Reader Mail: Horn & Hardart Years

Last week, I received an email from Frank Lavin who worked for Horn & Hardart and managed The Guernsey Cow for a few years in the late 1970s.

I’ve edited the letter a bit for length:

I worked for Horn & Hardart from 1973 ( during High school ) through 1978 ( as a Restaurant Manager ).

Horn & Hardart took over the ‘Cow’ for a few years in the late seventies… I knew the ‘Cow’ was better off with the Polite’s. Horn & Hardart was in the process of closing stores (pretty much the end of the line for the once great company).

I worked at the ‘Cow’ for about 2 years when I just got out of High School in the restaurant as the night manager for H & H and later they brought me back to make the ice cream for not only the Exton restaurant but also the rest of their Philadelphia footprint of restaurants and retail stores.

I remember helping Willie move from his home inside the store to his new home in the small cottage next to the big home in the rear of the restaurant.

Willie was ‘great’ he helped me immensely.  I used to visit him ( after I left Horn & Hardart ) at least once a year until one day when I found his cottage was vacant. I spoke to someone who told me that he moved to Downingtown.

In a follow up email, Frank explained:

Yes, we used to ship the ice cream and also the caramels ( not sure who made the caramels for Horn & Hardart ) in the Guernsey Cow tubs to all the H & H stores in their Philadelphia market, such as:

  • Broad & Walnut
  • 12th & Market ( Reading Terminal )
  • Cottman & Large
  • 8th & Market
  • 16th & Market
  • Lansdowne
  • Lawrence Park 
  • Bala (City Line Ave) 

There were more, but these are some that I worked at.

I do remember both your Grandparents. Larry was a nice man. I was the afternoon manager and I spent some quality time with him. I was just out of High school ( very green behind the ears ) and he showed me around and taught me lot about managing the restaurant. 

Do you remember Mackie?  he worked at the Ship Inn and used to come in everyday?

I do remember Mackie as I’m sure many others do as well. He was some kind of character!

Thanks for writing in Frank.

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The World’s Largest Cow Makes Room for The Lincoln Highway

The World's Largest Cow Makes Room for Highway Expansion
1972: The Cow Sign Moves Back

In 1972, The Lincoln Highway (Route 30) in Exton, PA was being widened and The Guernsey Cow signs needed to be moved back from the road to make room.

As described previously, when the billboard was originally erected right after the end of World War II, the highway department visited Larry Polite and informed him that, although it was a nice big cow, it needed to be moved back from the edge of the road because the cow’s head hung over the highway.

In 1968 the northern side of the highway was widened. The smaller sign shown in the post below (from 1941) would have needed to be moved or removed for that widening.

The sign above reads: “It’s The Greatest Ice Cream In The World” and it’s written over a musical staff with notes.

The Ice Cream Song

Anyone know the jingle or can play it for me?

Looks like: A F F F  F A F   F F F F    A F G F    F F G A C

The Guernsey Cow sign rises into the air
1972: The Guernsey Cow sign rises into the air
The Cow Signs Start To Settle In
1972: The Cow Signs Start To Settle In

A Letter From a Tennessee Reader

It’s been a while since my last post and I’m hoping to show some new things soon. In the meantime I received this email the other day from Tom Malloy of Memphis, TN that I thought was worth sharing:
I grew up in Exton, Pa on Shoen road not far from the Cow. I remember Willie riding through my neighborhood., He would always say hello in his special way. I was always amazed that he remembered my name even when I was just a little kid. I don’t think I ever saw Willie without a gigantic smile on his face. I remember one time he let try to hold his bike up when I was little kid. It was too heavy for me with all of the horns and mud flaps and mirrors. I remember seeing him at the Farmers Market and I’d always see his parked in the Drive In.
My family would got to the Cow every Sunday after church. I think I ordered the same thing every week for 15 years or so. It was cube steak sandwich with fries and a black & white shake and it was awesome. I can still my brothers lips stained black by the blue moon ice or the licorice. It was a great place in a great time.
It was my brother Brian’s first job working at the cow.
Do you remember the place across the street where the big cow sign stood. It was called the Vittle House run by three brothers. They sold a sandwich called a beer sandwich that was incredible.  I could die for one of those beer sandwiches now.
Thank for the Memories. I live in Memphis, Tn now and it was a great trip down memory lane.
Thanks for the note Tom! Does anyone else out there remember the Vittle House and what beer sandwiches are made of?

The Guernsey Cow as it appeared in the 1940s

 

cow-building_1940s_cropped

This is another photo my grandmother had in her files. I believe it’s The Guernsey Cow circa post World War II. That’s when my grandfather changed the name of the business from The Exton Dairy Grille to The Guernsey Cow.

I really like the detail of this pastoral scene atop the roof. I don’t know if it was painted from an actual Chester County scene or a creation of Pottstown sign-painter Harry Reed’s. I also wonder how it fared in harsh winter and summer storms — especially the twin cows standing watch on either side of “The Guernsey Cow” board.

Twin Guernseys stand watch.

