Taunton Lunch Wagons, lost and found

Up until the winter of 1986, the city of Taunton, Massachusetts held on to a daily tradition that lasted for close to 100 years. It was the last city to host an honest-to-god lunch wagon at the town green. These lunch wagons of course started out as the horse-drawn variety, represented by  T.H. Buckley’s White House Cafe’s, etc. in the late 19th century.

On the right you can see a White House Cafe at the Taunton Green.
Postcard from the collection of  Larry Cultrera

At one point there were four different wagons stationed one to each side of the green. By the year 1933, Behan’s Diner, Worcester Lunch Car No. 719 was operating and was one of the first that was pulled by a truck in that city. At that point there was still at least one horse-drawn wagon, Galligan’s Diner. Jack Hickey went to work as a counterman for Galligan’s in 1942 (according to Dick Gutman’s American Diner Then & Now). By 1944 Hickey stepped up to being an owner, buying an eight stool former horse-drawn wagon that had been mounted on a 1938 White truck. By 1946, Hickey decided to upgrade to a brand-new lunch wagon which he co-designed with Charles Gemme of the Worcester Lunch Car Company. Mounted on the old White truck, Hickey’s Diner No. 798 started plying its trade in 1947 along with Sully’s Diner (the former Behan’s Diner). After a few years Hickey obtained a 1954 bull-nose Chevy truck to replace the old White truck. These two lunch wagons (Hickey’s & Sully’s) continued operating together until circa 1966 when Sully’s was retired, leaving Hickey’s as the last one at the green. I once asked Mike Hickey (Jack’s son) if he ever heard what happened to Sully’s and he was not really sure.

View of the Taunton Green….  that is more than likely Behan’s/Sully’s Diner with the red colored roof in this scene. Postcard from the collection
of Larry Cultrera

In this 1947 postcard view, Hickey’s Diner can be seen just behind the decorated tree near the top center and of course Sully’s Diner is at the
bottom right. Postcard from the collection of Larry Cultrera

A similar view from 1954 showing  Hickey’s Diner near the top center and again Sully’s Diner is at the bottom right. Postcard from the collection
of Larry Cultrera

In 1982, this postcard was put out continuing the tradition of photographing the Christmas decorations at the Taunton Green. It shows a scene from 1948 (with Sully’s Diner) at the top and a 1982 scene (with Hickey’s Diner) at the bottom. Postcard from the collection of Larry Cultrera

Jump to the winter of 1986 and it is announced that the Hickey family will close the last remaining lunch wagon and put it up for sale. I personally heard about it before it was common knowledge because of a unique set of circumstances. Apparently the Hickey family had seen a recent newspaper article about Dick and Ona Jones who at that point had the Apple Tree Diner, formerly of Dedham, Mass. Their son Warren was the last operator of that diner. Warren had to move the diner from its only operating location when the land was sold to a developer in 1981. He hoped to set the diner back up at another location but his plans never panned out. So by late 1985 his parents who had taken over the diner to help Warren out, had the diner moved to auctioneer Paul J. Dias’s property in Hanson, Mass. where they hoped Dias would find a buyer for the diner.

Hickey’s Diner shown at its daytime location on Court Street .
1984 photo by Larry Cultrera

View of Hickey’s Diner showing the kitchen compartment.
1984 photo by Larry Cultrera

View of Hickey’s Diner showing the seating area for customers from the kitchen compartment. 1986 photo by Larry Cultrera

The Hickey’s, as I said saw a newspaper article about this and figured they would make an inquiry to Dias along the same lines. From what I know, Dias must have mentioned it to Dick and Ona Jones and they in turn mentioned it to their son Warren who then called me. I turned around and immediately called Dick Gutman! Dick answered the phone and I said…. “Diner Hotline, Diner Hotline”! Then I proceeded to tell him the news. He was shocked, to say the least. Well during the conversation, I mentioned that I was taking a ride down to Taunton the next afternoon (a Saturday) and check things out.

This is when I actually met Mike Hickey for the first time. I told him of my interest in diners but decided not to mention anything about the news that the diner was for sale as I did not think it was common knowledge. That afternoon I decided I was going to make this a regular Saturday trip until the diner closed. Between that week and the next, the word was leaked to the local newspapers that the diner was for sale, so when I got back there the next Saturday, Mike told me he wanted to let me know about the situation the week before. I told him I wanted to tell him that I did know but figured that the “word was mum” at that point. So we had a little chuckle over that. Anyway, I was a regular customer at Hickey’s every Saturday for the next 6 weeks or so and was one of a handfull of people that was in the diner on that last Sunday morning in March of 1986, when Mike Hickey ceremoniously turned the diner’s lights off for the last time at the Taunton Green. During those last six weeks the diner was operated by the Hickey family, I took quite a few photos of the diner. Here are a few of them…..

