The Dell in York: ‘It was like family’
So, I made the point in a York Sunday News column that White Oak Park (The Oaks) was to the north side what Shady Dell (The Dell) was to the south side of York: The Dell.
Primo teen hangouts in the 1960s and later.
White Oak Park was in the vicinity of the Masonic Lodge, north of York. (Someone explained to me that Interstate 83 and its interchange caused major changes in the terrain around there.)
Where was The Dell? (For photo, see teen hangout.)
On the hill overlooking Violet Hill and South George Street near the intersection of Old Baltimore Pike and Shady Dell Road.
But I’ll shut up and let the York Daily Record’s Mike Argento describe The Dell, taken from his article at the time the hangout’s furnishings were auctioned in 1993:
It was the place to go.
There was no other place like it and probably never will be. It was a ’50s hangout, a place where teen-agers could sip pineapple zombies or cherry phosphates and dance to Bill Haley and Little Richard.
It was a ’60s hangout, where kids could talk about the war and listen to the Beatles and The Doors.
It was a ’70s hangout. And an ’80s hangout.
For four decades, it stood at the top of Violet Hill, a magnet to York’s young people. It was John Ettline’s Shady Dell Restaurant. Or as those in the know called it, The Dell.
You drive south on George Street, past York Hospital and under Interstate 83. You turn right, on Starcross Road, and go up the windy road to the hill’s peak. On the left is a large gravel parking lot, empty now and rutted by weather and neglect.
A large brick Victorian house stands at the end of the parking lot. Inside the house is the old snack bar, with its aluminum, diner-style stove and soda fountain and sleek art deco counter and stools. The front room was where the pool table was. Off to the side was the pink room, a booth-lined room designated for couples only.
Beyond the house is a cement patio and brick fireplace where they held the dances. To the side is a barn that had been converted into a kind of hangout. There were booths and an oak dance floor. A huge red-brick fireplace dominates the one wall. This is the place, the site of the best memories in the lives of a lot of kids who came of age over the past four decades.
Bob Foust was 18 when he started going to The Dell. It was 1952, and there weren’t many places for teen-agers back then. There was the old Elmwood Grill on Belmont Street, where Fat Daddy’s stands today, and there was The Dell. When the Elmwood Grill shut down in the ’50s, that left only The Dell.
It was Foust’s second home. If he wasn’t in school or home, he was at The Dell. But that wasn’t unusual. Anybody who was anybody and anybody who wasn’t anybody went to The Dell. Kids from every school in York County congregated there.
It didn’t matter whether you were a star football player or class president or homecoming queen; at The Dell, everybody was equal. You counted as somebody when you went there.
John Ettline and his wife, Helen, always had time for the kids. They never had kids of their own and the kids at The Dell were like their kids. They listened to their problems and took kids in when they had trouble at home. More than once, they took in pregnant teens who, back in those days, had nowhere else to go.
The Dell sponsored a football team and a basketball team. John Ettline always kept books and magazines and newspapers around and encouraged the kids to read. It was going to be their world, he’d tell them; they should know what’s going on in it.
The Dell had no written rules. Everybody knew how to behave. They respected John Ettline and his place. If anybody got out of line, John Ettline set them straight. He could face down the toughest bully.
The Dell was open almost all of the time, seven days a week. The Dell would stay open as long as people were there. Sometimes, they stayed until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.
For some reason, The Dell acquired a bad reputation. There were rumors of drinking and carrying on, and some said John kept a room set aside for kids to sneak off and exercise their illicit passion.
Foust’s mother heard those rumors. She was working in a sewing factory at the time, and women who worked with her gossiped a lot. They told a lot of tales about The Dell, about the supposedly bawdy things that went on up there among the juvenile delinquents who frequented the place.
One Saturday night, Bob and his sister were getting ready to go to The Dell when their mother stopped them. There was no way they were going to spend their Saturday evening in that palace of decadence. Bob and his sister protested. “Why don’t you come along?” Foust asked his mother. “You can see for yourself. Nobody knows you’re coming. They can’t clean up their act. ”
She said she didn’t have to go; the women at work had told her all about it. The discussion went on. Finally, Foust’s father interrupted, “It looks like the kids made you an offer you can’t refuse.”
She relented and went to The Dell, expecting the worst.
“Mother was in total shock,” said Foust, now a 58-year-old York coin dealer. “The kids were all polite. She didn’t even hear one swear word. It wasn’t anything like she had heard.”
She wound up staying until 3 a.m., talking with the kids and the Ettlines. Foust stopped going to The Dell toward the end of the decade. He had gotten married and he was older.
The time had passed. He remained friends with John Ettline and stayed in touch.
Sandy Moore remembers The Dell. It was the ’60s. Bill Haley and Little Richard gave way to the Beatles, “Eve Of Destruction” and Vietnam protest music. The Dell was a place Moore and her friends could go and be themselves.
A fire was always going in the fireplace and party lights illuminated the outside dance floor. Sometimes somebody would make a run down the interstate to the Maryland Line Inn for beer. The drinking age in Maryland was 18 then.
