MURPHYSBORO — Mike Mills, who died this week at the age of 79, didn’t set out to seed a love of barbecue across the country, well beyond its roots in the South and parts of the Midwest, but that’s what he ended up doing. After graduating from Murphysboro Township High School in 1959, he enrolled in the first class in the Dental Technology program at Southern Illinois University.
He earned an associate’s degree and moved to Elgin to work in a lab there. After learning the trade, he returned home and founded the Murphysboro Dental Lab. It produced crowns and dental prosthetics for nearly 60 years on 14th Street until it closed in 2019, making it one of longest continuously running businesses in Murphysboro.
His professional journey from fixing mouths to feeding them was a protracted one. Which is perhaps apropos of a man who knew instinctively that the most important things in life — like building friendships, making community and smoking ribs — don’t happen in an instant.
His affinity for barbecue began at an early age.
His dad, Leon Mills, as well as his four uncles, loved to barbecue, often bringing family and neighbors together for backyard parties. Mills’ father died when he was only 7 years old, but those days left a big impression on him.
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“I can remember sitting in my crib smelling the barbecue outside,” Mills said in a 2011 interview with BBQTV, recalling the journey that led to 17th Street Barbecue in Murphysboro and the others that followed in Southern Illinois, Las Vegas and New York City.
From gas station to watering hole
As a young man, Mills was a backyard barbecuer, like his father. He first started cooking for the public after purchasing an old gas station on the corner of 20th and Gartside streets in the mid-1970s. A social person at heart, he wanted a place where people could get together after work. It was mostly a side hustle. When he purchased the gas station, it had a little room in the back with yellow tape on the ground warning women and children not to pass beyond. That’s where the bar was located.
Ten people inside the bar would make a crowd, Mills recalled in the BBQTV interview. Eventually, he took out the pumps and expanded the bar into the rest of the station. It was always more watering hole than eatery, but he would fry fish and barbecue on the weekends, using food mostly as a means of enticing people to stop by for a drink.
Every Thursday, Mills or another regular would bring a one-pot dish, often squirrel stew or Italian venison, which patrons could partake in for $1. The bar had a drive-thru from which he sold beer and soda — and for a penny, candy for kids.
After he sold it, Mills said he started missing the fish fries, barbecues and the general camaraderie.
Hitting the competitive circuit
In 1985, a larger bar came open on 17th Street. Mills decided to buy it. This place had a bigger parking lot, which meant more room for setting up barbecue pits on the weekends. Though, it remained primarily a bar.
Three years after he opened, a friend asked if he’d be interested in sponsoring a barbecue contest. Wanting to know more about what it would entail, they went to check one out that year in Caruthersville, Missouri. Looking around at the shanty tents, smoke billowing into the air and people happily milling about, Mills thought to himself, “This is what it’s all about.”
In September 1988, the weekend after the Apple Festival, Mills, along with friends Rob Williams and Pat Burke, hosted Murphysboro’s first barbecue contest, bringing a largely Southern tradition into Yankee territory.
The initial event had a good showing, though he and other organizers knew it could be better. From there, they decided to establish their own competitive team to help promote their event while scoping out others.
The making of a Grand World Champion
The Apple City Barbecue team hit the competitive circuit in 1989. At their fourth competition in Demopolis, Alabama, as part of the city’s “Christmas on the River'' pageant, the team took home a Grand Champion award in the ribs category, qualifying them to compete the following year in the prestigious Memphis in May competition, known as the Super Bowl of Swine.
Mills said he figured they might place 50th or 60th out of 80 teams, hopefully not embarrassing themselves too badly. He was shocked when they won first place for ribs. “I had to pinch myself, make sure I’m alive,” he recalled in the BBQTV interview. After claiming their trophy, the announcer then moved onto the biggest event award, bestowed upon the best of the best in all categories. Mills said they were walking away when they heard “The new Grand World Champion is Apple City Barbecue,” bellow over the loud system.
“Your legs just become weak,” he said. “I cannot tell you what a thrill that happens to be. I’ll never forget it. And it started everything off in a whole new light.”
Over a span of four years, the team claimed the top title in Memphis three times, a record they held until it was tied 26 years later. In 1994, the Apple City Barbecue team dissolved, deciding to devote more time to building Murphysboro’s competition. That same year, Mills officially put barbecue on the menu at his 17th Street bar, he said in the BBQTV interview. “It’s kind of been off to the races from that point in time,” he said. In short order, the 33-year-old Praise the Lard Murphysboro Barbecue Cook-off carved out a prominent spot on the competitive barbecue circuit; it draws thousands of people to Southern Illinois every year.
