Part II: Remembering two iconic Nashua eateries, both named Howard Johnson’s
We were just taking the final bites of dinner – mine, of course, of butter-grilled “frankfurts” and potato chips – when the man I didn’t know pulled my mother aside to convey a message that had come from the big meeting room upstairs.
Until that moment, it was a routine, uneventful Wednesday evening dinner at “the original” Howard Johnson’s on Daniel Webster Highway, a fairly common occurrence for mom, grandmother, little sister and me.
That’s because Pop was a member of the Nashua Exchange Club, which at the time met each Wednesday evening in one of HoJo’s upstairs function rooms.
It turned into a weekly tradition: As we were still a one-car family at the time, Pop would get a ride to the meeting, while the four of us drove to HoJo’s for dinner. When our dinner and the meeting were over, we’d all go home together.
We followed that same routine on that fateful October Wednesday – but from the moment my mother spoke to that man, the evening suddenly became anything but routine.
We half-walked, half-trotted to the family wheels – a black Ford station wagon that was in its final months of service – and once the doors slammed shut our questions started. They were all some version of “what happened?”
“We’re not sure but we think a car hit our house” was about the extent of the responses from the front seat.
Pop, a driver who preferred, for reasons unknown, to keep the speedometer needle well short of the posted limit, steered the old station wagon from HoJo’s lot onto the Daniel Webster Highway, hit the gas and flirted with what would almost certainly have been his first speeding ticket ever.
I can’t say I recall the drive home, but as soon as we turned off Lock Street onto Atherton Avenue I began craning my neck for any sign of something out of the ordinary. Seconds later, just after we passed the playground, I saw that something: Flashing red and blue lights piercing the chilly fall darkness.
Coming around the bend just after the Avon Drive split the whole scene presented itself: Dozens of people, a mix of neighbors, firefighters and police officers milled about in our front yard, driveway and the street.
Pop pulled over a couple houses down the street, jammed the shift into park, climbed out and headed for the gaggle of onlookers. The rest of us followed, gazing wide-eyed at the sight: The front end of a 1950s vintage Plymouth sticking out of our living room, its back end, having displaced a side table, floor lamp and an easy chair, resting inside under shattered glass, splintered wood and exposed utility systems.
I remember an alert neighbor named Ed Goranson telling Pop that upon hearing the crash and seeing the damage, he went into our cellar and shut off all the utilities.
Neighborhood friends ran up to my little sister and me, exchanging exclamations of one sort or another, probably reminding us we were lucky none of us were home.
After awhile Pop, having finished getting and giving information to the police, said, “come with me.” We went to the car, where he retrieved his camera equipment, handed me some stuff to carry and grabbed a flashlight.
We went in the back door and made our way into the kitchen. I still recall the rather eerie combination of sights and sounds. Inside, the pitch darkness and silence were interrupted only by the occasional flashes of emergency lights and neighborly banter outside.
Pop gave me the flashlight and told me where to point the beam so he could focus his camera. We repeated the process several times in various locations, recording the damage for posterity – and for insurance purposes and, of course, for the next day’s Telegraph.
Speaking of insurance, they put us up first at the former Olde Coach Inn, then moved us across the street to the also former Hannah Dustin motel – both of them neighbors of the place where we first learned of the event that gave us plenty of stories to tell over the years.
Indeed, there’s no shortage across at least two generations of Americans of Howard Johnson’s memories, and Nashua’s no exception.
Take Maida Latvis for instance. Now past 90 and still going strong, she recalls that after she and her late husband John were married out in Iowa back in 1946, they promptly came to Nashua to visit his parents.
Unbeknownst to them, friends and family had arranged a post-wedding reception of sorts, bestowing gifts and best wishes upon the newlyweds.
“There must have been 100 people in that room,” Maida said of one of the second-floor function rooms at Nashua’s first Hojo’s.
“It was such a surprise … we thought we were just going out to eat,” she added.
I also spoke with Judy Spaulding, whose surname is synonymous with both Nashua Hojo’s. She said her great-uncle, Irving Spaulding, was the original manager of the first one, which opened in the mid-30s to great fanfare.
While Judy’s father, the late Ken Spaulding, was not in the restaurant business – he owned and operated Spaulding Metal Works for many years – her uncles, Bruce and Richard Spaulding, and another great-uncle, Elwin Spaulding, were all involved in the family business at one time or another.
The second generation opened the “new” Hojo’s off Main Dunstable Road at Exit 5 in 1967. They did this one up big, putting up an orange-roofed motor lodge and, to the delight of travelers and locals (with connections) alike, a full size indoor swimming pool.
Judy Spaulding worked there as a waitress the summer she graduated from Nashua High.
“I remember the busloads of people coming in, a lot of them were on group trips up north,” she said.
Once the first HoJo’s ended its run around 1980, the service clubs that had met there simply moved over to the “new” one, which came with a bonus: a full bar and pub was adjacent to the function rooms. Many members “pre-gamed” and “post-gamed” meetings in the pub, where the regulars and servers made it a “home away from home” for many business and pleasure travelers alike.
By coincidence, both HoJo’s locations were replaced by car dealerships – the Daniel Webster Highway location by Lovering Volvo, and the newer one by Audi Nashua.
But while it’s good to have successful car dealerships around town, having at least one HoJo’s would be a great “re-addition” to the city.
Just ask Maida Latvis. “We loved to go there,” she said. “I wish they were still here.”
Dean Shalhoup’s column appears weekly in The Sunday Telegraph. He may be reached at 594-1256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.