08 June 2022

The Last Roadside Attraction


The last Howard Johnson’s in America closed this June, in Lake George, up in the Adirondacks.  There was one in Lake Placid, too, but it went under in 2015.  The following year the second-to-last, in Bangor, Maine, turned out the lights.  Once upon a time, they were a fixture across the U.S. and Canada, familiar roadside stops – there was one in Times Square - now as forgotten as the passenger pigeon.


They started out in
Quincy, Mass., a drugstore with a soda fountain, and Howard – there was in fact a Howard – came up with a better ice cream recipe, higher butterfat, and made a killing.  The first restaurant followed.  He franchised a second down in Orleans, on Cape Cod, and popularized the fried clam “strip” (the foot, minus the belly) which became industry standard. 


He weathered the stock market crash in 1929, but WWII rationing nearly put him out of business.  He saved himself with War Department contracts to serve food in Army commissaries.  Then he went after state turnpikes, which had tolls, limited access, and service plazas.  He locked up Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and Connecticut.  It was the first major nationwide chain.


Me, what I remember, is driving up to Maine in the summer, and back in the 1950’s, before the turnpike to Augusta, you took Route 1, along the coast.
  Somewhere along the way – I’m guessing a little way north of Portsmouth, NH, or Portland - my dad would pull into the HoJo’s.  I was crazy for the hot dogs, because they nicked them with a knife, so they swelled and popped open on the grill, and they buttered the outside of the rolls, and toasted them on the grill.  It came in a paper sleeve, and you could dress it up in yellow mustard and dill relish, and not have the whole slippery thing slide into your lap.  And of course we got ice cream sodas.  


An interesting thing happened, though, in the 1950’s,
Brown v. Board of Education.  Howard Johnson’s, and Woolworth’s, both had a lot of outlets in the American South.  Woolworth lunch counters in the South were segregated; they wouldn’t serve black patrons.  Same with Howard Johnson’s.  The fact that these were franchise operations, not corporate, made no nevermind.  There was economic leverage applied.  I used to go to the Woolworth’s in Harvard Square.  They sold everything from notions to tropical fish you took home in plastic bag, but now, I wasn’t supposed to go the lunch counter.  A boycott had been organized, in sympathy with the sit-ins to integrate Southern lunch counters.  Then a Howard Johnson’s in Delaware made the national news when they refused service to a visiting diplomat from Ghana, and there was more than enough embarrassment to go around, the Eisenhower administration trying to build bridges to the Third World as a counterweight to Soviet influence, and Jim Crow making them out to be hypocrites. 


It’s a little strange, and not a little scary, that we can connect that ten-year-old kid with his hot dog and an ice cream soda to a larger and more ambiguous circumstance, the Cold War and the nuclear threat, the struggle for personal respect and ordinary decency, and the realization that political change is both local and glacial, but that experience was in fact one of my earliest encounters with the wider world – an understanding that the boundaries I took to be solid as stone, family, neighborhood, tribe, were as brittle as glass, and afforded no protection.
  The world could break in.  There were more than twenty-eight flavors.  The story we believed was a comforting construct, a fiction we’d chosen, just one among many. 

I don’t know that it made me apprehensive, so much.  More of an insight, that this was the world grown-ups inhabited, all day and every day.  It was a small glimpse of wisdom.

But still, admittedly, a lot to read into a hot dog. 


  1. Thoughtful nostalgia!

  2. Fascinating post, David. I knew nothing about the history, but ate at several HoJos in Connecticut, maybe in Michigan where I grew up, too, but I'm not sure.

    Love the wink to Tom Robbins, too.

  3. I remember going to Howard Johnson's when I was a kid. The one near my house would give kids a free meal on their birthday, so that's where my parents took me most years for my birthday. I don't remember much about the place, but I do remember it being there. It's sad that the last Howard Johnson's has closed. It's nice to imagine that fixtures from your childhood are always going to be there. But they're not. And as your experience showed, maybe sometimes that's for the best. At least in some places, with some franchises where memories aren't positive.

  4. Howard Johnson's made it as a national chain because the food was the same in every restaurant -- you never had to worry about ordering anything. The food may not have been the best but it was palatable and the customer was taking no risk. Thus, as the old song went, Howard Johnson's success was made of fear. As a kid, it was the only place around that would serve Indian pudding, which I would order whenever my parents stopped at one.

  5. Those of us who are old enough have fond memories of Howard Johnson's from when we were kids.

  6. Pat Marinelli08 June, 2022 15:40

    We had a HoJo's a few blocks down the highway when I was a kid. We went there often. My Dad loved the ice cream. Fun fact: My twin sister had her wedding reception at HoJo's, but that one was another 10 miles down the highway. The manager was a friend of my Dad and instead of cake, my Dad was served a platter of ice cream.

  7. My parents never stopped at HoJos and you may have explained why. I did have ice cream as an adult and I stayed in a HoJo motel when I was consulting in Virginia.

    The Woolworth's name (aka Woolie's) lives on in Britain, Australia, and… South Africa.

  8. Growing up in NJ I ate many a meal at HoJo's on summer trips. Mint chocolate ice cream... The other thing I remember is the satire on them Mad Magazine did in 1966, especially the zombie-like devotion of the travelers: "Must find Johnson Howard's! Johnson Howard's!" It starts on page 33 of this issue: https://view-comic.com/mad-issue-106/


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