The Stephenson family orchards began in 1890. Lloyd and Les Stephenson, twin grandsons of the founders, opened the Stephenson’s Apple Farm Restaurant in 1946 in a one-room, stone building at the corner of U.S. 40 Highway and Lee’s Summit Road. It served 38 people.
Over time, the restaurant grew by three rooms to serve as many as 300 local patrons, as well as those driving to and from Kansas City on 40 Highway—I-70 did not open until the late 1960s. Harry and Bess Truman were among its many famous patrons.
The signature entree was baked chicken. “Hickory smoked” chicken, brisket and ribs were also served long before mainstream eateries offered them as “barbecue.” Each diner received a 2-piece complimentary serving of their famous apple fritters dusted with powdered sugar.
Recognized with many awards in 61 years, two in particular stand out: In 1964, Stephenson’s was listed in Better Homes and Gardens Famous Foods from Famous Places, a recipe book featuring house specialties from 90 iconic restaurants across the U.S. And in 1972, Institutions, a restaurant industry professional magazine, handed the Stephenson brothers its Ivy Award at the National Restaurant Association Convention in Chicago, placing them among the top six restauranteurs in the country.
The original Stephenson’s neon sign was designed and built by Thomas C. Jones Jr, father of LUMI board member, Patty Bowen. The backlit apple and simmering pot, currently missing, were added years later. The leaf from the sign was found in the basement of the 1859 Jail Museum in Independence.
In its last 15 to 20 years of business, the neon did not light. Instead, two floodlights lit the iconic sign. The familiar wood and neon sign went dark and the restaurant closed just prior to Valentines’ Day in February 2007.
For LUMI historian Steve Noll, the Stephenson’s sign is a reminder of his time working there washing dishes during the summer of 1969. In 2012, while Executive Director of the Jackson County Historical Society (JCHS), Steve received a call from Sharon (Stephenson) Butts, thanks to a tip from Lucinda Rice-Petry, asking him to help the Stephenson family find storage for the sign before demolition and redevelopment of the property.
Still busy in retirement, Steve became a founding member of the LUMI Neon Museum in 2018. With his help, the JCHS Board of Directors decided to donate the Stephenson’s sign to LUMI in hopes that it would be restored and displayed permanently.
In 2023, Steve and Marianne Noll joined the Stephenson family and several former employees to underwrite the restoration and installation of the sign in Kansas City’s new Pennway Point entertainment district.