Salisbury History: The diner that traveled Delmarva

Many of us associate the English family name with the iconic shiny metallic diners of Salisbury’s history, but it was the lesser-known Edward Lloyd Thompson who started it all.

It was Thompson who acquired the diner car that traveled from New Jersey to Delmar to Salisbury to Ocean City and then to Dover.

That’s a lot of traveling for a diner, considering it’s not really a car.

I give Howard Dickerson enormous credit for his work in collecting the history on the Thompsons. Dickerson is a masterful blogger of all things Delmar and beyond, particularly his blog for the Delmar Historical and Art Society.

In May of 1930, the Thompson’s Grill and Diner featured a full-page ad in the Salisbury Times announcing the city’s newest downtown eatery.

Edward Lloyd Thompson, who opened the diner along with his wife Ethel, used the occasion to give ad space to businesses contributing to his own. Sanitary Beef Co. provided the fresh meats. Food was refrigerated with ice from the W.F. Messick Ice Co., which noted that “ice is not only safe but retains the natural flavor and sweetness of all foods.”

The cement and foundation work for the diner car was done by contractor C.T. Jenkins. The plumbing was done by Morris & Morris. The diner was moved and set by Charles Marvel of Laurel, Delaware.

Thompson advertised the Webb Packing Co., T.L. Ruark & Co. wholesale grocers, Crane’s Ice Cream, the Purity Creamery Company, Nehi soft drinks, and the refrigerating system of M.L. Hastings of Delmar. And he prominently mentioned Wimbrow’s Garage which was located opposite the East Main Street diner.

Last but not least, he gave the name of the designer and builder of the place, Jerry O’Mahony, Inc. of Elizabeth, N.J., where Thompson’s Grill began its journey.

Diner or dining cars were created for a newly mobile country smitten with the automobile. As the company promoted, “hundreds of miles of new highways and innumerable towns throughout the country await the establishment of these modern eating places.”

Born in Brooklyn, Thompson married Ethel Evelyn Wingate and in 1920 moved to Delmar. Six years later he purchased the diner car which was shipped to Delmar by train.

It remained in Delmar until 1930 when he had it moved to Salisbury, to the north side of the street and east of the post office.

Thompson bought the Victory model, narrow and long with a barrel roof, resembling a train car. It was small and had only counter seating.

The interior and single counter of the Jerry O’Malony Victory model, taken from an O’Malony brochure.

This was post-World War I, and the Salisbury Boulevard was not yet built. Thompson benefited from travelers, as his diner was advertised as the Salisbury depot for the Greyhound Lines, Atlantic States Coaches and the Red Star Lines.

In 1937, James English purchased Thompson’s diner, built an addition to accommodate the growing number of customers and a year later changed the name to the English Grill. But business was growing and they needed more room.

In 1938, the English family purchased the larger Monarch model with booth seating. It was described as “a modernistic dining car, a duplicate of a model to be shown at the World’s Fair.”

After World War II, road and highway construction flourished, opening new possibilities. In March 1950, the English family opened their second Salisbury diner business on South Salisbury Boulevard, which included a bake shop.

By 1967, the English’s operated three diners in Salisbury, but the Main Street diner lot was soon sold and the telephone company moved into the new Laws Building at the site in 1968 before moving to their larger building in 1971.

The original diner was moved by the English family to Ocean City, where it continued dining services until 1954 when a larger diner replaced the hard-working structure. The old Thompson Grill was moved to Dover by a new owner. Its fate in Dover is not yet known.

During World War II, Thompson became a Navy Lieutenant Commander. The family moved to Silver Spring, Md., and then to Florida. After Edward died in 1969, Ethel moved north to Milford and died in 1985.

Edward Lloyd Thompson was a trailblazer for the new form of eatery on the Lower Eastern Shore. That little diner car he purchased clocked considerable mileage and generated lifetimes of memories.  It’s fitting he should get recognition for it.

Linda Duyer lives in Salisbury. Contact her at lindaduyer1@yahoo.com.

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