Since 1921, the Coney Island has been selling hot dogs and all the trimmings and racking up acres of memories.
My grandparents ate there and so did my parents when they were dating in high school. GHS was just a block down Simmons in their day and mine. My kids had lunch there two decades ago and were highly impressed (though they would've voted for the Golden Arches had I given them a chance). Soon I expect my grandchildren will have their turn; the place was closed the Sunday afternoon my grandson and I dropped by -- but young Matthew was fascinated by what he saw through the window.
And why not?
There's a Christmas tree, a locomotive and a sky full of planes made out of Coke and Pepsi cans. There's a model of a pink Caddie and the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile. The heads of Archie and Howdy Doody peer down from the wall. An old-fashioned pin ball machine awaits its next player. Want to try your luck for a prize on the claw machine?
There's an old vertical Coke machine and an even rarer horizontal one with a circular top for dispensing bottles. The latter sits right next to a Duncan parking meter and a distorting fun house mirror.
But this isn't a museum.
You go for the dogs -- most particularly the coney dog with mustard or ketchup, chili cheese sauce and onions. There are other entries -- Mud Puppy, Maid Wrong, Island Mud, and the Chicago Style -- but the coney dog with pop and maybe some chips is the way to go. (I like mine with Mug Root Beer right from the tap.)
Grab your drink and dogs and you can choose to sit at one of the fifteen stools along the Coney Island's long wooden counter or at one of the fifteen large wooden chairs with round plate--holders built onto their school desk arms. Nearby, the big Wurlitzer juke box will play you a Golden Oldie from the 50s or 60s on a genuine 45 rpm record. Show your kids the Thomas Home phonograph on the shelf above it if you really want to impress them. It played music on a cylinder!
Bill Forrester, the owner since June of last year, enjoys the way kids take to the place when their parents bring them in. ''It's a fun place to work,'' he says. Part of this is that long tradition. Forrester says, ''People love to come back to eat and talk about their memories of the place. I really enjoy that.''
He says holidays and reunion times are best. GHS and Knox grads come back to sample the dogs and relive their youth and to see what's new in the Coney Island collection of memorabilia.
There are original and replica signs and trays for all the major soft drinks -- Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Royal Crown, Dr. Pepper -- but there are some off-beat ones, too. Anybody remember Triple AAA Root Beer? Green River? Norka Orange? Nichol Cola? Sun-drop? Ma's Old Fashion Root Beer? Can you remember when 12 ounces of Pepsi was just a nickel?
So far, Forrester has fared well under the pressure of those 79 years of tradition, and he looks forward to taking the Coney Island into the fifth generation.
Next time you're downtown, have lunch in a time machine. Have a hot dog at the Coney Island on South Cherry.
Just look for the full-scale blinking stoplight in the front window.
Bill Monson's observations on his native Galesburg and the world appear occasionally in these pages. He's an author, critic and lover of hot dogs.