Sunday, December 9, 2007
All the fixings
Diner project serves up helpings of self-respect
By Thomas Caywood
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
WORCESTER, Ma. — The Sherwood’s Diner served a lot of coffee and eggs for nearly two decades on Foster Street before it was closed in 1969, put in storage, moved to Auburn to become an ice cream parlor, closed again, vandalized, picked over for souvenirs, left to rot for a decade, and eventually mothballed by the American Diner Museum in Providence.
An ambitious plan concocted three years ago by a correction officer at a Rhode Island juvenile detention center aims to get the rusted and rotted former Worcester landmark back in hash-slinging condition — while also teaching at-risk teens about carpentry and self-respect.
Next spring, young people locked up at the Rhode Island Training School in Cranston will begin a roughly $80,000 ground-up restoration of the diner and two others in partnership with the diner museum. The youths are part of a vocational program of the Juvenile Correction Division of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families
The juvenile detention center has long had a vocational program in carpentry, but the program amounted to little more than a high school wood shop class, said John Scott, the training school’s community liaison. Restoring a vintage diner will teach students real-world job skills they can’t learn building birdhouses, he said.
Mr. Scott was at the Knights of Columbus hall on Circuit Avenue last week along with Daniel A. Zilka, director of the diner museum, to meet with the daughter of the former Sherwood’s owner and with retired city police officers and firefighters who used to eat at the diner in its glory days on Foster Street in the 1940s and 1950s.
Three years ago, when he was a juvenile correction officer, Mr. Scott pitched the idea of restoring and operating a diner, which would combine the school’s carpentry and culinary arts programs. But the idea never went anywhere, he said. When the training school’s administration changed last year and he was promoted to community liaison, Mr. Scott tried again.
“I dusted off the idea and pitched it to the new administration, and they liked it. They said, ‘Go find a diner,’ ” Mr. Scott said.
That led him to Mr. Zilka and the diner museum, which Mr. Scott was shocked to learn was in Providence, just a few miles away from the school in Cranston. With guidance and expertise from the museum, which owns several run-down diners in need of restoration, including Sherwood’s, the plan was dubbed the New Hope Diner Project and grew to include plans to fix up three diners.
Sherwood’s was built by the Worcester Lunch Car Co. in 1940 and was operated in Medford for about 10 years before moving to Worcester. The diner museum has had Sherwood’s in storage since 1999. One of the other diners in line to be restored at the school is the former Mugsy’s, which was served up chow on Chandler Street in Worcester under different names until the early 1990s, Mr. Zilka said.
His vision calls for the three restored diners eventually to be operated in spots along the historic Blackstone Valley corridor between Providence and Worcester. Exactly where and when hasn’t been decided, he said.
Virginia W. Ryan of Worcester, the daughter of the former Sherwood’s owner, Ernest J. Ryan, said she was ecstatic to hear her father’s beloved diner might get a second life.
“I don’t care where it is. I’d like to see it in Worcester, of course, but I just want to see it functional again anywhere,” Ms. Ryan said.
She said her father, who died in 1966, would be especially pleased to know troubled teens will have a hand in the restoration.
“My father was a juvenile delinquent to the day he died. I think if you ask some of these cops around here,” she quipped, referring to the elderly retired police officers gathered at the Knights of Columbus Hall, “they can attest that my brothers were, too.”
Most of teenagers locked up at the Rhode Island Training School have been sentenced to six to nine months for “waywardness” or “delinquency,” Mr. Scott said.
Sherwood’s today sits protected behind the school’s high security fences. It’s swaddled in shrink wrap for now to prevent further decay. Some materials and expertise that will be necessary for the restoration have been donated to the school, which also is selling its own brand of organic coffee to help raise money for the project, he said.
Although some preliminary work has been done, Mr. Scott said, construction should begin in earnest in the spring. Mr. Zilka expects the work to take more than a year to complete, with the student labor force turning over during that time as new teens arrive at the school and others are released.
“It will become a working diner again,” Mr. Zilka said.
To keep Sherwood’s as authentic as possible, project organizers had to track down stools, booths and other fixtures taken from the defunct diner as souvenirs. Amazingly, they got most of the diner’s pieces back, he said.
“It’ll be about 95 percent original,” he said. “There might be a booth here or there we don’t have, but it will be largely original.”
Mr. Scott said he hopes that some of the young people who help restore the three diners, or who learn to cook at the school, will ultimately be involved in operating the vintage eateries.
“We see this as a project to develop a work ethic on a project they can say is their own,” Mr. Scott said.
During its heyday, Sherwood’s stood on the corner of Foster and Commercial streets. The Fire Department headquarters was across the street at the time.
Kenneth C. Henderson of Worcester, who was a rookie firefighter in the mid-1950s, recalled that a fire alarm bell was wired to ring in the diner.
“Whenever the bell hit in the station, all those in the diner came running across the street to get on the trucks and answer the alarm,” Mr. Henderson recalled.
He also recalled Mr. Ryan whipping up batches of bologna sandwiches for the prisoners locked up in the holding cells at police headquarters. Retired Police Officer James W. Richardson of Worcester said the prisoners weren’t the only ones at the police station noshing on Sherwood’s Diner sandwiches in those days.
“It was a good place to eat,” he said of Sherwood’s. “If you liked bologna sandwiches, it was a great place to eat.”
The bartender on duty at the Knights of Columbus Hall last week, when the New Hope Diner Project organizers met with the retired police officers and firefighters, was 78-year-old Worcester native Francis J. Callery. He remembered eating at Sherwood’s between his stints as a Navy corpsman in World War II and the Korean War.
“You went out for a few beers, you always went to a diner after,” Mr. Callery said. “You never went home without stopping in at a diner.”
For Additional information on this project click here.
Do you have any memories or photographs of Sherwood's Diner? Email us at HickeysDiner@AmericanDinerMuseum.org
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American Diner Museum
- New Hope Diner Project
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