Life in the fast-food lane

The "Home of the 5-cent hamburger"closed in 1942

Matthew Luby behind the counter at Luby’s “5-cent Hamburgers,” 1224 State St., in the Windsor Hotel building.

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   Montana’s mining economy was in steep decline in 1929, leading Vern Luby, a young messenger for Western Union in Missoula, to eagerly accept a job offer with the company in Bellingham.
   When his son left for his new job, Vern’s father, Matthew Luby, was independently employed hauling timber props and other supplies to the mines in and around Missoula with six teams of horses.
   By 1930, Matthew’s teamster business was struggling as the mining activity around Missoula was spiraling downward following the stock market crash in October 1929.
   As his business faltered, he began to think of moving to Bellingham where Vern was now delivering telegrams by bicycle. Among Vern’s glowing reports of life in his new home was his observation that the city’s lawns were always green, in contrast to the dry conditions in Missoula.
   Deciding that Bellingham offered him better opportunity for work, Matthew loaded his wife, Katherine, and five children, Ella, Merle, Edna, Larry and Howard, along with their possessions aboard one of his wagons to head west.
   With two horses pulling the wagon, the Luby family’s journey from Missoula to Bellingham took three months.
   After arriving in Bellingham, the Lubys settled into a home on Country Lane in the northwest area of the city near the present day airport.
   Matthew established his own business cutting alder trees for home firewood, delivering it with his horse team and wagon. Although times were difficult, this business provided the family’s needs for several years.
   While continuing to work for Western Union, Matthew’s son Vern in 1935 purchased a small restaurant from Charles Schoenberger in the downtown Windsor Hotel as an additional business venture.
   Located on the east side of State Street between Chestnut and Holly Street, the three-story brick Windsor was constructed in 1904 with investment financing by Rev. B. K. McElmon, pastor and founder of the city’s First Presbyterian Church. Hotel lodgings occupied the upper two floors, while the street floor was designed for retail businesses.
   A second hotel, the Laube, was built at the same time immediately to the north of the Windsor, with the two buildings sharing a common wall.
   The two hotels were part of a construction boom in 1903-04 resulting from the consolidation of Fairhaven and New Whatcom to form the city of Bellingham.
   State Street was presumed at the time to become the primary connecting route between the two areas of the city, spurring the construction of several new buildings on the street such as the Maple Block and the Daylight Building in addition to the hotels.
   Hopes for the commercial success of State Street soon faded, as Holly Street quickly became the city’s preferred business route and focus of new construction.
   Known as the Windsor House, the hotel’s first proprietor was Richard Watson. Advertising in 1904 for the hotel emphasized steam heat, electric lights, baths, and rates from 50 cents to one dollar per day. Eventually, the Windsor became a residential hotel.
   Vern Luby’s restaurant, known simply as Luby’s, was located in a small, narrow retail space in the Windsor at 1224 State, against the adjoining wall of the Laube Hotel.
   After a short time of operating the business, Vern realized that it was not making a significant profit.
   He then turned the business over to his father, Matthew, in 1936, who could make use of the living quarters provided in the hotel above the restaurant for the family, reducing their housing costs.
   After moving into the restaurant, Matthew and Katherine focused on hamburgers as their primary menu offering.
   During the 1930s, few eating establishments specialized in burgers, and the Lubys hoped to fill a niche for dining in the city. Their major competition was the Hamburger Express, operated by Bill Wegley in a former interurban railway car at the present location of the Northside Restaurant on Northwest Avenue north of Birchwood.
   Operating as Luby’s Hamburger Shop, the restaurant billed itself as “The Home of the 5-Cent Hamburger.” Although Luby’s forte was burgers, hot dogs were also on the menu, along with homemade chili for 10 cents a bowl and pie for 10 cents a slice. Milk, pop, ice cream bars, candy bars and bags of potato chips could be purchased as well.

Katherine and Matthew Luby in front of Luby’s Hamburger Restaurant on State Street, which they operated from 1937 to 1942.

Luby’s distinctive hamburgers featured a beef patty cooked on the grill, with half the bun on top of the meat while cooking. When the meat patty was flipped, the other half of the bun replaced the first. Onions were fried on the grill along with the burgers.
   A penny gumball machine was located on the sidewalk just outside the restaurant’s entrance, above which a sign attracted passersby with flashing lights. Inside, about a dozen chairs lined the serving counter, along with three or four tables. Decorative ceramic ashtrays in the shape of a bear holding an umbrella upside down were arranged on the counter and tables. These curios proved to be so popular with customers that eventually they had to be chained down.
   In addition to purchasing food, patrons could enjoy several arcade games, and watch short films in a mechanical viewer for one cent. A sign behind the cash register warning customers “please do not ask for credit” was a reminder of the difficult economic conditions of the 1930s. Restrooms were located at the back of the small dining room.
   The Luby family’s living area upstairs consisted of one large room with sections partitioned off by curtains. There was no bathroom other than the restaurant’s facilities downstairs, and the family used the nearby YMCA for bathing needs.
   As one of a very few eating places in the city featuring hamburgers, Luby’s was quite popular, attracting a wide variety of customers for the 1930s equivalent of fast food. The young employees at 20th Century Bowling Lanes, two blocks north on State Street, often came in for burgers after the bowling alley closed at midnight.
   Matthew Luby’s death from acute asthma in 1940 resulted in the operation of the restaurant passing to his wife, Katherine, and daughter Ella. However, profits for Luby’s were hard to come by and in 1942 Katherine closed the business. She then went on to be employed in the 114 Café and several other downtown restaurants until retirement.
   Luby’s Hamburger Shop was the last restaurant to occupy the tiny location at 1224 North State Street. Subsequent tenants have often combined the former restaurant with adjacent space at 1222 to gain more space. Currently, Fairhaven Frames shares the address with Artifact Creations, which is located in Luby’s space.
   Matthew Luby’s son Howard recalls living above the restaurant as a child and is amazed at how many people remember buying Luby’s 5- cent hamburgers as an enjoyable part of being in downtown Bellingham. Howard and his wife were also part of the local business community, operating Exotic Acquaria on Northwest Avenue from 1972 to 1994.


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