Ken Gottry - Cambridge NY History

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The Cambridge Diner has stood on East Main Street since the 1930s. On Sunday 13-Oct from 2-5pm the revitalized sign was celebrated with the unveiling at 3pm. I recounted some history and memories of the diner that has anchored the village for over 80 years. 

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I’ll start today by thanking the people who played a major role in the revitalization of the Cambridge Diner sign and then I’ll delve back into the history and stories that have made the Diner an important component of our village for over 80 years

As I call out the names of those who helped with this project, please raise your hand and wave so everyone can acknowledge your contribution

  • Let’s start with the Country Gals: Becky English and Jeannie Akin
  • Jeff Jeffords
  • Tom Trautwein
  • Mark Rogers
  • Jeremy Hommel
  • The folks at Hubbard Hall
  • Mayor Carmen Bogle
  • Bruce Brundige
  • Charlie Cody
  • Peter Bailey Project
  • Todd Akin
  • All the food vendors here today
  • All the customers who are the Diner’s extended family

The first owners I can find are Michael and Catherine sometime in the 1930s. Mike bought the Covered Wagon Lunch (the Diner’s original name?), likely in late 1933.

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Mike & Katie encouraged their niece, Rose Manning, to come to Cambridge. Timmy Dwyer, Rose’s son, recalls the original diner with seating for 7 faced the side not the front. But this old photo seems to show otherwise.

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Whenever researching Cambridge’s past, I start with our old newspaper, the Washington County Post. Cambridge High’s school newspaper, the Orange Tattler, was printed every few weeks in the WCP. In 1937, when Rose Manning was a senior, her classmates teased her having received fan mail addressed to the Manager of the Cambridge Diner. So, we know the Diner is at least 82 years old.

I tried, but failed, to connect with Peggy Bloom to find stories about the Diner during World War II. I’m sure the locals did some Monday-morning quarterbacking as they discussed the exploits of Generals Patton, MacArthur, and Eisenhower over a cup of coffee and donuts at the diner’s counter.

After the war in Sep-1945, Rose Manning became engaged to Tom Dwyer a NY State Trooper out of the Westmere sub-station in Albany. Tom would pass through Cambridge on his way to his Chestertown assignment. His stops at the Cambridge Diner gave him good coffee, good donuts, and a wife. Local businessman, Tink Parrish, was best man at their wedding. The Dwyers lived on Spring Street with their four sons, Tommy, Timmy, Terry, and Teddy.

I’m told the Diner didn’t originally have a kitchen. Food was cooked in the green house across the street and carried over. I don’t know if that’s true, seems unlikely, but I do know that Tom and Rose Dwyer lived across the street above the Agway building until 1950-51.

One of Timmy Dwyer’s other stories is about a weekly poker game. I remember in the 1950s that Cambridge businesses would close Wednesday at 1pm, offering a mid-week break from the hectic world of commerce in Cambridge <grin>. Timmy recalls it as Thursday. In any event, after closing early for the afternoon, the Diner served as the home of a weekly poker game. Local insurance man, Sam Stannard, was there … as well as our Police Chief (maybe Charlie Cantwell?).

In Mar-1950, Rose Dwyer sold the diner to Mr. and Mrs. H. E. Rundell of Cairo, NY. According to the announcement, they planned to add a kitchen and add seating capacity. “Add a kitchen” seems to support the earlier statement that the original diner didn’t have a kitchen. Horace E. Rundell (don’t know why he was always called Charlie) had an Airstream trailer parked out back. They had a big Chrysler car that pulled the trailer to Florida in the winter.

Charlie’s wife Dot had two children, Curt and Lois. Evidently, the Diner was Matchmaker Heaven in the 1950s as Curt married Edeunda Furforo, a waitress at the Diner and Lois married Louis Decker the brother of another waitress (Karen Dusha’s mom)

 1940 1950 EastMain CambridgeDiner RuthAnnVirtue

In the early years, the Diner was open 24/7. When Charlie and Dot headed to Florida in the winter, Curt and Lois kept the diner open but with reduced hours.

