Happy Labor Day America. That wonderful holiday when we celebrate the people who work by making people work so others who aren’t working can take advantage of another day, weekend, or month of sales. A day when the people who aren’t working complain that they might as well be at work because it will be twice as busy on Tuesday when they get back and a day when the people who are working complain that they are working while collecting twice their normal pay. You gotta love those holidays.
There are a handful of people who are working today who aren’t complaining about it. They will get tomorrow off. Actually they’ll get every tomorrow off from their current position. Those are the people at the Bangor, Maine Howard Johnson Restaurant. So why are they special? When they close there will be only one Howard Johnson Restaurant left in the country where once it was the largest hospitality chain with over 1,000 restaurants and 500 motor lodges.
I remember eating in several Howard Johnson’s but one in particular still pops into my head now and then. In 1925, Howard Johnson (yes, there really was a Howard Johnson) borrowed $2,000 and bought a pharmacy in Quincy, Mass. There he installed a soda fountain and brought enough business in to open a sit down restaurant by 1929. In 1940 the Pennsylvania Turnpike opened using the abandoned South Pennsylvania Railway tunnels and rights of way connecting Irwin in the west with Carlisle in central Pennsylvania. Eventually the turnpike mainline was completed from the Ohio to the New Jersey borders through the southern part of the state. Why are these two things related?
Although only 360 miles from east to west (or west to east, even), a distance that can be travelled comfortably in a less than a single workday today (if you felt like working on Labor Day), in the 1960s the trip just halfway across the state was far from a comfortable day’s drive. In the western part of the state the mountains made for slow climbs, challenging twisty downhill runs, and constant stoppages while new tunnels were being blasted through the Allegheny Mountains. I know because I was then a back seat passenger with two sisters while the parents rode up front each summer on our trek from Western PA to Eastern MD. A high point of the turnpike portion of the journey was the Howard Johnson Restaurants at the turnpike service plazas. After lunch we would be allowed to splurge on dessert and have one of the famous 28 flavors of ice cream. For some reason I always picked chocolate.
Howard Johnson’s were fixtures on the Pennsylvania Turnpike from its opening in 1940 until the 1980s when the full service restaurants began to be replaced by fast food chains and their familiar counter service. The PA turnpike restaurant was the first restaurant the Howard Johnson Company would open on its way to becoming the largest restaurant chain along American toll roads. In 1979 the Howard Johnson Company was sold and eventually many of the familiar orange roofed restaurants on and off the turnpikes were converted into other brands. By 1986 all of the former company owned Howard Johnson Restaurants were closed or rebranded and only the franchised restaurants remained open. The motor lodge business was divested entirely in 1990.
Today, where I once was served my hamburger on a plate at a Howard Johnson Restaurant along the Pennsylvania Turnpike I have a choice of picking up a pizza or a Whopper and carrying it back to a plastic table in a reconstructed service plaza holding two fast-food restaurants, an ice cream stand, a coffee counter, a gift shop, and a dirty bathroom. Elsewhere there are only two Howard Johnson Restaurants serving comfort food and comfortable memories. Tomorrow there will be only one.
Labor Day had already been celebrated for 3 years before Howard Deering Johnson was born in 1897. When Howard opened that first store in 1925 the Mount Rushmore site was dedicated before construction began on the mountain which would be completed in 1941. That was just in time for Howard Johnson to start opening restaurants along highways that would be packed with hungry families on holiday weekends.
That must be why I always manage to have a quart of chocolate ice cream in the freezer on Labor Day.
That’s what I think. Really. How ‘bout you?
(If you want to see the last remaining Howard Johnson Restaurant you have to get to Lake George, New York. You should hurry. It already closed once in 2012 and reopened just last year. Rumor has it that Rachel Ray worked there as a teenager. No word on if she still stops in.)