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.

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 motor vehicle.

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 food.

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 lunch wagons.

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 indigestion".

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 and equipment.

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 up.

Left: The sign on the postcard says, "Open 24 hours"
Lunch $ .50
Dinner $1.50

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 2008.
Road Island diner trucked from Rhode Island to Utah

Road Island Diner, restored to 1939 appearance, and open in Oakley, Utah, July 2008

You can find the Road Island Diner history here:
and a photo journal here:
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!