In the early 1950’s, after a date at Hathaway’s Drive-In to see Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High, you might find teenage lovers stopping at the Cambridge Diner for some of Dot’s famous pies. Twenty or thirty years later, in the 1970s and 1980s, you’ll hear many stories of people leaving The Bog at 2am as the bar closed, then staggering down East Main Street, waiting for the Diner to open at 5am to have coffee and eggs at the Diner.

In 1952, the onset of Dot Rundell’s heart condition caused the Diner to shorten their hours for a few weeks, open only for breakfast from 5am to 10am. In 1954, an ad appeared in the WCP … Cambridge Diner for sale. For health reasons we are offering this Diner doing a year around business for sale. Signed, Dot and Charlie Rundell.

However, they didn’t sell it since in Mar-1954 the WCP announced that Mr. and Mrs. Charles Rundell have returned from a vacation in Florida and that the Cambridge Diner will resume regular hours on Monday. On the same page, an ad announced regular hours of 5am to 7pm would commence on 21-Mar-1954.

As I sifted through the old newspapers from the mid-1950s, I spotted some old, familiar names. Radio stations WFLY, WTRY, WGY, WROW, and WPTR. TV station WRGB channel 6 was on the air early in the morning, then off the air until mid-afternoon when it was time for the Soap Operas. The station went off the air after the Late Night movie which ended around 1am.

Other local merchants of this era are names known to many of us. Al Kepler at Club 22, King Bros vegetables, Don Latrell’s haberdashery, Charles LeGrys jewelry, Jimmy LeGrys drug store, John McCarty Oasis, Jimmy Rubino hardware, Bob McWhorter market, Frank Pemrick dairy, Joe Powers barber, Tommy Powers restaurant, Ken Randles garage, Leo Santerre 5&10 and liquor store. The list goes on and on as we picture the village’s history that accompanied the history of the Diner.

In 1952, gentlemen might take their dates to the Diner after going to the Cambridge Theatre to see Story of Robinhood in Technicolor. On Friday and Saturday nights there was a double feature. Afterward, people might walk down the block for coffee and pie at the Diner. If they had already seen the movie showing at the Cambridge Theatre, folks might go to the Bennington Drive-In or the Hudson River Drive-In.

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By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Rundell’s left their Airstream trailer behind the diner and found other means of travel to Florida and Arizona.  Their daughter, Lois and her husband Louis Decker would live in the trailer during the winter months.

In 1959 when the American Legion printed their first “birthday calendar”, the Cambridge Diner was already over 20 years old.

In the Christmas edition of the WCP in 1960, Charlie and Dot wished the village a Merry Christmas. On the same page were holiday wishes from Ray Albergene’s TV store in Eagle Bridge, Fairbanks Express in Hoosick Falls, Barkley's 5&Dime in Salem, and Keniry Motors in Greenwich.

In 1968, local real estate agent Herb Ensign advertised the Cambridge Diner for sale. Asking price was $19,500. The advertisement stated, “air-conditioned living quarters adjacent”.

In 1973, the WCP carried an ad for the new owners of the Cambridge Diner, Bud & Penny Hungerford. They were open Monday through Friday 5am to 6:30pm and Saturday morning from 6am to 11am. When Bud (Walter) passed away in 1999, his obituary stated he was the owner/cook at the Cambridge Diner for 25 years, also stating he was a former employee at General Electric, a CCS buys driver, and a farmer. He also played Santa Claus for many years.

In 1981 the snack bar opened “out back”. You could get all your favorite foods as well as hard and soft ice cream. The Snack Bar was open from 2pm-10pm Wed-Sun. The WCP that announced that grand opening also carried an ad for the live bands playing at Snuffy’s InnisFail (just south of Lake Lauderdale on Route 22).

