The Bill Gates Diner, a fixture of life in Bolton Landing on Lake George from 1949 until 1980, when it was purchased by two local residents and then donated to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, will return to Bolton, Warren County, NY.
The diner has been acquired by the Bolton Historical Museum, which will care for it as “a piece of living history,” said Dr. Glenn A. Long, the museum’s interim executive director.
On November 15, the diner was delivered to museum board member Reuben Smith’s Tumblehome Boatshop in nearby Warrensburg, where it will be protected and stored until spring, 2023.
History of a Diner
According to Bill Gates, Jr., the son of diner owners Bill and Dawn Gates, and Warren County archival records, the diner was originally a trolley car on the Hudson Valley Railway, which, from 1901 to 1927, linked Albany with Fort Edward, Hudson Falls (then known as Sandy Hill), and Glens Falls to Lake George and Warrensburg. During the height of its operation, the company included 130 miles of narrow gauge track with over 100 cars. Employing over 500 people, the company was the target of a labor strike in 1902, which involved the National Guard.
The recently acquired car was built in 1895, the car was converted to a diner in 1937. In 2010, the Adirondack Museum (known today as Adirondack Experience) de-accessioned the artifact, transferring it to a newly established Champlain Valley Transportation Museum in Plattsburgh, NY.
The diner’s donors, Henry Caldwell and Ike Wolgin, were less than thrilled with the Adirondack Museum’s decision. A museum devoted to transportation, said Henry Caldwell was the wrong place for it.
“The diner is not about transportation, it’s about daily life in a small town in the Adirondacks,” Caldwell said. Ike Wolgin agreed. Its significance, he said, is to be found “in its service to a small community.”
The Adirondack Museum transferred the diner to the transportation museum on the condition that ownership would pass to the Historical Society of the Town of Bolton should the Plattsburgh museum ever close.
Earlier this year, officials informed Glenn Long that the transportation museum was about to close, and that the diner was available to the Bolton Museum if it wished to acquire it. “That was a no-brainer,” said Long, explaining why the Bolton Historical Museum’s board chose to accept the diner.
“The Bill Gates Diner is an iconic item whose 100-year history is more closely associated with Bolton Landing than it is with any other place. It belongs here, where it can continue to make history.”
David Smith and the Bill Gates Diner
In 1963, the diner was featured in an issue of Life – a magazine whose circulation exceeded 8 million readers, making it the largest general circulation periodical in the world – as part of a portfolio by the prominent photographer Dan Budnik about the life and work of sculptor David Smith, a Bill Gates Diner regular.
“I remember Smith coming in for breakfast,” said Bill Gates, Jr. “He would drive into town in that old grey truck with fenders flapping and he would have what I called raccoon eyes from welding all night with those round welding goggles on.”
Bill’s brother Bud Gates commented, “Banter was the diner’s mode of communication. If you could participate, you were welcome. David Smith was always at home there.”
Another diner regular was Johnny McElroy, a paraplegic for whom a golf cart was modified so he could get around town more easily. Reportedly, one of his first trips was to Smith’s studio. The town was on pins and needles until he returned. “Smith was a credit to my place,” Bill Gates Sr. would later recall.
According to Michael Brenson’s new biography of Smith, David Smith: The Art and Life of a Transformational Sculptor, “an enduring memory within diner lore is of a sore throated Smith walking in, asking for a pen and paper, and drawing his order – cheeseburger and pickles, cherry pie with ice cream on top and coffee with cream. Gates put it on a hook like the other orders.” (That drawing is now owned by Bud Gates.)
Sometime later in the 1960s, the diner was featured on Charles Kuralt’s CBS Sunday morning program, On the Road. Michael Brenson argues, “Smith’s presence in the diner helped to ensure its survival as a regional landmark.”
“This Exclusive Club of Bolton’s Morning Gents”
The diner could serve only 27 people at any one time.
“Everyone had their time slot,” recalls Henry Caldwell, now president of the Bolton Historical Museum. “You could count on certain people being there at this or that time. All the people seated at their allotted time were friends. Every morning was a reunion, a continuation of the previous day’s conversation. As they left, people in the next time slot would arrive.”
Chris Meigher, a summer resident of many decades, wondered if he and his brother would be welcome at “this exclusive club of Bolton’s morning gents.” “But a family friend, airline pilot Jim Miller, nodded to big Bill Gates that we were OK. With his endorsement, we were granted summer privileges,” said Meigher, a New York-based magazine publisher.
Meigher can also recall spotting a grease splattered sign behind the counter: “If our coffee tastes like dirt – it was ground this morning.”
An Artifact of Architectural and Historical Significance
According to Ike Wolgin, the diner is best understood as an artifact of mid-century roadside culture and of the impact of automobiles upon post-World War II American culture and small towns like Bolton.
Tania Werbitsky agreed, stating that the Bill Gates Diner, like the first motor courts and early tourist cabins, helps tell the story of that era in American – and Adirondack – history.
“And this is not a picture of an artifact, but, rather the artifact itself, with its integrity intact,” said Werbitsky, an Ithaca-based expert on commercial archaeology who facilitated the transfer of the diner to the Adirondack Museum in 1989 as a director of the Preservation League of New York State.
Architecturally, the Bill Gates Diner is a fine example of “a vehicle deliberately converted to something stationary to serve the public in a way unintended by its builders, as a community restaurant,” said Werbitsky. “These are rare,” she said. “Most were scrapped. Those that weren’t, were altered beyond recognition.”
The Bill Gates Diner is believed to be one of only eleven such diners left in the United States. “To me, the diner’s real value is that it shows how things are repurposed,” said Glenn Long. “It was a car on a light railway line, then a diner, then a museum exhibit. We will give it new life as a vector for new engagements and experiences. That’s what history is all about.”
According to Long, the Bolton Historical Museum plans to mount the diner on a mobile foundation, utilizing the technology developed for tiny houses. “We can take it wherever it can represent the Bolton Historical Museum and Bolton Landing, whether it be a parade, a festival, a farmers’ market or a fair,” said Long.
Where and when appropriate, a vendor might lease it to sell refreshments, said Long. “This is not something we’re acquiring to put into storage. It presents the community with an opportunity to think about its potential, about how it can bring people together in new ways,” said Long.
Fundraising to Begin
“For the Bolton Historical Museum to take back one of the community’s most public and beloved buildings is a bold move,” said Tania Werbizky. “This is very welcome news.” Glenn Long said a fundraising campaign will be launched to support the stewardship and exhibition of the diner.
“Giving the Bill Gates Diner new life here in Bolton Landing today is not an easy project,” said Long. “It will take imagination, creativity, energy and, of course, money.”
Photos, from above: the Bill Gates Diner on display at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, circa 1989 by R.G. Wilson, courtesy of University of Virginia; a similar 1911 Hudson River trolley car (courtesy New England Electric Railway Historical Society); David Smith and Bill Gates Sr. in the diner in 1963 by Dan Budnik, courtesy of Bill Gates, Jr.; Glenn Long and Bill Gates, Jr. photographed in the diner as displayed at the Champlain Valley Transportation Museum in October, 2022 by Henry Caldwell.