It was not long after Captain Whiteside and the troopers of the 6th Cavalry founded the camp that would become Fort Huachuca that another unexpected legend would be made. Chinese immigrant and entrepreneur Sam Kee made his mark on local history.
Since the 1800s, restaurants have been a fixture on military installations, as Soldiers and their families always need to eat. Today, on any given U.S. military installation worldwide, one will find several restaurants at which to dine. It is almost certain they might include a Burger King, a McDonald’s or Wendy’s. And, like other installations, Fort Huachuca is no exception. Today’s Soldiers stationed here have a choice of dining at several modern restaurants, and there have been other restaurants on the installation during Fort Huachuca’s past. The most famous and noted restaurant in the fort’s history is Sam Kee’s Post Café which dates back to the late 1800s.
The Post Café was opened on Fort Huachuca in 1882 by Chinese immigrant Sam Kee, who moved to the United States with his brother to work on the railroads. After saving enough money through his work on the railroad and later work in the mines in Tombstone, Kee decided to go into business.
His first business was a Chinese laundry, and with the help of his brother, Kee diversified, opening a small Chinese fan-tan gambling parlor which also served food, most notably pies. (Fan-tan is a long-time Chinese game that has been played in a variety of ways since its inception.) His brother had been a cook before joining him in Arizona, and Kee had been quoted as saying, “my brother is a good cook.”
Word spread about the food at Kee’s establishment, and it was not long before the Soldiers at nearby Fort Huachuca clamored over Kee’s pies. Soon afterward, Kee was granted approval to open a restaurant on post, his Post Café. Kee’s eatery offered Soldiers a break from the open mess, serving both American and Chinese food. It was an immediate success, becoming a favorite of the Soldiers and civilians of the post. He also operated the post trader’s store and the post dairy.
With much success running his businesses on post, Kee made somewhat of a fortune and, as legend has it, enough to pay the Soldiers of Fort Huachuca when Congress failed to pass budget legislation. During a December 1961 interview, retired Maj. Gen. John Brooks, who served at Fort Huachuca with the 10th Cavalry, stated, “Sam Kee owned just about everything on the post … the Post Exchange, restaurant, Bachelor Officers’ Mess and a photo shop. During 1910 and 1911, the troops at Fort Huachuca were paid by Sam Kee for about three months.” This was the beginning of Kee’s legend at Fort Huachuca.
Kee did see his share of challenges while running his famed café and other businesses on post. In the spring of 1882, just as Kee was starting operations of the Post Café, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. The act set a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration; excluding both ‘skilled and unskilled labor and Chinese employed in mining.’
This was a problem for Kee because all of his businesses on post were staffed by Chinese labor. It can almost go without saying the Kee had several run-ins with immigration enforcement personnel. Jeff Milton, a federal immigration inspector, made several visits to the Post Café and on several occasions located illegal workers hiding in the restaurant. But, somehow his staff remained Chinese, and new workers continued to show up at Kee’s post businesses, often claiming they were nephews.
There were also threats to close the Post Café for health code violations. According to several sources, a post commander who served from 1912 to 1914 thought the restaurant was unsanitary and wanted Kee off the post. However, it was reported that Kee had friends in high places, namely chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood. Kee had befriended the famed Army general while he was stationed at Fort Huachuca in the mid-1880s. While it is only speculation that Kee contacted Wood about his troubles, the post commander received a telegram from the office of the Secretary of War, ordering that the Post Café remain open.
Kee would go on to operate the Post Café until 1919. He and his brother retired to their home country of China as wealthy businessmen, leaving the restaurant to four of his nephews, most notably Mar Kim. Immediately after Kee’s departure, the café changed hands between the nephews several times and would fall to on hard times during the depression. Finally, Mar Kim would take over, and the Post Café would enjoy some of the glory it received during Kee’s time.
The legend of Sam Kee lives on at Fort Huachuca with Building 22328 dedicated to the pioneering entrepreneur.
(Editor’s note: Robert Anderson has a bachelor’s in history and worked as a museum technician at the Fort Huachuca Museum prior to his assignment to the Fort Huachuca Public Affairs Office)