BROKEN BOW — The Tumbleweed Cafe has been a part of Carmen Bumgarner’s life since she was 13 years old.
She began working at the cafe in her early teens as a waitress for Harry and Donna Winbolt. Then, Carmen and her husband, Anson, purchased the restaurant from the Winbolts in 2001, but the restaurant’s legacy in Broken Bow can be traced to the 1940s.
During a recent afternoon in the cafe, Carmen sorted through a folder filled with the restaurant’s history, including photos, old menus and newspaper clippings. The business began in 1946 when Roy and Rose Winbolt purchased the land on the east side of town. They opened a gas station and a restaurant called the Bow Inn. The restaurant was open 24 hours, seven days a week. There wasn’t even a key, Carmen said.
“It was the largest truck stop between Alliance and Grand Island at one time,” Carmen said.
In 1963, the Bow Inn was sold to John and Dorothy Smith. The restaurant would return to the Winbolt family in 1988 when Harry and Donna purchased it. At some point the restaurant’s name changed to the Tumbleweed Cafe, but Carmen isn’t sure when that occurred.
Carmen first worked for Harry and Donna. Her husband was a custom wheat harvester, but when they weren’t on the road, she returned to work at the Tumbleweed. The Tumbleweed became like a second home to Carmen.
“I was very close with (Harry and Donna). They were like my mom and dad,” she said.
Donna often would joke with Carmen about her and her husband buying the business. Carmen began to take it seriously, and she and Anson made an offer to purchase the cafe. The Bumgarners bought the Tumbleweed in 2001.
“After that we just stayed here, bought the place and been here ever since,” Carmen said.
Donna helped at the diner until her death last year.
“She helped me when I was gone or on vacation, she would cover for me. She was very much still involved. She was amazing. If I get busy, I’d call her and say, ‘I need your help now.’ She’d come in, and just 10 minutes of her time was valuable,” Carmen said.
Since the cafe and gas station were first opened, the buildings were combined into one large building. The gas station closed in 1998, and the Bumgarners use the area as a party room for wedding rehearsal dinners, business meetings, family reunions, etc.
Little else has changed with the Tumbleweed Cafe.
Customers can sit at a long counter toward the front entrance. Others sip on coffee at round or square tables. Plates of food are placed on the sill of a window between the kitchen and dining area for waitresses to whisk away to customers.
The interior did get a bit of a facelift in December when Carmen decided to make some updates. They painted the walls, took out a front wall, put in new tile and redid the bathrooms. Despite a fresh look, the change was hard for Carmen.
“It was rough for me. I started crying. Just because it’s been part of my life. These two (Harry and Donna) were very important in my life,” Carmen said. “Everybody has enjoyed it and tell me how nice it looks and how it needed to be done.”
The menu is another part of the Tumbleweed that has changed little during the years. One or two items have been added, but it’s still homestyle cooking with an inviting, family atmosphere. The cafe is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The Haystack is one of the most popular menu items featuring a hamburger with a slice of ham, cheese, egg, Thousand Island dressing, lettuce, tomatoes, onion and pickles. The chicken fried steak and pancakes also are popular.
Travelers passing through Broken Bow often stop to dine at the Tumbleweed. Carmen had a surprising encounter with a customer from Pennsylvania two years ago when she was on a cruise.
“For the eclipse, we did an eclipse burger. I had shirts made up saying ‘I got mooned at the Tumbleweed Cafe.’ So, anyway, I was on this cruise, and I was wearing that shirt. This guy came up to me and said, ‘Oh my gosh that is my favorite place to eat.’ I said, ‘What? Tumbleweed Cafe in Broken Bow, Nebraska?’ He said, ‘Yes, every summer we go on a motorcycle bike ride, and we always make sure to stop here at the Tumbleweed,” she said.
The employees and many of the customers have become lifelong friends for Carmen. Her children, Sawyer, 15, and Ida Mae, 9, are following in her footsteps and have started to help at the Tumbleweed. Her son enjoys cooking while her daughter likes to be out front. She takes busing tables seriously.
“She won’t stop to talk to anyone. She just gets in there,” Carmen said.
The family atmosphere of the Tumbleweed Cafe is the most important part of the business for Carmen, and it’s not something she will ever change, she said.
“We focus on family. Family is very important, and (we will) keep it going,” she said.