Christopher Creek had a sawmill north of the highway and just east of the creek. In the early 1960s, all that remained were some large piles of sawdust. A family was discovered camping there and when some locals inquired, it was learned they owned that property. One of those in the camp was Olive. She would have been around 33 at the time.
It was an inauspicious beginning, to be sure. What little we know of her early days in the Creek is from old-timers. We know she drove her mother’s old VW down the dirt road to her waitress jobs at Kohl’s Ranch or the Candlelight in Payson. By 1965 the road was paved and she opened a sandwich and bait shop called the Bluejay Cafe. It was about that time, her brother, Richard Henry, was founding the Payson airport. We don’t know all the details of the rest of her family at the time and, well, it’s complicated.
It was in those days, two young fellas were rock hopping up the creek when they came upon a gal in a pool. She had on shorts and a white cotton T-shirt. When she came out of the water, she gave a lasting memory to two young 15-year-olds. When we reminded Olive of that story a few years back, she laughed. Her laughter was special, frequent, and will be long remembered by her friends and employees.
By the very early 1970s, Olive had married John Matus and they set about to build the Creekside Steakhouse and Tavern. The restaurant opened in 1972 and, from humble beginnings, Olive built the business. Her home cooking, consistent quality, and long hours of operation became famous. She opened at 6 a.m. to accommodate the hunters and fishermen. At 10 p.m. the kitchen was closed. Her ribs, her “killer” chili, and her recipes for ranch and blue-cheese dressings became world-renown.
There were times the restaurant was open round the clock. In 1998, there was a five-foot snow and a prolonged power outage. Out came the lanterns and candles and the kitchen was serving food for those APS crews working on all the downed power lines.
In the morning, we would occasionally stop for coffee with her. Olive would be seated at the big table by the windows at the front of the kitchen. There would be a large bowl for the hard-boiled eggs she was peeling. Her salads were celebrated for the sliced egg on top. One can’t imagine the number of eggs she peeled in 39 years.
There were times while looking out those windows, she would spot some hapless soul trudging up the highway. She would go out and invite them in to find out their story. She may have offered coffee or a meal to those who were down on their luck. On occasion, she would put them to work washing dishes. She was a caring and generous person.
You can ask that of any of the scores of waitresses, cooks, and dishwashers she employed over the years. Most will tell you of the positive impact Olive made on their lives. Many lived in the trailer park next door. One of her waitresses was on the front porch for 29 years. She looked after one young man who was a bit unruly and had focusing issues. She kept him on for years with her stern motto “It’s my way or the highway,” a sign that hung over the kitchen doorway.
She treated all her employees well and equally. That is not to say she didn’t have her favorites in that kitchen. Anthony “Anton” Acuna was one of Olive’s cooks for 12 years and shared this story.
“I started at Creekside in the summer of ’95. Olive taught me how to do things her way (it was either that or the highway!) and since I was still young and hungry, I picked up pretty damn quick. After a month or more I had earned the trust and respect of Olive and everyone around me. I had found a happy new family to be a part of and I was in love with it.
“One day I noticed a small notepad on the fridge. ‘What’s this Olive?’ I asked. Olive answered, ‘That’s my grocery list. If we run out of something or you need something we don’t have, put it on the list and I’ll get it when I go to town.’
“‘Anything?’ I came back. ‘Sure, anything,’ Olive replied as she was nose deep in some paperwork so she didn’t notice the twinkle in my eye when I asked, ‘Anything?’ So when she wasn’t looking, I put something on the list. Double Stuf Oreos. A couple of days later I come into work and see Olive making her way out of the kitchen. I get to my station and I find a Walmart bag wrapped around a package of Double Stuf Oreos. I look to the back door and Olive is peeking in, smiling ear-to-ear and waving at me.
“And that’s how I found out Olive Matus loved me.”
Through the golden years of Creekside there was seldom an empty table and often a line at the door. Through hard work and long hours, she had built an empire. For a breather, Olive and John would escape to the Colorado River. John was a pilot and they flew their plane to Bullhead City. Their boat was in a slip at Martha’s Landing on Lake Mohave. They stayed at the Riverside and became friends with Don Laughlin. From time to time, they would reward an employee with a trip to the river with them. Olive was never without one of her little dogs, one of the two Snoopys and then Bailey.
There became a problem with the number of feral cats around the restaurant. Before she retired, Olive enlisted the help of the Payson Humane Society and a local veterinarian to have 28 of the cats spayed or neutered. Eventually, the problem was no longer ... thus was her love of animals.
Olive and John sold the restaurant in 2007 and moved to Payson. In 2012, she was genuinely ecstatic to be honored as parade marshal in Christopher Creek’s 4th of July Parade. After 39 years in the kitchen, Olive’s social life blossomed. She had her senior girls, bingo, and a monthly lunch with a group of mostly former employees. It was informally called the Wildflowers. Olive never missed those lunches, as it was an opportunity to keep up with the Creek.
Each time the Wildflowers met, Olive insisted on buying my lunch. She was my good friend for 33 years. Olive Matus passed away quietly, at home with Bailey and her family at her side, last Saturday morning. Her impact on our little town, her friends, all of Rim Country and her thousands of guests will be forever remembered ... and that’s another week in the Creek.