When Springfield, Vermont native Lena Kazak graduated from high school in 1938, landing a job wasn’t easy. The Great Depression had its hold on this small factory town along the raging Black River, about 35 miles north of Brattleboro. The town’s machine tool industry was struggling, but the Fellows Gear Shaper plant was still pretty busy. Back then, workers would come downtown to Springfield Lunch, a weird looking diner that sat precariously on its foundation on the edge of the river. Run by the Italian-American Gaspardino family, Springfield Lunch occupied a long, narrow piece of a building that housed Lovell’s Market.
Jenny Gaspardino gave Kazak her first job at Springfield Lunch. Jenny’s father Charles had died a while ago and left the business to his wife Mary, who retired and passed it on to Jenny. Still living in Springfield, Lena told me about her four years at the diner, in a friendly conversation we had at the beautiful Springfield Library, just a block from where she once worked.
“I was born on Mineral Street, but my father bought a farm about three miles out when I was three years old. It was just a small farm with a few cows, a few chickens, a few turkeys; you know, that type of thing. I’d never been to the diner.”
“Jenny had a sister, Sally, whose husband worked there, too. He would work one shift and Jenny would work the other. Then there would be a waitress or two on both shifts. We took turns. One week you worked days and one week you worked nights. It was open from breakfast right up till about midnight. It was sort of a family restaurant, so it wasn’t a honky-tonk type of thing.”
“When you came in, there were three booths, and then a counter with about eight or nine stools, and then two more booths on the left along the windows. At the end of diner, there were stairs going down to the kitchen in the basement, and there was a back door from the kitchen out to an alley. We had a dumbwaiter, you know, by pulley, and it had several shelves. We’d holler down, and the cook would send the meals up. You didn’t holler that loud, just loud enough so the cook could hear.”
“I was a waitress, a cashier, and if someone wanted a sandwich, like a western, or a hamburger, I did it on the grill right in front of the customers. Under the counter, we had a sink, so we washed the dishes in between while the customers were looking right at you. They sold beer, and they had the jugs downstairs with pipes going up to the spigots in the middle of the counter. I guess those were pretty quaint times.”
“In the morning, we had a lot of gear shapers. Many of them were coming from as far away as Barre and Rutland. They would come in and eat their breakfast, and then head for work. Right next door was Lovell’s, so anytime we would run out of something, we’d just dash over there. We served regular meals at noon and at suppertime. Jenny had beautiful dinners like roast pork, mashed potatoes and a vegetable. Her mother made a great sauce at home. They were known for their spaghetti dinners.”
“At night, the gear shapers would come down for their big meal. I think they had a half-hour or three quarters of an hour, and you had to make sure you got the meals ready. They’d call in first and order, and then they’d dash in and we’d have all the meals set up. Lots of people would come in late for a beer or a sandwich and coffee after a movie, but it was never rowdy.”
“I remember that there was a hairdresser who worked in the beauty shop at the hotel, and she’d order a sandwich and I’d run it across the street to her. Where the town office building is now, there was Brown’s Fashion Shop, and we’d sometimes run down there with sandwiches. If the cook took time off to do some errands, I’d go down the stairs and put the dinner on a plate and bring it up.”
“The reason I left was because one day, we were quite busy, and I saw that the coffee was boiling over. I stopped the thing from spilling, but I got hot coffee grounds all over my hands. I’ve still got a few scars, but not too bad. I never went back, because I got a chance to go to Bryant’s (Bryant Chucking Grinder Co.) and work as a machinist. I had to work from 3 to 11, and then I had to walk home to the farm. It was about two miles, at 11:00 at night. Then I got on the day shift.”
Long before Kazak waited on her first table or slapped together her first western or eastern, the 1868 building that housed the diner and the market sat across the street in the space later occupied by the opulent Adnabrown Hotel. According to several sources, the building was moved to its present location around 1891 to make way for the hotel. Ironically, the hotel later perished in a fire.
The son of one of the former owners told me that the tiny diner portion was not added on until sometime after the building was moved. A few old city directories on the shelves at the library reveal that the Gaspardinos apparently opened Springfield Lunch in the early 1930s and sold their business in the early 1960s to Edward Granger, who kept the name.
In 1982, the restaurant was called Ma’s Diner, and was operated by Christine Polczynski. Recently it had a brief spin as a Chinese takeout place. According to relatives, Mary Gaspardino passed away in 1970 in a nearby nursing home. And Kazak told me that Jenny Gaspardino died when she got a blood clot while traveling home on a plane.
When I visited Springfield several months ago, the diner sat vacant with a sign on the door that said, “Sorry, we’re closed.” Owner Dave Dionne told me he had a buyer, Jessica Larivee and Chris Mason, who live on the second floor and own Private New England Bird Breeder in one of the building’s storefronts.
And so I had the soon-to-be former owner take me on what could be a farewell tour of Springfield Lunch. We had to step carefully over a big patch of ice to get through the door. There are now only two booths remaining, both near the door. Two stools have been added to the near end of the counter. The window for the dumbwaiter is still there, but the other end in the kitchen is sealed up. The beer spigots are gone. The narrow, winding steps down to the basement are barely negotiable, and they lead to a claustrophobic cooking area where you are eternally conscious of the river running underneath. As Lena said, “I guess those were pretty quaint times.”
But on a return visit last week, I noticed that the “Sorry, we’re closed” sign had been replaced with a new sign announcing that it would soon reopen as a coffee house called Flying Saucer. The new owners told me that they decided to resurrect the diner after researching the history of the building. Jessica told me enthusiastically, “I want people to know that the diner is not dead.”
Springfield has a “quaint” but very contemporary downtown restaurant and popular meeting place. See Lunch in Springfield, Part Two, and find out about the Morning Star Café and how it’s not only serving up good food, but also providing hope to this still struggling Vermont town.