Chester County Tours & Walks: The Guernsey Cow, Sleepy Hollow Hall & the Zook House Aug 21

From the Chester County Parks & Recreation page and hosted by the West Whiteland Historic Commission (edits are mine):

“Tour three of West Whiteland’s most prominent historical structures located on Lincoln Highway at the intersection of Pottstown Pike, the crossroads of Chester County. The resources, all located at the perimeter of the Exton Square Mall and in close proximity to one another, include the well-known Zook House (c 1754), The Guernsey Cow Dairy Barn (now DNBFirst Downingtown National Bank, c 1930), and Sleepy Hollow Hall (aka the Massey House, 1717). Each property illustrates how effective adaptive reuse can both preserve and perpetuate historic structures in the face of significant development. Following the tour, you will be treated to light refreshments and locally crafted ice cream in honor of The Guernsey Cow’s legacy.”

I’ll be on-hand to eat ice cream and help out with The Guernsey Cow and Sleepy Hollow Hall sides of things.

Call 610-363-9525 for further information and registration.

The World’s Largest Guernsey Cow

The Guernsey Cow Sign in Exton PA
The Guernsey Cow Sign in Exton PA

I’ve been meaning for a long time to post a photo of the actual Guernsey Cow sign since, for many (or most), it is what defined The Guernsey Cow. I actually have very few photos of the famous sign.

While it was still known as The Exton Dairy Grille, in 1927, Frank B. Foster, the owner of the dairy business that my grandfather, Ilario Polite leased, had a large cow billboard across the street. Soon after, though, a real estate man convinced Mr. Foster to sell the land on that side of the road. As a result of the sale, they needed to take the sign down.

“My gosh, that broke my heart to see that big cow sign come down,” Polite said. “But I said, ‘Some day, some how, I’m going to put that cow back up.'”

1941 Exton Dairy Grille Calendar Card
1941 Exton Dairy Grille Calendar Card

On this 1941 Exton Dairy Grille wallet calendar made by Whitehead & Hoag it reads: “At the Sign of the Guernsey Cow.” There was a smaller billboard of a cow by the entrance of the Dairy Grille parking lot in the intervening years.

Later, in the 1940s, Polite changed the name from The Exton Dairy Grille to The Guernsey Cow. In 1983 he told a story about repeat customers that came from far away that would always tell him on their visit: “I don’t know why you call this place the Dairy Grille — when we come here, we say ‘We’re going to see The Cow.’ You ought to call it that.” And so he did.

In the 1940s, Polite was able to purchase the land across the street where the sign once stood. On the day World War II ended, he called Pottstown sign-maker, Harry Reed, about constructing a billboard of a giant cow on that land. While he had owned the land for some years, due to war-time rationing of steel and other materials he had been forced to hold off on building The Cow anew.

The next day he and Mr. Reed went to Philadelphia to buy steel for the sign. Later they took a little picture or drawing of a Guernsey cow and projected it on the wall of of Harry Reed’s house to determine how large to build the sign. Mr. Reed completed the entire project on his own: dug the holes for the footers, built the sign and painted it all for $600 in 1945. As my grandfather recalled in 2005: “Harry was a good man.”

The sign itself was about 35 feet tall and 48 feet long and actually consisted of 2 giant cows in a wedge form to give it depth and the best visibility when traveling from both the East and West on the Lincoln Highway.

Sometime after the billboard construction, the Pennsylvania Department of Highways (later PennDOT) demanded that the Cow billboard be moved back from the road because the head of the cow stuck out above highway property.

A company from Lansdale was brought in to discuss moving the Cow sign and the owner and some engineers came to Exton and “stood around and did a lot of talking.” They proposed dismantling the sign,  then re-assembling it further back from the road and repainting it.

Polite didn’t like the engineers’ idea. He wanted to bring a crane in to lift it off its three supports and move it back from the road. They wanted $2500, but ever the haggler, he got them down to $1500.

Today where the sign once stood, a regular billboard stands advertising health insurance, I think. What’s left of the cow lies in pieces (and headless — the head stolen in 1985 before the sign was dismantled) in a West Whiteland township barn. I am hoping to visit it and get some photos soon.

The article and photo below appeared in The Daily Local News March 16, 1996.

The Guernsey Cow sign in pieces in 1996
The Guernsey Cow sign in pieces in 1996

In a letter to the Editor in the newspaper a few weeks later, Emily J. Kirsch, then Director of Public Relations at Immaculata College (now Immaculata University) wrote:

“The Cow,” as it was affectionately dubbed by the students, served as one of the few off-campus attractions in the less-sophisticated ’40s and ’50s, a respite after a long week of classes and research papers, a place to relax, luxuriate, and enjoy a dish of incredible ice cream. Piling into a car for a drive to “The Cow” became, over the years, a veritable tradition for Immaculata students until its closing in 1985. 

The Guernsey Cow sign, at one time, was Exton [emphasis Ms. Kirsch’s]. It is truly a piece of Americana that should not be left to rest in a barn…

If you have photos of The Cow you’d like to share, you can email them to me at busboy@TheGuernseyCow.com@ .

A Sign of Summer

This sign is one of my favorite relics of The Guernsey Cow. Hand-lettered on a stiff board, it is a sign of times gone by.  I love the use of four different typefaces and the decorative border. More than that, it speaks to the kind of business my grandfather wanted to run and represent. I can’t imagine the run-ins he might have with customers were he operating the business today.