50s Fun in Harvard
It’s an era that has gone by, but Ted and Dorothy Ahrens have restored many facets of it and reassembled it in their home. Adults can relive memories and the younger set can step back in time. “You can tell youngsters about this memorabilia, but when they come here, they can almost realize what it was like,” Ted said. “It was a neat time.”
The Ahrens recreated an authentic diner complete with soda fountains, jukeboxes, signs, radios and furniture – all in a Coca-Cola theme.
The quest for authentic, antique diner and Coca-Cola collectables began in 1986. Perhaps, thought Ted Ahrens, visiting the Sugar Bowl in Des Plaines, Ill., started him on his pursuit. Little by little, the collection grew to this astonishing array.
“We’d find a little something here and there and then add it to the collection,” he said. “So now the walls are pretty much filled with memorabilia to bring back the mystique of the 1950s.
“The year 1957 is special in my life. I was in Oxford, Wis., when my grandma had cabins in the Wisconsin Dells and my dad farmed in Oxford,” he added. “I was 16 years old and bought a brand new 1957 Chevrolet.”
Harvard had three soda fountains in back in the 1950s: Davidson’s Drug Store, Barrett’s Confectionary and Whipple’s Drug Store. “I thought it would be great to put together a family-oriented place for people to get together so we could go back in time and be able to bring back the fun memories that we had then,” Ted explained.
As a result, they initially tracked down a 1938 liquid carbonic soda fountain that came out of a little drugstore in Des Moines, Iowa. “We had it professionally restored with a new compressor and CO2 component that creates the sodas, Green Rivers, phosphates and such,” he said.
Family gatherings and youth church groups delight in the whimsy of the atmosphere. They may not realize, however, what the Ahrens have done to bring the antiques back to mint, workable condition. “I have done much of the restoration myself,” he explained. “It’s a pleasure to be able to share it with our family and friends.”
In Working Order
You can play a selection on the 1952 vintage jukebox, such as “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Love Me Tender” or “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” to name few. The teardrop speakers at both ends of the eating area are painted red with white trim that matches the Coca-Cola theme. Jukebox manufacturer Seeburg was one of the first companies to come out with the 1945 record feature and the 100 selections. “The worst thing you can do to this reconditioned equipment is not play it because the machine is full of platinum points and you have to get that sparking across those points to keep it clean,” Ted said.
According to Ted, back then, fellows who worked for the jukebox company would come to the diner – on a monthly basis, for sure, maybe even weekly – and would change the music title strips to keep up with what was popular. They based the top hits on how often the records were played. Under the hood there is a wheel that would be notched every time a record was played.
There are no high-tech gadgets here. Pinball wizards would be enamored with the games. Even the phone booth, circa 1933, is functional; it’s not coin operated anymore but it still rings in or out. It came out of a little drugstore in Indiana. “We stripped off the antiquing and discovered a beautiful mahogany finish and also had the brass highly polished and lacquered,” Ted explained. “Those artisans finely crafted these jukeboxes, wall boxes, phone booths and soda fountains – they were true professionals.”
Dorothy thinks that the phone booth is gorgeous. “They worked as engineers and artists to take it apart in order to get it into the basement and put it back together,” she said.
The National cash register is an 1896 edition bought and sold in Wisconsin. It still has the label underneath the drawer; when you pull it out it works like brand new and it has a printer on the side. Even back in that era there would be a printer that would tally up business. “Beautiful!” exclaimed Ted.
Trinkets and Treasures
The Ahrens have been traipsing through auctions, antique stores and flea markets to search for collectables. Many items were given to them by classmates, family and friends. “Some of the malt mixes were given to us by my mom and dad and one was given to us by Billy’s Pancake House in Delavan, Wis.,” Ted said.
Photos of historic Harvard, Ill., gas stations hang on the walls. See Mike Shields and his son, Joe, in the late 1920s at their gas station, and another from 1956 of Joe Shields when he took over the Shields Oil Co. “The station still stands today, but Joe has since passed away,” Ted said. “They would let us kids come in there and wash our cars. We were kids that respected what we were and owned and took pride in washing our vehicles.”
Sharing the Moments
When visitors descend for the first time into the vintage basement, the Ahrens usually get astonished reactions. “The kids burst out with ‘Look at this’ … ‘I can’t believe it’ … ‘this is this cool.’ The adults of a certain era start soaking it up quicker because they can relive memories,” Ted said.
The basement retreat is a great place to tell stories. “This is a place where people can enjoy themselves and reminisce,” he said. “They ask me questions and I try to reflect and give them answers as best as I can remember. My niece said, ‘Uncle Ted, just tell me some stories when this was all really the going thing.’ When I got done telling her, she couldn’t get over it,” he said.
One group came down and dressed the part. The girls wore prom dresses, penny loafers, saddle shoes and poodle skirts. They put on the garb that would have been worn back in those days. “Some of the folks that left that evening were really wowed,” Ted recalled.
The one item that has the most sentimental value for the Ahrens is the soda fountain itself. According to Dorothy, “We did have a corner drugstore that we went to and had Cherry Coke. Well, Coca-Cola started in 1886 and we did the basement in 1986. So a lot of things that we have are in memory of the 100th anniversary.”
“We met the owner of America Soda Fountain in Chicago who told me, ‘Ted, the thing that thrills me the most in restoring a soda fountain is not to excite the children. It’s for the grown-ups who buy it and draw their first soda off the draft lines.’”
The Ahrens have fond memories of growing up in warm, loving families and want to share these experiences with younger folks. “I have been very fortunate in my lifetime and have been in good health,” Ted explained. “I’ll come down here sometimes in the evening, pour a Coke and just sit and play a few songs off the jukebox. It brings back the memories of the fun times we had. The kids in Harvard were really special.”