Tag Archives: Massachusetts

Famous in its day: Dutchland Farms

dutchlandHackensackThe Dutchland Farms story parallels that of Howard Johnson’s, its competitor and eventual conqueror. Both were chains of ice cream and lunch shops that began on Massachusetts roadways in the 1920s. But they experienced the Depression very differently. Howard Johnson’s expanded while Dutchland Farms shrank. Though Howard Johnson triumphed over its competitor, there is no doubt that Dutchland Farms strongly influenced HoJo’s development.

Unlike Howard Johnson’s, the Dutchland Farms chain grew out of a real dairy farm, established in 1897 by shoe manufacturer Fred F. Field. Years before the first Dutchland Farm dairy store – not yet a restaurant – opened in 1928, the dairy farm of the same name in Brockton MA had become nationally famous for its prize-winning herd of Holsteins. The ice cream produced by the farm in “28 flavors,” sometimes 30, was advertised as the only Grade A ice cream made in Massachusetts. (Most ice cream then was made from Grade B milk which has a higher bacterial count; now Grade B milk is mostly used for making cheese.)

By 1933 the newly incorporated company had 50 roadside stores that sold milk, butter, and eggs, and also served toasted sandwiches, frankfurters, and fountain treats, as well as “Chinese Chop Suey” supplied by Hung’s Food Products Co. of Boston. Soon the menu expanded to include complete dinners. Menus displayed Dutchland Farms “registered” colors, orange, blue, and white, which also formed the color scheme for buildings. The canvas awnings on the white building depicted on the South Easton MA postcard below would have been in eye-catching orange and blue stripes.

DutchlandSouthEastonFifty was probably the greatest number of Dutchland Farms units in operation at any given time. In addition to eastern Massachusetts where most units were located, the company did business in  New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Some restaurants were operated by the company itself but most were franchised, as was true of  Howard Johnson’s. Women formed 10 to 15% of Dutchland Farms proprietors, a large percentage for a restaurant chain.

In addition to colorful awnings, Dutchland Farms buildings had two outstanding visual characteristics: orange roofs and decorative windmills which sat atop the roof or formed part of the building front. The roadside restaurants were situated on busy thoroughfares and both features were intended to attract motorists’ attention. Additional evidence of positioning for mobile customers were Dutchland Farms’ ample parking lots.

dutchlandfarmsIceCreamThe Depression was rough on Dutchland Farm operators. A dozen or more of the restaurants went out of business. Some proprietors shifted their allegiance to Howard Johnson. A Fairfield CT operator who opened a Dutchland Farms in 1935 switched to Howard Johnson’s after only a few months. Another, Louise Prout, co-proprietor of a Dutchland Farms in Lakeland NH and another in Pocasset MA, decided to go with Howard Johnson’s when she opened a restaurant in Cambridge in 1936.

Still other Dutchland Farms restaurants became independents. A proprietor near Newport RI rechristened his The Mile Post, while a Dedham MA Dutchland adopted the name of its proprietor, Mary Hartigan. The same fate would one day befall Howard Johnson’s. Louise Prout turned her Cambridge HoJos into The Clipper Ship, disguising the cupola, sheathing the front with dark paneling, and decorating the entry with wrought iron.

Dutchland Farms tried to reorganize its debts in 1939 but was sold to Howard Johnson’s in 1940. Johnson kept the orange, blue, and white colors but was barred from using the Dutchland Farms windmills on restaurants operating as Howard Johnson’s, and chose cupolas instead. However, some of the restaurants he acquired continued to do business as Dutchland Farms and, presumably, kept their windmills. The last Dutchland Farms restaurant I could find evidence of was in Quincy MA in 1951.

It is not obvious why Howard Johnson succeeded and Dutchland Farms failed. Was it because after Repeal Howard Johnson restaurants served alcoholic beverages whereas Dutchland Farms did not? Or was it due to how well the businesses were conducted? Or just luck?

© Jan Whitaker, 2012

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The checkered career of the roadhouse

Before the Civil War roadside drinking and eating places on the outskirts of cities were visited by people who enjoyed making them the destination of a leisurely buggy ride. In winter sleighs full of young people from Boston would go to North Cambridge or Arlington for steak dinners and dancing. Although they sometimes drew a rough crowd, such as the pickpockets and grifters who gathered for cattle fairs and races, these places were generally considered respectable.

As railroads spread across states such as Massachusetts following the war, fares fell and roadhouses drew an undesirable, rowdy crowd. They gradually began to fade away as cities grew. Yet their unsavory reputation lingered and grew more intense with suburbanization in the late 19th century. Minnesota legislated against roadhouses in 1915, and towns around Chicago fought them and often succeeded in having their liquor licenses taken away. Others, however, survived and became legit — for instance Busch’s Grove originally located on the outskirts of St. Louis.

The same reform fervor that attacked drinking (and prostitution) in roadhouses brought new life to them as they were turned into colonial-style “wayside” tea houses by middle-class women in the teens and 1920s. As a writer for Good Housekeeping magazine observed in 1911, these were just the sort of places to appeal to “quieter folks of good taste.” The most famous example, the Wayside Inn of Sudbury, Massachusetts, was bought in 1923 by Henry Ford to rescue it from its alcoholic past.

There were risks in opening a teetotalling establishment in an old watering hole. As the proprietor of a Pennsylvania roadhouse converted into the Huckleberry Inn discovered, old customers had a habit of coming by and demanding their accustomed drinks.

Was this the reason why liquor was found at the Nine Owls Tea Room in Pembroke, Massachusetts, when town police raided it in 1927? The Nine Owls, on Mattakeesett street, was run by Elizabeth Buxton, who had moved to town from Somerville with her family in the 1920s. Had it once been a roadhouse? It is not clear whether she founded the tea room or took it over from someone else, or exactly how long she was its proprietor. In 1932, a year after her husband was struck by a car and killed, she advertised for boarders but I have found no trace of her after that date.

As shown in the accompanying illustration, the Nine Owls eventually reverted to a roadhouse. In this photo, genteel elements from its tea room past such as window boxes, canvas awnings, and flower gardens are missing. A Budweiser sign is prominent. The reputation of the Nine Owls may have been pristine — but to me it has the look of a roadhouse in a Hollywood film noir. Its moodiness reminds me of the image of Casablanca in Palatine, Illinois, scene of a murder in 1949.

The Nine Owls was in operation under that name at least until 1970 when its owner, Edwin Mason, was killed in a motorcycle accident. At some later point the building burned down.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Menu art

Of all the art in our house – photographs, fiber art, oil paintings, and “found art” – nothing captures people’s imaginations like this sandwich menu board on my kitchen wall. No one has ever failed to ask about it. Everyone loves it. It isn’t even that old. I bought it at an outdoor flea market in Hadley MA in the early 1990s. The seller didn’t know much about it, but from all the clues I could gather it had been removed fairly recently from a humble diner or luncheonette in the vicinity of Ludlow or Palmer MA.

I took it home, carefully removed, cleaned, and reinserted each letter and number exactly as they had appeared, irregular spacing, colors, and all. I removed one line at the bottom – I can no longer remember what it said – and used the extra letters to form “Bart’s Eats” in honor of my partner Barton. Later, while on a brief visit to Milford PA, Barton and I walked by an abandoned movie theater where someone had smashed a similar type of signboard affixed to its exterior. Dozens of white plastic letters lay in the street. I picked up a few and, as a joke, added them to the diner sign to commemorate an indigestible dish I had once consumed at a Vermont inn. They were meant to be temporary but are still there. If you look carefully I think you’ll spot them.

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