Before hamburgers and french fries were called fast food, and before McDonald’s and Burger King signs dominated the landscape, homegrown drive-in restaurants sprouted along America’s highways.
In their heyday during the 1950s and ’60s they not only fed hungry travelers right in their cars but also became gathering spots for teenagers, who were declaring their independence behind the wheel of the family sedan or their own vehicle.
One of those roadside rendezvous was the Kimball Drive-in, a small red-and-white hamburger stand at the junction of state highways 55 and 15 in the southeast corner of Stearns County south of St. Cloud.
It lured crowds of youngsters with 15-cent hamburgers, helped spark at least one life-long romance and, 40 or so years after its demise, still inspires a few laughs and some warm memories. Depending on who’s doing the remembering, the Kimball Drive-in thrived for as many as 20 summers from the mid ’50s to the mid ’70s. But the best evidence, including land records, indicates it likely opened for business in 1960 and shut down sometime after 1972
“Back in those days there wasn’t a lot for the kids to do” in the little town of Kimball, Joan Robinson Fuchs said as she recalled the drive-in’s beginning.
Her husband, Larry Robinson, his uncle, Jerry Robinson, Ivern Magnuson and her came up with the idea after doing a lot of brainstorming, she said. They founded Partner’s Drive-in after buying the wooden building from a closed Cokato eatery and having it trucked the 20 or so miles to Kimball.
They opened on Memorial Day weekend and “didn’t have a clue” how many hamburger buns they needed, said Fuchs, who’s now 76, remarried after Larry Robinson’s death in 1989 and living in St. Cloud. As it turned out, they went through all 25 dozen buns they had ordered.
“Everybody went there,” Ron Knaus, of Kimball, remembered, “It was kind of a hangout.”
Knaus, 71, attributed part of its early popularity to the fact the founders were young and well-known former athletes at Kimball High School. Besides the burgers, soft-serve ice cream cones were a big draw. “A lot of people stopped there for that.”
The drive-in was a big deal for a small town, said Carol Newman, 71, of Kimball, who used to stop on weekends when she returned home from her out-of-town job. “It was one of the few spots where you could go and eat and socialize a little bit.”
Co-founder Jerry Robinson still lives in Kimball not far from where the old drive-in stood on the south side of Highway 55.
“You wouldn’t believe the cars that were in there because of the 15-cent hamburgers,” Robinson, 78, said. On Saturday nights after dances at the old Playland Ballroom down the road, “there were cars on both sides of the highway waiting to get in. …We pumped burgers out of there like you wouldn’t believe.”
It was a mistake to charge so little, causing the drive-in to be so busy “it was unreal,” he said, and as the summer wore on, the partners weren’t getting along.
“We had a heck of a business,” Robinson said, but “it just didn’t work out,” and they sold the place to his brother, Marvin Robinson, and his wife, Gertrude.
Rosalea Hoeft, of Kimball, has fond memories of the drive-in where she worked as a carhop taking and delivering orders because that’s where she met the love of her life 50 years ago.
Back then her last name was Eaton. She grew up in Sandstone and came to Kimball in May 1963 at age 16 to work for Eaton, her second cousin. Her older sister, Irene, had worked there the summer before but graduated in ’63 and went to work elsewhere, so Rosalea replaced her.
She admitted to “kind of” being on the lookout for Jerry Hoeft, who with his two brothers had impressed Irene. He even asked Irene out at the end of the previous summer, but she was unable to accept. “But she told me how good looking he was,” Rosalea, now 66, smiled.
It wasn’t long before the two met when he rolled into the drive-in with a banjo in the back seat of his car, just as Irene had said he would, and Rosalea startled him by asking if his name was Jerry. He asked her out a couple weeks later and they were married the following January. Jerry died in 2006 at age 66 after the couple had shared 42 years of marriage and raised a family of four children.
“It was worth coming to Kimball for, I tell you,” she said during a visit to the now vacant spot where the drive-in once stood.
Even after a half century she could still remember his favorite drive-in meal. “It never failed. When Jerry came he would have a tuna sandwich and a strawberry shake.”
Rosalea continued working at the drive-in for a few summers after her marriage, learning the cooking and cleaning end of the business as well as serving customers.
Carhops there didn’t wear uniforms, she said, but Eaton required them to be “appropriately covered” with jeans or skirts down to their knees.
One of the tricks of the trade she and some other carhops used was to write each car’s license plate number on the ticket to avoid mixing up the orders. “That was the only way I could keep things straight.”
Rosalea saved the cast aluminum press that Eaton used to make hamburger patties at the drive-in, and she kept the recipe for sloppy Joes. “I sometimes wish I’d gotten one of the trays that we’d hang on the window” of customers’ cars.
The drive-in was still in business in 1972, she said, because she has a photo of Eaton and his wife taken in front of it that year. And she recalled stopping there on the way home from the hospital with her and Jerry’s third child, who was born that May.
Eaton, who died in 2006 at age 88, was “a real good cook, and that’s what drew him to the drive-in,” Rosalea recalled. “He liked to try new things,” serving up pizza burgers, chicken burgers, shrimp patties and hamburgers with cheese inside them.
“He was the kind of man that would give you the shirt off his back. … He cared about people,” she said. “He loved kids. He was like an extra grandpa to my kids. He was like another dad to me.”
Dawn Robinson, Joan Fuchs’ daughter, also remembered some good times as a carhop there in the early ’70s while she was a student at Kimball High.
“I’d never say a bad thing about it,” she said. “I enjoyed it. I loved it because I’m a people person.” For some reason, people always ask if she wore roller skates, Robinson said, and the answer is no. “A McDonald’s it wasn’t,” she said, “but we were always busy.”
Now 58 and living in Honolulu, Hawaii, Robinson hadn’t forgotten the best things on the menu. “My favorite to eat there was a pizza burger and a banana shake.”
Some customers arrived at the drive-in on four legs rather than four wheels, according to Bill Stein, 69, of Kimball. He recalled riding Billy Joe, his gold palomino quarter horse, to the drive-in, along with other riders from the Kimball Saddle Club in the mid ’60s.
Fuchs remembered the strong odor of gas when she and others arrived at the drive-in one Monday morning not long after it opened for business.
Fearing it was going to explode, they called the gas company, which determined there was no emergency. “Here we thought the place was going to blow up, and it was just the onions,” which the drive-in used on top of its trademark hamburger. Someone had left them out and uncovered.
Ron Knaus chuckled at the memory of Eaton’s promotion of another menu item, cheap turkey wieners, years before they became popular for their low calorie content. “I remember Merton trying to talk people into turkey wieners” without much success, he said, and the phrase “turkey wiener” became a joke between them.
Stein recalled one occasion when police were called because two teenagers were dancing on the drive-in roof. The pair jumped in a car and headed east on Highway 55, but the city police officer got the impression they had gone the other way when Stein quoted Horace Greeley’s advice to “Go West, young man.”
Nobody seems to know what happened to the Kimball Drive-in. Only a few chunks of concrete that once formed the floor of a small picnic shelter next to it remain.
Like most of its counterparts, its place has been taken by shiny, look-alike chain restaurants with drive-through windows, and about the only things left are the memories.
Editor’s note: Sr. Perspective writer Chuck Sterling lives on the property where the Kimball Drive-in was once located.