Within the seventh smallest state in the United States there lies an unsurpassed collection of diners, most between fifty and seventy years old, with the oldest dating back to 1920. These diners boast a fascinating range of clientele—from families to clean-cut businessmen to outrageous, late-night bar hoppers.
Today, diner fanatics seek to help the institution thrive by recording the era of diners that has lapsed. In particular, prolific writer and historian Larry Cultrera has been conducting research about the American diner for over thirty years, photographing and documenting more than 820 diners.
Numerous media outlets, such as CBS Sunday Morning, the Discovery Channel, the Boston Globe and the Smithsonian, among others, have taken notice of Cultrera’s passion and featured his expertise in numerous interviews. The renaissance of the diner has been a journey from obscurity to prominence:
“Before the Internet, even looking for diners was a long and laborious process. There were the Yellow Pages; there was word of mouth from diner owners and patrons, who always had a recommendation for the next place down the road. A network was slowly built of East Coast enthusiasts who were fascinated with all things diner,” Richard Gutman  said.
From the author of the acclaimed Diner Hotline blog comes a history and guidebook of diners in Massachusetts, arranged by region for easy access to features on ambience, specialty menus, and the people behind them. Complete with original photography, Cultrera’s work celebrates the mouth-watering “fine dinering” experience (stuffed pancakes, made-from-scratch cheese rolls and blue plate specials, e.g.), and the rise of the classic “night lunch wagon.”
We have the honor of welcoming Larry Cultrera as today’s guest blogger. Read on for Larry’s tribute to one of his most memorable diner experiences, at the Apple Tree Diner…
The World-Famous Apple Tree Diner
Last year I authored a book for The History Press entitled Classic Diners of Massachusetts, which has become another chapter in my almost thirty-two-year personal research project of documenting American diners with my photographs. Looking back, there have been many interesting moments to reflect on: all the people I have met and miles I have driven, not to mention the countless friendships that developed on the “diner trail.” That is one of the reasons why I write my blog, Diner Hotline. It is a way to show off my hundreds—if not thousands—of photographs and tell a few stories as well.
My interest in diners goes back to my childhood during the late 1950s and early 1960s. I had some great times hanging out with friends at Carroll’s Colonial Dining Car in the years following my graduation from high school in 1971. Situated in the downtown area of Medford, Massachusetts (my hometown), Carroll’s central location and twenty-four-hour service was a huge draw, especially in the early-morning hours after the clubs and bars closed.
Between 1978 and 1980, I noticed newspaper articles about a fairly new trend of diners being moved from longtime business locations. One such example, the Englewood Diner in Dorchester, was forced to move due to the property under the diner being sold. In nearby Cambridge, the owners of the Kitchenette Diner retired, and the diner was closed and subsequently moved.
“Since that date I have photographed over 820 diners.”
Along with news articles, a lot of the diners I saw as a youngster in the greater Boston area seemed to be swiftly disappearing from the urban landscape. Around this time, I started a weekly ritual of taking short Sunday morning road trips with my buddy Steve Repucci, which usually started off at a local diner.
This expanded into picking a different diner every week to determine which direction to take the morning excursion. I was just getting into 35-mm photography, and in the back of my mind I thought I might start photographing the diners I visited on these little trips. On November 29, 1980, I shot one photo of the Bypass Diner in Harrisburg. Since that date I have photographed over 820 diners.
Steve moved to Harrisburg, and I did not have my regular road trip companion on Sunday mornings anymore, at least for a year and a half. But I did continue to go to diners by myself or with my brother Rick. One of the diners high on my list to visit was the Apple Tree Diner of Dedham, Massachusetts.
As a little background, the diner was built in 1929 by the Worcester Lunch Car Company as car number 641 for William F. Schroeder. He operated it as Bill’s Diner and eventually sold it to William Cogan, who ran it for forty-three years. It has not been determined when the diner acquired the “Apple Tree” name, but we know it was called so by the early 1970s.
