Every morning, Rene, a hair salon owner from Gill, Massachusetts, walks across the bridge over the Connecticut River to get breakfast at her favorite place in Turners Falls. “I’ve been coming here for 35 years,” she told me, shouting over the chatter and clatter. “It was the first place I ever had a soft-serve.”
Earl, who moved to Turners (as the locals call it) four years ago, is a regular. “This place is unusual. I’ve been around for 81 years, and I have never seen a place as easy going. All the waitresses are good-looking, too!”
If you drive into town over that bridge from Route 2, you’ll see the familiar signs of a New England mill town: church steeples, rows of multi-story brick blocks, and a stately library. But you’re apt to wonder at the hauntingly quiet 100-foot-wide main drag (called Avenue A), and cry out, “Where is everybody?” Near the bridge, you will see a fifties-looking restaurant surrounded by cars and boasting the faces of customers in every window. Everybody’s at Shady Glen.
Owner John Carey, now 63 years old, grew up poor in Greenfield. “Before I was eleven, I had a newspaper route. At sixteen, I was paying my dentist bills, I paid for my clothes, and I put away a dollar a week to buy my mother a ton of coal at Christmas. When I was 24 years old, my sister was running this place and sold ice cream and grinders. I decided to help her out. We were partners six months, and then she left. We weren’t doing any business, and we were deep in debt.”
A couple of years later, he married one of his waitresses, Linda Stevens, a Turners native. John remembers the struggle in those early years. “We had to compete with a pizza place on Route 2, where all the teenagers hung out. I would cash up on Sunday night and take $65 a week to live on. I thought I was stealing it, because I owed so much money. Then the pizza place closed, and all the teenagers came over here for burgers and fries: after school, after supper, and after basketball games and dances. We stayed open till 1:00 in the morning then, seven days a week.”
When the chains came to Greenfield, the kids disappeared; and when the drinking age dropped to 18, the local bars filled up at night, but not the Glen. That’s when John and Linda saw the need to switch to a diner-style menu. It was perfect timing.
Canadians who came down to clear the woods on Northfield Mountain stayed in town and ate their meals at the Glen. So did the construction workers from the dam and the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station. And there were elderly men living in rooms in the old hotels on the Avenue. “They ate the 99-cent special every day no matter what it was,” John recalled.
Turners has gone through difficult times since John started at the Glen 38 years ago. A village of about 4,500 in the town of Montague, it was founded in 1868 by Alvah Crocker, a Fitchburg industrialist who tried to attract industry with cheap hydro power from a dam and canal on the river. It worked beautifully, but the paper mills and a cutlery manufacturer disappeared during the Great Depression, leaving behind the remnants of a once-vibrant downtown.
Despite the devastating economic and social decline of the village, especially in the ‘80s, business has increased at the Glen every year. With the recent restoration of the Shea Theatre, the stunning Crocker Building, and a lovely row of brick houses called the Cutlery Block, Turners appears to have a bright future. Next year, they’ll open a big visitors center right across from the Glen.
Shady Glen is all the things a diner should be. There’s plenty on the menu: seafood, chicken, pasta, macaroni and cheese, even liver and bacon. You can get fresh vegetables in season, and real mashed potatoes. The pies are terrific, and so is the Snow’s ice cream, made in Greenfield. It’s comfort food, simple, inexpensive, and very good. Try the hot turkey sandwich with mashed and vegetable for $4.95. Virtually everything on the menu is available anytime, including breakfast.
The Glen is a rich social institution. Nancy, who’s been a waitress there for 30 years, says she loves her job. “Some of the people are like my family.” An 87-year-old customer interrupts, “I’ve been coming here twenty years just to see Nancy. She brightens everybody up.” Nancy laughs and says, “He’s my boyfriend.”
Penny started in 1973, and has been on the grill for the last 15 years. “My customers pick on me, but Nancy and I gang up on them. Fridays and Saturdays, my daughter Stacy helps me. Another daughter will be going to college soon, so I’ll be working Saturdays for a long time.”
John’s 29-year-old daughter Eviey has been working on and off there since she was 14. She does the mornings, too. It hasn’t been easy for her growing up in the shadow of the Glen. “I’ve always been John’s daughter. I’m grateful for the things we have because of this restaurant. But when Dad can’t make it to a birthday party, that’s hard. But he’s been a great father. If we needed something, we always knew where to find him. I’ll always be here to help him. Even when I’m not waitressing, I’m here at night helping him clean up.”
John says he owes much of his success to his wife. “Linda learned everything on the job: making the soups and specials, doing the baking. Everybody is so important: every employee, every dishwasher, every waitress. The service is good here because I’m here to make sure it is. I always tell my customers, ‘If something’s not right, you tell me. Without you, I don’t have a job.’”
He’s made a lot of friends in 38 years. “I can look around any day and pick out ten people who have been coming here for 35 years. A lot of girls that worked for me when they were in high school come in for dinner now, and they have gray hair.”
Two years ago, John was named Franklin County Citizen of the Year. Rene knows why. “He’s very generous. He helps a lot of people in town who can’t afford to buy their meals. He’s a wonderful man.” With typical modesty, John just says, “My reward is when my customers come back every day.”
Shady Glen is located at 7 Avenue A, Turners Falls, Mass. Tel: 413-863-9636. Open 5:00 am to 9:00 pm daily; closed Sundays. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. No credit cards. Non-smoking.
Update: John Carey sold Shady Glen and retired at the end of 2004. It is currently open under new management.
A version of this article (also by Joe Manning) originally appeared in Roadside Magazine. Used by permission.