Hot Dog Wars – the Blue Bird Inn v. the Blue Bird Inn

One of my favorite activities as a child was taking a weekend drive around Easton & Weston with my father in his sporty British Racing Green Jaguar XK-140 coupe. At least once or twice a month, the throaty Jag would find its way to the Old Blue Bird Inn on Black Rock Turnpike. My dad had briefly worked there shortly after the war. I’m not certain who actually owned the operation when dad was servicing the cars that belonged to nearby Redding Road residents Helen Keller and General Edwin N. Clark, but his boss in 1947 was a man named Fuzzy Fazekas.

By the time my dad and I would wind our way through the countryside roads in the early 1950’s, Tony and Jay Wieser were the owners/proprietors of the Blue Bird. Tony had previously operated Anthony Service Station at 879 Fairfield Avenue in Bridgeport before the couple purchased the Easton business sometime in late 1948 or early 1949. Tony ran the repair garage and gasoline station, while Jay (Jennie) managed the refreshment stand that took up the northern half of the downstairs of the old house. If memory serves me well, I believe they lived in the attached house until sometime in the early to mid-fifties when they moved to their new home on Wyldewood Road. Tony always called me “Little Phil” – even years later when I was filling my own MG with gasoline at his pumps. And Jay would always offer me a free ice cream.

I later recall being rather surprised to learn that at one time there had been a second Blue Bird Inn in Easton – one that sat virtually across the street in what is now the parking lot of Aspetuck Park. I was even more surprised to learn that they were not owned by the same person. They were actually competitors!

The original Blue Bird Inn (the one we know today) was built around 1919. Supposedly, it began life as a small inn that would be akin to today’s bed and breakfast operations. By 1930, the business was owned and operated by Hungarian immigrant John Anthony Votre, Jr. and his wife of 5 years, Ethel Mills Votre. Ethel was the daughter of Edward Mills who lived just across the street from the Blue Bird and she was the property owner of record for both the business and the house she and John had built in 1925. John was an automobile mechanic by trade, and according to the 1930 U.S. Census, he ran a repair business in a small garage that was accessed on Redding Road, while Ethel owned and ran the refreshment stand in the original 1919 house. In 1936 the new service garage was built to the south of the house on Black Rock Turnpike. In photos of that era, it appears to consist of two bays and an office. Gasoline pumps were placed out front, apparently replacing earlier pumps that would have been underneath a canopy attached to the house and accessible only from Redding Road.

April 1934 Aerial Photograph of the intersection of Redding Road and Black Rock Turnpike. The red circle shows the location of Harry Williams’ “new” Blue Bird Inn. The yellow circle shows the 1919 original Blue Bird Inn with the porch on the north side that was then housing Ethel Votre’s refreshment stand. The green circle shows the original building where John Votre did automobile repairs prior to building a larger two-bay repair facility facing Black Rock Turnpike in 1936.

In 1940, Ethel was running an expanded refreshment stand that faced the Black Rock Turnpike. She was selling mostly hot dogs and ice cream. It was likely a seasonal business – open only during the warmer months. John ran the repair garage and manned the gasoline pumps.

The location had been ideal from the beginning. On the corner of Black Rock Turnpike and Redding Road, the business would see all the traffic between Bridgeport & Fairfield heading to and from Bethel & Danbury, as well as being a convenient stop for those motorists traveling on Redding Road to and from Westport. Being at virtually the half-way point on the north-south journey made selling both gasoline and food a good business.

But evidently, the Votre’s weren’t alone in that assumption.

By the late 1920’s. Massachusetts native Harry Williams was living in the old David Williams homestead at the northwest corner of Redding Road and Black Rock Turnpike, directly across the street from the original Blue Bird Inn. Williams evidently decided there was room for two lunch stands on the same corner, so he constructed one of his own right next to the old Gilbertown cemetery. Apparently wanting to capitalize on the good name of the going concern across the road, Williams opted to name his new venture the same as the existing one – the Blue Bird Inn. This was obviously in the days before a business name registration required a search to confirm the moniker you wanted to choose for your new venture wasn’t already spoken for. In this case it was obvious that it was already in use, but with no legal restrictions to worry about, Williams chose to use it anyway.

The Votre’s couldn’t have been too pleased to see the sign over Williams’ new lunchroom. Their signage soon changed to read Old Blue Bird Inn, and later it became even more explicit when it was changed a second time to read as the Original Old Blue Bird Inn.

In August of 1931, Harry Williams died at the age of only 41. His wife Louise ran the business for a short while before putting it up for sale and moving on.