Praise from around the globe
Over the ensuing decades, Mills partnered in five restaurants outside the region, four in Las Vegas and one in New York City, all of which enjoyed successful runs and have since been sold or closed. Mills opened a 17th Street Barbecue restaurant in Marion in 2004, which celebrated a 16th anniversary this December.
Amy Mills, a partner in the business, posted word of her father’s unexpected passing on Facebook Tuesday. In the days that followed, Amy Mills said she received hundreds of messages of support from people all over the world who had benefited from her father’s friendship and guidance.
“People here have no idea of his worldwide reach,” she said. “He was loved around the globe.”
Tom Viertel, a Broadway and off-Broadway producer from New York whose shows include “Hairspray,” “The Producers,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” and “The Sound of Music,” called Mills’ death a huge loss marking the end of an era.
Mills and Viertel lived on opposite ends of a 1,000-mile cultural chasm, one serving food and booze in a blue-collar Southern Illinois town, the other running in a circle of playwrights, actors and artists in the nation’s largest city.
Barbecue brought them together.
Viertel said he first met Mills in 1990 at a barbecue contest. He didn’t know much about the making of barbecue, but he loved to eat it. The barbecue competition that year hosted by Jack Daniel’s in Lynchburg, Tennessee, was looking for celebrity judges, and his partner, Pat Dailey, had insisted they pick Viertel.
He had been passed over before, but that year “Driving Miss Daisy” won Best Picture at the 62nd annual Academy Awards, and Viertel had produced the Off-Broadway play that preceded the movie. He chuckles at this story now, but that was the divine intervention that introduced him to Mills, whose team was there competing. “Out of all the people we met, the most welcoming and the most interesting was Mike," Viertel said. The two struck up a friendship that grew closer over the years.
They met up regularly at Memphis in May competitions. Viertel flew to Murphysboro to participate as a judge in Mills' competitions. Mills would send Viertel food in the mail for his get-togethers. On one occasion, Viertel said Mills drove a portable smoker some 1,200 miles across the country to cater a gathering of artists involved with The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, of which Viertel is the board chairman. “I just thought that was the most astonishing thing to do,” he said.
Apple City debuts in the Big Apple
Over time, it also struck Viertel that it was “just stupid” that it was hard to find good barbecue in New York. Viertel set out to change that. Through an acquaintance, he was introduced to Danny Meyer, a prominent New York restaurateur, who he invited to his home and served a meal of Mills’ making. Meyer reportedly told Viertel that it was the best he’d ever had — and he’s from St. Louis and knows good barbecue.
Meyer said he would consider opening a barbecue restaurant in the city, but first he spent two years traveling the country looking for something that could top Mills’ recipe, according to Viertel. When he didn’t find it, he partnered with Mills to open Blue Smoke restaurant on the bottom floor of a 17-story building in the city’s Flatiron District.
The restaurant closed this December after 18 years in business, citing revenue losses due to the pandemic and rising rent costs. In writing about the closing, a New York food publication credited Blue Smoke with laying “the foundation for New York City’s barbecue renaissance.”
In his role with Blue Smoke, Mills also helped Meyer found New York’s Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, which helped market the restaurant and mainstream barbecue in general.
“Although Blue Smoke ultimately didn’t last, and it went through several incarnations, some of which were better than others, it did spawn a whole generation of genuine barbecue in New York,” Viertel said. “There had been occasional places that had tried it, and lasted for a while and then gone out of business in the years before that. But today, if the New York restaurants were open, there would be close to a dozen credible barbecue restaurants — and it all started with Blue Smoke.”
Man behind the barbecue movement
His reach into the barbecue void extended beyond New York. Mills partnered in four Memphis Championship Barbecue restaurants in Las Vegas, the last two of which sold in 2019. Beyond that, he mentored countless others to nurture their own barbecue passions and make a go of it in business.
“He’s the reason why I’m where I’m at today with barbecue. He’s the type of guy who just takes you under his arm and helps you as much as he can,” said John Hulslander, who runs Gator John’s BBQ, a special events and catering business in Fort Myers, Florida. Hulslander is among the 1,300 people who have attended Mike and Amy Mills’ On Cue Consulting classes since they began hosting them in 2009. Participants have traveled to Murphysboro from 16 countries and 45 states to attend.
Patrick Murty, another class participant, said Mike and Amy Mills were also instrumental in helping his family establish Company 7 BBQ in Englewood, Ohio. “I’m sure you’ll hear this 500 times if you call around,” he said. “He was the kind of guy who gave back.”
Murty, who now serves as president of the National Barbecue & Grilling Association, an organization Mills was also involved in for years, said that with all the people Mills has inspired and helped, “he is one of the main reasons that barbecue itself has become so mainstream in the last few years.”
