Double serving of history for Woody’s Diner/Doyle’s Restaurant

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The 1950’s decor remains in the dining car portion of Doyle’s Restaurant in Selbyville. (Sussex County Post/Glenn Rolfe).

 

SELBYVILLE – Doyle’s Restaurant – a popular family-owned Selbyville eatery since 1983 that previously was Woody’s Diner dating back to the early 1950s – has the distinction of being the oldest diner in operation in Delaware.

It’s also where the Eastern Shore Poultry Growers Exchange was hatched.

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Michael Doyle, left, owner of Doyle’s Restaurant, and Jim Sturgis, son Woody Sturgis who founded the business in the 1950’s in a dining car known then as Woody’s Diner, read the state historical marker after Saturday’s unveiling. (Sussex County Post/Glenn Rolfe).

 

Farmers and those with ties to agriculture and poultry industry, history buffs, elected officials and town folk Saturday flocked to the restaurant along U.S. 113 near the Maryland border for a state marker dedication that literally killed two birds with one stone.

“I was a very young boy when I first saw this building and little did I know how much history there was until recently … and how important this is, not only for the Town of Selbyville, but the entire state of Delaware and the United States agriculture,” said Brandon Doyle, general manager of Doyle’s Restaurant.

State Sen. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View, and State Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro, secured the funding for the Delaware State Archives marker, which salutes the restaurant’s historical significance as the “the oldest operating and best-preserved Silk City diner car in the state” as well its role in the poultry industry.

“It was probably about a year ago I got a call from Brandon saying that he was informed he may have the oldest diner in Sussex County. And I said, ‘Well, we’ll look into that,” Sen. Hocker said. “We found out it’s the oldest diner in Delaware.”

The connection between Woody’s Diner’s – a factory-built “Silk City” diner car brought by Woodrow “Woody” Sturgis from New Jersey to Selbyville in 1950 – and the chicken industry surfaced during production of a documentary by Wilmington-based 302 Stories on the Delmarva poultry industry.

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Marion Moore, left, of Frankford, and Carolyn Hudson Hall of Dagsboro treasure their work days as secretaries at the Eastern Shore Poultry Growers Exchange established through meetings at Woody’s Diner in Selbyville. (Sussex County Post/Glenn Rolfe).

 

“This marker is really kind of an unfolding story,” said Rep. Collins. “We thought we were doing a marker for this restaurant; this wonderful restaurant that has provided such marvelous service and really kind of a center of the community for so many years. And then after we got into the process it was found out that it was also where the modern chicken industry basically got its start. So it’s really two big things wrapped into one.”

“I’ve learned more information since all this has started happening,” said Jim Sturgis, son of Woody Sturgis. “We’ve been going through my parents’ pictures; the first dollar bill he took in. It’s very interesting.”

Woody’s Diner quickly became a popular eatery frequented by locals as well as travelers.

In the early 1950s, Delmarva poultry men had a dilemma: many were either not being paid fairly for their chickens, or sometimes not at all. Growers, feed suppliers and buyers began gathering at Woody’s Diner to talk business.

Poultry grower, Irving “I.B.” Hudson, who had witnessed how onions were auctioned off while living in Texas, suggested the group establish an auction that would give local poultry businessmen more control and hold outside buyers more accountable.

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This led to the Eastern Shore Poultry Growers Exchange – a broiler chicken auction that operated from 1952-69.

Hosted in Selbyville and broadcast on several local radio stations, the Exchange played an integral role in the transformation of Delmarva’s poultry industry.

“It was on the air every day at the same time – at 1 o’clock. And everybody in Sussex County would tune in to see who was listing chickens and how much to get for them,” said Frankford resident Marion Moore, who worked for 15 years as a secretary/book-keeper for the Exchange. “I loved it. And every day was fun because the place was full. It was an exciting time.”

As a secretary, Carolyn Hudson Hall of Dagsboro has the distinction of being the first employee at the Exchange. She was 17 at the time.

“I liked working there so much that I didn’t go away to college – as I had signed up to do and had an all-paid scholarship at that time, which was an honor,” said Ms. Hudson Hall. “There are a lot of memories. I enjoyed working with them and meeting all of the different buyers and poultry people. And I learned a lot from them. But here was one thing; the place was always full of cigarette smoke. I never smoked but when I’d go home at night I smelled just like a person that was a chain smoker.”

In 1983, the restaurant changed hands from the Sturgis family to the Doyle family and it was renamed Doyle’s Restaurant. While there has been expansion to the building, efforts were made to preserve this piece of local history so only a few changes have been made to the diner’s 1950’s décor.

The Silk City dining car that’s the anchor of Doyle’s Restaurant was manufactured in Paterson, N.J. – known as “silk city” for the many weaving mills that once produced silk. The diner’s number is 5092, meaning it was the 92nd diner produced in 1950.

Michael Doyle, who purchased the business more than three decades ago, was on among those on hand for the dedication.

“More than 30 years ago my father bought this restaurant from the Sturgis family and has been a working member of this business and an active participant in this community ever since,” said Brandon Doyle. “Today, we would like to honor that tradition with the unveiling of this historical marker.”

Sen. Hocker noted the birth of the broiler industry in nearby Ocean View.

In 1923, Cecile Steele of Ocean View ordered 50 new chickens to replenish her laying flock but was instead shipped 500. Several months later she sold most as meat, destined for restaurants and hotels, at a nice profit. Within several years, the Steele family had 10,000 birds, and thus the broiler industry was born.

“If she (Ms. Steele) could only come back and see where it is today, but I can tell you Sussex County, and probably the entire state of Delaware would not be what it is without the chicken industry,” said Sen. Hocker.

“Technically, the poultry industry began in the 1920s with the Steele family,” said Brandon Doyle. “But a lot of the organized part of it started right over here, with the meetings. And right up the road they had the auction. You have Mumford Sheet Metal when everything went from wood to metal; they were doing all the feeders … and Donald Lynch and his crew making the vaccine. In terms of organized poultry, this is it.”

The first historical chapter centered on the diner.

“Then several months later we had another guy that came down who is on a documentary on the poultry industry,” said Brandon Doyle. “He said all the meetings that were held that started the Eastern Shore Poultry Growers Exchange were all held in this diner back in 1951. Of course the Exchange got started and that’s what transformed what the poultry industry is today. Once archives caught wind of that, then we had to change the text of the marker.”

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Roger Marino of Mountaire Farms sets the stage for Saturday’s historical marker dedication at Doyle’s Restaurant in Selbyville. From left, Mr. Marino, Brandon Doyle, State Sen. Gerald Hocker. State Rep. Rich Collins, Delaware Department of Agriculture Deputy Secretary Austin Short, Drew Slater representing U.S. Rep. John Carney and Selbyville Mayor Clifton Murray. (Sussex County Post/Glenn Rolfe).

 

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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