Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part story that will conclude in next week’s edition of The Weekly.
For many people, it’s hard to imagine Maine without Governor’s restaurants. And 55 years ago, when Leith and Donna Wadleigh first opened an ice-cream stand, they certainly didn’t suspect what it would become.
After three years at the University of Maine and no idea what he wanted to do, Leith took a year off. He began by selling tropical fish out of his father’s store on Stillwater Avenue (on the site where Tim Hortons is today), but soon had an idea: There wasn’t an ice-cream stand nearby, so why not start one?
His father owned a trailer park and rental cabins adjacent to the store, so Leith had a bulldozer shove one up close to the road. In 1959, starting with just $300 Donna had saved while working at UMaine, the Wadleighs bought a used ice-cream machine and opened Cree-Mee. In those days, “creemee” was a Vermont-originated term for what we call “soft serve” today. But the Wadleighs had no idea what they were doing, and when the first customer walked up to the window and ordered a strawberry shake, they froze like deer in the headlights.
It was their friend Leonard Minsky, whose father had sold them their startup equipment, who saved the day. Minsky got behind the counter, pushed them aside, made the shake, and served it.
Things got better, but a late-October snowstorm ended their season. The Wadleighs quickly discovered that nobody wanted ice cream in the Maine winter. Owing everybody money and having no way to pay them, the Wadleighs packed up and headed to Florida in hopes of making some money over the winter to pay off their debts.
Donna got a job at a hotel restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale and Leith drove an ice-cream truck. They began sending money back to their creditors in Maine. The next spring, with their creditors satisfied with their efforts, the Wadleighs returned to Maine for another ice-cream season. But once again, an October snowstorm ended it, and it was back to Florida for the winter.
The Wadleighs knew they needed a year-round business, so they installed a food counter in spring 1961 and began serving a wide range of goodies. Hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, and even pepper steaks and clam baskets were on the menu. The new drive-in burger joint was before big chains swept the nation, and soon became a popular spot.
However, the name no longer fit. “Cree-Mee” was all about ice cream, and the new drive-in restaurant was far beyond that. Leith wasn’t sure what he wanted to name it; he just didn’t want to call it “Wadleigh’s.” A new name soon presented itself.
Leith was a personable guy, but often couldn’t remember his customers’ names and had taken to calling everyone “governor.” “Good day, governor,” he’d greet them, or “How are you today, governor?” Perhaps this was related to the colloquial Britishism of calling people “governor” as a title of respect — typically of one’s employer or any man of higher rank or status.
Whatever Leith’s reason, in Cree-Mee’s few years, Leith became known for it. So while he was wondering what to call the new restaurant, Donna suggested he use his nickname for customers — and Governor’s was born.
Leith wanted a logo that people would recognize, and while he was leafing through an issue of Newsweek, he found an article about how cartoonists impacted society. Featured there was one of the many images that famous cartoonist Thomas Nast had done of Boss Tweed during the Tammany Hall scandal in New York City in the late 1800s. One look at that Boss Tweed cartoon was all leith needed. He’d found his governor. Leith connected with Harry Lloyd, a painter from Brewer, and told him he wanted a character similar to that. The Governor was born.
For the first seven years, Leith worked open to close seven days a week, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas when the restaurant was closed. It was a lot of work, but it paid off. The restaurant made a decent living, and slowly he added staff. Things were looking good.
One thing that cemented Governor’s quality in the minds of its patrons was the dessert menu, which began with its notable strawberry pie, which adorned its signs for decades. Leith had gotten the idea for the pie when Leonard Minsky, who ran Superior Paper for many years, told him about his salesman who had been to Las Vegas and seen a sign for strawberry pie. Leith figured he’d give it a try.
The problem with running a restaurant is you have to be able to cook, and Leith was no cook. He could do short-order stuff — as long as it wasn’t breakfast — but wasn’t good with the oven and certainly couldn’t bake. Luckily, his mother and grandmother were, and family recipes such as graham-cracker pie and chocolate-cream pie came into the mix, and remain classics today.
The other saving grace was Dahl’s Bakery in Old Town, which at first provided fresh rolls daily for the restaurant’s signature Jumbo Burger. At one point, Leith decided to use Dahl’s breads for everything from hot-dog rolls to dinner rolls. Later, in the 1970s, the son of Dahl’s founder came to work at Governor’s, bringing his family’s recipes with him.
And then McDonald’s came to town, practically next door. Within weeks, Leith had laid off all but one of his nine employees, and he was checking the classifieds looking for a job, convinced that his suffering restaurant would soon be dead.
Then, about three months after McDonald’s opened, Governor’s had a good week — and then another, and another. People were flocking to Governor’s, in part because of the McDonald’s marketing machine. The regulars tried out McDonald’s, but came back to Governor’s. Customers who had never been to Governor’s visited McDonald’s and discovered the fhome-style cooking next door. And once Governor’s started getting those people in the door, they kept coming back.
Next week: Governor’s experiences rejuvenation and expansion as it heads into the 1980s and beyond.