Alongside growing popularity of food-based television such as the Food Network, Mike and Amy Mills have helped push barbecue popularity into areas of the country where it hadn’t been before, he said.
“Barbecue has always been that more Southern, maybe Midwest type of an idea. But now it’s hot in New York and Oregon and Washington and New England and states that never had — quote-unquote — 'good' barbecue. I again would argue with just about anybody that he’s an instrumental piece to that puzzle.”
Staying true to Southern Illinois
Though Mills amassed dozens of trophies and nationwide acclaim for his barbecue, his heart always remained in Murphysboro, said Brian Roberts, a Carbondale-based attorney who considered Mills a close friend and father figure.
“He was just a very charitable person,” he said. “He was very into Southern Illinois. This was his home and he wanted to make it the best that it could be. I think he did everything that he could to lift the community.”
Roberts said it was incredible to join Mills at a Memphis in May competition in the mid-2010s and see Mills in action. “He was literally like a rock star,” he said. Over a short span of time, Roberts said he took upward of 200 cellphone photos of Mills and his fans who stopped by his booth.
At home, Mills donated to a lot of charitable causes, turning almost no one away, and often helping out in big ways without wanting any recognition. He never thought about leaving Southern Illinois. In fact, he always sought to use his notoriety to find new and creative ways of drawing people to the region he loved, said Jim Sheffer, a fellow businessman.
“He was the standard bearer of what successful people in Southern Illinois should be doing to promote Southern Illinois,” he said.
As word of Mills’ passing spread this week, hundreds of Southern Illinoisans took to social media to share stories about ways that Mills had helped them over the years. People paid homage to his ribs and pork steaks, his potato salad, sauces and his famous “Magic Dust.”
“The single best rib in my life was eaten there in 2016,” wrote Devin Miller, a Carterville resident, on his Facebook page. “I can remember how the light was in the room and who I was with because it was transcendent."
Barbecue: a vestige of bipartisanship
In Illinois, high-ranking politicians of both parties have praised Mills and his barbecue.
Because he was asked to serve a meal to Bill Clinton when the president delivered a speech at SIU in 1995, Mills is the only barbecuer with top-security clearance to board Air Force One, said Amy Mills, his daughter. Speaking of politics, while Mills has his own political beliefs, he was not one to wade into partisan affairs.
He saw people for their character before their politics, and would serve and befriend politicians no matter their party label, she said. Perhaps for that reason, 17th Street Barbecue became a regular downstate stop for statewide political candidates.
Joe Khayyat said he was introduced to Mills and 17th Street while working for former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar. The governor loved good barbecue, and was fond of Mills, Khayyat recalled. When visiting the Du Quoin State Fair, they always made a stop at 17th Street’s stand.
After Edgar retired, Khayyat took a job with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. One of his assignments was running Conservation World on the Illinois State Fairgrounds in Springfield. The beautiful 30-acre area of green grass, rolling hills, trees and ponds was designed to promote natural resources and outdoor recreation.
But there was a problem: It was located on the far northwest corner of the Fairgrounds. “I knew some people would never come down there. However, I thought if I could get a famous food vendor down there, someone like Mike Mills and 17th Street Barbecue … that I could get people to visit our area that otherwise would never come,” Khayyat said. “It took me two years to recruit him, to wear him down, but he finally agreed and it worked just as I hoped it would.”
Over the next 20 years, Khayyat said their business relationship grew into a close friendship. He admired the fact that Mills, though he amassed much success, remained “that down-to-earth, humble guy that was raised in Southern Illinois.”
“To me,” he said, “he is Southern Illinois.”
Upon his passing this week, Democratic Gov. J.B. Prtizker also sent his condolences, writing on Facebook that Mills was an icon in the world of barbecue for both his achievements and his enthusiasm. “Illinois has lost a legend,” he said.
Carrying on the tradition
Mills was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2010. With his daughter, Amy, he co-authored two books: “Peace, Love & Barbecue,” which was nominated for a James Beard Award in 2005, and “Praise the Lard,” which was published in 2017. Mills is also survived by a son, Christopher Mills, in addition to other family.
Though the loss of her father leaves a huge void for the family and community, Amy Mills said she and her will continue to carry on his tradition.
“My goal is to keep the fire running,” she said. “Nothing is changing here.”
Funeral and celebration of life arrangements are pending, according to his obituary listed by Crawshaw Funeral Home. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorials honoring Mike Mills be made to Murphysboro Main Street or Operation BBQ Relief, sent to: Lisa Blake, PO Box 382, Murphysboro, Illinois, 62966.
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI