Chatham's Unique Dining Cars

The Only Two in Virginia, and Two of Twenty in U.S.

By Herman E. Melton

There are only twenty in existence in the U.S. and no others in Virginia. The fact that Chatham has two electric streetcar-type diners in unique. Both were recently added to the Register of Historic Places by the State of Virginia. Their nominations for national designation have been submitted to the National Park Service. The nomination was successfully pursued largely through the efforts of Mr. Marc Wagner of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, whose research provides most of this information recounted here. Ironically, both diners are temporarily closed, but their owners hope to reopen them soon. Hopefully, the new designation will provide an economic benefit.

Toward the end of the Great Depression, many cities across the U.S. were replacing their operating electric streetcars with the more mobile and versatile buses. It was expected that the now useless streetcars would be destined for the scrap heap. As it happened, there was a ready-made market for them in the streetcar dining business.

Danville Traction and Power Company, a successor to the old Danville Streetcar Co., was no exception. They apparently sold most of their fleet at auction in 1938. Interestingly enough, the street cars sold were 20th century replacements for electrified horse drawn cars that went into service in 1889. Morever, this need for public transportation in 1886 spawned the Danville Railway and Electric Co. Demands for electricity and public transportation propelled the Danville city fathers to build their own power plant in 1887. It was an unheralded historic moment for the simple reason that it became the very first municipally owned and operated electric power plant in the U.S.

One of the electric cars, No. 66, was purchased from Danville Traction in 1939 by the Burnette brothers, Henry, Frank and Jesse of Chatham. The car was stripped of its heavy electric equipment, temporarily relieved of its running gear and moved to Chatham on a flat-bed truck belonging to Booker Stone. After erecting at its present location, the mechanically included Burnettes quickly converted it into a functioning dining car which they operated for nearly forty years. The business thrived because of the excellent food, fast service and an especially good hot dog.

The Burnettes and their descendants either departed this life or went on to other pursuits during the 1970s. The property, including an adjacent service station building, was purchased by Allan Easley, as a location for his insurance agency. Burnettes Diner passed into the hands of a succession of owners before being elased by Steve Law and Kay Andrews who operated it as the S&K Diner for several years. The two conducted extensive renovation of the facility and went to great effor to restore the streetcar characteristics. Law did much research into the car's origin and life. It was he who determined that the car had been Danville Traction's old No. 66, which had wheeled up and down West Main Street in Danville. His partner, Kay Andrews, a Radford University graduate in the food service field, developed the menu and quality of the food. When Hollywood tycoons chose Chatham for a movie setting in 1988, the interior of the S&K was used for one scene. Law eventually took over sole operation before leasing it to David Sargent of Ohio. David and his wife, Linda, refitted the diner and renamed it the Chatham Cafe, its present title.

The story of Old No. 66 was recounted here first because more research has been conducted on its background. The truth is that the Burnettes were influenced into a purchasing a streetcar by the success of Bill's Diner, a converted streetcar that was placed in service at least two years prior to theirs. Bill Fretwell of Chatham was already dispensing tasty food and specializing in hot dogs when he recognized the potential a converted streetcar offered. He journeyed to Reidsville, NC and purchased one from Duke Power, who owned the franchise. It is believed that Fetwell's car was one of the last operating on Reidsville streets. Whereas Burnette's car carried 30 passengers, the Reidsville car conveyed only 15. Being much smaller, it required a smaller lot. The intersection of Main and Depot Streets, which have long been known as Bolanz Corner, became the site of Bill's Diner. Here he dispensed good food for forty-five years.

Bill's Diner and Burnette's Diner developed a healthy competition in trying to see who could make the better hot dog sauce. Children of both families got involved in the operations during out of school hours. Henry Burnette Jr. remembers putting in long hours as did the Fretwell children, Dale, Wane and Eleanor, who recall that the weekends were the busiest times at Bill's Diner.

Upon Bill's passing in 1983, the diner was sold to Walter Whittle for $15,000. His business became the only African-American owned and operated diner in the Commonwealth. Incidentally, he renamed it “The Streetcar Named Desire.”

For a town the size of Chatham to be the site of one bona fide streetcar diner is a rarity. To claim two of them further justifies their inclusion in the Register of Historic Places. The reader may consider the presence of an article titled “The Streetcar Riding Dog” in the same issue of The Packet with another article titled “Chatham's Unique Dining Cars” to be a coincidence. The truth is that the pairing of the two was contrived. They complement each other, to be sure.

Finally, an interesting question arises. Was old car No. 66 the car that Mary Dog rode to downtown Danville to visit her master?


Books by Herman Melton

(Available from the sponsor.)

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Other Books Concerning Pittsylvania County History

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County

An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina

Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town

Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.