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Saudade

A Freshman’s Lament

My first semester at EIU at the dawn of the new millennium wasn’t quite what I expected.

As a newly minted 18-year-old at Morehouse College in 1947, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “…We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

That must be why, in the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, hangs a large portrait of the building’s namesake covering his forehead with one hand in a gesture of either bewilderment or exasperation.

On Orientation Day the summer before my freshman year at Eastern Illinois University, my fellow prefrosh and I nervously and excitedly shuffled into the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union ballroom to watch a video addressing our fears of dorm life and living away from home for the first time. “EIU doesn’t have dorms,” it assured us. “It has residence halls.” The freshman in the video anxiously dreamt of having a nightmare roommate, but when they finally met, they became best friends.

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Roadside America

Diners Through the Decades: 2000s

Spurred on by 1950s nostalgia and TV shows like Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (2007-present), diners made a cultural comeback in the 2000s. These were fixed structures (built on site) with large dining rooms and lots of stainless steel, Art Deco, Populux, and Doo Wop design elements, and neon lights. They were predominantly built by DeRaffele Manufacturing in New Rochelle, New York.

Diners in the 2000s were built to resemble 1950s diners while catering to contemporary tastes. Unlike diners of the past, many chefs crafted their menus around organic or healthy eating. Interior decor often includes vintage records, jukeboxes, pictures of 1950s cars and old diners, and cardboard cutouts of 1950s waitresses.

Photo by Michael Kleen

Gus’s Diner, at 630 N. Westmount Drive in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, is filled with 1950s nostalgia. It has a wonderful stainless steel exterior and has been run by the current owners since 2008. The building was built in 2005, but I haven’t been able to determine the manufacturer.

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Roadside America

Diners Through the Decades: 1950s

The 1950s were both the heyday and twilight of classic American diners. As fast-food began to take off and the population grew, entrepreneurs were less likely to invest in establishments with such limited space and seating. Major diner manufacturers went out of business in the 1950s, including The Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company in 1952, the Worcester Lunch Car Company in 1957, and Mountain View Diners Company in 1957.

Still, when you think of the classic American diner, the 1950s always come to mind, with countertop jukeboxes and waitresses in pink aprons. In the late 1950s, the term “diner-restaurant” began to be used, as restaurateurs built larger, fixed structures retaining familiar diner elements.

Photo by Michael Kleen

Wolfe’s Diner, 625 N. U.S. Route 15 in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, is a 1952 O’Mahony, one of the last to be produced. Striped, stainless steel exteriors and flat roofs (as opposed to the classic barrel roof) and neon lights are characteristic of diners built in the 1950s. They resemble RVs or mobile homes.

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Roadside America

Diners Through the Decades: 1940s

The 1940s saw the end of the Great Depression but the beginning of America’s involvement in World War 2. Diners continued to roll off assembly lines, and after the war ended, expanded from industrial centers of the northeast to suburbs and smaller towns as well. They retained their train car appearance and were almost entirely made from steel, with Art Deco architectural elements.

Photo by Michael Kleen

The Modern Diner at 364 East Avenue in Pawtucket, Rhode Island is a 1940 Sterling Streamliner built by the John B Judkins Company. It was the first diner to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is one of two Sterling Streamliners still in operation. I love this unique Art Deco design.

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Roadside America

Diners Through the Decades: 1930s

In the inter-war period, 1918 to 1941, diners became a staple of American dining. They were larger to accommodate more seating, and began to use less wood. Many retained the same barrel-roof structure as their predecessors. The Great Depression meant people had less money to spend on dining out, so diners became a popular alternative in the pre-fast food era. One Silk City advertisement called it a “Depression-proof business.”

Joseph Fodero, using his experience gained from working with P. J. Tierney Sons and Kullman Industries, opened the Fodero Dining Car Company in 1933, and Les Daniel and Henry Strys, late comers to the diner game, opened Mountain View Diners Company in Singac, New Jersey in 1938.

Photo by Michael Kleen

Tom’s Diner, at 1200 U.S. Route 46 (south of the I-80 interchange) in Ledgewood, New Jersey, is a 1930 Silk City and the second oldest diner in New Jersey. It was used as a location in Cyndi Lauper’s music video for her 1984 hit “Time After Time.” You can see this would have been a beautiful diner when it first opened.

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Roadside America

Diners Through the Decades: 1920s

The earliest diners were lunch carts pulled by horses that stayed open 24-hours to accommodate factory workers coming off shifts. Walter Scott began the first lunch cart/wagon service in Providence, Rhode Island in 1872. Patrick J. Tierney followed in 1895, Worcester Lunch Car Company in 1906, Jerry O’Mahony in 1917, Silk City in 1926, and Kullman Dining Car Company in 1927. By the end of the decade, most of the major diner manufacturers were established.

These restaurants are called diners because they resembled railroad dining cars. Many were manufactured with wheels and pulled to their locations on railroads, since railroads connected the nation’s factories before the automobile took off. 1920s diners tended to be small and made of wood. Only a few still exist.

Photo by Michael Kleen

Casey’s Diner, at 36 South Avenue in Natick, Massachusetts, is a rare 1922 Worcester model. Like many early diner owners, Fred Casey began as a food cart salesman. He purchased this ten-stool diner in 1927 and originally located it on Washington Street. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

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Roadside America

The Evolution of American Diners

Diners are quintessentially American. They represent affordable dining for the working class, mobility, entrepreneurship, and mass production. Diners have evolved over the decades to accommodate our trends and tastes, from tableside juke boxes to Greek-American cuisine.

The earliest diners were lunch carts pulled by horses. Entrepreneurs parked them outside factories to feed hungry workers as they came on and off shift. Many stayed open 24-hours to accommodate all shifts. Walter Scott began the first lunch cart/wagon service in Providence, Rhode Island in 1872.

Photo by Michael Kleen

Casey’s Diner, at 36 South Avenue in Natick, Massachusetts, is a rare 1922 Worcester model and possibly the oldest continually operating diner in the United States. Like many early diner owners, Fred Casey began as a food cart salesman. He purchased this ten-stool diner in 1927 and originally located it on Washington Street. It moved to its current location in 1977. Diners in the 1920s were primarily made of wood.