Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Vintage Roadside Visits: The Polar Bear Drive In

A couple of weeks back it was time for the annual "Mrs. Vintage Roadside Family Reunion 2008" down in Klamath Falls. We always look forward to seeing the whole family, and as an added bonus, any destination more than 2 miles from our house means we'll be stopping to gawk at roadside stuff every 100 yards or so. It generally takes us about 3 days to travel more than 100 miles.

One of the day trip options this year was a brother-in-law guided tour of the Lava Beds National Monument. We had never been so it sounded great. Driving south to visit the park, we passed through the small town of Merrill, Oregon located near the Oregon/California border. It's always exciting passing through a town for the first time and we look forward to seeing new things.

Driving down Front Street we caught a quick glimpse of a drive in restaurant. Being part of the official family convoy and laden with nieces and nephew, locking up the brakes and whipping a U-turn was not practical. Someone would have noticed their children missing long before we had enjoyed our meal. We realized the best way to get in a visit would be to plant the idea of stopping on the way back in everyone's subconscious. Questions like "Hey, have you ever eaten at that drive in?" "You have?" "Is it good?" "It sure looks like a great place." I'm happy to say we stopped on the way back and found it to be as good as we had hoped.

Located on Front Street the Polar Bear Drive In is easy to find. Look for the water tower and the 30' x 50' (giant) flag.

Built in the late 1940s next door to the former Merrill School, the Polar Bear must have enjoyed the benefits of its location tremendously. It would seem natural to stop by after school for an ice cream cone, or a soda, maybe some fries...okay, might as well have a hamburger too! Exhibiting incredible business savvy, the founder of the Polar Bear was none other than a teacher next door at the Merrill School.

In 1980, new owners took over the Polar Bear. Janet and Ernie dug in and, for the first time in decades, the Polar Bear began operating year round. Today the Polar Bear is operated by Jan and Ernie's son Tony and his wife. You'll find Tony manning the grille and his wife busy taking orders. They continue to offer a great assortment of classic drive in fare, and something you see less and less of these days, a wonderfully maintained neon sign. Although we were there during the day Tony was kind enough to flip the switch so we could get a few photos of the sign.

A few of the things our group ordered: Chocolate malt - fantastic, French fries - very good, Corn dog - nicely done, Hot dog - very good, Double cheeseburger - also great, tater tots - good, various ice cream cones - perfect.

Next time you're down that way do yourself a favor and stop in at the Polar Bear. If you're a fan of classic roadside architecture, neon signs, mom and pop businesses, or just a great malt, here's a chance to see something you don't see every day - a vintage mom and pop drive in restaurant, complete with working neon sign, friendly owners, and wonderful original Coca-Cola decals in the windows.

If you'd like to give Tony a call the number above is area code (541).


Larry said...

Nice photos Jeff, We don't have any close by. Most of them are drive-up style. We had a car-hop style drive-in in Keene, NH for a couple of years in the mid-90's. Denise and I made at least 2 trips for nostalgia's sake back then. It is now a Suzuki Auto Dealership. Where the canopy was, a showroom was added to the drive-in building making it unrecognizable the last time we were there.

Vintage Roadside said...

Hi Larry,

Thanks for the comment! Glad you enjoyed the photos. I've always found it interesting how the West Coast had the drive ins and the East Coast had the diners. Too bad the one in NH couldn't have hung on. It's nice you and Denise had a chance to enjoy it while it was there.

Waffle Whiffer [Brandon] said...

Looks like the kind of place I'd stop. I love that polar bear too!

Vintage Roadside said...

Brandon - It was amazing! If you ever find yourself in that part of the country it's well worth the stop.

Anonymous said...

Back in the 1960's, this was my favorite stop in the road...course I was a kid at the time. But, besides that fact, they served soft-serve BOYSENBERRY ice cream. The price was the same as vanilla, if I remember right. Oh, yum.