This Restaurant Owner Hands Out Hundreds of Dollars to Stranded Travelers

Jim Oliver's Smoke House, Lodge, and Cabins in Monteagle, TN, has a knack for helping stranded travelers. Is he running a restaurant or a charity? A bit of both.

Courtesy J.D.-OliverWhen an Indiana woman got an emergency call that her mother was in intensive care, she knew she had no time to waste getting to her mom’s side in Montgomery, Alabama. As she pulled over to get gas about 170 miles from her destination, the woman reached for her purse.

It wasn’t there.

In the flurry to get to her mother’s side, the she’d left her handbag at home, along with her wallet and phone.

The woman felt totally at a loss. Not only was she out of gas, but she didn’t have money to buy more. Desperate for help, she asked for help in a truck stop in Monteagle, Tennessee, where she was stranded. Someone sent her up the road to Jim Oliver’s Smoke House, a restaurant and lodge known for its generosity. In fact, it was nominated as one of the Nicest Places in America in 2017.

Courtesy J.D.-OliverIn the parking lot of the restaurant, the woman broke down telling her story to the owner, James “J.D.” Oliver. He listened patiently, checking her car for an Indiana license plate and no purse to decide if he believed her. To her astonishment—and incredible relief—he handed her $200 in cash. In hopes of calming her down, Oliver offered her a meal, which she took to go so she could get back on the road. If this inspiring story hasn’t made you more motivated to travel, these quotes will.

Courtesy J.D.-OliverWhen the woman asked how she could pay Oliver back, he waved her on. If she wanted to come back to return the money or share her story, great. If not, no big deal. “I don’t expect to be paid back,” says Oliver. “If the same happened to me, I would appreciate somebody helping me out.”

Handing hundreds of dollars over to a stranger might seem crazy to some, but to Oliver, it’s common sense. He figured a tank of gas alone would cost $75 or so, and she’d need more money for a motel room and food before she could work things out with her credit card. “I instinctively went for $200,” he says. “I didn’t think of getting it back.”

The Smoke House has had a reputation for kindness ever since Oliver’s dad, the original owner, was in charge. In addition to helping travelers in need, Oliver’s father was involved in the community by helping to establish a state park, daycare, medical center, and more. “Growing up, he instilled in us to help other people,” says Oliver. Check out these 24 other tear-jerking stories about kindness from strangers.

Courtesy J.D.-OliverThese days, the Smoke House gets a desperate visitor in need of food, money, or a place to stay about every two or three months, says Oliver. Population-1,200 Monteagle, Tennessee, sits on top of a mountain, so people run into auto trouble when their cars overheat trying to reach the top. Oliver has offered lodging to people waiting for car repairs, food to anyone upset, and jobs to homeless people in need of money. One homeless man from Florida has been working for the restaurant for three years now, and can afford a place to live outside the lodge.

But the day the Indiana woman came in marked the start of an uncommonly busy time of generosity, Oliver says. About five minutes after the woman left, another employee approached Oliver explaining there was a woman crying in the lodge. “Immediately I thought it was the woman I just gave money to,” he says. He was ready to chew her out for trying to trick him. When he reached the woman, though, he realized it was someone else.

With a big Bible on her lap, the woman was in hysterics, and the employees couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They called the police to figure out her story, but before they arrived, she explained she was on her way from South Carolina to California. It seemed as though she’d skipped her medication, so Oliver let her stay another night until she could calm down. By the next day, she’d calmed down and was on her way.

Just two days later, a man approached Oliver explaining that he and his wife had been robbed in Chattanuga, Tennessee. They’d managed to hitchhike to Monteagle, and hoped catch a ride back to Florida from the truck stop.

Oliver saw a few holes in their story—they’d said they were visiting family in Chattanuga, so it seemed strange that the family couldn’t help them—but decided to help them anyway. He gave them $100 for a cheap hotel nearby and assured them the truck stop was a good bet for catching a ride. If they couldn’t find anyone to help them over the next couple days, he would find them odd jobs at the Smoke House to earn money. Normally if Oliver senses someone is lying, he won’t give them anything more than a meal, but he shrugs it off if a panhandler does trick him. “I can live without $100 and have a good conscience that I tried to help somebody, even if it’s not true,” he says. “They probably still needed help.”

The Smoke House might look like a business, but it’s a charity at heart. “When you’ve got food and lodging, you can’t turn people away that need help,” says Oliver.

Do you live in a place where people go the extra mile to help one another? Help us in our search for Nicest Place in America by nominating it today! If chosen, it will appear on an upcoming cover of Reader’s Digest!

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Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.