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Memories to go: New book chronicles early drive-in theaters, restaurants of Whatcom County

Weeds have taken over the Samish Drive-In Twins off Lincoln Street in Bellingham in this 2008 photo.
Weeds have taken over the Samish Drive-In Twins off Lincoln Street in Bellingham in this 2008 photo. The Bellingham Herald

Authors Wes Gannaway and Kent Holsather say people old enough to remember drive-in movie theaters all have stories about the experience of going to a movie outdoors, whether they watched the movie or not. I’m part of the drive-in theater generation and I know they are right; I have a trunk full of drive-in tales, but that’s another story.

They also say people have fond memories of early drive-in restaurants where folks of all ages, but especially young people, flocked to consume hamburgers, hot dogs, fries and shakes, and to socialize and find out where the best party was happening. I’m old enough to know they’re spot-on about that, too.

That’s why I think their new book — “Drive-Ins, Drive-Ups, and Drive-Thrus; The History of Drive-in Movie Theaters and Drive-in Food Places in Whatcom County” — will tempt local readers who can recall the county’s four drive-in theaters — the Motor-Vu, Moonlite, Holiday and Samish — and the county’s early drive-in restaurants, such as Mastin’s, The Shack, Bunk’s, Barter’s and Dutch Treat.

It took Gannaway and Holsather three years to put the book together, including the eye-straining task of scanning, by Holsather’s estimate, some 400,000 newspaper pages on microfilm for stories and advertisements.

“I like to come up with stuff that nobody else writes about,” said Holsather. “It’s history light,” he said, although with all of those fried and rich foods, it’s certainly not “history lite.”

Holsather and Gannaway are a familiar pair when it comes to local history. They previously collaborated on two collections of articles, “Whatcom Then & Now” and “Bellingham Then & Now,” and teamed up for “Bays to Bells: The Story of Baseball in Whatcom County From The Earliest Known References to 2011.”

Holsather lives in Bellingham and Gannaway lives in Ferndale. Now retired, they met while working at BP Cherry Point Refinery and realized they shared a love of local history.

“Drive-Ins, Drive-Ups, and Drive-Thrus” is a large-format paperback that will retail for $24.95. It should be available in a few weeks at Village Books and at appearances by the authors, they said. They plan to be at Boomer’s Drive-In, 310 Samish Way, from 2 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 25.

The book starts with the history of drive-in theaters across the country, then focuses on the local outdoor cinemas. Drive-in theaters are nearly extinct now, but people lucky enough to have gone to one know there was a special joy in taking kids in pajamas to watch a family-friendly film, or, if they were young drivers, a sense of freedom in getting away from the folks and meeting friends at the drive-in to have fun and to hone their social skills.

“Everybody at one time went to a drive-in,” Gannaway said.

A delightful and unexpected story in the book recounts three Ferndale High students who built a treehouse just behind the Holiday Drive-In so they could watch the distant screen. Delightful because the theater owners let the boys borrow a car speaker so they could hear, too. The owners knew a newspaper story about the boys would bring helpful publicity to their new drive-in.

Drive-in restaurants, of course, continue to thrive, although today there are many more national fast-food outlets than before. Most of the early drive-in restaurants were locally owned or were parts of small chains. The quality of food varied, so restaurants with good prices, good menus and good locations developed loyal customers.

During a local history talk last spring about the upcoming book I was struck by the passion of audience members’ comments about their favorites places to eat. Clearly one way to reach the memory center of the brain is through the stomach, especially if there’s lots of sugar and salt involved.

When I asked Holsather and Gannaway to name their favorite now-defunct drive-in restaurant, they both immediately answered “Barter’s.”

“It had the best burgers,” Holsather said, adding that he also liked Barter’s “green river” soda drink.

While the book describes more than 50 drive-in restaurants, accompanied by numerous photos and ads, Holsather called it a “thumbnail history,” with a dozen or so drive-ins lacking profiles of their own. Holsather and Gannaway sometimes ran into dead ends trying to find information about long-ago drive-ins, especially short-lived ones that rose and fell as quickly as the flip of a burger.

With drive-in theaters gone and with many drive-in restaurants corporate clones, the book made we wonder what businesses today will foster sweet memories in the future as tasty and entertaining places to gather with friends. Brew pubs? Food trucks? Coffee shops?

The answer, of course, will be different for different people. I just hope people continue to find such places, and that future writers remember the importance they play in people’s lives.

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