Mark Bennett: Gary Richards helped preserve a corner of Terre Haute history

Piece of history: The 184-year-old building that is home to M. Moggers Restaurant and Pub remains alive and functioning as a lively business thanks to the vision of restauranteur and businessman Gary Richards.Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza

It’s interesting to watch the reactions of newcomers walking through the popular M. Moggers Restaurant and Pub at Ninth and Polar streets downtown.

The walls are filled with historical relics like antique beer-making equipment, photos, books and advertisements from Terre Haute’s brewing district heyday in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Even the restrooms feature a vintage Coca-Cola cooler for a sink in the women’s and adapted beer kegs for urinals in the men’s.

Perhaps most impressive is the fact that a 184-year-old building remains alive and functioning as a lively business.

That’s a testament to the creativity and acumen of Gary Richards, the restaurateur and businessman who, with his wife Diane and their family, launched and have operated Moggers and Stables Steakhouse in historic buildings in Terre Haute’s old brewing district since the 1990s. He and they achieved the same success in his hometown of Casey, Illinois, turning an old family barn into Richards Farm Restaurant, still thriving after 45 years.

Gary Richards’ knack for the details, inside and outside of those eateries, enhanced their appeal.

“He came up with all that stuff,” his son, Michael Richards, said Thursday.

Those instincts accomplished a rare, sought-after feat — the preservation of historic buildings while also fully utilizing them long-term. Downtown Terre Haute has become more of a destination for both residents and visitors, thanks to Gary Richards and his family’s Moggers and Stables restaurants.

Gary Richards passed away Sunday at age 74, after being hospitalized with COVID-19, his son said. A celebration of life for family and friends is planned for 4 to 7 p.m. this Sunday at Richards Farm in Casey.

In a 2006 interview with former Tribune-Star reporter Arthur Foulkes, Gary Richards humorously recalled opening the Richards Farm Restaurant in December 1976, with “absolutely no experience.” Then 29 years old with a young family, he’d fixed up the barn on his off-time as a Casey Junior High School science teacher, Gary explained in the story. On the restaurant’s debut night, heat in the kitchen set off the fire extinguisher system. “It just coated the kitchen with white powder,” Richards told the reporter.

As they gained experience, Richards Farm began serving as many as 1,000 people on big days, such as Valentine’s Day and Mothers Day. “It’s a destination place,” Richards said in 2006. “We’re honored that so many people want to spend” important days here.

A couple decades later, Moggers and Stables quickly became destinations, too.

Michael Richards remembers getting a call from his dad in 1995 about the Bleemel Building in downtown Terre Haute. Gary had visited it and talked with Terre Haute businessman Mike Rowe, who’d just bought the 1837-era structure at Ninth and Poplar to save it from demolition. An idea began to brew.

Michael, then a new college grad, was still weighing his career plans. On that phone call, his dad asked, “What do you think about opening a brew-pub?”

Once Michael toured the place, he was convinced. “As soon as I saw it, I said, ‘Yeah, this place could be pretty awesome,’” Michael remembered.

M. Moggers Restaurant opened in 1996, named for German immigrant Matthias Mogger, a Terre Haute brewing pioneer who ran a brewery inside the building from 1848 to 1868. The Richardses and Rowe partnered through the business’s early years, until Rowe sold the Tap Room, adjacent to the Moggers restaurant in the Bleemel building, to Richards in 2004. Rowe also resurrected the recipe for Champaign Velvet — the old Terre Haute Brewing Company’s flagship beer — in that same timespan. The city’s legendary brewing district, dormant since the 1950s, started to rekindle.

Richards’ Stables Steakhouse opened in 1998. It involved the restoration of an 1890-era building across Poplar Street from Moggers. It was built 131 years ago to house stables for the horses used to deliver the Terre Haute Brewing Company’s beer. Originally, there were no stairs to the second level, which was a hayloft.

“That was the biggest challenge,” Rowe recalled Tuesday, “going from a warehouse with no access to the second floor, to what it is now.”

Today, rarities like the original 40-foot-long, solid poplar ceiling beams add to the steakhouse’s distinction.

Rowe praised Gary Richards and his family for sustaining their restaurants in those classic Terre Haute buildings through the past quarter-century.

“There’s no doubt in my mind, if we hadn’t joined forces, those buildings would be gone,” Rowe said, “and they’ve kept them going all these years. They’ve done just so well.

“They’re just very good at what they do,” Rowe added.

Operating a business inside structures built before cars and telephones were common in Terre Haute isn’t simple.

“We always refer to those buildings as a blessing and a curse,” said Michael Richards. “Because, with them comes never-ending maintenance. But without them, our restaurants just wouldn’t be the same.”

Gary referred to himself as “head of maintenance” for most of the last decade, said Michael, the director of operations and chief financial officer of the family businesses. His father’s attention to details and upkeep remained keen. The ongoing repainting of Stables this summer is a project Gary guided.

“I think my dad was always very proud of each of the restaurants,” Michael said. “What we’ve always talked about is providing a great experience for the guests. Great food, great service and great atmosphere. And that’s probably what sets our restaurants apart, is that we’re in these old buildings. And that’s hard to match. And that’s a result of Dad.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.