Here is Hickey’s Diner heading up Court Street toward the Taunton Green at 4:00 pm on a Saturday. 1986 photo by Larry Cultrera

Hickey’s Diner at the Taunton Green. 1986 photo by Larry Cultrera

Hickey’s Diner at the Taunton Green. 1986 photo by Larry Cultrera

Another view from the winter of 1986. Photo by Larry Cultrera

Perhaps one of my favorite shots from 1986. That’s my blue 1979 Chevy Van with the yellow back door. Photo by Larry Cultrera

Not too long after Hickey’s closed, the City of Taunton ended up buying the diner and keeping it in the city. Ideally, this was a no-brainer. They eventually replaced the old Chevy truck with a newer Ford. The city housed the diner at the Bristol-Plymouth Vocational School and brought the diner out for special occasions, especially at Christmas, where it would be back at the town green.

Unfortunately, by 1998, the city decided they did not want to own the diner anymore and “sold” it for $1.00 to an organization that was billing itself as the “American Diner Museum”. This museum unfortunately only existed on paper. It had an uncatalogued collection of artifacts and memorabilia as well as a collection of old diners that were “donated”. To make a long story short, Hickey’s Diner, as far as I know at this point in time, has been dismantled with the intention of it being rebuilt. To my knowledge it has not been rebuilt.

I have been documenting diners with my photographs for almost 31 years and I have long harbored a fantasy that someone would come out of the woodwork someday and report that they had an old lunch wagon in a barn or at the very least, a backyard. Fast forward to last month, I got a message from someone who was familiar with my blog. Her name was Mary and she told me she had Sully’s Diner in her backyard! Needless to say I was shocked and got back to her immediately. I gave her my phone info and she called me back. Mary informed me that she had already been in touch with Dick Gutman and I told her that was very wise! She sent a couple of photos and sure enough, it was Sully’s Diner, in very rough shape but fairly intact on the exterior!

I finally got a chance to take a ride to Mary’s house last Sunday, (out of privacy concerns I am not revealing Mary’s full name or location). I will just say that there is no way that someone could ever stumble upon this old diner, even by accident! I had the pleasure of meeting Mary and her fiance, Scott and they showed me the diner. Here are the photos I shot last Sunday…..

Behan’s/Sully’s Diner, exterior photo by Larry Cultrera, 2011

Behan’s/Sully’s Diner, exterior photo by Larry Cultrera, 2011

Behan’s/Sully’s Diner, as you can see most of the stained-glass windows are intact. Exterior photo by Larry Cultrera, 2011

Behan’s/Sully’s Diner, exterior photo by Larry Cultrera, 2011

Behan’s/Sully’s Diner, exterior photo by Larry Cultrera, 2011

Behan’s/Sully’s Diner, the tile floor is pretty much all that is left of the original interior. Photo by Larry Cultrera, 2011

Behan’s/Sully’s Diner, interior photo by Larry Cultrera, 2011

As a back story, Mary and Scott bought the property in the last two years and were told by the previous owner that the diner was a horse-drawn “trolley”. They decided to do some digging and contacted the Seashore Trolley Museum in Maine and asked them about it. They also sent some photos and the museum got back to them and told them they had a diner.

Then Mary started to do some more research and eventually found Dick Gutman at the Culinary Arts Museum and also my Diner Hotline blog, which brings us up to the present. Both Mary and Scott have expressed a desire to possibly restore the diner. I was concerned after seeing how close to the ground the diner was sitting, that there might be some condition issues, especially with the integrity of the floor structure. When I got there, I went inside and I sort of jumped up and down a little on various parts of the floor of Sully’s and it felt quite solid! This was a good sign to me as I have been inside diners that had been stored for a short period of time and stood on the floor (behind the counter of one particular diner) and thought that I might actually go through it, it was so soft!

I did observe that the wall by the door had pulled slightly away from the floor, but that was not too bothersome. I suggested they make an attempt at either repairing or temporarily board up the broken windows and get the door to close again, basically secure the structure to weather the elements and therefore foregoing any further deterioration. I also suggested possibly raising the building up off the ground more and get it supported better than it currently is. Scott mentioned that they might look into moving it into a barn thay have on the property and I told him that would be ideal.

I hope to follow any progress Mary and Scott make with this monumental find!