Nothing captures the romance of Old Route 66’s heyday like its roadside stops – tiny trading posts and hole-in-the-wall diners that fed travelers as they crossed the country from Chicago to Los Angeles – and nothing embodies that romance more than a Valentine Diner.
The tiny prefab diners that sprang up across the West sporting distinctive red-and-white-striped paint jobs after WWII are fast falling into disrepair and disappearing.
Valentine Diners were born in Wichita, Kan., but after the war they quickly spread across the country to accommodate the entrepreneurs who opened them and the hordes of servicemen returning to the workforce and in need of quick lunches on the job.
When Arthur and Ella Valentine began opening their chain of lunch counters in the 1920s, they were called the Valentine Lunch System. Around the same time, according to the Kansas Historical Society, a company called Ablah Hotel Supply Company was tinkering around with making prefab lunchrooms. That company eventually had as many as 200 working lunch counters across the Midwest.
In the 1930s, Arthur Valentine went to work for Ablah as a salesman plugging the little diners. At the end of the decade, the Ablahs were tired of building lunchrooms. But just as Valentine bought the company and took over the business, the country was drawn into the war. That postponed his incorporating the company until 1947, when the soldiers were home and on the move.
The diners were designed for just one or two people to run, and sold with a pitch that promised buyers the chance to be their own bosses. The diners sold for about $10,000 each – a pretty penny back then – but promised the freedom of self-employment. In many places where they first appeared, they were the only restaurant in town.
Arthur Valentine died in 1954 and in 1957, the company was sold to the Radcliff family, according to the KHS. That family took them modular. The main units still had eight to 10 seats each, but owners could add on sections to include booths.
Preservationists want to see the remaining landmark diners restored, preferably where they sit. But like many a romance, the course of a Valentine doesn’t seem to run smoothly. Northern Arizona still has three of them, all closed.
What was once the Hi Way Diner and later Chaunce’s Diner in Flagstaff was moved to Page in 1983. There, it operated as Bubba’s Barbeque for several years, but it has been closed for some time.
The nearest one to Flagstaff now is better recognized as the lefthand extension of the Twin Arrows Trading Post. The Hopi tribe owns the buildings at Twin Arrows and was responsible for restoring the signature arrows in front of the buildings, but work has stalled because the state owns the land on which the buildings sit.
“It is on hold. We are trying to stabilize the building to make sure we don’t lose it,” said Elizabeth Bohlke, CEO of the Hopi Economic Development Corp., a business entity whose main shareholder is the Hopi Tribe. “Our hope is to get it buttoned up and stabilized.”
Winslow used to have two, but the one formerly known as The Pit, which was at 114 E. Third St., was sold years ago and moved to Oregon, where its owner has been restoring it for use there. Before it was The Pit, the nine-seat diner was opened as the Birthplace Diner in the 1950s, and as it changed hands, it became the One Spot Diner and later, the Santa Fe Diner.
The remaining Winslow Valentine, the former Highway Diner at 320 E. Second St., is directly across the street from another local landmark, La Posada hotel.
Owners Jessica O’Neal and her mother, Linda Thacker, have been applying for grants and historic landmark status for the building, but that is only part of the battle.
“The hardest part was coming up with the in-kind labor. You can get grants but you have to match it,” O’Neal said. After winning a $10,000 grant in 2008, “We had a lot of issues so we have had to extend it.”
The landmark designation will have a big impact on the diner’s future, City Planner Paul Ferris said, because the building is in a flood zone.
Under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s “substantial improvement” regulation, structures in flood zones must be raised two feet above the surrounding grade level if the value of improvements is greater than 50 percent of the value of the structure.
“Which would mean they could not use the basement,” Ferris said. “But they are soon to be placed on the state register of historic places. If they do that, they will be able to use it at the same elevation.”
All is not lost. At press time, O’Neal and Thacker were preparing to have windows replaced and have the exterior repainted. They had already used grant money to repair the roof and redo the plumbing and electrical.
Winslow’s Rotary Club also provided a $400 grant to help pay for paint for the exterior.
O’Neal and Thacker bought the diner for its charm and history, and while O’Neal, who has a background in the food service industry, wants to restore it to its former glory and reopen it as a restaurant, she is keeping her options open: the diner with lot is for sale for $85,000. But she does not want to sell unless the new owner wants to keep it where it is and continue the restoration.
“A large restaurant is overwhelming, but one that small is doable,” she said. ”If we don’t sell it, we’ll run it.” FBN
Photos by Bobbi Tucker