Toddle House



TODDLE HOUSE PHOTOS COURTESY MEMPHIS ROOM, BENJAMIN HOOKS CENTRAL LIBRARY

Dear Vance: Is it true that Toddle Houses actually got their start in Memphis?

— K.D., Memphis.

Dear K.D.: I guess you'd have to define "got their start." The company was actually founded by a fellow in Texas, but it didn't — and wouldn't have — become such a success if it weren't for a rather famous Memphian.

It seems folks in Tennessee are always helping out people in Texas. Why, if it weren't for sharp-shooting, hard-fighting pioneers like Davy Crockett, we wouldn't have won the Battle of the Alamo.

What's that? We lost? Oh. Bad example.

Back to Toddle House then. One of the largest restaurant chains in the country actually started by accident. In the late 1920s, a lumberman in Houston, Texas, by the name of J.C. Stedman found himself with leftover supplies. So he went around to little neighborhood groceries and laundries and arranged to construct nice little cottages for their branch offices.

One day, somebody asked Stedman why he didn't turn one of his buildings into a cozy diner, and that's how it all began.

But Stedman didn't stay in Houston. He came to Memphis and persuaded the owners of Britling Cafeteria, which had started up here a few years earlier, to build his restaurants in our city. So for a while, Britling owned Toddle House.

But not for long. Because then he met Fred Smith.

No, not the Fred Smith of FedEx fame. But his father, who had started the Dixie Greyhound Lines, part of the national Greyhound bus fleet. Smith met Stedman and said, "I want in." Or words to that effect. I wasn't invited to that meeting, you see. Well, Smith took over the entire operation, moving the company's headquarters to Memphis and making himself president of the Toddle House Corporation.

"Toddle" House? Why on earth would anyone give such an odd name to a diner? Well, the story goes that Stedman's little buildings were meant to be transportable, and some bratty kid — I believe it was one of the Lauderdale cousins — was watching one of them loaded onto a truck. It wobbled back and forth, and the kid said, "Look, Ma, how that little house toddles!" Stedman was standing nearby and realized he had a distinctive name for his restaurants.

All Toddle Houses were exactly the same — a tiny brick cottage, painted white with a blue roof. Inside, diners found no tables — just a row of 10 stools at a stainless-steel counter. Everything was gleaming steel or white tile, and crammed into the tiny space were fryers and ovens and broilers and toasters and — well, just about everything needed to prepare anything from a cup of coffee to a steak dinner.

Toddle House was quite proud of its hamburger, even calling it "World Famous." Their scrambled eggs were mighty tasty, I recall, but Toddle House merely noted that they were "well-known." Not exactly the highest praise, was it? And as for their pecan waffle? Well, they were "so waffly good."

One thing missing from a Toddle House was a cash register. Instead, the business operated on the honor system. Standing by the front door was a steel and glass box called the "Auto Cashier" and customers simply paid their bill by dropping in their money as they left. And signs made it clear: "No Tipping Allowed."

The first Toddle House in Memphis opened at Cleveland and Union in the 1930s. It was actually called Stevens Sandwich Service because, in the beginning, the owners of the franchises kept their names on their signs. Other Toddle Houses quickly opened all over town — on Poplar and Union and Madison and Lamar.

Business boomed, and in 1947 the owners announced plans for a Master Toddle House, to open downtown across the street from the Sterick Building. This one had 40 seats — four times the size of the original diners — and the interior featured the latest innovations: automatic doors, air conditioning, fluorescent lighting, and something called "Conduction Cookers," which could fry bacon in 30 seconds and ham in a minute.

By the 1950s, Toddle House had more than 200 locations in almost 90 cities. But then came changes. In 1961 Dobbs House, the Memphis company that had its own nationwide chain of diners and handled catering for most of this country's airlines, bought Toddle House. The purchase price of $18 million was, at the time, the largest transaction between Memphis businesses in our city's history.

It was too confusing to have Dobbs Houses and Toddle Houses, so all the Toddle Houses were shut down, or changed to Dobbs Houses, or converted to Steak & Egg Kitchens. Most of the cute little buildings were demolished, though rumor has it that at least one Toddle House found its way to the grounds of the Lauderdale Mansion, where — they say — it served for years as a ticket booth and souvenir stand.

But that's simply not true. People are confusing our mansion with Graceland. It happens all the time.

DEATH AT COLUMBIA

Dear Vance: What is the story behind the curious gravestone at Elmwood (right), blaming a young man's death on the "carelessness" of his fellow students?

— A.N., Memphis.

Dear A.N.: It's not very often that a gravestone mentions the cause of death, much less blames others for their demise. But the nice tombstone for William Eastman Spandow (1897-1922) is inscribed, "Killed in Chemical Laboratory of Columbia University by an Explosion Due to the Carelessness of Others."

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was actually able to find an old New York Times article on this tragedy. It seems Spandow was a Memphian who had earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Denver. In the early 1920s, he was working on a Ph.D. in chemistry at Columbia University in New York City.

On the afternoon of November 17, 1922, Spandow and another student, Reginald Sloane, were working with a gas-fired device called an autoclave, "experimenting in the manufacture of intermediate compounds for aniline dyes." The machinery works under intense pressure, and Spandow bent down to read a gauge. "Suddenly the needle started darting around, showing a sudden activity of the gases, and Spandow instructed Sloane to turn off the supply of gas."

Before Sloane could reach the valve, some 15 feet away, "Spandow opened the valve on the side of the vessel, which the students had been warned not to do as long as there was any danger of flame in the heater."

The autoclave exploded with a blast that hurled shards of metal throughout the lab. Spandow was killed instantly. Sloane was seriously injured, and "the lives of other graduate students in the laboratory were imperiled by flying steel missiles." The explosion blew out every window in the room and rattled buildings hundreds of feet away.

Despite the wording on the grave, the death was not due to the "carelessness of others." In fact, an investigation revealed that "Spandow, who was in charge of the apparatus for the day, in part had at least disregarded instructions given by the professors. He opened a valve on the side of the heavy steel apparatus before a gas flame had died out underneath. A tongue of flame darted into the chamber and detonated the imprisoned gas."

Spandow's body was returned to Memphis and buried in Elmwood. Years later, his mother, Florence Gage Spandow, was laid to rest in an adjacent plot, and her name was added to her son's tombstone. I can understand a distraught mother's desire to blame others for the death of her only son, but that doesn't seem to be what actually happened here.

The young man is remembered, however, by more than just an unusual gravestone at Elmwood. Since the 1930s, thanks to a grant from his family, Rhodes College has offered the William Spandow Scholarship in Chemistry to a deserving student. M

GOT A QUESTION FOR VANCE?

Email: askvance@memphismagazine.com

Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103

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