A common scene for people of a certain generation, “light lunch counters” at diners were a popular destination.
My first memory of a soda fountain light lunch counter is from 1939. We lived a few blocks from downtown Marysville, Wash., and my folks and I would walk down to Hilton’s Drugs and Soda Fountain.
At one time in the States, there were over 26,000 soda fountains and light lunch counters, and early soda fountains were placed in drug stores. Among the most popular were phosphate sodas – raw egg and soda water mixed with either orange, lemon or chocolate flavors. The soda fountain traces back over 300 years, and became especially prominent around the 1850s, remaining popular for over 100 years.
Next door to Hilton’s was a five and dime store that we would frequent after visiting Hilton’s. I can remember that in 1940 my mother bought me a green mechanical turtle, of which I still own today.
The 1960s brought in fast food restaurants and modern shopping malls, which distracted from the downtown established areas. Soft-serve ice cream and self-serve soda dispensers contributed to the decline of the soda fountains and light lunch counters.
The soda fountain evolved in both small and big towns, first called “soda fountains” then “soda fountain ice cream saloons.” The shift occurred after refrigeration became more available and hard ice cream became more popular and readily available. Light lunches were later added to the “saloon” and the name changed to “parlor.”
Hilton’s celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2019. The store no longer has a soda fountain, but for its anniversary in October 2019, the store served root beer floats and other items from the heydays.
In 1944, we moved to Everett, Wash. for my father’s job, where I experienced more of a big city and increased exposure to soda fountains. Owl Drug Store in downtown Everett had a beautiful wooden soda fountain. There were beautiful mirrors in the background, like you see in western movies in the saloons. And one block away at the Echo Drug Store was a light lunch soda fountain counter. It had a wooden carved counter that was quite elaborate.
Two of the three dime stores on Main Street had a soda fountain and light lunch counter, each with stools at the counter and a row of booths. The daily specials varied from lunch counter to lunch counter. Their mainstay menu included chicken noodle, tomato and clam chowder soups, along with tuna fish, egg salad and BLT sandwiches. In the 1940s, a very popular dessert was apple or berry pie with melted sharp cheese over the top. And of course milkshakes, banana splits, and root beer floats.
At the intersection of the two main streets in downtown Everett was a smoke shop called the Brewsters. It offered cigarettes and cigars from around the world, and high-grade smoking pipes, many from England and Ireland. There was a light lunch counter upstairs, with a long bar and stools and tables, as well as pool and card tables. It sounds like a saloon, but it was a very high-grade lunch counter where store clerks and business people gathered for lunch or a cup of coffee. When I was 8-years-old, we would have lunch and my dad would play a game of pool. He loved the game; he learned it in Roundup, Mont., as a young boy.
The second-floor lunch counter extended over the top of Kress Dime Store which was next door to the smoke shop. I remember that, as we met people and conversed – even though we were in the middle of World War II – people seemed happy, free of conflict.
Main Street in Everett had a made-from-scratch rotary bakery and lunch counter. They had a lunch counter and coffee, but did not have the full-blown soda fountain. I worked in that bakery after school, washing pots and pans and at 16 years old, I worked as a baker’s assistant for four hours before going to school at 8:50 a.m.
There were two delis on Main Street in downtown Everett with a horseshoe bar and light lunch counter. These were also bakeries that mainly served sandwiches, soup, coffee and tea. The Bon Marche had a nice lunch counter. There were four upscale evening soda fountains. The one we frequented after the movies was the Metamora, which delivered milk door-to-door. Next door was the Everett Freezer Lockers. Before home freezers were popular, there were “lockers,” which were rented freezing units used to store a quarter or half a beef. In the 1940s and 1950s when freezers became plentiful, these public freezer lockers faded away.
There were three other light lunch soda fountains – English, Daniel’s and then the Campus, which was across the street from Everett High School. There was one other soda fountain combination drug store south Everett called the Beverly Park Drug. Its specialty was chili and the soda fountain was named “Oliver.”
These are all gone now. The one remaining is the Totem Drive-In, which was famous for a hand-carved Indian totem pole that stands about 60 feet tall. The Totem was popular with the high school students and parents after school games. It was a great deal like Arnold’s from the Happy Days show.
As far as I know, soda fountain light lunch counters as we knew them do not exist in the Lane County area. There is one drive-in in Springfield called Finns that might sort of fit the description. I have had several fine meals there, and when I was by a few days ago, it looked like they were still serving drive-in style. The other that might fit the description of Happy Days is Buddy’s on North Road Coburg in Eugene. It has the soda fountain bar, and up until the virus, had put its straws in a lift-up lid dispenser.
Hopefully, this has brought back fond memories to those of us who are 50 and over, and a happy history lesson to the younger set.