Paul Batura: Searching for Howard Johnson’s

If you’re over the age of 35, the sight of the orange roof and copper steel cupola weathervane were at one time synonymous symbols of either the great American road trip or a special family meal – or both.

With over 1,000 dining establishments in North America in the 1960s and 1970s, Howard Johnson’s was, for several decades, the largest restaurant chain in the United States.

Established in 1925 as a small pharmacy by Massachusetts native Howard Deering Johnson, the enterprising Quincy resident quickly expanded his efforts to selling ice cream, hot dogs and soda at area beaches. The enterprise was a success. He perfected his ice cream recipe by increasing the butterfat content and soon distinguished himself from the competition by offering 28 flavors, a remarkable selling point in an era of few choices.

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His first restaurant featured classic New England fare that would become fan favorites – especially fried clams, hot dogs, baked beans and a hearty line of desserts, including sherbet and pie.

World War II not only slowed Johnson’s expansion but actually threatened to shutter the business altogether. But with the peace in 1945 came renewed prosperity. In 1954, he opened his first motor lodge in Savannah, Georgia. The advent of the Interstate Highway System later in the decade only fueled the company’s growth. By the late 1970s, there were over 500 motels scattered all throughout the country, many of which had his accompanying restaurants next door.

Recently, I was thinking about this iconic but fading brand, my memories kindled by a family vacation we’re planning to Maine for later this summer. As a young boy, our clan of seven would pile into our wood-paneled station wagon, a framed-tan leather luggage rack bolted to its roof, and make the 9-10 hour drive from the south shore of Long Island to a simple, rustic cottage on a quiet lake in the Pine Tree State.

The names of the lakes we frequented roll off our tongues like the names of good friends: Saddleback, Rangeley, Moosehead and Pocomoonshine. In an era before Trip Advisor and other internet travel sites, my mother’s vacation bible was the Mobile Travel Guide. She would spend the winter writing to Howard Johnson motels along the New England corridor and a flurry of brochures would begin arriving in our mailbox by spring.  We loved looking at them – and dreaming of the summer fun that awaited us.

Memories of chilly mornings, warm afternoons, learning to swim with capped empty plastic milk jugs, skipping rocks across the crystal clear water and chasing lightning bugs with empty peanut jars in the evening hold a special place in my heart.

But for me, nothing tops staying and eating at Howard Johnson’s along the way – which we did coming and going to Maine in an effort to break up the long trip.

I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege of staying in a few magnificent hotel properties as an adult, but in my mind and memory, as silly as it sounds, Howard Johnson’s was six stars on a five star scale.

Maybe it was the air-conditioning, a total luxury for a kid who learned to accept as normal the humid, sweltering summer heat of New York. Or was it the pool that each motel had in its courtyard, often with a slide and diving board?

It’s funny how childhood experiences often inform adult habits, for good or bad. To this day, one of the great joys of my life is an early evening swim followed by dinner with my family. I realize now that’s because that was our family’s tradition as a kid – and supper at Howard Johnson’s always seemed the perfect ending to a perfect summer’s day. My choice was always the same – the “Daily Double” – two hot dogs in toasted butter buns, slipped inside cardboard sleeves, accompanied by a side order of crinkly, crisp French fries.

Breakfast at Howard Johnson’s was similarly predictable. It was always pancakes, a large stack, and we never left hungry. Speaking of childhood influences, to this day I won’t order orange juice out – because my father once reminded me how expensive it was in comparison to other choices of drink. I guess it wasn’t cheap, even back then, to take a family out to eat.

In planning this year’s vacation, I was saddened to see that all the Howard Johnson’s we stayed at in the area are gone now – either taken over by new owners or demolished altogether.  The restaurants have been out of business for years.

Our planned week on Rangeley Lake this July is my attempt to introduce our boys to a slice of my childhood, a simple, happy time that has stayed with me all these years later.

Selfishly, though, it’s also something of a ploy on my part, a chance to drive the long road back to a wonderful time in the same Maine woods that left such a great impression.

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As I plotted and searched properties online, though, I realized that I wasn’t really searching for Howard Johnson’s. I was searching for my childhood. I was reaching for that which has faded into memory, for a time when my greatest cares were hot dogs and swimming pools.

Doug Larson, who used to write a column for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, and who is now in his 90s, once said “Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.”  I think he was right. The history of Howard Johnson’s isn’t all good, of course. It’s a company that rode the booms and busts of nearly a century of American life. But in my mind, that shiny orange roof still gleams bright, a symbol of a happy season and an era that’s gone but not forgotten.

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