Classic Cookie Creators
The Good Old Days at Whitman's Toll House
Ruth Wakefield ran a tight ship. Tighter than most, in fact.
“She was as tight as bark on a tree,” said one former waitress who worked for her at the Toll House Inn in Whitman. Wakefield, born in 1903, never intended to get into the restaurant business. Graduating from the Framingham State Normal School Department of Household Arts in 1924, she entered the American workforce as a dietitian. But six years later, she and her husband Kenneth purchased the old Smith house on Bedford Street, partially constructed by Jacob Bates in 1816 and 1817, and finished later that year by Lebbeus Smith and his new wife, Jacob’s sister, Polly. In those days, that land sat in East Bridgewater. In 1875, as part of the great reshuffling of the former Old Abington, the residents of that small section of town seceded from East Bridgewater to join the people of South Abington in a new town: Whitman.
So Ruth and Kenneth opened their restaurant and ran it for the next 37 years, giving it the fictitious date of 1709 and equally fictitious moniker as a “toll house.” As longtime Abington historian Martha Campbell remembered.
“They opened, first, in the depths of the 1929 depression, and soon became known as the place to get a fine, full-course meal, elegantly served, all for $1. People managed to find the dollars and they began flocking here in droves. The dining room, then, was only the front room of the little Cape Cod cottage. The establishment had to grow along with the clientele. Finally, it encompassed the well-known circular ‘garden room,’ built around a great tree trunk. The garden room windows looked out on the well-groomed real garden, which was a perfection at every season.”
The Wakefields, driven by Ruth’s sharp eye for style, sought artifacts from around the world, with some of their ornamental glassware being photographed for the Woman’s Day Dictionary of Sandwich Glass in 1963. “The service was elegant, the appointments superb, with real linen and silver, and handsome place plates echoing the table decorations. A large hook was provided under each table corner for hanging milady’s purse out of the way,” remembered Campbell.
Keeping the place looking that way was a chore, said the former waitress. Every napkin had to be folded perfectly. The entire wait staff had to work without paper, committing orders to memory. In order to keep up appearances, Ruth trained her waiters and waitresses to never shout out at the tables, “OK, who had the steak?”
Amidst all of this finery, Ruth Wakefield unwittingly made one of the greatest single contributions to American dessert cuisine. Having run out of baker’s chocolate and desirous of finishing a batch of cookies for the restaurant’s patrons, she dropped pieces of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate into the bowl, figuring they would melt. When she pulled the cookies out of the oven, she discovered that they hadn’t and, even more surprisingly, folks loved the cookies as they were. She had mistakenly invented the chocolate chip cookie, although she called it the “Toll House Crunch Cookie.”
Sales soared, and Ruth made a deal with Andrew Nestle himself: the right to print the recipe on packages of Nestle chocolate (which Nestle started to market in morsel form, specifically for cookies) for a free lifetime supply of the chocolate. Chocolate chip cookies became one of America’s favorite desserts. Yet, not everybody had access to them. Our anonymous waitress remembered how at the end of each night, Ruth would bag up the extra cookies and order them thrown out. The wait staff was not allowed to snack on them, whatsoever. One night, though, they took their chance, and ended up paying their price.
“We knew that Ruth wouldn’t be there, so we all put in our order at the end of the evening,” she said. “We wanted a private place in which to eat them after the restaurant closed, and since Ruth wasn’t there, we used her office. Well, guess who walked in. She never said a word. She just looked at what each of us was eating, made eye contact with each of us individually, and walked out. The next week, the exact cost of our desserts was taken out of our paychecks.”
The Wakefields ran the Toll House Inn until 1967. It operated for four more years under new owners until 1971, then closed for good. It burned down in 1984, and today a Wendy’s and a Walgreens occupy the site. Martha Campbell summed up the story of the Wakefields and their Toll House Inn. “Nobody ever really worried about the imaginative date and name for this restaurant. Everybody knew that it was just good promotional technique, and everybody who ever ate there will always remember the days of the Wakefields, which were both ‘good’ and, now, ‘old.’”