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Before franchised eateries, we had the diner
|We took them for granted, on our
early road trips. Like the Burma-Shave signs, we never asked where they came
from; they were just there. Gleaming stainless steel diners which dotted the
landscape of rural America.
Prospect Diner, Lincoln Highway (SR 462) Lancaster, PA
There was one in my hometown during my high school years. Karter's Diner, on US 18,
Brookfield, Wisconsin. We could order a malt or a burger, from a waitress named
Alice; then select a tune from the Seeburg Jukebox without ever leaving our booth.
Turn the knob and dozens of choices would appear. Drop in a quarter for three
songs. Punch in the numbers, E-1, D-4, K-6. And soon the most beautiful music
you have ever heard would fill the room. "All Alone Am I" (Brenda Lee),
"I Can't Help Falling In Love With You" (Elvis Presley), and "The End Of
The World" (Skeeter Davis).
Where have all the diners
gone? Better yet, where did they come from in the first place? I decided to do
some research. An article by Donald Dale Jackson, published in the November, 1986 Smithsonian
magazine gave me a start.
What the diner was: The steel diner was built in a factory, and
shipped, sometimes intact, sometimes as a pre-fab to be assembled on site. It had a
counter, with stools, and a grill. Some also had booths. Many were built on
assembly lines, with identification number plates riveted onto the steel, just like a
What the diner was not: A diner did not have tablecloths, did not
take reservations, or require that jackets be worn. They did not have "please
wait to be seated" signs, rented plants, no-smoking areas, or serve gourmet
The diner began as a mobile lunch wagon in Providence, Rhode Island
around 1872, and became such a success that they were mass-produced. Then as
electric streetcars came into being, the obsolete horse-drawn trolleys were converted into
Patrick J. (Pop) Tierney, of New Rochelle, New York, is considered to be the father of the
mass-produced steel diner. "Pop Tierney was to the diner, what Henry Ford was
to the automobile." says Randy Garbin, publisher of Roadside, a newspaper
devoted exclusively to preservation of diners and other historic roadside treasures.
Tierney's factory built them at the rate of one a day, sold them on credit, and financed
the buyer. He changed the name from lunch wagons to "dining cars", taking
advantage of America's affection for the Pullman dining cars on the railroads. Since
the manufacturer was also the finance company, it was in his interest to make the diner
profitable; he did this by providing training and business advice. Tierney died a
millionaire in 1917. Ironically, the cause of death was "acute
Jackson suggests he died from a meal he had eaten at one of his own
diners! Garbin, however, doubts that story. "I believe the food was
served at a family get-together or company dinner."
Many other manufacturers can be traced back to Tierney. Sam Kullman, Tierney's
accountant, quit and began his own diner manufacturing company. Nearly 100 other
manufacturers have come and gone over the years. At their peak, just before WW II,
there were 20 manufacturers, most of them in the Northeast. Although factory-built,
the purchaser could order the diner to be customized, from a large assortment of colors
By the 1920's, diners grew, and included booths to accommodate women,
who disliked sitting on the stools. Jerry O'Mahony of Bayonne, New Jersey, one of
the leading manufacturers, delivered a turn-key diner operation complete with dishes,
glasses, cutlery and cookware for about $7,000. "That was the appeal,"
says Randy Garbin, "The customer would order the diner from a company brochure, and 3
months later, he'd be in business!"
1950s Postcard of Karter's Diner, courtesy of Alec Karter
|The late Peter and Mary Jane Karter were the founders of Karter's Diner on
Bluemound Road in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Alec Karter was a young boy when he
traveled with his dad to the diner factory in New York, to select the decor for the new
diner. It was shipped by rail to Elm Grove; then trucked to its site in
Brookfield. When it arrived in the mid-1950s, it was Wisconsin's largest
diner. The Karter family operated the diner until Peter retired; after the
family sold the business, Karter's Diner was moved, and Alec doesn't know where it ended
Left: The sign on the postcard says, "Open 24 hours"
Lunch $ .50
Lucky for those of us who appreciate roadside diners, a few people are buying and
re-opening the historic diners. In what can only be described as an extreme example
of labor of love, Keith Walker purchased a diner, built in the Jerry O'Mahony factory in
1939, bearing identification number 1107; trucked it some 2,400 miles from Middletown,
Rhode Island to Oakley, Utah; then performed a complete restoration to what it looked like
when new. It was re-opened in Utah as the "Road Island Diner".in July of
Road Island diner trucked from Rhode Island to Utah
(Photos courtesy of Keith Walker)
Road Island Diner, restored to 1939 appearance, and open in
Oakley, Utah, July 2008
|You can find the Road Island Diner history here: www.roadislanddiner.com
and a photo journal here: http://oakleywebcam.com/gallery/RoadIsland-Diner
|At least three steel diners
nationwide have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of
these, Mickey's Diner, erected in 1939 in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota, sits on a busy
intersection, dwarfed by skyscrapers. Developers would love to tear it down and
replace it with more concrete, but that will not happen, thanks to its protected status!
Mickey's Diner, St. Paul, Minnesota, Since 1939, and now on
|Now that everything old
is in vogue again, there are a number of restaurateurs who would cash in on the nostalgia
of the old steel diner design. Forbes magazine says that clone diner chains
are showing up in big cities like Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The modern
diners feature 1950's music, thick milkshakes, and burgers. Denny's is cashing in
too, with Denny's Classic Diners, built by Starlite Diners of Ormond Beach, Florida.
More reading: The American Diner, Then And Now. by Richard J. S.
Click here to
order the book from Amazon.com.
And look at Ohio Diners for a list
of all the steel diners in Ohio, plus a company that restores old diners. They have
restored diners for sale, and parts for sale.
Diner-Mite designs and manufactures gleaming stainless steel diners to order.
Prospect Mountain Diner
Lake George, New York
Most of the diner manufacturers were located in
New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts; and not surprisingly, that region of our country
has the largest number of steel diners. Many remain open as diners today.
Watch for them, the next time you drive America's backroads! When you do find
one, see if you can find the manufacturer's I.D. plate, often above the entrance
door. Look for brand names like Silk City, Kullman, Mountain View, Worcester, or
Here's a great tool for locating a diner, with a clickable map. Presented by
Randy Garbin of Roadside Online. Photos, addresses, year & make of the diner.
You do need to register, but it's free. He also sells the information in a
book, which you can take along on your road trips.