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ED COLEMAN: Remembering the Elmer’s Lunch era in Kentville

Elmer’s store in 1942 – a combination of lunch counter, restaurant and convenience store. - LOUIS COMEAU COLLECTION
Elmer’s store in 1942 – a combination of lunch counter, restaurant and convenience store. - LOUIS COMEAU COLLECTION - Contributed

When Elmer Skaling purchased a small piece of land on the northwest corner of Exhibition and Cornwallis streets in 1921, he probably didn’t think that the diner he eventually built there would still be serving food decades after he was gone.
Skaling chose the site wisely and with foresight. It’s no coincidence that the place he picked for his diner was on the main route between the military camp at Aldershot and the Town of Kentville. The location guaranteed a constant flow of potential customers going by his door and the restaurant flourished in the late 30s to the mid 1950s, the period Camp Aldershot held thousands of soldiers training to go to war.

Today, only a few seniors remember Elmer’s but for decades it was one of the most popular lunch counters in Kings County. Skaling opened his doors in 1939 and the diner has the distinction of having served food on the site for 80 years; few stores, lunch counters, diners or restaurants in Kings County can make this claim. And while it wasn’t unique, Elmer’s was a step above most dining places in the county. The popularity of the diner, according to stories handed down from people who patronized the store, had a lot to do with his wife Jennie’s cooking and the specialty of the house, Elmer’s famous chickenburger. 

Elmer’s Lunch had a tradition of serving good food and being a great place to eat, but actually it was a combination lunch counter, restaurant and convenience store where you could get a quick sandwich, a cold drink, a pack of cigarettes and on any day of the week, a home-style, three-course meal. Apparently, they made great milkshakes as well. Kentville resident Joyce Palmeter remembers going to Elmer’s with her grandmother just for the milkshakes. “I used to go there with her all the time and I knew Elmer and Jennie all my life,” she recalls. “My treat from Elmer’s Lunch was the special milkshakes they used to make.”

Elmer Skaling and wife Jennie (right) with some of his staff.  It was Jennie’s cooking that made Elmer’s store popular.  - LOUIS COMEAU COLLECTION
Elmer Skaling and wife Jennie (right) with some of his staff. It was Jennie’s cooking that made Elmer’s store popular. - LOUIS COMEAU COLLECTION

Gary Young, a former Kentville resident now living in the Bahamas, writes that the corner of Cornwallis and Exhibition, where Skaling built his diner, soon became associated with good food. Young sent me some of the research he’s done on families in Kings County and I quote from it: “Elmer Skaling became a popular restaurateur and owner of Elmer’s Lunch, which he opened (in) 1939, just in time for the hungry soldiers at Aldershot Camp. This restaurant had many names through the years depending on the name of the owner, among them being Peter’s Lunch, Young’s Lunch and Wood’s Lunch.”

Besides the close-by location of Aldershot Camp, it helped as well that Skaling opened his business when there were few, if any, dining places like it anywhere in the area. There were also few businesses that, like Elmer’s, were a combination of restaurant, canteen, convenience store and fast food joint; this was a rare combination that wouldn’t be common until recent times.  

Before getting into the business of serving food and operating a convenience store, Elmer Skaling (1893-1969) ran a plumbing business in Kentville. His wife, Jennie Coleman (1890-1988) came from a family where serving good food was a tradition. For more than 30 years, Jennie’s mother cooked meals at the county jail and it’s said that vagrants welcomed a stay there just to get one of her dinners. Word has come down that it was Jennie’s cooking, especially her chickenburgers, that made Elmer’s diner popular.

Starting with Elmer’s Lunch, which operated from 1939 to 1954, ten other lunch counter/restaurants have operated at Skaling’s original site, all of them carrying on the tradition of serving good food. From the Louis Comeau collection they are:  Peter’s Lunch (1954-1970); Young’s Lunch (1971-1978); Wood’s Lunch (1978-1984); Hayes’ Lunch (1984-1994); Rodger’s Lunch (1994-1996); Wood’s Lunch (1996-1997); Maud’s Lunch (1997-2003); Snack Shack (2003-2013); North Corner Grill (2013-2014); S&J Diner (2014 to present).

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