I have a guilty secret to admit, one which will reveal me to be out of step with most of my fellow Salem residents (no, it’s not about “witches”): I’m not particularly fond of Salem Willows. It’s got a great history and a great spirit, and I’m always happy when I go there, but I don’t really appreciate it. I’m sure I must be a bit of snob about seaside amusement parks, as I never really appreciated York Beach while I was growing up in York either. I don’t understand chop suey sandwiches, and while the popcorn at Hobbs is great, I enjoy my friend Carol’s just as much. While I can take or leave the Willows, I know that many Salem natives wait eagerly for its opening every spring: they have strong memories and associations which I don’t have, and they like chop suey sandwiches. The other day, I came across an article in a 1941 issue of Woman’s Day in a trial database of women’s magazines that we just obtained at Salem State: it was so enthusiastic about the Willows experience back in the day that I began looking at it in a new (old) light.
The article is primarily about Ebsen’s, established in 1885 and the last restaurant standing on the Willows’ Restaurant Row. By the end of the decade, it would be gone, but it was clearly alive and well in 1941. Since that was such a fateful year, one can’t help but feel we are “witnessing” the end of the era in the enthusiastic prose of Sallie Belle Cox, who was embarking on her second career after making a name for herself as the “cry baby of the airwaves” playing crying babies on radio broadcasts in the 1930s. On one such program, she met her husband, radio writer and broadcaster Raymond Knight, a Salem native. She became his second (of three) wives, and by her account he was horrified that she did not know the glories of Salem Willows in general and Ebsen’s in particular, so they drove up from New York City in the early summer of 1941. While her husband insisted that his hometown was the “one city in the world where they know how to make a fish dinner,” Cox’s image of Salem was “a weird, fascinating place filled with clipper ships and jaunty old sea captains who brought home exotic wives with rings in their ears to annoy all the other natives whose only fun in life was roasting witches on dull Saturday nights.”
Salem native Raymond Knight and his soon-to-be wife Sallie Belle Cox (behind the microphone at left) in Radio Stars magazine, 1933-34.
And straight to the Willows and Ebsen’s they went. The restaurant was packed, its oilcloth-covered tables and chairs the same which had been installed in 1890. They partake of equally-old Charley Ebsen’s Shore Dinners: fish or clam chowder, fried clams, fried flounders, and fried lobster, with potato chips, pickles, ice cream, and their choice of non-alcoholic beverages. Cox finds the chowder divine and furnishes her readers with the recipe from chef Fred Millet, who has also been around since before 1900. She also notes that “the Rhode Island and Manhattan clam chowders are not even considered worth discussing in Salem” and admits that there can never be enough fried seafood.
“Shore Dinners” by Sallie Belle Cox, Woman’s Day, July 1941.