When we were kids in the 1950s, family outings and vacations often included a stop at a Howard Johnson's restaurant for ice cream or a meal.
HoJo's, as the restaurant became known, offered the basic menu items as fried fish, french fries, hot dogs, hamburgers, milkshakes, pies, and New England fried clams, chowder as well as full restaurant fare.
Pittsfield and Williamstown had the two early Berkshire locations with almost identical white colonial style Howard Johnson`s eateries with the orange tile roofs. The Massachusetts Turnpike Berkshire location had a more modern version of the restaurant.
It turns out that Howard Johnson was a real person who in 1925 owned a drugstore in Quincy, where he had a very popular soda fountain. Johnson made his own ice cream with a butterfat content nearly double other ice creams. He wanted to make every flavor possible and ended up with 28 of them.
During summers Johnson peddled his ice cream along with drinks and hot dogs at beach concession stands. The popularity led him to open his first restaurant in Quincy in 1929.
Three years after the stock market crash, Johnson developed what is said to be the country's first franchise arrangement. He coaxed a friend to open a restaurant in Orleans, with the agreement that Johnson would be the supplier of the food and related items and the eatery would be called Howard Johnson's.
This franchise concept worked well and by 1941, Johnson had over 170 franchisees, employing more than 10,000 employees and with 1.5 million customers a year.
The Howard Johnson's in Pittsfield opened in January 1940 on Route 20 right near the Lenox town line. Several local businessmen were the investor/owners. The new restaurant had state-of-the-art equipment, a large ice cream and lunch bar and a sizeable dining room and kitchen area.
The colonial-style building was similar to many of the chain's restaurants throughout the Northeast with its white exterior, blue trim, orange roof and capped with a cupola. On top of the cupola was a weathervane with Howard Johnson's famous logo featuring Simple Simon and the Pieman.
Although the restaurant was an initial success, the advent of World War II resulted in the establishment closing. The loss of patronage and restrictions that limited supplies had been shared by over 90 percent of the all the franchises that also closed.
In fact in 1943 only a dozen locations were still operating. The Pittsfield restaurant went into foreclosure and was auctioned off. It wasn't until March 1946 that the franchise reopened under a new owner.
In 1961 a fire badly damaged the restaurant and the owner sold it to another local group. Once again Howard Johnson's was successful for the two separate owners who operated it for the next 23 years. In 1984 a Vermont restaurateur bought the location and chose to convert it into the Dakota Steakhouse restaurant.
The original Howard Johnson's building was lost to a major fire in 1988, but was rebuilt six months later. In 2013, Dakota closed when the small chain's parent company went bankrupt. A couple of Asian cuisine eateries took over the space, but were short-lived.
The Howard Johnson's in Williamstown opened on Main Street in December 1940 in a new colonial-style building. Like the Pittsfield eatery, it too had to close during World War II and did not reopen until 1946.
At the end of that year the building had a serious fire, gutting the interior. After repairs it opened within six months. Over the next six years ownership changed three times. In 1953 brothers Frank and Ernest Brundage, who ran the Belden Inn in Becket, bought the Williamstown restaurant and Ernest operated it successfully for 26 years.
He had been very active in local charities; a bank board of directors and local politics, which helped build a solid customer base. In 1979 upon Ernest's retirement, the Brundages leased the restaurant to the new owner of the Howard Johnson Corp.
In 1985 the Marriott Corp. became the next owner of Howard Johnson's and decided to end operations in Williamstown in 1989. The next year a North Adams eatery, the Main Event, relocated to the site, but it soon closed.
In 1992 the Dargie family of North Adams bought the building from the Brundage's and reopened it as a Howard Johnson's. After five years the family sold the building to the North Adams Hoosac Savings Bank. The bank merged with MountainOne in the early 2000s and in 2013 the location became MountainOne.
What happened to Howard Johnson's?
The popular restaurant chain ended its presence in the Berkshires about 50 years after starting out. The parent company had a long and successful run, but it never adapted to America's shift to the fast food/carry-out concept with drive-in windows.
As McDonalds and other eateries proliferated and catered to the baby boomer generation and their families, the traditional sit-down Howard Johnson restaurants suffered. In 1979, seven years after the founder's passing, the Johnson family sold the company for $630 million. The sale included over 1,000 restaurants of which 75 percent were company owned and 520 motor lodges, a business that Howard Johnson started in 1954.
The buyer could not make a go of the company and sold it in 1985 to the Marriott Corp., which cosed and sold off all restaurant locations and also all of the motor lodges, which are now owned by the Wyndham hotel chain. The franchised restaurants had to fend for themselves and one-by-one went out of business. The very last of these Howard Johnson's was in Lake George, N.Y. and it closed in 2017.
I was talking to a friend in Pittsfield about my memories of the HoJo's on the Pittsfield-Lenox Road. He told me that a marijuana dispensary might open in the location, and he thought they should call it "Hi-Jo's." I wonder if it might have 28 flavors too!
Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark, business or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at email@example.com