Monday, April 9, 2018

Red vs. Blue

I was lucky enough to find this coin on eBay

My recent Festiva trip included a stop at a few interesting places in addition to every operating G.D. Ritzy's, including Farmstead, a former Nickerson Farms location. Nickerson Farms was one of many early travel oases that popped up along the newly constructed American Interstate Highway system in the sixties. The company was founded by I.J. Nickerson¹, a former Stuckey’s franchisee who struck out on his own after he was not allowed to open a full service restaurant in a Stuckey’s. Nickerson Farms restaurants had its own distinctive architecture including a prominent, brightly-colored roof, allowing the buildings themselves to be highly visible from nearby highways, not unlike similar businesses of the era, including Stuckey's as well as Howard Johnson's and Horne's. Locations included steeply pitched red roofs and faux-Tudor accents. The business model was similar to Stuckey’s, including a gift shop and gas pumps (under a red pyramid-shaped canopy) as well as a full service restaurant. Instead of Stuckey’s pecans, Nickerson Farms was known for its honey, often produced on site at each location by live bees in a large plexiglass hive. Stuckey’s still exists and seems to be on its way back to its former greatness, but near as I can tell, the Nickerson Farms name disappeared sometime in the mid eighties. Many of the buildings, however, are still around, converted to serve new purposes. I know of one location that became a church. Another became a porn shop.

I’ve visited two former Nickerson’s location in the past year, Fowlerville Farms in Fowlerville, Michigan, which I covered here, and more recently Farmstead in Marengo, Ohio. While neither provides a complete picture of what shopping and dining at Nickerson Farms would have been like, combined they come pretty close to my estimation of an authentic Nickerson experience.

Repurposed Nickerson Farms signage in Michigan

And in Ohio

Culinarily speaking, Fowlerville Farms is the nearest to Nickerson Farms.  Their current menu is very close to the old Nickerson Farms menu, featuring fried chicken, pot roast, and other comfort foods. Like Nickerson Farms, Fowlerville Farms is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and well into the night, opening at 5 AM and closing at 11 PM every day. The beehive is long-gone, but every entree comes with a small loaf of fresh baked bread and house-made honey butter, as they would have in the Nickerson days. While it's no longer produced on site, local honey is still available for sale in the gift shop. As far as I can tell, Fowlerville Farms has been in business continuously since it opened as a Nickerson Farms in 1969. When they lost the Nickerson name, they painted the roof blue and put up new signs and kept on going as if nothing, or at least very little, had changed.

Where Fowlerville Farms fails to capture the Nickerson Farms experience, is its building. Fowlerville Farms is housed in an atypical building with a smaller than usual footprint of a Nickerson Farms location, perhaps due to its rural location or real estate restrictions. While it's nice to see the Tudor treatments are still present outside, the interior has been thoroughly remodeled, and as I mentioned before, the signature red roof is now blue. There are still gas pumps, but they’re under a modern canopy.

Farmstead, on the other hand, retains its original red roof, gas canopy (Albeit without pumps; Farmstead doesn’t sell gas) and is a more standard, large footprint building. The interior also seems fairly close to the pictures I’ve seen of Nickerson Farms interiors, with many dark-stained turned wood spindles acting as room dividers, and booths upholstered in quilted Naugahyde. Pictures of agricultural scenes adorn the walls certainly feel original, but I can’t verify that’s the case. The only significant updates at Farmstead are renovated bathrooms (which are much larger and more practical than the single-user facilities in Fowlerville) and vinyl siding replacing the Tudor treatment on the few exterior surfaces of the building that are not part of the roof. It’s as close to an original Nickerson Farms building in operable condition as you could hope to find.

The Tudor panels aren't enough for me to ignore the Marathon gas canopy and blue roof.

The dream of the sixties is alive in Marengo, Ohio.

Sneaky picture of the dining room

Even if the tractor picture isn't original Nickerson decor, it feels like it belongs. 

Farmstead’s downfall is their menu and operating hours. They’re open only from 8 AM to 2 PM, unusual for a restaurant visible from a busy interstate. The menu is also basic, and breakfast and lunch are served during separate hours. I came in at 9 AM and was handed a single-page breakfast menu. I suspect the lunch menu isn’t much bigger. With that degree of simplicity and limited hours, I would have expected to be able to order pancakes at noon or a Reuben sandwich at 8:30, but such is not the case under this red roof.

Fowlerville Farms has the ideal menu and business model. Farmstead has the ideal building. If I had unlimited wealth, I’d buy both places, and transplant the entire Fowlerville Farms operation, including the kitchen, menu, and staff in the Farmstead building. I’d put in vintage gas pumps, just for show and get the beehive operational again. I’d hire a team of lawyers to defend me in lawsuits filed by patrons stung by bees. I’d sell only the cheesiest souvenirs, and hand out free bumper stickers, Wall Drug style. Who wants to invest?

I'd totally accept old Nickerson Farms good luck coins too, because I'm a low-level hoarder.

If you're interested in Nickerson Farms, there's an entire blog devoted to it here. It's run by a former employee and includes a list of the location of every Nickerson Farms. There may just be a location still standing near you.

1. No one on the internet seems to know what the "I.J." in I.J. Nickerson stands for. I am therefore forced to assume I.J. is short for Infinite Jest.


  1. This is a fantastic entry, the red roof is still alive in Ohio, I will have to make a special trip up to eat there. Thanks so much for sharing this part of our past.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for inspiring my interest in Nickerson Farms.

  2. Very late to see this (2 years?). Fun read and good nostalgia as my family used to eat at Nickerson Farms in the 70s. I was probably 9 last time we visited one. The beehive was a favorite attraction, and one day I got to see the hive invaded by giant hornets. Live drama! I was amazed with how fast the bees dispatched the hornets - I attempted to count the casualties and got 30 dead hornets to 2 dead bees. That had to be 43 years ago and it's still a pretty clear memory! The bees came and went by a slot in the outside of the building, fairly isolated from people.

  3. We ate at Nickerson Farms going cross country in 1975 and 1978. They had the BEST chicken soup.