Yorkie's diner, a favorite of young and old
I often point out that I’m not a true Camden native because I was born in Rockland and did not move to Camden until I was a year and a half old when my father, who was born in South Thomaston, got a job as a weaver in the Knox Woolen Mill. Being born here wasn’t necessarily the criteria for being accepted here. Many of our most appreciated citizens came from away: England, Ireland, Italy, Finland, Germany, and (gasp) even Boston and New York. One such accepted and loved couple was Erskine and Madeline York.
The Yorks lived on Elm Street, just between Dr. Hart’s (Hartstone Manor) and the A&P Grocery Store where Rite Aid is today. In the summer months they would set up a portable hot dog stand, Yorkie’s Little Diner, on the sidewalk by their front lawn and sell hot dogs, popcorn, cold drinks and whatever else Madeline could supply from her kitchen nearby, maybe donuts or cookies while Erskine stayed out and visited with everybody walking by.
As a kid, I was always drawn by the tantalizing aroma, but seldom had the money to buy anything. I suspect that they didn’t necessarily start that enterprise to make money so much as to have an excuse to talk with passersby. Yorkie especially certainly liked people, and always had something interesting to say. He would often show up with his hotdog stand at special events around town or at the ballpark behind the Knowlton Street School for ball games.
Whatever his motivation may have been, the combination of good food and friendly personality must have worked well, because he and Madeline later (1948) opened the Miss Camden Luncheonette further down Elm Street. But my generation best remembers when they moved to Chestnut Street right beside the YMCA in March of 1949. Whatever the formal title of the place was, we all knew it as “Yorkie’s” and it was the favorite hang-out of young and old alike. As Ray Gross said, the secret of the good food probably was Madeline York, while Yorkie took orders and generally entertained the customers with his conversation and good humor. The “Y” was a busy place in those days because all school gym activity took place there, including basketball practice and games for both boys and girls. Naturally, after a strenuous workout at the gym, either as a player or a spectator, one needed nourishment and Yorkie’s was often the place of choice.
Often we would have a Saturday night school dance at the “Y” with records for music, or occasionally Cedie Joyce’s dance band, with yours truly on trumpet along with Lawrence Sparta and maybe Bob Pushaw, Cedie on sax and clarinet, Alan (Babe) Hatch and Dirk Brown on tenor sax and Dwight French on drums. Stan Wheeler strummed the bass fiddle when we could get him, and Allan Robbins on trombone. I’m not sure if kids came for the dance, or for another excuse to go by Yorkie’s for one of Madeline’s delicious hamburgers.
Of course one did not need an excuse to go to Yorkie’s. It was a favorite for the older generation as well. Yorkie had been active in the entertainment world as a circus clown and in vaudeville. He knew many well-known entertainers personally. They would often come by this way as tourists or summer visitors, and the walls of Yorkie’s restaurant were covered with personally autographed pictures and notes from famous people. But you didn’t have to be famous for him to have time for you, and many townspeople and summer residents would stop by for coffee and conversation with Yorkie and one of Madeline’s cheeseburgers.
In the meantime Yorkie was always in demand as an entertainer. Many remember him best for the dance routines at most every variety show and fundraiser in the opera house or at the movie theater. Helen and I remember very well the time in February 1948 when he and Tige Richardson, the very talented local mailman on the High Street route, serenaded us as we sat in the box seats on the right side of the opera house stage. That must have been at the presentation of Yorkie’s Pine Tree Minstrels sponsored by the Camden Lions Club. The Opera House was nice, but well used in those days and it was not unusual for an extrovert like Helen to go sit in the box seats and for in introvert like me to go with her. Helen’s dad was a well-known businessman in town so Tige and Yorkie were quick to see Helen and engage in a bit of good-natured horsing around.
Another time, when the our high school class put on a minstrel show as a fundraiser for our Washington trip, Yorkie, Bob Laite, Bill Monroe, Tige Richardson and Milford Payson participated as “guest stars.” Yorkie, Bill and Tige were professional vaudeville performers, which was very much still in vogue in those days. Everyone enjoyed the combination of a little clogging with intermittent jokes, and perhaps especially so because they were notable members of the local community.
When Yorkie and Madeline finally gave up and sold the place, probably sometime in the late 60s, it seems they were not content to sit at home alone, so the two soon opened York’s lunch room on Route 1 in Rockport. The old Yorkie charisma was still there and the new place was very successful, eventually evolving into Miss Plum’s ice cream parlor.