In this summer of the coronavirus and Main Street construction that is nearly impossible for mere mortal drivers to comprehend, let alone navigate, it’s hard not to reflect back on Stoughton summers that offered simple, carefree roadside pleasures.
For four summers, from 1968 to 1971, I spent all my time exclusively at one place: Chose’s A&W. Like countless teens before and since, it was my job, my home away from home and a high school era rite of passage.
The story of Chose’s A&W began in 1946, when Frida and Harold Chose and their young son, Tom, went looking for a place in southern Wisconsin to situate a drive-in restaurant. After considering a variety of locales, they decided to apply for an A&W franchise in Stoughton.
They bought $500 worth of equipment and a building at Truax Field in Madison, actually just a 12-by-12-foot cabin, and moved it to 1052 W. Main St., now the site of the Sunrise Family Restaurant.
Frida started mixing up root beer in the summer of 1947, and along with her special barbecue and coney sauce recipes (a secret to this day) and fresh Fosdal’s buns delivered daily, a Stoughton drive-in tradition was born.
In the days before the Interstate system, U.S. Hwy. 51 was a major thoroughfare, especially for Illinois tourists seeking solace in the north country. Motor tourism was all the rage, and drive-in restaurants were a sensation.
The original stand was a primitive affair, open air except for a screened in kitchen. In 1956, a canopy was added that had to been taken down every winter until a permanent steel canopy was installed in 1967.
As for me, I was preordained to work at Chose’s.
We lived in the neighborhood, and every time Frida would run into my mother, she would inform her that I would be someday working at her drive in. I remember first hearing it as a third-grader.
In 1968, at the end of my freshman year in high school, the phone rang and Frida said, “It’s time.” A day later I donned the little paper hat and went to work.
I started out as a lowly glass washer for 90 cents an hour, and I found it
terrifying working with so many older kids.
This included a lot of popular girls who served as car hops. I found their familiarity with the social mores of the time intimidating but intriguing, not to mention useful as a learning experience.
My mentor was the front tap man, Billy Swenson, who served as my guide out of adolescence. He was a fount of street wisdom, wisecracking double entendre (which I rarely understood) while quoting avant garde sages of the time like Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa.
Frida’s son, Tom, served as our protector and hands-on boss.
A typical shift involved frenetic periods of activity, followed by slow lulls. Hot summer nights were the worst, when it seemed the entire community needed it’s
craving for cones, malteds and floats satisfied simultaneously.
At this time, cruising was still a thing, with hundreds of vehicles endlessly parading down Main Street.
Chose’s served as the west end of the procession. The east side turnaround was Bob and Bonnies Pizza at the corner of Main and Academy.
Frida spent most of her time in the kitchen with the older cooks, Annie and Mrs. Wheaton, who oversaw the grill and fryers. All three ladies would go home after the noon rush to nap and to watch “their stories” on the television.
This served as our time to indulge in some confectionary mischief, usually involving strange mixtures of soft serve, unusual toppings and of course, root beer, with Tom generously looking the other way.
In July 1969, we all crowded into the screened-in kitchen to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on a blurry 12-inch television screen.
In the summer of 1970 I worked seven days a week all summer long. I had one day off to attend the new Summerfest celebration in Milwaukee.
But even with the long hours, it never felt like an actual job. It was more like a social activity with a few predetermined tasks thrown in. All of my friends came by every single day, and nearly all the residents of Stoughton made an appearance at least once a week.
I eventually became front tap man, and in 1971, I passed that honor on to Garry Hanson, who kept the position for a record 21 years.
Tom and his wife, Philayne, took over for Frida in 1975 and continued to run the restaurant until 1995.
Tom cited construction on Hwy. 51 in the 1980s as having a huge impact on their business. Of course, by then the onslaught of fast food franchises and increased Interstate travel had already put an end to the golden age of the drive in.
For 49 years, Chose’s A&W was synonymous with summertime in Stoughton. And Philayne Chose estimates that during that time period, roughly 2,300 Stoughton kids worked at the drive in.
I’m proud to say I was one of them.