Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner, Lakewood Colorado
Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner is a particularly well preserved example of a streamlined, prefabricated stainless steel diner, a specific diner type that enjoyed considerable popularity during the middle years of the 20th century. Historically found in greater numbers in the eastern United States, even at the time of its completion in 1957, Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner represented a rare western example of the type. Today, it is believed to be the only extant example in Colorado. The diner, with its contributing sign, stands as a prominent and well known landmark along the West Colfax Avenue commercial corridor.
Completed in 1957, on Colfax Avenue (US Highway 40), then the main east/west highway through the Denver metropolitan area, the diner quickly became a popular and profitable eating place. The property was under the ownership and operation of the Davies family from 1957 to 1977. Until 1971, the diner was open 24 hours a day. As was typical of diner operation, members of the Davies family all took part in sharing the workload. Of particular interest, is the fact that in 1958 Col. Harland Sanders awarded the Davies what is believed to be the first Colorado franchise for Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The stainless steel on the exterior and interior is well preserved, and most of the other interior finishes and furnishings are original. The diner's freestanding, neon lighted, cowboy sign is an excellent example of mid 20th century signage specifically designed to entice prospective customers to patronize commercial establishments located along major highways.
The diner was one of the last produced by Mountain View Diners, Inc. Mountain View fabricated "stylish and unusual diners" before and after World War II. From 1939 to 1957, the company aggressively marketed its products, often outsold other manufacturers, and shipped its prefabricated diners across the country.
Diners first became popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By the mid 1900s, they had evolved from converted, horse-drawn trolley cars into prefabricated structures, many of which had gleaming stainless steel skins. Historic Preservation, in a September 1979 article, estimated that of the 6,000 prefabricated diners existing in 1950, only half still remained in 1979. At the present time, their numbers continue to decline. Some have been completely restored; many no longer exist. In many cases, their exteriors have been covered, obscuring their original design and materials. Some have even been moved to locations in other countries.
William Lyman Davies, the original owner of Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner, was a supervisor of restaurants for Walgreen Drug Stores. While traveling in the eastern United States, Davies had seen many diners, and his wish was to have one of his own. In the mid 1950s, after 21 years with Walgreens, he decided to pursue his dream. Having lived in Denver in 1947, he was familiar with the area, liked it, and eventually made a trip back to hunt for a good location. He was especially interested in West Colfax Avenue (U.S. Highway 40), the only east-west highway through the area at the time. Tourists and truckers, all potential customers, constantly traveled the route.
Around the same time, Mountain View Diners, Inc. of Singac, New Jersey, had a vigorous sales campaign going on throughout the United States. The founder, Henry Strys, had leased a piece of land on the northeast corner of Hoyt Street and West Colfax Avenue. Strys advertised for people interested in placing a diner at this location. He defaulted on the lease and the land reverted to the owner, Morrie F. Brothers.
In 1956, Lyman Davies, after thoroughly researching the purchase of a prefabricated diner, ordered a Mountain View modified stainless steel model similar to one used at the 37th National Restaurant Show in Chicago, Illinois. A diner of this type could be constructed in 15 weeks after final plans were approved. This included the installation of the latest in food service equipment for the operation of a compact, efficient, highly profitable eating establishment. One of the Davies sons, Brent, has commented that the diner is the ideal size. One fry cook, one preparation cook, and a dishwasher can operate the kitchen which is laid out so that everything is within reach.
The approved plans were received in Denver in February 1957, at the office of George W. Littrell, the real estate agent for the site at Hoyt and West Colfax. Plans for the foundation and basement were also provided by Mountain View, as the diner supports had to fit its steel structure. Davies leased the 100' x 200' site, and the work started on both the site and the diner. For a period of three months, he stayed at the Colfax Motel while directing work on the project. Davies spent $92,000 for the diner and another $3,600 for shipping. With the cost of the land, the total came to more than $150,000.
The Davies family, then still living in Peoria, Illinois, made the diner a family project and discussed its name. Each offered suggestions until they decided on Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner. Davies, his wife, Helen, the two girls, Judy and Nancy, and the two boys, Dennis and Brent, also designed the 36' sign that has become so famous as a landmark on West Colfax Avenue. Members of the family liked the western theme, and they designed a huge cowboy with his apron on, ready to serve hungry folks. The sign was installed prior to the completion of the diner.
The diner was shipped from New Jersey by rail in two 11' x 50' sections. The vestibule was shipped separately. The Weicker Transfer and Storage Company, experts in moving heavy equipment, loaded the sections onto lowboy trailers and transported them to the site. Using a large crane, they set the sections in place within two days. This included the equipment in the basement. The two sections were bolted together, utilities connected, and all the necessary finish work was completed. This included brickwork around the diner's base and the brick planters at the front. Many connections were made between the basement and the diner for electrical, plumbing, refrigeration lines, and duct work.