Proclaimed as “The Famous Apple Tree Diner” by 1980, this was printed on their guest checks as well as the T-shirts they were selling at that time. This description was certainly one of the draws for me; how could I not check this place out? I had read about this diner in one or two news articles as well as my newly bought copy of Diners of the Northeast.
So I drove all the way through the neighborhoods of the South End, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and Roslindale on Washington Street before leaving Boston. I was now in Dedham and knew the diner was south of the downtown area. Anticipation was very high, and when I got to the point where Court Street comes into Washington Street from the right, I looked up ahead to the left and saw a bright red, monitor-roofed Worcester diner sitting in the middle of a dirt parking lot, surrounded by all forms of cars and trucks.
This Is The Way A Diner Should Be
I was truly excited—even after patronizing quite a few diners up to this point. This place was a completely unaltered piece of roadside Americana. I could tell already and I had not even stepped foot inside yet. I hurriedly parked my Chevy van and literally ran from the parking lot and slid open the sliding door.
The place was packed! There was one stool open right by the door; I immediately sat down and soaked in the atmosphere of the bustling lunch car. I recall thinking, “This is the way a diner should be.” Unbeknownst to me and probably a lot of other people, the diner would only be serving customers for another eight months or so.
The diner was being operated by Warren Jones and his friend Joanne Dummeling. With all the rushing back and forth by the staff, it almost seemed like there were as many people working behind the counter as there were customers on the other side (although there were probably only four people behind the counter).
“That first visit to the Apple Tree Diner was one of the purest diner experiences I can remember.”
I subsequently ordered a cup of coffee and more than likely pancakes and bacon—my go-to breakfast at that time—and even with the diner being fully packed, the food came to me fairly quickly.
The overall feeling of that first visit to the Apple Tree Diner was one of the purest diner experiences I can remember. In fact, it might be safe to say that of the hundreds of diners I have visited since 1979, I have never experienced the same strong feeling that I did at the Apple Tree Diner.
It was during this second visit that I made the acquaintance of Warren Jones. Warren was two or three years older than I, and we hit it off right from the start—he was very personable. Warren and I spoke about my diner obsession, and he mentioned Dick Gutman. I informed Warren that I had come down that afternoon with the hopes of obtaining some contact info for Mr. Gutman, and Warren gladly wrote it out on a guest check for me. Soon after, I called Dick Gutman and introduced myself as a “diner freak,” and he responded, “Join the club!”
“I introduced myself as a ‘diner freak,’ and he responded, ‘Join the club!’”
I cannot recall how many times I got to the Apple Tree after that visit with Dick Gutman, but I do know I was there on July 4 of that year. I had been raving to Steve Repucci about how he needed to check the place out the next time he was back. So Steve drove up from Pennsylvania, and we went to the diner, which was jammed as usual.
It was all decked out in red, white and blue bunting with an American flag hanging over the front door. Seeing the diner so busy that weekend made it extremely hard to envision that by the end of that month, the diner would be closed and moved off the original site.
The Apple Tree Diner’s Journey
Like a lot of older diners, the Apple Tree was operating on leased property, and the owner of the property sold the lot for development. Warren Jones, who owned the building, put together a plan to sell shares in an attempt to help fund the relocation to another operating site. He found a pad site in a shopping center on Route 140 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. By the end of July, it was moved to Foxboro.
After the move, the process of stripping years of paint from the body of the diner and removing all the roof shingles began. Warren Jones sandblasted the metal panels and primed and repainted it as well as installing a brand-new roof covering. This was all in preparation for setting the diner on a new foundation.
The series of photos below shows the stripping/repainting of the diner while in Foxboro, circa 1981.
Another part of the plan was possibly obtaining another old diner to include at the new site for expanded seating. Both diners would be placed at ninety degrees sitting in an “L” shape surrounding a new building with kitchen and restrooms. Unfortunately, the project lingered for a few months and never got close to being completed. Warren had to relinquish his claim to the new site and soon had the diner moved to a storage site in nearby Mansfield.
