Years ago, there was a very popular family-owned diner on the corner of 4th Street and U.S. Route 6 (now Columbus Street) in West Liberty named Carr’s Lunch Car.
H.E. Carr, a painter and paper hanger who’d moved here from Lone Tree, started it all about 1935. The business subsequently transferred to the hands of his nephew, Forrest Carr.
By 1939, Roy Misel and Dorothy Ruby became the owners. Roy’s son Cleo (Mike) and Dorothy’s husband John had the Sinclair gas distribution business just to the north of the diner.
As it turned out, one of the diner’s loyal patrons at the time was Cecil (Jack) Hintz. Cecil was working at Wayne Irey’s Confectionery, and had dreamed of someday owning Carr’s. Eventually he did purchase it.
Cecil and his wife Hilda ran Carr’s until the late 1950s, then sold it to Cecil’s brother and his wife, Kenny and Mary Dell Hintz. The diner then closed in the late 1960s.
Kenny and Mary Dell’s twins, Carol Clark Hintz, now of Iowa City, and Craig, now of Indiana, recently recalled their experiences growing up in the diner.
They were just entering junior high when their parents bought the place. Craig remembers coming home from Boy Scout camp to an experience that included transitioning from Hintz’s DX to the house attached to the diner.
There were many new chores for both the kids. Craig filled the pop case, and sometimes at night cleaned the grill. Late night snacks often included a cheeseburger and fries for the always hungry, fast growing boy.
Carol filled in for no show waitress shifts or a missing dishwasher.
It, however, was not all work for Carol and Craig. Their friends loved to come over after closing when they were allowed to make a shake or an ice cream sundae.
Craig erected a basketball hoop on the garage behind the house, and even admits to learning some cooking skills over the years.
Carol says, “For me, it was a chance to have an introduction of the unique workings of a small town.”
Every morning brought in the early risers. These were folks working in feed sales, car dealers, single teachers, and many more. Some even came back for dinner!
“I was often ‘tutored’ by Bill Delaney, who was my patient math teacher. He was an a vowed ‘Irish Democrat.’ He loved nothing more than going head to head with a vowed Republican Fran Bodie Brown, a high school English teacher,” she recalled.
The diner was Mary Dell’s business and she ran it well and wisely. Her staff was wonderful. Anna Harned prepared the ‘steam table’ lunch selections that Mary Dell planned each week. Blanche Barclay baked 14-17 pies daily.
“I am still in awe remembering her method of beating egg whites on a large chilled white ironstone platter, tipping it up and beating the whites into the stiff topping for her famous coconut cream pie,” Carol said, noting she still has that platter!
The day waitresses were Mary Dell’s friends who kept up fun and feisty chatter with the patrons. Carol fondly recalls Onie Waite and Maxine Leggins. In the evenings, high school girls took over the waitressing.
“Carr’s was a look not just at small town life, but how we viewed news of the day”, she goes on to say. “And it was sometimes comical!”
Carol says one year the town fathers decided that West Liberty was going to stay on ‘God’s Time.’ So the community did not go on Daylight Savings Time. Mary Dell made her own opinion pretty clear when she added a clock next to the one on the wall. One was labeled ‘Us’ and the other ‘Everyone Else.’ Radio and television sports programs tried to explain when local football games started, with mixed results!
Carr’s was more than just a place for a meal. Carol recalls the day John F. Kennedy was shot that the diner never emptied until closing. People were so sad, and shocked.
One of Carol’s most exciting and memorable days at the diner started very early. Kenny was working on the police force on the night shift. He was home and in bed by 5 a.m.. About 6 a.m., a man came pounding on the back door. He had been told that the policeman lived there. He told Anna Harned that his wife and he were on the way to University Hospitals because she was having a baby. Anna replied that Kenny would be of no help, but that she could.
