Boarding house reach was perfected by hungry boarders

Mention room and board to college students today and they probably assume you’re talking about a room where the occupant sleeps on a 4×8 piece of plywood.

Lizzie Nelson’s at 708 Eighth St.

Lizzie Nelson’s at 708 Eighth St.

Don’t even ask about the “boarding house reach.”

The “reach” was perfected by hungry boarders in the days when students ate roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy on a real cloth-covered table for lunch and supper instead of cheeseburgers with catsup-laced fries from a paper bag.

The boarders scurried from late-morning classes for food-laden tables in private Brookings homes, then scarfed meals that housewives prepared family-style the old fashioned way.

On stoves.

One of those boarding houses was operated by Mrs. Lizzie Nelson from 1915 to 1937.

About 80 male students filled their stomachs at the home that Mrs. Nelson designed and had built. But most years at 708 Eighth St., boarders numbered in the 50s. Her dining table was in the basement next to a furnace and a kitchen. Sacks of spuds were stored under the front porch to await student peelers who worked for their board.

A dinner bell sounded when the repasts were ready. “I can still remember the boys (those who also roomed there) tumbling downstairs,” Mrs. Nelson told a newspaper reporter in 1988. “When they smelled food, you’d think the house was going to fall down.”

Another popular boarding house from the 1940s until the early 1960s was Ma (Mrs. Mabel) Graham’s boarding house two blocks from the Campanile at Medary Avenue and Seventh Street.

One of the approximately 60 boarders there was Jim Roth, ’55, a future Navy fighter pilot and later test pilot. Roth now lives in New York state and writes books about his hometown of Estelline.

“Her nickname was ‘Sarge,’” he remembered, “but that was never uttered in her presence.” Roth recalls the wonderful noon and evening meals she served to collegians five days a week, with a Saturday lunch for students who signed up on Friday. His five-day cost was less than $15.

Ma Graham’s at 927 Seventh St.

Ma Graham’s at 927 Seventh St.

The meals were on a first-come, first-served basis. Those who arrived late studied in the living room waiting for an empty chair at the big oval table that seated 10. “Once a guy finished eating, another quickly took his place,” Roth said.

The family-style meals were “scrumptious,” he remembered.

Al Frerichs, ’60, now retired and living in Brookings, boarded at Ma Graham’s for three years. He believes the boarding fee then was $20 a week, or $2 per meal. She was a “fantastic” cook, he said.

Mrs. Graham’s grandson, Dick Motter ’69, an animal science major farming near Elkton, remembers his grandmother’s hard kitchen work and her worry that she’d made enough to go around.

She always did.

Serving meals to students today is big business. In the SDSU Student Union, for example, there are a half dozen separate eating places, each of a different genre, from tacos to cheeseburgers to bagels, egg rolls, and sweet and sour pork.

“Boarding house reach” muscles in Brookings atrophied years ago.

Note: Dick Fergen, owner of Nick’s Hamburger Shop and sponsor of this page, died Oct. 11, 2013, of cancer. He was 71. Dick was blessed with a sunny, congenial, delightfully upbeat personality. He was an accomplished businessman, a Jackrabbit to the core, and generous to a fault. He was also a good friend. Like so many, I miss him.


Chuck’s Column is sponsored by Nick’s Hamburgers If you’d like to make a comment, e-mail the author at

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