The iconic Golden Arches, the Big Mac and Chicken McNuggets . . . these are now part of our culture and worldwide symbols of America’s business enterprise.
McDonald’s is synonymous with fast food and hamburgers, but it’s almost forgotten that a big-thinking Mainer named Roland Maheu introduced a small-scale, quick-stop, all-for-5-cents hamburger diner that he envisioned in towns all over Maine . . . maybe even across the nation.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Maheu’s claim to fame was his daredevil flying feats at many air shows. The Minot resident gained fame for intentionally stalling his Piper Cub’s engine high in the sky, stepping out on a wing strut and spinning the prop by hand to restart the engine. That stunt, which he performed hundreds of times, earned him a place in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” a nationally-syndicated daily newspaper panel that featured unique facts.
Will Anderson, author of numerous photo books about Maine places, tells the story of Maheu’s diner venture in “Good Old Maine” published in 1993. Anderson noted that the White Castle and White Tower hamburger stands founded in the 1920s were popular throughout the nation.
On a business trip to Boston in the 1930s, Maheu took note of the diners, and in the following years he developed a plan for the White Streamliner. He had no desire to operate a fast-food restaurant. His idea was to design and manufacture the small, mostly metal structures and sell them.
The plan was to make them small and portable, roughly 20 feet long and 15 feet wide. Their curved corners and rooflines looked much like the familiar shape of Airstream travel trailers that were a common sight on America’s highways in the 1930s.
Maheu’s aviation interests hindered his early business plans. He was a flight instructor of the government for a while, and it wasn’t until November 1941 that he was able to open the very first White Streamliner at 66 Park St. in Lewiston. It was unfortunate timing for the start of his new enterprise. Just one month later, Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor and the public’s attention was now directed to war.
Nevertheless, Anderson’s book said White Streamliner No. 1 did very well.
The newspaper ads told L-A residents they would find “something new and different” at this first-in-Maine diner. In addition to hamburgers and hot dogs, it offered a variety of sandwiches, ice cream, coffee and soda. The book said there was one price for everything — 5 cents.
Maheu’s abilities as a flight instructor took top priority at the time, and around 1945 he sold the prototype to local brothers Maurice and Wilfred Chaput.
Maheu (who was born Roland R. Maheux in 1914 and later dropped the “x” in the name) ran a number of businesses. They included the first school of aviation in this area when he was just 20 years old. He won the New England Aerobatics Championship in 1940. He had one of the state’s first Volkswagen dealerships and he was one of the first to bring television to L-A.
Those businesses in the 1960s were Auto Center on Minot Avenue, Auburn, and Television Center next door. He also ran Motor Home Center nearby, which members of his family continued to operate until recent years.
A Lewiston Sun-Journal feature by Winslow Durgin published last October said he held a pilot’s license for 64 years and at the beginning of World War II he became a captain in the Civil Air Patrol. He died Jan. 16, 1999.
The land on which the minidiner stood on Park Street was sold in 1946 and the Chaputs moved it to Union and School streets in Auburn. They renamed it Chaput’s Diner and operated until 1955.
It’s not known what became of Roland Maheu’s “hand-made little white gem” after that.
“Who knows, it may yet be out there somewhere enjoying new life as a storage shed,” Anderson wrote. “Or perhaps as a child’s playhouse. Or, better yet, as a child’s pretend restaurant . . . where everything is just a nickel.”
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]