browse through, including pickled hot okra, pickled eggs and sweet flame pickles, much of which has been produced at the Amish Wedding Foods Company in Ohio. Cookies, bread and rolls made on site are downright irresistible. There are handmade quilts lining a few walls, as well as cookbooks, soaps and other assorted crafts for sale.

The Dinnerbell serves, on the average, 160 people during the summer months with their Thursday dinners. It’s a production that the Sommers family has down to a fine art with the help of their six kids, friends and relatives in the community. When folks are ready to be seated, Marion holds a seating chart and directs them to their tables. Promptly at 6 p.m., the food comes rolling out of the kitchen, with several servers toting bowls of mashed potatoes, gravy and platters of chicken. Within minutes, all the tables are laden with an abundance of food, and the feast begins. Rhoda moves between tables encouraging second and third helpings.

I look around the dining room filled to capacity and see folks deep in conversation while loading up their plates. What I don’t see is anyone on their cell phone texting. This is a social event as much as it is about dining. It’s a comfortable setting to chat up strangers. I’m sitting next to a woman who has outlived two husbands and now is “not interested in finding a man.” She reaches for her second helping of chicken and tells me how much she likes Hunter’s Pointe in Helena and suggests that maybe I would like to live there as well. Yikes! I’m not ready for that move yet.

The town of Gold Creek is just a few miles northwest of Garrison Junction off I-90 at Exit 166. For visitors from Helena, Missoula, Deer Lodge and Butte, an evening at the Dinnerbell means a pleasant drive combined with the best of home cooking.

I’m talking with Al Gibson who lives in California. He jokes “I’m here ‘cause I love chicken and my wife won’t cook chicken.” He and his wife are guests of Charles Hoon and his wife. The two couples made the drive over from Huson. Charles adds “I’m here cause I was told to come” and volunteers it has been a great road trip for them.

At the end of the dinner, the Sommers family comes together and sings a hymn, which signals the dismissal of the guests. There is everything to appreciate about the wholesome food, lovingly prepared by this family that takes care of their guests in an unobtrusive manner. It’s also a cultural experience, a glimpse into the Bible-based Mennonite lifestyle.

The ambiance at The Dinnerbell is best expressed by the Mother Teresa quote posted near the entrance. “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Reservations are needed for the all-you-can-eat dinners by calling 406-288-2579. Cost is $13.50 per person (10 and over). Under 10 the cost is $8. The Dinnerbell is open weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for the Thursday dinners when they stay open late. Saturday hours are 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., closed Sunday.

Dinnerbell Chicken

Soak chicken pieces overnight (12-18 hours) in cold, salty water. Drain. Roll the pieces in Runion chicken coating. Fry in oil until golden brown. Put rack and ½ cup of water in a roaster, then fill with chicken. Heat in oven at 350 for 1 hour. Keep in oven on low heat for 30-60 minutes until you are ready to serve. Note: Runion coating is available for purchase at The Dinnerbell in Gold Creek.

Donnie Sexton, who recently retired from a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.

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