Operation of the Diner
The Davies family arrived in Jefferson County in June 1957 and lived at 2460 Miller Street. The diner opened for business on June 21, 1957. Within two weeks it was packed, especially at lunch time, when lines formed around the building. Customers came from far and wide. Parked semi-trucks were lined up on West Colfax Avenue. The maximum capacity was 57. In addition to truckers and tourists, local residents and employees of Colfax businesses frequented the diner. The whole family took turns working there, allowing for the 24-hour service which continued for 14 years. The girls worked lunch hours; the others worked 12 hour shifts with little rest in between. The Davies provided a personal touch for their customers. Waitresses were required to learn customers' names after their second visit. Davies claimed he could remember 99% of his customers' names.
Davies designed the menu. Colorado registered cattle brands formed the border. The original breakfast menu advertised two eggs for 40 cents and the Chuck Wagon Breakfast of two eggs, double thick ham steak, fried potatoes, toast, and all the coffee you could hold for 99 cents. Other items on the menu were the Ranch Hands Breakfast, Buckaroo Special, and the Wranglers Breakfast. Extra large "AA" eggs were always used. In order to obtain "golden malted pancake mix," it was necessary to buy an entire truck load from Michigan. The dinner menu listed a large T-bone steak dinner for $2.85, fried jumbo shrimp for $1.25, and smoked loin pork chops for $1.35.
While traveling around the country with Walgreens, Davies had met Col. Harland Sanders in Kentucky and remembered his tasty chicken. Later, Col. Sanders' restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky closed because the property was needed for new highway construction. Subsequently, the Colonel traveled the country promoting his products and eventually started the Kentucky Fried Chicken Company.
Within one year of the diner's opening, Sanders came from his Corbin Kentucky Cafe to show the Davies family how to cook his chicken. The Davies were granted the first franchise in Colorado for Kentucky Fried Chicken and continued buying the ingredients until the early 1960s. Sanders picture was on the original menu along with the registered trademark of Kentucky Fried Chicken, copyrighted in 1954 by Col. Sanders. Colorado's first freestanding Kentucky Fried Chicken store was built at West 8th Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard in 1960.
Lyman Davies was a lover of horses and a member of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Posse. He raised horses on land near O'Hayre Court off 32nd Avenue. In the early 1960s, Lyman acquired the large fiber glass horse that stands watch atop the vestibule of the diner. A customer, Mr. Pruewitt of Pruewitt Manufacturing Company, which manufactured fiber glass animals, had the horse in his truck. After much discussion and trading, the Davies became the owners. The life-size brown horse with white socks has more than once been ridden by an inebriated passerby.
In 1971, the 24-hour service was discontinued and for the first time it was necessary to install locks on the doors. Brent Davies, recalls a night when he inadvertently left a man in the diner's restroom. The man was able to call the police who called Brent.
In 1977, after 20 years of ownership, the Davies family sold the diner to Clayton Lee. None of the younger Davies wished to continue operating it, and Lyman was forced to retire due to poor health. While the diner had been profitable, operating it was hard work, and a family member always needed to be present during open hours.
Clayton Lee ran the business until 1984. By then, the large T-bone steak dinner's price had risen to $3.95. During Lee's ownership, the original metal blinds were replaced with woven wood ones. The seat coverings were changed to tan and brown from the original pink, and the Wurlitzer juke boxes at the tables were changed to Seeburgs.
In 1984, Jim and Dwayne Clark became owners and operators. Jim had been a restaurant operator in the past. Within a short time, they became embroiled in what became a long fight with the City of Lakewood. According to the Lakewood's 1979 sign code, rooftop displays such as the horse and any sign more than 100 square feet in size were outlawed. Obviously, the code did not permit a 36' tall, freestanding 240-square-foot cowboy sign that was outlined in neon.
The previous owner, Clayton Lee, had been informed of the code violations but thought he had 15 years to correct the situation. The Board of Adjustment turned down a request for a variance. Subsequently, the Clarks went through the District Court and the Colorado Court of Appeals without any success in reversing the Board of Adjustment's decision. The Colorado Supreme Court was to be next.
Lawsuits continued until 1988 when the public and city council members became involved in an effort to preserve the horse and sign. City Councilman H. W. "Scat" Scatterday, whose father had died in the diner in July 1957, and Councilman Dennis Mateski pushed for an ordinance that would give the diner historical status. The local newspaper, the Lakewood Sentinel printed a letter to the editor remarking, "To my knowledge, that horse has not bucked, neighed nor soiled the city streets. Perhaps it's too countrified or unsophisticated for our city fathers."
Finally, a special use permit was issued on December 21, 1988 designating Davies' Chuck Wagon Diner as an historic place, thereby permitting the diner to keep its horse and sign. Today, they remain in place as examples of urban art and a tribute to Americana and 1950s nostalgia.
During the Clarks ownership the diner became quite popular as a place to film movies and commercials. A cigarette commercial for the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company, made for showing in Europe, portrayed a motorcycling free spirit traveling across the West. Californians involved in making this commercial tried with difficulty to locate an authentic looking diner and felt fortunate to find Davies. In May 1990, a scene for the CBS movie "Archie's Wife" starring Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker was filmed at the diner. In April 1996, part of another movie, "Going West", starring Danny Glover and Dennis Quaid was filmed there. The diner has also been used as a backdrop for the movie "Starman," a CBS Movie of the Week and commercials for the Colorado Lottery and others.