1937. The “other” Blue Bird Inn after Art Driesen took it over. This operation sat on the northwest side at the intersection of Redding Road and the Black Rock Turnpike. Photo looking north.

Sometime in 1934, 27-year-old Belgium immigrant Arthur Driesen and his wife Josephine purchased the Williams homestead along with the “newer” Blue Bird Inn. Both businesses sold gasoline and tires. Both specialized in mid-day fare – primarily hot dogs, ice cream, and soda, but looking at old photographs of the place, Driesen’s operation appeared to have some level of indoor dining to the immediate left of the refreshment stand.

May 1937. The Easton Blue Bird team.

Art Driesen soon built a baseball field behind his little operation and then sponsored the team – the Easton Blue Birds. He was also the co-founder of the first little league team in Easton. What better way to draw a crowd and sell hot dogs and ice cream on a hot Saturday afternoon or a warm summer evening than to give your customers a good game of baseball to watch? Driesen’s operation offered Hron’s Franforts (one has to wonder if the sign painter simply misspelled Frankfurts), along with featuring “fried hamburg and sandwiches.” They sold Huber’s ice cream, offering the latest craze of 1937, the Mel-O-rol, a stick tube of ice cream that came in a wrapper that could then be peeled and placed in a special cone – a lot less labor intensive than making a standard cone and a lot less apt to see the inventory disappear faster when an overly generous server would add a little extra to the cone. Huber’s was a local company located on Seaview Avenue in Bridgeport.

Mel-O-rol Ice Cream Cone from 1937

The Original Old Blue Bird Inn offered Hertler’s Franfurts and Mitchell’s ice cream. This establishment seemed to have the added advantage of providing a full-service automobile repair shop along with the gasoline pumps. That was something only one other Easton business could offer.

1937. The Old Blue Bird Inn. That’s Redding Road at the right long before the intersection was realigned to give it a better sight-line for traffic entering the Black Rock Turnpike from Redding Road. The first gasoline pumps would have been under the canopy to the right.

World War Two had to be a difficult time for Driesen’s operation. Limited gasoline supplies and the need to obtain government approval to purchase new tires would have completely curtailed pleasure travel along the Black Rock Turnpike between 1942 and the fall of 1945. Many rural restaurants such as the Spinning Wheel in Redding, simply shut down for the duration of the war.

The Original Old Blue Bird should have fared better. With absolutely no new cars being offered to the public after January of 1942, people had no choice but to repair what they were then driving to get back and forth to work. The repair garage should have done quite well during the war.

1948. The sign then read “Original Old Blue Bird.” Not so sure the slogan “It’s Different” is a ringing endorsement for Mitchell’s Ice Cream.

The two operations would compete using virtually the same name until 1948 when Stratford resident Stephen “Skipper” Toth would move to Easton to take over the Driesen operation and mercifully change the name to the Easton Park Restaurant and Service Station. That same year, Driesen would offer a portion of his land to the town for $1 per year so it could build a beach and use part of the Aspetuck River as a town pool for Easton’s youth.

By 1953, Driesen’s old restaurant had been renamed one last time to L & E’s Easton Park Restaurant and Service Station. They sold Esso gasoline, while the Original Old Blue Bird continued to offer Socony Mobil.

After Art Driesen sold the property to the Easton Swimming Association in the mid-1950’s, the restaurant and gasoline station were then leased to Erwin C. Keiser. The entire operation closed sometime in 1959 when Keiser’s lease expired and the buildings were later demolished to make room for additional parking for the ball field and the Easton Swimming Association’s town pool – fondly and rightly referred to as the “Mudhole” by the many Easton kids who spent their summer days swimming there before walking across the road to purchase a hot dog and ice cream at the Original Old Blue Bird Inn.

The former location of Art Driesen’s Blue Bird Inn

Art Driesen was elected as a town selectman for several terms, drove his own school bus (interestingly enough, so did John Votre and Stephen Toth), and then served as the director of highway maintenance for the Town of Easton until his retirement in 1972. Art Driesen died at his retirement home in Boynton Beach, Florida in April of 2000.

Tony and Jay Wieser also retired to Boynton Beach, Florida, living less than two miles from the Driesen’s. Tony passed away in 1988 and Jay in 2008.

The Wieser family still operates the Old Blue Bird Garage and continues to maintain ownership of the property that holds the restaurant. The garage has seen several expansions to accommodate the solid repair business that was carried on by Tony and Jay’s son Marty and then by Marty’s offspring. The restaurant has had several operators over the years since Jay gave “Little Phil” those free cones, but it is still in operation today.

Long live the Original Old Blue Bird Inn! A true Easton institution in and of itself!

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