Skunk River loses one of its rocks – Empty Nest by Curt Swarm


The Skunk River is a little quieter today. It lost one of its arch rivals, an opponent it could never defeat. On three different occasions, the Skunk River flooded Butch out, but Butch fought back. Like an old catfish, Butch sensed when the river would crest. He had a semi truck there beforehand with friends to help carry everything out of the River Rock Cafe. He’d tie down the propane tank and let the river have its way. Water would actually flow in one door and out the other.
Butch Bittle, owner of the River Rock Cafe, liked to decorate his award winning tenderloins with condiments. Most any other owner would throw in the towel after just one flood. But not Butch. He was a survivor. He loved the River Rock Cafe, with his family and friends and farm animals (including a peacock) around him. His customers loved Butch and the River Rock Cafe.
In a way, the Skunk River will never be the same. It was a force of nature, something Butch could do battle with fair and square. He understood the river. What Butch had trouble with was politics and ordinances. In his earlier career he had opened a finer restaurant in a residential neighborhood in Mt. Pleasant called the Brownstone. People flocked to it. There was only one problem. Butch failed to allow for parking. When neighbors complained about so many cars flooding the neighborhood, Butch was forced to shut down. But he had the River Rock Cafe on the Skunk River and that would be enough. Rural ordinances and natural forces would be easier to deal with in the country.
Butch was like a force of nature himself. The River Rock Cafe soon became an icon of Southeast Iowa and Northeast Missouri. Butch was famous for his tenderloins. Situated close to a spillway on the Skunk River, Butch proudly displayed a sign that proclaimed he had “The Best Tenderloin by a Dam Site.” And people agreed. In 2013, he earned the prestigious award from the Iowa Pork Producers as having the number one tenderloin in the state—sort of the Nobel Prize of tenderloins. And it wasn’t just a great tenderloin. To the excitement and glee of customers, he would often decorate tenderloins by putting smiley faces on them, made out of condiments—almost too good to eat.
But people were attracted to more than the tenderloins and the other great foods, like home made pies. It was Butch. He loved to have fun with family, customers and employees. It wasn’t unusual for Butch to appear from the tiny kitchen sporting a wig and wearing a bikini. (I’m not kidding.) On New Years Eve, he would throw a big wing ding for his customers and suppliers—free dinner, like prime rib with shrimp cocktail. In the fall, Butch would hire bands to set up out front for a free music festival. The Skunk River Valley rocked.
When visitors came to town, the number one place they always wanted to go, and were taken, was Butch’s River Rock Cafe.
However, in the spring of 2019 a couple of things happened. Butch was flooded out for the third time, and his mother, with whom he was very close, died. Butch had always told his family that when his mother died, they would move on to another life. But Butch didn’t mention any such change. He seemed to be withdrawn, cranky and was losing weight. His family noticed, and customers noticed. Butch was no longer the happy-go-lucky entertainer and cook of the River Rock Cafe.
When the back hatch of his minivan cracked him on the neck and shoulder, it laid him up in bed for two days. His wife, Melissa (Missy), noticed that his legs were black. She tried to get him to go the emergency room, but Butch, being Butch, was stubborn. He told her he would go the next day if he wasn’t better. The next day he was no better and Missy drove him to the emergency room. The emergency room doctor told her it was “touch-and-go” and sent Butch off to the Iowa City Hospital and Clinics by ambulance. Missy asked, “What do you mean, ‘touch-and-go?’ For a neck injury?”
“Your husband is in very bad shape,” she was told.
At Iowa City, they did a coronavirus test that took 24 hours. It was negative. Then they did a test for tuberculosis. That took another 24 hours. It was also negative. Then they did a CT scan and discovered numerous tumors. Uh, oh.
Butch called Missy. “You can’t come and see me, I have bone cancer.”
Missy talked to the nurse. “What do you mean, we can’t come and see him? Bone cancer is not contagious.”
“It’s the coronavirus pandemic,” she was told. “We are swamped.”
Butch was skin and bones. His heart stopped three times, and he had to be resuscitated. His blood pressure was dangerously low, and his kidneys were shutting down. On Sunday, April 19th, two days after his 66th birthday, Butch Bittle passed away. The Skunk River will never be the same, nor will connoisseurs of great tenderloins.
Because of the pandemic, no celebration of life will be held presently. The family hopes to have one in June or July. In the meantime, they are keeping the River Rock Cafe open for carry out. Butch’s daughter, Grace, and Missy, want to give it a year and see how they do. It is obvious now, that Butch had been sick for quite sometime, and may have even known it, but didn’t say anything.
Missy wants everyone to remember Butch for the good times they had at the River Rock Cafe. He is in heaven now, putting smiley faces on tenderloins for God.

Have a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, email him at or visit his website at

1 thought on “Skunk River loses one of its rocks – Empty Nest by Curt Swarm

  1. I cannot imagine losing your spouse or loved one and not being able to be with them. He had tested negative – he was about to pass away – it just seems inhumane. I am so sad – my granddaughter worked for him one summer and though I never met him, his family is in my thoughts and prayers. I would think there could be a way for people to be together under these circumstances. A signed waiver, using all ppe possible and allowing someone to be with them….. This is a memory that will not go away for many families. it is my greatest fear of this epidemic – to lose someone and not be there for them.

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