Closing of Howard Johnson’s in Bangor Maine Bittersweet
Posted on September 5, 2016
By Jacqueline Bennett newsandviewsjb.com
Another American cultural icon of the past is nearing extinction. On Wednesday, September 7, the last New England Howard Johnson’s restaurant located in Bangor, Maine is set to close. It is the second to last remaining in the United States, down from ‘HoJo’s’ “golden era” in the 1960s and 1970s when there were 1,000 across the country making it the largest restaurant chain in the country at that time, noted New England Living. The lone surviving restaurant is in Lake George, New York.
Howard Johnson restaurants have been fading from the landscape for years so what is so touching about the loss of the Bangor ‘HoJo’s’?
It was a summer vacation in my youth when Dad, Mom, Candy, Debbie and I drove up to Bar Harbor – a beautiful little coastal town in Maine. We visited Acadia National Park, Cadillac Mountain, and strolled the seaport’s active downtown on a misty, cool evening; Candy and I walked behind Dad/Big Johnny, Mom/Nana and Deb, as Deb held Mom/Nana’s hand and snuggled up to her in the crisp nighttime air. By day we also checked out a lobster hut or two, then on the way home to Connecticut we pulled into a HoJo’s in Bangor for a late lunch.
To say it was busy is an understatement. A long line of vacationers had made a similar choice upon spotting the familiar orange roof, topped by a long, lean steeple typically adorned with a weathervane cupola. HoJo’s was a trusted place for America on the move in Chevys, Fords and Oldsmobiles. HoJo’s was a place to find reasonably priced and tasty family dining, particularly known for their frankfurters and beans, clam rolls and 28 flavors of ice cream plus sherbet. On this day at the Bangor HoJo’s the line was out the door and the wait for a table was more than 30 minutes. So the decision was to see if counter seats might open up more quickly. They did.
Up stepped an extraordinarily personable and efficient waitress. Dad being Dad, it didn’t take long before he struck up a conversation with her. Back in the car, Dad and Mom commented about, despite how busy the restaurant was, the excellent service we had received. Regular readers of newsandviewsjb know that when he was growing up my father’s family owned and operated the Bennett Hotel in upstate New York. Having been reared in the hotel business, Dad was keenly aware of the importance to both management and workers of letting them know about exceptional employees.
Soon after we got home Dad composed a letter praising the waitress and the good service she had provided. A lefty, I can still visualize him sitting at the dining room table writing out a draft of the letter then proofread by Mom. Off the letter went. A few weeks had gone by when an envelope arrived in the mail with a Maine postmark and return address. It was a thank you from that waitress – Dad’s letter had meant so very much to her and was called to the attention of her bosses. For a number of years she and my parents exchanged Christmas cards.
Reported by the Associated Press, in the Boston Globe, on HoJoLand.com and in New England Living to name a few, news of the impending closing of the Bangor Howard Johnson’s has clearly struck a chord with many who recall HoJo restaurants as a part of Americana. For me, it conjured up a memory of a sweet vacation and the wonderful example of personal integrity set by my father.
There are more HoJo memories …
Tulsa to Oklahoma City
My sister-in-law Jane and my brother John Jr. met when he was in the U.S. Air Force stationed in Texas. He fell in love with and married his Texas girl. Although they returned to Connecticut to live, John and his bride often drove down to Texas to visit Jane’s family still living there. Memorable for them – in addition to driving an 8-cylinder Ford and low gas prices – is what was a popular HoJo’s restaurant they were fond of stopping at, on a part of the ride from Tulsa to Oklahoma City along the Turner Turnpike.
“The Howard Johnson’s there had one of the first skywalks,” my brother recently recalled.
They would find a parking space on one side, then walk through the skywalk over to the restaurant. Although the restaurant has since closed, today a HoJo’s Inn is open there.
Memorable too said John were the once plentiful New England HoJo’s restaurants that the entire family frequented on our sojourns from Connecticut to visit relatives in New Hampshire – particularly the one just before Tilton. And who could forget the HoJo motels, many of which are are still open. Most of the cousins, my sister and myself – really most of the family – have probably gone swimming in HoJo Inn pools along much of the northeast.
Even in Europe
Would you believe HoJo’s in Europe? Actually, John reminisced as well about a trip to Europe where the distinctive orange roof and cupola brand made famous by Howard Johnson’s came to mind. During the trip he and Jane took with their daughter Jillian, son-in-law Doyle and grandson Josh, they were struck by the orange rooftops salting the French countryside that reminded them of – Howard Johnson’s!
Another HoJo’s memory of mine involves my dad’s sister, my Aunt June. She lived in Stoneham, Massachusetts. After her husband died, my dad encouraged her to still get out and about. One her favorite spots was a nearby HoJo’s restaurant where she would go for lunch. It became our – first day – meeting place when we drove up from Connecticut to spend time with Aunt June.
Not Like Any HoJo’s I Remember!
This piece is not the first time I’ve mentioned Howard Johnson’s restaurants. Founded in New England by Howard Deering Johnson, their reputation and one-time dominance in New England was legendary. Depending on that reputation, one fateful morning in 2010 in Boston, my sisters Dixie and Candy, Mom/Nana, my nephew Mike and I thought we were headed for a HoJo’s breakfast and ended up with something quite different. It turned out the former HoJo’s had gone Chinese.
We knew the main section of the restaurant had been turned into a Chinese cafe but at that early hour we did not realize so too had the other portion. In light of decor like the ole’ HoJo’s restaurants we went in expecting a traditional HoJo’s breakfast. As detailed in a previous post (Jan. 28, 2016), what ensued instead was a comedy of errors. We laugh about that breakfast with affection.
So it is with sadness that I bid adieu to the Bangor HoJo’s. Thanks for the sweet memory.