Anna grabbed a stack of clean towels and headed out to their car. Mary Dell called Dr. Palmer and the early patrons stayed put to be part of the story. The baby was delivered by Anna, and named after her. Dr. Palmer finally arrived and realized he did not have string to tie the cord. He conscripted a very excited and nervous Clare Brooke to go door to door to find some. He pounded on doors all the way up and down the street, to no avail.
Everything did finally end up fine for mom and baby. But it was soon reported that helpful pranksters made sure that balls of string were delivered to Brooke Oil Company all week!
Former West Liberty resident Fred Lehman, now of Mt. Vernon, also shared his memories of Carr’s. He started working there in 1939 as the ‘night man’, at the age of 16. His hours were 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.. Misel and Ruby were the owners at the time.
Lehman recalls some of his breakfast regulars included George Hise (Index editor), Ernie Dunker (owner of the Shell station), and John Howard (the city’s mail carrier).
When asked what kind of people came in between midnight and breakfast, Lehman responded “I’d generally have a couple of semi drivers, a regular fellow from out of town that was calling on a lady in West Liberty and would stop in for breakfast before he went home, and occasionally Dr. Ady, who would have been delivering a baby in Iowa City.”
Lehman goes on to say the first time Dr. Ady came in, he said to him “Boy, make me an onion sandwich.” Fred said “An onion sandwich?” Dr. Ady said “Yeah. Just take a bun, put plenty of butter on it and about three slices of onion”, to which he added a generous shake of salt. Dr. Ady ate that one, then said “Just bring me a couple buns, an onion and butter, and I’ll work this one out myself.”
Lehman remembers there were eight stools at the counter. Along the front wall were tables with seating for four each. On the south wall there were two tables, seating six each. The total seating capacity was thirty.
Lehman’s responsibilities as ‘night man’ meant he manned the grill, serving up burgers, steaks, fried potatoes and more. And he did everything else, as he was the only employee during the overnight. After things slowed down after 2:30 AM, he’d mop the floors, clean the tables, and scrub the giant coffee urn, to get things ready for the girls who came into work at 6 AM.
He says the high school girls and the ‘more mature’ ladies were paid 10-12 cents per hour, plus tips of course, at the time he was there. Several local girls did stay on after graduating high school, as not many in those days went onto college.
Lehman worked 68 hours a week and started at $8 a week. He’d advanced to $13 a week when he quit in the spring of 1940.
West Liberty resident Leta Mae Christensen also has memories of Carr’s when she was growing up in the late 1940s.
“Carr’s was the place to meet and congregate after ball games and other high school activities,” she says.
“Besides snacking and drinking, the challenge was to see how many people would fit in the small ‘car’. We would be packed in like sardines! The overflow would have to stand outside.”
Leta Mae goes on to say “As I look back on these activities, I do not know how Cecil and Hilda Hintz (owners at the time) survived.
I do believe they went with the flow, but maybe I was blind to the ire if there was some.”
Carr’s was a Trailways bus stop back in the day, with Gert Howard Nath’s dad traveling by bus from there to Burlington where he worked as a railway mail clerk. Gert and her dog would tag along on the walk over to Carr’s, and her dad would treat her and the dog to ice cream, served from an outside counter, in the early 1960s.
Donna Fae Sterner’s very first job was working at Carr’s for Cecil and Hilda, the summer before her senior year. She recalls they served the best malts, and that Carr’s was the place where she learned how to count money backwards!
Bob Cline recalls back when cigarettes sold for 23-24 cents a pack. A young man had stopped in Carr’s to buy some, only to be told the price had gone up to 25 cents. He turned around and walked out the door, saying ‘forget it!’
Cline also remembers the owners letting at least one individual (and probably more) wash dishes in exchange for a meal. Lehman inserts “It was not always a pretty time to grow up, but interesting to look back on.”
The original house is still there today, but the addition has been replaced. And yes, it still sits right up against the sidewalk. It was the place to go back in the day.
* Phyllis Owen Sterba is a contributing columnist writing features and local history. If you have suggestions, please contact the West Liberty office at 627-2814 or e-mail indexnews@Lcim.net