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Classic U.S. 52 diner salvaged, will be restored, reopened in new spot
Last seen with a car rammed through one of its stainless steel corners, the vacant home of Duck-In Diner saved by a community effort
For all the times drivers sped past the corner of U.S. 52 and Indiana 28, wondering if anyone, anytime would salvage and reopen the ‘50s vintage diner wasting away vacant for a decade, all hope seemed lost in 2019 when a car careened off the highway and into one of its stainless steel corners.
“That was a kick in the gut,” Shan Sheridan, CEO of the Clinton County Chamber of Commerce, said this week.
“Everybody’d dreamed, got all nostalgic, but no one seemed like they could get it done,” Sheridan said. “The car crash, that seemed to be the end of it. It really did for this old place.”
But as plans progressed for a gas station and convenience store on the two-plus acres in the southeastern tip of Tippecanoe County, Sheridan said he couldn’t stand the thought of the landmark restaurant – opened in 1952 as the Rose Haven Diner and operated under various names during the next 60 years – being scrapped.
“I was driving back from a meeting in Lafayette one day, and I just pulled in and remembered all the times I sat here with some great people and great friends and had coffee and thought, ‘What a shame,’” Sheridan said.
“So, I went back to our chamber board and said, ‘If there's any way you guys would just kind of trust me on this and see if we can get enough volunteers to do this.’”
This week, it all came together for a place known for decades as the Duck-In Diner.
Owners Sony and Jesse Mann, of the Lafayette-based Mann Brothers Holdings which purchased the property in early 2021, had repeated an offer made by previous owners. The upshot: If someone can haul the diner, the community can have it.
Sheridan said engineers from Frankfort looked at the diner and estimated it was more sound than anyone expected. Much of it had been looted over the years — missing stools, kitchen equipment picked over, that sort of thing.
“But all in all,” Sheridan said, “a lot better than anyone thought.”
So they rallied the troops.
It took a full day Wednesday – from 7 a.m. until roughly midnight – but volunteer crews from Frankfort area businesses unbolted the part of the diner that had booths and the counter from its foundation and attached masonry structure, lifted it in two sections onto low-boy trailers and carted it to the Good to Go truck stop two miles away at Interstate 65 and Indiana 28.
The diner will stay there, in storage in a garage, until it can be repaired, cleaned and refurbished.
After that, Sheridan said, the plan is still being worked out.
It could wind up in downtown Frankfort as an attraction near the courthouse square. It could go near the I-65 interchange leading into the city. Or, Sheridan said, it could end up at the city’s TPA Park.
“Frankfort can use a hook, and we think this would be a good: ‘Hey, you remember the old 52 diner? We can go see it right now, live, in-person,” Sheridan said.
“Wherever that ends up being, the big thing is that we’ve finally saved the diner.”
As the diner was carted off, word spread fast.
On Friday, as Sheridan helped Danny Stokes, owner of Northside Machine and Tool, load sections of red sheet metal – left from the diner’s roofline – onto a flatbed, a slow parade of cars slowed along the shoulder of U.S. 52 to see the gaping hole where the diner had been. Several people pulled into the gravel parking lot to get a closer look and reminisce about the times they’d eaten there or tell about how many times they’d driven by and wondered about the building’s fate.
Among them was Sharon Alexander, who owned and operated the diner in one of its final incarnations, the Sit-N-Bull Café, from 2003 to 2009.
“We had a great little clientele who came in for coffee and, you know, like the name says: Sit and bull,” Alexander said. “You had people from Colfax, from Stockwell, Frankfort, down from Lafayette, just off (U.S.) 52. I always thought someone would get it and reopen. And here you go.”
The stainless steel diner was manufactured by Mountain View Diners, according to the Historic America Buildings Survey. The Singac, New Jersey, company made more than 400 prefabricated diners between 1938 and 1957, according to the survey.
The company delivered the diner to the spot at Indiana 28 and U.S. 52, about 17 miles south of Lafayette and a few miles east of the tiny Tippecanoe County town of Clarks Hill, by rail in 1952. It arrived in two separate units, which were remodeled on site, according to the Historic America Buildings Survey and Lafayette Journal & Courier and Frankfort Times archives.
A masonry structure was added for a kitchen in 1952, with another masonry dining room built onto the back of the stainless steel dining room in 1953, according to the Historic America Buildings Survey listing. (The masonry parts of the diner were left behind in this week’s salvage operation and likely will come down, Sheridan said.)
The Historic America Buildings Survey lists the diner in its records as “a typical example of this now-obsolete American phenomenon which dates back to the latter part of the 19th century.”
After opening as the Rose Haven Diner, at a time when U.S. 52 still was the primary Indianapolis-to-Lafayette route, the establishment changed hands several times. Signs along the highway sported a series of names: Duck-In Diner, U.S. 52 Diner, Country Crossroads, Alexander’s Sit-n-Bull Café and Flo’s Roadside Diner.
The last of them closed in 2010, Sheridan said.
Sheridan didn’t give timetable, saying there was more fundraising and volunteer recruiting left to do. He said he figured it would take $75,000, not including volunteer contributions, to get the diner back into shape and placed in its new home – wherever that turns out to be.
“But if you wanted something like this, it’s going to cost, what, $500,000 or something along those lines,” Sheridan said. “Here, we have one that’s a great part of our past. We just needed to save it first. And that’s what we’re doing.”