But there wasn’t a lot of drinking at The Dell. John wouldn’t permit it.
John and Helen were like a second family to the kids there, and Moore was like their daughter. She was there all the time. She even went to The Dell after her prom.
She was 18 when a guy asked her to dance. The guy was Frank Freeman. They went together. In 1966, when Freeman asked Moore to marry him, he asked her at The Dell.
When Frank became sick not long after, everybody at The Dell knew about it and did what they could to help out. People called and sent cards and collected money to help pay for the kidney dialysis Frank needed. When Frank died in 1970, the people from The Dell were there.
“It was like family,” Moore said. “Everybody felt close. At The Dell, everybody looked out for each other. I don’t know that there’s any other place that has the same character.”
Robyn Ritz-LeValley grew up in the ’70s on Joppa Road, just a stone’s throw from The Dell. She’d heard all of the rumors about The Dell, about how it was some kind of hangout for delinquents and bikers. She went to see for herself when she was 13.
It wasn’t so bad, she thought. It seemed like a neat place to hang out. And she really liked John Ettline. He was a good guy, like a grandfather. He always talked to her and she felt she could always talk to him. You were always welcome there. You were safe there.
She had the best times in the barn, listening to the Eagles or Aerosmith and shooting pool. The walls of the barn are covered with graffiti, stuff like “Nancy & Bob” and the initials of just about everybody who passed through the doors of the place. Her initials are up there.
Or sometimes they sat outside around the fire in the outdoor fireplace, talking until dawn. John never closed the place as long as somebody wanted to be there. Sometimes, he’d doze in his chair in front of the TV, with his cat, 3-T, in his lap. He’d tell the kids to wake him when they wanted to leave.
Toward the end, Ritz-LeValley said, a lot of things started to go bad, making it hard for John.
The police took notice. Spring Garden Township Police Chief Spurgeon Lehman knows The Dell well. Used to be a nice place, the kind of place even the police officers would stop at for a cup of coffee or a sandwich.
But even back in 1962, when Lehman joined the force, the police knew about The Dell. There were nights where they’d hand out 100 citations for curfew violations in the parking lot.
Toward the end, it was getting rough. There were a few fights. One night a group of people from The Loop wound up at The Dell and a fight broke out, resulting in a car being trashed.
Still, Lehman can’t recall anything really notorious going on out at The Dell. No murders, no robberies, no rapes.
But there was the fire problem. The township told John not to permit fires in the lower pasture. He told the kids. They didn’t listen. Some of them soaked some wet logs with gasoline and made a smoky fire. The thick smoke creeped down the hill and covered the interstate. Just about every fire engine in the township came out to The Dell that night.
Somebody thought it was burning down.
Kelly Freeman started going to The Dell when he was 16. It was 1984. It started getting crazy. Some of the kids didn’t listen to John.
Kelly always thought John was a cool guy. Every night he went to The Dell, he made sure to say hi to John and shake his hand. One night, John refused to shake Kelly’s hand. Kelly kept trying to get him to shake, but John wouldn’t do it.
Finally, Kelly asked John if he was mad at him or something that he was refusing to shake hands. John looked at Kelly and said, “I just wanted to show you the value of a handshake.” And then he shook Kelly’s hand.
Helen died in the early ’80s, and John wasn’t getting any younger. He closed the barn.
And then The Dell started attracting a bad crowd, punks who would drink and smoke dope in the parking lot, people who had no respect for John. John didn’t change. He didn’t post rules or change how he ran the place.
It was the kids who changed. It used to be if John said something, the kids listened. They respected him. The kids now had no respect. John closed The Dell in October 1991.
Now and then, Kelly will be talking to somebody, an old guy with gray hair and everything, and he’ll mention The Dell. And the old guy will know all about it. And Kelly will look at him with a puzzled expression and ask, “How do you know about The Dell?”
John Ettline died on Jan. 16. He was 86. About 150 people came to his funeral, mostly people from The Dell.
On Friday and Saturday, Ettline’s family is auctioning off all of the stuff at The Dell. There’s a lot of it — restaurant equipment, glasses, signs and just stuff covering a half-dozen long tables set up in the barn.
John Ettline was something of a pack rat. Bob Foust plans to stop by. Sandy Moore and her son, Kelly, said they’d help with the auction. Robyn Ritz is taking the afternoon off from her job at Apple Chevrolet to be there.
She’s hoping to find something in the tons of memorabilia, something that will help her keep that connection to the days of The Dell.
Additional posts on the Shady Dell or White Oak Park:
–Just try to resist this memory-tugging photo of White Oak Park.
–Stadium will be site of The Oaks music reunion
–Wanted: Old photos of teen hangout.
–Memorabilia from ‘the Oaks’ hard to come by.
–Memories of The Oaks pile up.
–Memories of The Oaks pile up – Part II
–The Dell: ‘It was like family’.
–White Oak Park welcomed Blaw-Knox workers .