Fifty-two years ago, when Earl and Marilyn Northrup's hot dog stand had the floor space of an Edsel, one of its regulars was Bobby Noel, a 12-year-old who would have been in hot water if his mother knew how far he had pedaled his bike.
The boy was among the first in a cast of thousands who grew the Northrups' simple stand in Chaffee to 150 seats, 37 employees and five-dozen menu offerings -- the setting for countless yarns about the grandchildren and the fish that got away.
Together, the masses of "working people" as Earl describes them, elevated his diner into a full-fledged landmark where everyone feels at home.
That is, until one ominous day that will dawn next week, or perhaps the week after.
Marilyn died a little over five years ago, and Earl, at 73, has never known a week of work that didn't span 80 hours. He's ready to retire.
When the cupboards are finally bare, he will close Earl's Real Food Family Restaurant for good.
"I'm sure there will be quite a few people dismayed by his decision," said Don Bivolcic of Lancaster, finishing his Saturday-morning eggs at Earl's counter as he and his wife, Mary Ann, chewed on the specter of no more Earl's.
Dismayed, indeed. The news had made the rounds Saturday, so Earl -- you can't miss him with his cherry-red cowboy hat, muttonchops and patriotic shirt -- was busy posing for pictures with well-wishers who wanted their memento.
"There has to be something that you can't see, something you can't feel or whatever, that keeps drawing you back," he said later, trying to explain his restaurant's success.
Earl Northrup was always ambitious, always "a goer," said boyhood friend Jim Kirchmeyer, a retired boilermaker who lives in Chaffee. He and Earl went to the same one-room schoolhouse and both know the duties expected of a boy growing up on a farm.
When Earl delivered milk in his early 20s, he noticed the success of a simple hot dog stand he would pass nearly every day. So he decided he and Marilyn would start their own simple place.
This was the age of mobile Americans, liberated by their cars. So the Northrups drew families venturing south for Christmas trees and couples out to view the autumn palette that surrounds the stretch of Route 16 near Route 39, in the southeast corner of Erie County.
Over the years they served no liquor and nothing fancy. Meat. Potatoes. Omelets. Waffles. Even today, a third-of-a-pound burger can be yours for $3.15. And then there are the pies. "New York's eyes are on our pies," the sign says.
He never accepted checks or credit cards.
"We're just old-fashioned," the menu says. But he does have a Web site, earlsdrivein.com.
They turned the space out back into a park for country-music concerts. He moved the original hot dog stand back there. He stores his collection of farm machinery nearby.
The business consumed the Northrups, but Earl is proud to say that in the three sad years preceding the death of a son at age 7, they saw him each day he was in the hospital except one.
You don't have to know Earl well to see he's not the same since Marilyn died in 2002. A picture of her hangs in the dining room. And there are a couple of pictures of the smiling couple on the menu.
The waitress who has been with him 22 years, Cathy Paran, agreed he took it hard.
"You know what? I go to the cemetery like five times a week," he told a customer coming to say farewell. "And I will say without any hesitation, I am anxious to meet her."
He's not sure what he'll do with the bullhorns and the pieces of Americana that give Earl's its character. He's not sure what the employees will do. He only knows he's giving the place to Houghton College and Houghton Academy, a decision he and Marilyn agreed upon years ago. A spokeswoman said Houghton does not yet have a plan for Earl's.
Over the years, Earl noticed that diners were coming from miles away. His quick poll of those in proximity to him Saturday showed that most had driven 20 to 30 miles.
Which is not to say he doesn't draw locals, too.
"Here's a local boy," he says, beckoning a familiar face.
"Bobby. . . . "
Bobby Noel's hair is whiter and thinner than it was 52 years ago, when he rode his bike down Route 16. He still loves Earl's, and his dish of choice is no longer the hot dogs but the roasted chicken dinner and the hot roast beef with gravy.
Where will he go after Earl's closes? A pause, then:
"I don't know for sure," Noel said. "Don't know for sure. . . ."
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