By Joann M. Ringelstetter
In April, 2006, as Ruth and I headed towards home after spending a week on the backroads of Kentucky, we stumbled upon an old diner on Route 40 in Plainfield, Indiana. I was still shooting film then, and I was always very conservative with the number of times I clicked the shutter. I had three Canon cameras, each loaded with a different type of film. So I took one colored slide, one colored print, and one black and white print of the outside of the diner. We were on a mission to cover a lot of ground that day, so we didn’t go inside.
Last spring, on the last day of our North Carolina trip, we passed this diner again on our way home. This trip had been a long one -- a full two weeks pushing hard to cover as many North Carolina backroads as we could, so we were both very tired. Again, we were on a mission -- this time to make it to our favorite general store in Moonshine, Illinois, for their famous grilled sandwiches before they shut the grill off at 12:30 sharp.
Even though we were kind of in a hurry, I was drawn to see the inside of this historic diner. Inside, there were a few people enjoying their meals. Some were sitting on the old-fashioned stools running the length of the diner and counter. Others were sitting in burgundy-colored booths opposite the stools. I snapped a few photos while the manager told me a little bit about the diner. As she did this, I noticed an older gentleman on one of the stools. He was watching me and smiling, so I introduced myself.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting on a stool next to Samuel F. Hatcher and he was talking up a storm, mostly about his life and his family. He was polite and quite humorous and I was totally enjoying his company. He told me that he came to the diner as often as he could because it was one of his favorite places. Then he told me that he was at the diner the day it opened and that he drove there in a 1954 Chevy convertible. This was significant because the diner was built in New Jersey in 1954 and was then transported to Plainfield on a rail car.
I could have talked with him all day because he was such a happy guy, but I knew I needed to get going. When I stood up to leave, I noticed another man in the booth across from us who had been listening to our conversation and who now joined in. His name was Kenneth Hoffman and he told me that he came to the diner almost every day. He also said that he was there the day the diner arrived from New Jersey and was set in place.
This streamline Moderne-style diner, with its coffee cup sign, has served National Road travelers for over five decades. It was originally known as the Oasis Diner. Outside, the front portion is the original 35-foot chrome trailer, accented by red, white, and blue stripes. Inside, it still has the original 1954 peach and gray tile interior, with a peach-colored counter running the length of the trailer. Behind the counter is the grill, where the owner, Ray Piercy, and his staff made their famous breakfasts and huge tenderloin sandwiches for over twenty years. In January, 2008, Mr. Piercy closed the diner and put it up for sale. It reopened for short periods since then, and we were fortunate enough to have visited during one of those times.
A couple of months after our visit, the Hendricks County Health Department closed the restaurant due to structural deterioration. It is now on the Ten Most Endangered List put out by the Indiana Landmarks Association. The good news is that Mr. Piercy has now decided to donate the structure to anyone who will take on the cost of moving it. The Town of Plainfield reported that a relocation study is underway, funded by donations from the Indiana Landmarks Association, the Indiana National Road Association, and the Hendricks County Convention and Visitors Bureau. They also said, “The Diner is believed to be the last remaining structure of its kind on the US 40 National Road.”
According to the Indiana Landmarks Association, there were roughly 5,000 roadside diners in the 1950s serving folks who traveled the blue highways. These historic structures have disappeared from the American landscape at an alarming rate. If you’re ever out motoring and you pass one of these nostalgic diners, take the time to stop in and enjoy a piece of our history.