In 1951 an idea for a child-friendly and interactive hamburger joint was opened to the public in Des Plaines, Illinois. Just a block from downtown on Miner Street, The Choo-Choo brought in people of all ages with its themed hamburger service imitating the train theme of Des Plaines, or “Des Traines” as residents have lovingly nicknamed the railroad surrounded Chicago suburb. The idea was born as James Ballowe dreamed of foods he’d love to have while he was posted as a soldier in the Philippines. After a fellow soldier complained about the “gravy train”, Ballowe thought, “Why not serve kids hamburgers on toy trains? They love both!”
The idea was a hit and enjoyed four years of success in its location right by the train tracks. The competition came when another hamburger joint was opened in 1955 by a man named Ray Croc. The idea for this new place had formed in California and had been bought from the original owners, the McDonalds. As Croc opened up the first McDonald’s restaurant, the two businesses went into direct competition. Croc did not believe that he would be able to surpass the business Ballowe was getting and even paid him a visit once to assure Ballowe his business wouldn’t be a big challenge to the already existing Choo-Choo restaurant. McDonald’s appeal was in its 15-cent hamburgers while The Choo-Choo attracted many visitors with its fun eating experience. Both businesses managed to survive a solid fifty years of competitive service.
McDonalds has become a world-wide thriving business and The Choo-Choo has become an iconic part of Des Plaines history. It’s ownership has been passed down a few times and is now owned by a woman named Jean Paxton who has been fighting the city of Des Plaines and its police department in their proposal to tear down the historic building in order to expand the police department. Residents are horrified at the thought of losing such a huge part of history for a seemingly unneeded expansion. Despite the protesting of the Des Plaines residents and the long lines that expand out the door and down the block every Saturday, it is not likely the building will still stand come summer.
Every person who has grown up in Des Plaines in the past 58 years has memories at the small 1950’s-style diner. The unique decorations, old fashioned cash register, food being delivered on a toy train, and the cupcakes adorned with toy train whistles that every kid is after, make this restaurant an important place of memories and family time for every child in Des Plaines. Even as I entered the restaurant to do the documentary, I was overwhelmed with memories from my childhood as I remembered sitting at the booths by the train tracks as my grilled cheese sandwich headed my way.
I hurry through the doors, which are lined with advertisements, hungry for the warmth of the inside to save me from the bitter cold biting at my cheeks. Old-fashioned holiday music crackles out of the speakers and fills the restaurant, accentuating the vintage decorations lining the walls. The waitress greets me and then looks as me expectantly. She looks vaguely familiar and I hesitate trying to remember if I should know her before asking if I can do the photo shoot. I explain to her that I want to document the restaurant in its last months, to try and capture some of the memories that seem to live here.
She smiles at me and tells me the manager is out but would probably be fine with it, she is interested in anything that has to do with keeping the restaurant alive, even if it is just in images. Before turning to set up my camera I can’t resist any longer and I ask her, “Do I know you from somewhere?” “Yes,” she replies, “We went to junior high together.” My brain did a few cartwheels before piecing together the fact that this girl was the same girl that terrorized me throughout the horrible middle school years. I assured her that I remembered and smiled a lot; glad to see her. As I turned to load my camera, I laughed to myself at how life turns things around and the different places it can take two people starting off in the same direction.
My mind leaves that behind quickly as I start to take in all the visual elements of the place I am in. The same worn booths line the walls underneath the painted windowsills as where I sat in the booster seat and spilled my milk. I see the four barstools my girlfriends and I sat at for sundaes after our last day of eighth grade. Such important moments in my childhood are framed in the walls of this one restaurant. Gumball machines by the door remind of me of begging my parents to give me quarters for Jawbreakers.
It seems that nothing has changed in the past few years since I last ate here. I hope that it’s true that the restaurant has managed to stay the same for 58 years, like a small time capsule of a diner, retaining the same neighborly attitude of its original owners. This building will always unite the people of Des Plaines, and remind us of where we have come from. Our history is something important to us and should not just be cast away at a whim. The Choo-Choo is a significant part of this city and tells a story of the community that cannot be read or learned, but must truly be experienced.
The Choo-Choo, Des Plaines, IL November 30, 2009
Wrap-Around Bar and Festive Decor
Waiting for Takeout
Remnants of a Kids Meal
Ice Cream and All the Fixings
Two Double Cheeseburgers, Fries and Two Large Diet Cokes
Choo-Choo Cupcakes and the Cooks
Ella Waits for Grilled Cheese
Delivery on Tracks
All Stocked Up on a Slow Monday
The One Who Makes It All Possible
All Images ©Kirsten Tornes Photography 2009
Please Don't Steal.