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From the archives: Don't mess with Ardie; she's a barrel of dynamite

Editors' note: This story was originally published in the News Democrat on June 26, 2005.

You wouldn't expect to find an angel of mercy at Ardie and Tiny's, a blue-collar tavern in Collinsville that caters to the Fairmount Park race-track crowd.

But there she is behind the bar --- a 64-year-old, red-haired woman who feeds the hungry, buys clothes for the poor, mediates arguments, gives marital advice and tries to convince alcoholics to stop drinking.

After the Great Flood of 1993, Ardie Foster (formerly Decker) turned the tavern into a shelter for homeless people. Two years ago, she invited a hitchhiker from Tennessee to come in for a meal.

"I fed him three plates of chicken and dumplings and gave him $20," Ardie said. "He appreciated it, he really did. One of my customers said, `What kind of Tom, Dick or Harry are you going to bring in next?'"

Ardie has owned the tavern for 30 years. She named it after her mother, the late Violet "Tiny" Robinson, who tended bar at the same location in the '40s and '50s, when it was called the Red Hen.

It's a place where Christmas lights hang all year and everyone seems to know everyone else. Think "Cheers" with a crowd that favors ball caps and jean jackets, Bud Light and Jack Daniels, horseshoes and darts, Gretchen Wilson and Toby Keith.

"It's fun," said Debbie Rodgers, 44, a homemaker from Collinsville. "You meet some really nice people. It could be a pauper. It could be a prince. You never know who's going to walk through that door."

Rodgers and her friend, Rhonda Lee Wallace, 50, of Collinsville are two regulars known as "Ardie's girls." They laugh at the way Ardie peers across the room if they're getting too rowdy or prods Rhonda to go home early if she's working the next day.

`Barrel of dynamite'

On a recent afternoon, Rhonda was dancing to "Beer for My Horses" and feeding dollar bills into the jukebox, which plays almost continuously at the tavern.

"During the day, we pick out smooth songs," said Rhonda Lee, who cleans houses. "We try to be nice to the older people who don't like rock 'n' roll. But when 6 o'clock rolls around, that's a different story."

The tavern gets lively at night, especially on weekends, when bands play until 2 a.m. Ardie wants customers to have a good time but isn't afraid to break up fights or kick out people who are drunk and unruly.

"You'll see her go up to these big guys, and she'll poke her fingers on their chest and say, `That's enough of that,'" said her husband, Bill Foster, 64, a truck driver. "And they'll back out the door. They don't want to make her mad. She'll go off on them. She might be little, but she's a barrel of dynamite."

On Saturday, July 23, Ardie will celebrate the tavern's 30th anniversary and her 65th birthday. The party begins at 6 p.m. with food, drinks and live music.

Ardie is inviting all past and present customers, including dozens of couples that have had wedding receptions at the tavern and people who have gotten help when they were down and out.

"I've met some of the most beautiful people here," said Ardie, who contemplated selling the tavern a few years ago but changed her mind after customers cried and begged her to stay. "I love this job. I love my customers."

The Red Hen

It's believed Tom Tweet opened the first tavern at Ardie's location, across Collinsville Road from Fairmount Park. He and his wife formerly owned the Red Rooster down the road.

The couple apparently got in a fight and separated, prompting Tom to build the Red Hen. Tiny waited tables and tended bar in the '40s and '50s with her friend, Helen Arnold.

"It was a place where you could go and not get hurt," said Arnold, 72, of Collinsville. "It wasn't like the other taverns up and down the strip. They had some unsavory customers, but Tom Tweet didn't allow anything like that."

When Ardie was a girl, the school bus dropped her off at the tavern. Her mother always had a soda and a bowl of chili waiting for her.

Ardie attended Collinsville High School and played third clarinet in band. She worked 18 years at Pearl's Horseshoe Lounge, where owner Pearl Staeile became her mentor.

"She said, `I'm going to teach you the business because someday you're going to open your own place,'" said Ardie, who still lives in Collinsville. "And she was right. I never dreamed of owning a bar."

Pearl's eventually burned down, and Ardie got a job at the Diamondhead tavern, formerly the Red Hen. In 1975, she bought the white frame building and turned it into Ardie and Tiny's.

Baptism by fire

Early on, Ardie recalls being pressured by "hoodlums" to share profits and open the tavern to gambling and prostitution. When she refused, someone threw a fire bomb in the window in the middle of the night, gutting the main floor.

A week later, Ardie re-opened in the basement "with a shotgun and a pool stick." She spent $34,000 on renovations, giving the tavern a rustic, log-cabin look with cedar siding and a front porch.

"The fire didn't scare me off," Ardie said. "It gave me that much more determination to keep the place open. I slept (in a folding bed on the dance floor) for years. I said, `I'll die in this building before I give up.' Those people thought they were going to get the best of me, but they weren't. I would have shot 'em."

Since that time, Ardie has faced other challenges and heartaches. Her first two marriages ended in divorce. Her daughter, Linda Mosier, died of breast cancer in 1991 at age 33.

Ardie has four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Her son, Eddie Decker Jr., 36, of Wood River is a substitute teacher.

Four years ago, Ardie was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy. Customers packed the tavern for a benefit that raised money for medical bills.

But even cancer didn't drive Ardie to drink. Only occasionally will she have a vodka and grapefruit juice or whiskey and 7-Up.

"I'm not a drinker," said Ardie, who tends bar several days a week. "I don't like it. I saw what it did to my mom and dad. I never wanted to be an alcoholic. I'm scared of it."

Cold drinks and hot meals

Ardie married Bill in 2003, about 15 years after they became a couple. He had stopped in the tavern because a truck-stop waitress in Troy told him it was a good place to drink.

Today, Bill's sister, Teddy West, helps with bartending and cooking at the tavern, which serves steak, chicken and pork-chop dinners, burgers, wings and French fries made from scratch.

"Everybody's friendly in here," said West, 66, of Collinsville. "You never meet a stranger. It's like a big family. ... If I get bored, I come down here and visit. I don't have to drink any liquor. I can have fun drinking pop or coffee."

Every Monday afternoon, Ardie and her longtime cook, Mary Wells, 40, of Washington Park, serve a free buffet dinner to everyone in the tavern. It's a way to thank customers and provide a hot meal to those less fortunate.

On a recent weekday, about 50 people helped themselves to chafing dishes full of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh greens, salad and cake. Ardie and Mary even decorated the table with vases of silk roses.

Customers included John Hillburry, 45, of Collinsville, who credits Ardie with helping him straighten out his life several years ago. Mainly, she just nagged and nagged him to stop "running around with the wrong people."

Ardie's concern is rewarded by customers who take out trash, run errands, move furniture, hook up beer tappers and do other chores at the tavern.

Aaron Wright, 48, a Fairmount Park blacksmith from Highland, Lisa Richmond, 42, a bartender from Troy and Brian Wiese, 37, an assistant horse trainer from Highland, recently built a sand volleyball court and horseshoe pits in back.

"Ardie's a mother," said Howard Phegley, 63, of Collinsville, a retired machinist who serves as night watchman at Ardie and Tiny's.

"She's everybody's mother. ... She's a very strong believer in religion and God, and she talks to people about it whenever she gets a chance. She'll help you when nobody else will. She's just a wonderful lady."