Feed Corn, Oaks &

The Prairie Diner


DeKalb County is similar to Columbia County because it is agriculturally driven; the difference is it's flat. A straight ribbon of black asphalt slices through cornfields stretching out for thousands of acres, as far as the eye can see. Silos, barns, farmhouses and clumps of oak trees dot the horizon. The oak trees here are different than those in Columbia County, maybe they're a different species, maybe it's the light. The leaves are darker green and they spread more abundantly. Most of them resemble the oak that stands across from Tipples on Route 66 in Ghent.

The soil here is different, too. It's black, very rich growing soil. The corn is mostly feed corn or grown for use in food products and yes it grows as high as an elephant's eye. "This years crop is the tallest I've ever seen," an old farmer tells me.

On the southern end of the county is the DeKalb County Fairgrounds. Most people around these parts call it the Sandwich Fair because that's where it's located; same way the Columbia County Fair is called the Chatham Fair. The fairgrounds are beautiful. The buildings are Victorian and those oak trees are everywhere.

"Long John" Wentworth was a Congressman, a friend of Abraham Lincoln and the sixteenth Mayor of Chicago. He was also quite a character. Wentworth once introduced the Prince of Wales from the balcony of a Chicago Hotel to a crowd below. "Boys, this is the prince. Prince, these are the boys."

In the middle of the 18th Century the citizens of this area petitioned Wentworth to rename the place. The railroad had gone through and this budding little village wanted post office privileges; the bargain being "Long John" could choose the name. He agreed, naming it after his hometown of Sandwich, New Hampshire.

Sandwich is a town about the size of Chatham, although it's growing. A lot of people from the city, are moving there. Sound familiar? Situated at the intersection of Main Street and Route 34 is the Sandwich Diner. Now this is nothing like the stainless steel post-war diners we are so fond of in Columbia County. No, this is another species altogether.

At first glance motoring toward the intersection stoplight you notice a sleek railroad engine, a Zephyr as they were called. It's actuality a railroad dining car with a carefully sculpted sheet metal shroud fitted to the back end of the car. Once inside you discover the car is a treasure, rich varnished woodwork and arched stained glass eyebrow windows.

Costing $25,000 this dining car was first put into service at the "Columbia Exposition", Chicago's Worlds Fair in 1893. It was one of five luxury dining cars used on the Burlington Line. Teddy Roosevelt used this car to campaign for the Presidency. Eventually the car was taken out of service and sold at a San Francisco auction in 1931 for $75. A California couple bought the car and moved it to its present location.

In 1934 Route 34 was a popular route from Chicago westward to Los Angeles. The Sandwich Diner became a favorite and frequent stop for the touring big bands of Kay Kaiser, Benny Meroff, Guy Lombardo, Glen Miller and Harry James. Prizefighter Max Baer and movie star Cary Grant dined there.

White haired Terry TePoele is a lovely lady with a wide smile. She happily relates the Diner's history while I enjoy my breakfast. Terry and her husband Paul have operated the Diner since 1974. The food is home cooking, Paul takes care of that, Terry handles everything else. There are biscuits and gravy and fresh blueberry pancakes and pies just out of the oven. Terry brings me another glass of water, "Sandwich champagne," she jokes referring to the tasty local well water. She points out all the old photographs, one of Teddy Roosevelt greeting voters from the back of this very car, and another of the Diner in the 1930's.

My breakfast was delicious. Sitting at the counter to pay, I ask if I might take her picture. Suddenly she becomes shy. "What should I do? Should I be cleaning up?" she asks tidying up some counter dishes. "Why do you want a picture of me?" she adds with a gesture down the counter. "Don't you want a picture of the Diner instead?"

"You are the Diner," I reply snapping the photograph.

We'll talk next time, From The Road.

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