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June 3, 2020

Farmington Diner renovation on track after long journey

Photo / Maureen Milliken Rachel Jackson, owner of the Farmington D restaurant on U.S. Route 2 in Farmington, hopes to refurbish a classic diner on the site, with input from the community.

Rachel Jackson, a self-employed consultant, is a successful businesswoman. There was nothing in her life that screamed, or even whispered, “Buy an old diner.”

Yet, when the Farmington Diner, at 317 Main St. in Farmington, needed a new home to make way for a Rite Aid in 2008, it spoke to her. She bought it for a dollar and had it hauled to her yard in Wilton.

Now, 12 years, two property acquisitions (one a restaurant) and two old-time diner purchases later, Jackson is moving forward with what has become a dream.

A worn, but proud, classic 1950s Mountain View diner was delivered last week to the parking lot of her restaurant, the Farmington D, at 367 Wilton Road. It’s not the Farmington Diner she bought 12 years ago, it’s the former Silver Diner, and it came from Waterbury, Conn.

The Farmington Diner is still in her yard in Wilton.

Yes, it’s a long story.

As Jackson prepared Monday to open Farmington D, the former Harvest House Restaurant, for socially distanced indoor dining, she also prepared for a new life for the two classic 1950s diners.

Her plan is to refurbish the diner that just arrived from Connecticut with parts from the Farmington Diner, a cheaper option than the original plan of refurbishing the Farmington one. Both diners are the same brand, Mountain View, and aside from some color differences, are identical.

She is looking for ideas from the community on how to best use the diner space. Originally, she was going to attach it to the front of Farmington D, a 1972 one-story brick restaurant building, but she may keep it separate and use it for event and party space. Her restaurant is on nearly three acres, with an expansive parking lot, so there's plenty of land.

She's working with the state historic preservation department on finding out if the diner can be designated historic, which would allow her to use historic preservation tax credits to offset some of the costs.

Whatever happens to it, input from the community it was a part of for so long will be key, she said.

Photo / Maureen Milliken
The Farmington D restaurant, seen through the window of the classic diner that owner Rachel Jackson moved to the site last week.

'Part of who we are'

Jackson has run restaurants in Newry and Rumford Point in the past, but she thought her restaurant years were long behind her. But when the Farmington Diner, across from Hippach Field, was destined for the scrap heap 12 years ago, she had to rescue it.

"It's really part of our history, it's part of who we are," she said. She used to eat there often. "When I walked in, it was so cool."

The diner only cost a dollar, which she isn't sure she ever paid. Moving it was another story, which involved getting it off the foundation and trundling it the five miles to her Wilton house. Nickerson Bulding Movers, of Kingfield, did the work.

That was intended to be a temporary solution. But she needed a permanent one.

"The intention always was to have it be a diner again," she said.

Every time she drove from Wilton to Farmington on Route 2, she scouted possible locations. After several years, she bought a lot with a house on it. But shortly after that, the Harvest House came up for sale.

Her banker told her she was making good money, why take on the headache of owning a restaurant? "But it's about more than the money," Jackson said. She's not crazy, though. She took a look at the financials of the Harvest House and decided it was worth it.

She's now also a landlord, the house down the road a rental property.

Former Harvest House owners Patrick and Chong Boivin had closed  the restaurant in January 2018, and Jackson had it up and running again by September, with the help of the Boivins and their staff, much of which she retained.

"I couldn't have done it without them," she said.

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Rachel Jackson hopes to bring a classic diner back to its original glory on the property of her restaurant The Farmington D, 367 Wilton Road, Farmington.

Rescuing a classic

She used some of the panels, and part of the old counter from the Farmington Diner to redecorate the interior of the 5,454-square-foot restaurant. It's the Farmington D, because it's not yet a diner, she said. "I don't want to call something a diner that isn't."

With that piece in place, it was time to get the diner piece underway, but by then the old diner had been too battered by time and weather to be a great option. Jackson found the Silver Diner online and bought it for $1,000.

Jackson moved the diner to Maine last summer. It's 19-by-52 feet, a wide load, so she had to get permits for Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. It arrived in Maine on a Friday in August, and it turned out that you can't move a wide load on Maine highways in the summer, so it sat at a rest area for the weekend. Then it went to Jay, where it sat until last week.

Jackson has a Farmington D Facebook page, and is looking for community input as she finalizes her plans for the diner.

She has a folder full of letters, many hand-written, by people who have fond memories of the Farmington Diner and are looking forward to what she does with it.

She doesn't think the fact that she's combining it with another diner diminishes the power of those memories.

"They're both made by the same company," she said. "They're almost interchangeable, except for the colors." The nature of diners, too, is that they're built to move, she said.

The Silver was built in 1952 by Mountain View, a classic diner company in New Jersey, according to a post on Diner Hotline Weblog. That post, from 2010, shows the diner seemingly abandoned, surrounded by junk. The diner has most of its original elements, though it looks like a new roof was added by the Manno Dining Car Co. at some point, the post said.

The Mountain View Diner Co., of Singac, N.J., made 400 diners between 1938 to 1957. The company's motto was "A Mountain View Diner will last a lifetime."

Michael Kleen, a travel writer and photographer, features a number of them in an April post on his website.

"When you think of a classic 1950s diner, a Mountain View probably comes to mind," he said.

Sitting side-by-side

The interior of the diner has seen some hard times. There's a lot of dust, and some water damage, But underneath, the classic booths, stools, tiles and Formica are in good shape. The exterior panels are bent and falling off, and it needs a lot of work.

But Jackson sees beyond it to what it will be in the future. She said while nostalgia is important, she hopes to combine it with the fresh local food she serves and also wants to forge the connection to the community that the old Farmington Diner had.

"It's for the elderly, for families, for UMF students," she said.

Monday, after Jackson gave Mainebiz a tour of the diner, her employees, wearing masks, filed out of the Farmington D. and came over to take a look, too. None had seen the interior since it arrived Thursday.

"The whole thing is about community," Jackson said. "I'm looking forward to when people can sit side by side again, at the counter, and mix, and talk, and eat together. It's going to be great. That's what it's all about."

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June 6, 2020

This is a great story about a woman with vision, grit and perseverance despite COVID19. She believes in the power of community and she respects the history of the Farmington area. I know personally that the Farmington Diner was the epicenter of the town for many years so it should be restored! Thanks for doing this story, Maureen Milliken. I hope that Rachel has every success with her diner endeavors in Farmington.

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