The up-and-down life of a restaurant owner

The model tea room proprietor has generally been portrayed as a woman of taste and refinement who has a heightened aesthetic sense, is congenial, and knows good food. In short, she closely resembled the ideal of the early 20th-century wife. So it comes as something of a shock to discover a tea room proprietor whose life did not neatly conform to that ideal.

An interesting example of someone who only partially conformed to the ideal was Charleen Baker, proprietor of the Buttercup Hill Tea Room near Fitchburg MA from 1928 to 1943.

She had taste, she was a successful hostess, and she knew good food. Her menu, filled with dishes such as Duck a la King, Sauteed Sweetbreads, and Lobster Newberg, bears that out. Her tea room was recommended by Duncan Hines in the 1937 edition of Adventures in Good Eating.

But how successfully did she personify refinement?

On the one hand, she portrayed herself as a product of a patrician background. In her 1935 cookbook she subtly painted a picture of her life and world that began with childhood cooking lessons from her southern Mammy, Aunt Maria. She explained that her mother had taught her that thin biscuits revealed a family’s “fine lineage,” as was true in her family. Presenting herself as a dutiful young wife, she described how hard she had worked to please her husband, on one occasion baking three different “lemon sponge pies” before she produced one “good enough to set before the king.” And she included a chapter on “Sunday Night Suppers” which assumed that, even in the Depression, the lady of the house had a maid who cooked — and took Sundays off.

Yet – big surprise – I discovered that her “king” had tried to divorce her in 1923, resulting in a sensational headline in the Fitchburg Sentinel as well as the Boston Herald. Her husband also accused her of abandoning their hospitalized son while she vacationed in Florida.

She then filed a reply, producing another zinger headline, “District Attorney Charged With Unfaithfulness In Answer By Wife.” Each charged the other with having multiple partners.

Upon further research I learned that in 1900, far from enjoying a life of leisure and refinement in the South, the 13-year-old Charleen had lived in a miner’s boarding house in Tortilla Flat, Arizona Territory, with her mother and her stepfather (#2 of her mother’s four husbands) who ran the place. Upon her stepfather’s death in 1903, she and her mother moved to Fort Worth TX where they resided in a lodging house run by her mother.

How she made her way from a Texas boarding house to studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston I don’t know. While in Boston she met her future husband, Emerson, then a Harvard law student. They married in 1907 and settled in the Fitchburg area where Emerson joined his father’s law firm and later the district attorney’s office.

Remarkably, Charleen and Emerson reconciled later in 1923 and he assisted her in enlarging her tea room, which by 1931, when the Early American Room was added, seated nearly 160. The couple’s marriage continued until his premature death in 1934.

Two years before that Charleen had taken over the Green Parrot Tea Room in Winter Park, Florida, redecorating it in blue and orchid and calling it Charleen’s Tea House. Buttercup Hill stayed open from May through October, while Charleen’s in Florida was open the other months.

Due to wartime gasoline rationing that caused a fall off in customers, and to difficulties getting staff, Charleen closed the Buttercup in early 1943. She auctioned off furnishings that included old cradles, antique clocks, hooked rugs, and Currier & Ives prints.

From everything I’ve read about her, Charleen was successful in winning status as an admired figure in Fitchburg society.

After she sold the Buttercup several other owners operated the complex of buildings as a tea room while continuing the practice of serving cocktails that Charleen had begun in 1938. After the WWII the name was changed to Buttercup Hill Steakhouse and Club and it continued into the 1970s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018


Filed under food, proprietors & careers, roadside restaurants, tea shops, women

8 responses to “The up-and-down life of a restaurant owner

  1. john stjean

    I would like to know if anyone has photos of the bands that used to play there my grandfather was in a band, called the Cavaliers. His name was Paul , St. Jean both of my grandparents have passed away, and I would love to get pictures of them or him.

  2. S

    Hi Jan! Thanks for such a great article! I love your website and your writing.
    I just came upon your site while searching for tea room information. Going to attend a tea room lunch and wanted to learn more about the history of tea rooms. Where did you get your information on the owner of the Buttercup Hill tea room, Charlene? Is there a biography where I could read more about this interesting woman? Maybe you cited the sources, but I didn’t see them.
    Thank you!

    • Thank you! Most of what I present is built from gathering together many stories from newspaper archives and other documentary sources such as directories and censuses. It represents my own original research and interpretation. I’m not aware of any biographies of Charlene. Whenever I find something substantial in a book or someone’s blog, I cite or link to that in my post.

  3. What a fascinating story. Charleen was quite a character!

  4. sandra hunter

    You are excellent!

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  5. What a surprise to see this charming cafe highlighted, Jan. A few years after it closed, a credit union, in which i had my office for several years was built on it’s footprint. I forwarded this to friends now living in Maine because they met each other in the bar one night in the early 70’s. She was sitting demurely at the bar and he, who was immediately smitten by her, but had already been “over served” shuffled over to introduce himself. She, seeing his state of inebriation told him to “get lost”. Undeterred he, returned sober the following Saturday to try again. (He researched via his vast network of acquaintances as to who she was and where she would be.) Lo and behold, they hit it off and are still very happily married after 42 years and counting! 🙂

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