Eventually, the Apple Tree Diner was moved to Paul J. Dias’s yard in Hanson, Massachusetts, in 1985. Dias was an auctioneer that was contacted by Warren Jones’s parents, who now had control of the diner.
The Final Restoration
The Joneses (with help from Dias) eventually sold the diner to Lawrence Shevick of Boston, in May 1988. Mr. Shevick did not keep the diner long as he resold it to Dave Waller by November of that same year. Dave Waller had just started on his now longtime hobby of rescuing old neon signs, and he decided to buy the diner because of his grandfather, Jack Hines. Jack Hines used to own and operate a similar Worcester Lunch Car known as the Flying Yankee Dining Car in Lynn, Massachusetts.
After purchasing the diner, Waller had the structure relocated to some family property up in New Hampshire where he had the diner repainted closer to the color scheme of his grandfather’s diner. By 1992, Dave Waller and his new bride, Lynn, had purchased a building that would ultimately be their home as well as a home to the Apple Tree Dining Car (the new name given to the place by Waller).
“Along came the Wallers with a proposal for the ultimate reuse of the damaged building.”
It was a unique idea because the building they bought was a former fire station that had been decommissioned. It was sitting unused and deteriorating after being damaged by a fire. The city still owned the property and was debating what they would do with the structure. Along came the Wallers with a proposal for the ultimate reuse of the damaged building.
The Wallers started to rehabilitate the building. The first thing they did was rebuild the fire-damaged roof and clean up the interior. It still was nowhere close to being ready for habitation but the Wallers were ready to move in their largest possession, the diner.
So on November 10, 1992, Bryant Hill of O.B. Hill Trucking Co. and his capable crew installed the diner into its new home. To get the diner into the building, the “Apparatus” doorway on the left-front elevation of the structure had to be altered temporarily. This was accomplished by removing quite a lot of the brickwork on the left side of the entry enough to allow the diner to be inched in on low-profile rollers.
What a sight it was to see! It took at least two or three hours to get the diner inside the building. When this was accomplished, the Wallers then had the brickwork restored. From the outside, one would never know what was just inside the doorway. To this day, that is where the Apple Tree Diner lives, ironically within two miles from where I was living in 1980, when I first drove down to Dedham to experience this diner for the first time.
I remained good friends with Warren Jones from 1981 to the late 1980s when he and his family moved to North Carolina. I never saw him again, but we did remain in touch until his untimely passing away within the last six years from cancer. I am glad I got to eat in the diner at least a few times in its final months of operation. I am happy also that it remains in good hands. At the very least, we know that the diner is well protected and that it will remain so for some time to come.
Larry Cultrera is an archivist/photographer of the American roadside, specializing in documenting the American diner through his photographs. He is a longtime member of the Society for Commercial Archeology (SCA). Since October 2007, Cultrera has authored the Diner Hotline weblog, which is a continuation of a column he penned for the SCA’s Journal Magazine for over eighteen years. He has been researching diners and their history since 1980, although he can trace his interest back to his childhood in Medford, Massachusetts. He has photographed and kept a running log (now a computerized database) of over eight hundred of these truly unique American restaurants and has a collection of memorabilia consisting of everything from postcards, menus, matchbook covers and business cards to toy diner models, T-shirts and actual selected pieces of now demolished diners, such as marble countertops, exterior panels, signs and light fixtures.
Mr. Cultrera has been featured on various TV shows that covered the subject of diners, such as CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt and Bob Elliot Presents New England Diners (WCSH Channel 6, Portland, Maine), which also ran on cable TV’s Discovery Channel. He has also appeared on WCVB-TV’s Chronicle. He has been interviewed for numerous newspaper and magazine articles including the Boston Globe, the Syracuse (New York) Post Standard and the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, as well as Smithsonian Magazine, Insight Magazine and Yankee Magazine. He also conducts popular slide presentations on subjects such as the history of diners entitled “From Lunch Carts to Mega Restaurants, 1872 to the Present—The Ever-Changing Appearance of the American Diner,” as well as one entitled “Local Roadside Memories,” for various historical societies, art associations and other interested organizations.