Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Keys to the Past - The Ashtabula Dinor

Greetings key enthusiasts!  Today's interesting key takes us on a journey that includes mystery, good food, and urban decay.  This is all provided to us from a key donation from last season from Larry Bates and Maliah Niemuth, of Williamsfield, OH, and Estes Park, respectively.  The key is a large decorative key made of plastic with a thermometer on the front.

This key is commemorating the 15th season of the Ashtabula Dinor, located in Ashtabula, Ohio, along Lake Erie between Cleveland and Erie, PA.  There's a small sketch of the diner on the front, and the key uses two slogans - "Where Friends Meet" and "A Good Place to Eat".  I remain unsure of whether the thermometer is accurate - it claims that it's only 62 degrees here in the key room, though it doesn't quite feel that chilly in here!

Now is where the mystery begins.  Naturally, as the key is labeled with "Our 15th Year", I was curious as to what year that could possibly be.  A quick internet search revealed that the Ashtabula Dinor wasn't in existence anymore.  Judging by the complete lack of results for the Ashtabula Dinor, it hadn't been around for a very long time.  Fortunately, I found one fantastic picture from the Ashtabula Archives which showed the diner as it was in 1947.

This is a good start!  Unfortunately, it's impossible to tell from the picture what the first year of the Ashtabula Dinor really was.  All we know is that it was open on Main Avenue in 1947.  That could have been its first year in operation, or it could have been in operation significantly longer than that.  But that also means the absolute latest date we can give to this key is 1962.  Now, we have a timeframe to work with.

My investigations led me to further conclusions.  An old forum post was searching for a Clara Whelpley, who ran the Ashtabula Dinor from 1944-1971.  Assuming the start date is true, that shortens our timeline to a late date of 1959.  Along the theme of historical reliability that I talked about in my last post, I'm sure someone is wondering why I would be trusting a random internet message board.  But, a bit more digging verified Clara Whelpley as the proprietor of the diner by stumbling upon the following business card.

There's no date on the card, but since Clara Whelpley was indeed running it, we can assume that the 1944-1971 date has to be somewhat accurate.  Additionally, the picture on the key matches the business card, so all of this has to be around the same time.  With this information on the date, I think we should be able to conclude that the key comes from either the 40s or the 50s.

That brings us to the next question - why was this diner so hard to track down?  The answer to that ties into the history of Ashtabula itself.  Throughout the 20th century, Ashtabula became a manufacturing hub, taking ore and coal shipped from across Lake Erie and turning it into steel, a major product of the region.  The town peaked in the 1950s, when it was home to around 25,000 people with a bustling industrial sector and port.

Today, it's a town that's been left to the same fate as many other cities in the region.  Ashtabula has declined to a population of 19,000, as many of those earlier jobs had moved on.  This left buildings abandoned, neglected, and frequently destroyed.  The Ashtabula Dinor was one property destroyed.  A Google Maps street view search reveals the former location to be a parking lot.  The Palace Theater, behind the diner in the photo, was also destroyed.  Many plots along Main Avenue are empty, having once had demolished buildings.  This phenomenon is known as "urban decay", and is most notable for hitting Detroit.  Groups in Ashtabula are trying their best to counter the process and save their main street.  Unfortunately for us, the diner is long gone, and too late to be saved.

One final issue to be addressed here is one with spelling.  You've certainly seen me spell out the word "diner" as "dinor" when referring to the Ashtabula Dinor.  This happens to be an extremely regional spelling of the word, seen only in western Pennsylvania and nearby areas.  No one exactly knows how the spelling got changed to an "o", but theories range from differentiating from the word "dinner" to someone misspelling "diner" and having everyone else copy it.

Thanks again to Larry and Maliah for this fantastic key donation!  As always, feel free to mail in your key donations to us, and they may be featured on our blog.  If you find yourself in Ashtabula, and have a time machine that can take you back to the 1950s, be sure to swing by the Dinor!