1981 also saw vandalism hit Main Street eateries as both the Cambridge Diner and Bill’s Restaurant on the West End suffered break-ins. An earlier break-in at the Cambridge Diner in 1973 emphasized what people valued about the diner. A screen in the back was cut, a window was broken, but no one entered the diner. Instead they reached in through the broken window and stole 5 dozen donuts from the shelf.

As with all my research into Cambridge history, I find there is more material to cover than I have time. Also, having grown up in the 1950s and 60s, I always find myself focusing on that period since those are my memories of Cambridge. I’ll leave it to you to fill in the stories of the more modern history, including Dawn Case and the Country Gals

I will close with some diner stories that folks shared with me

  • Susan Sardi remembers her dad, Earl Thurber, working on the highway crew, stopping at the Diner throughout the night as they plowed during heavy snowstorms.
  • Bobby Woodward and Webby Madison would wake up, see that snow had fallen, grab their snow shovels and run from Division Street to the Diner. Why? If they shoveled the sidewalk, they were offered a free breakfast.
  • Ruth “Tillie” Hudson was a long-time English teacher at CCS. On the last day of school, she would take her 7 children to the Diner to celebrate the end of another school year.
    • Here’s another connection of the Hudson’s and Cambridge’s history … In 1962 some friends gathered behind Ruth and Jack Hudson’s house on Route 313 to drift down the Battenkill on tubes. This was the start of the famous ACIPLR (Annual Cambridge Invitational Predicted Log race)
  • Marsha Hall recalls Charlies’ hot roast beef and hot turkey on Friday nights. If she was good, her dad let her sit on the counter stool and spin as he paid the bill.
  • Joel Ketonen loved the melting butter on hot blueberry muffins
  • Jackie Andrews and her brother Nick remember Dot serving them “coffee milk”, a splash of coffee in the bottom of the famous diner mug, then filled to the brim with milk. Made us kids fit right in with the adults sipping their coffee at the counter.
  • George Ridler worked for Dan McInerney (furniture store, now Battenkill Books). They would have lunch at the diner and Kurt would give them the inside scoop on the favorites running at Saratoga. The place smelled like doughnuts and fried grease.

 

 

I got these great stories from Todd Sutherland whose mother Margorie Hungerford Sutherland was Bud’s sister.

  • The constant presence of grandma Mary Hungerford, from opening before dawn ’til closing in the afternoon. She didn’t need to work, but none of the family could keep her from showing up every day, no matter the weather, and cherished her warm and loving presence.
  • Uncle Bud would open, go drive school bus, and come back for the day. He was known to cat nap for 15 minutes on the top of the big freezer in the basement and come back up fresh and ready to tackle the afternoon.
  • Those HUGE blueberry muffins, cut in half, shared with butter and fried on the flat top were to die for.
  • Cousin Buddy (Bud’s son) was quite a hotshot on the flat top grille, entertaining the diner with his many skills; juggling eggs to ultimately land on the edge of his twirling spatula and onto the hot grille, and shells thrown into the nearby basket without every looking. Buddy went on to train at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in several restaurants in Los Angeles.
  • My mother Marge baked all of the pies for the Diner, as was known especially for the apple pie with slices larger than life. She and Aunt Janet waited on tables and were known by everyone in town (and surrounding towns). Pies were such a part of our life with Mom that I still celebrate her birthday each year with the best pie I can find in Portland, Oregon where I live today.
  • After I’d left for the Navy, I came home on leave without telling Mom, snaked through the back door and kitchen of the Diner and sat at a table without being seen by her (not easily done in that tiny place!), and hid behind my menu to surprise her when she came to take my order. It’s one of my favorite memories with her, and the Diner.

 

 

If a visitor ever stops you asking, “Where’s the Country Gals café?”, just say “It’s right next to where Joe Vitello had his barber shop”. If they look puzzled, try saying “it’s across the street from where Everett Ashworth had the Agway store”. If they still look puzzled, simply say “just look for the Cambridge Diner sign”

Here’s hoping the Cambridge Diner sign remains a piece of our history for many years to come. Best of luck to Becky and Jeannie

Ken Gottry
13-Oct-2019