My family has been going to Lake Naomi in northeastern Pennsylvania for decades. Dad used to visit friends there when he was young and we rented a place for years until my parents built a small cabin in the 1970s. The Pokes, as we call the 2 400 mile² escarpment (6 200 kilometres²) better known as the Pocono Mountains, have an unfair reputation for cheesiness, being known for such things as low-end honeymoon resorts with heart-shaped bathtubs, Ye Olde Gifte Shoppes specializing in candles and Christmas, outlet malls, and most recently, gambling. They are also home to important ski resorts, lush woodlands, rolling hills, lakes, rivers, every imaginable outdoor activity, and, of course, Bill’s.
But let’s start at the beginning. In the late 19th Century, Thomas Miller, a businessman from Easton, started purchasing land in Tobyhanna Township. An avid outdoorsman, Miller was attracted by Tunkhannock Creek, as well as the area’s virgin forest. Frank Comfort Miller, Thomas’ son, hoped that the beauty of the area would prove an attraction for rich city dwellers and in 1888 he opened the Naomi Pines House. Excerpts from the brochure describing the summer establishment paint a swell picture: “Several large springs are … bubbling up from the earth at a temperature of 9 degrees above freezing. This spring is particularly noted for its medicinal properties. Oh, broken down constitutions, nervous people, dyspeptics, those afflicted…come drink of this water and be cured!”
Room and board were $8.00 per week.
A few years later, Thomas and his brother Rufus created Lake Naomi by damming Tunkhannock Creek and started an ice business: the Pocono Spring Water Ice Company. The lake occupies 27 acres with over 3 miles of shoreline. The ice was harvested in December and hand-sawed into huge blocks, each weighing about 350 pounds. The blocks were stored in an icehouse ready to be loaded into boxcars bound for Philadelphia. Thick layers of sawdust insulation could preserve the ice through the following summer. Ice was harvested from the lake until about 1920.
As rail and automobile transport improved, people began arriving at the Lake in greater numbers. In 1902, the first bathing beach was created and lots were subdivided and sold for summer cottages.
The Naomi Pines House was a landmark until it was destroyed by fire in 1949. It was winter and the lake and fire hoses were frozen, making efforts to fight the fire futile. The site remained empty for a decade until a new highway (Route 940) provided the stimulus for redevelopment.
In 1960, Harry Eberhardt built the Lake Naomi Motor Lodge on the site of the Naomi Pines House. A typical post-war motel, it had 6 units in front, 6 in the rear, and an owner’s apartment. A small restaurant was added to the motel a year later. In 1988, the motel was torn down to provide more room for the restaurant, known since 1968 as Van Gilder’s Jubilee Restaurant. Bill’s.
When I was growing up, Bill van Gilder was the Breakfast King of the Poconos. A classic diner, complete with gum-cracking waitresses who called you ‘honey,’ the Jubilee just kept getting bigger until it eventually supplanted the motel from whence it sprung, in the meantime giving birth to a fine backroom lounge area known as ‘the Pub in the Pines.’ If you got to the restaurant before 9 am you could have a double order of eggs, pancakes, bacon, scrapple (It’s like cotechino minus the casing) and sausage for a couple of bucks. That didn’t happen with us much but it was nice to know that the option was there. Aside from breakfast, Bill’s was mostly a sandwich and burger place. The Super Burger Platter was particularly memorable (it came with everything). Meatloaf and hot turkey sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy. Roast beef dip. We used to sit at the counter and eat the world’s best strawberry pie.
Today the counter is gone and so is Bill. He took off with a waitress in the 80s and started up another place down south somewhere. A while later he apparently killed himself. But his estranged family held onto the Jubilee and over the years it has done very well. The menu has gotten a bit panino/rib/wing/fruity cocktail heavy but you can still get the Super Burger, the meat loaf and the hot turkey sandwich. We were there last Wednesday (Mexico Nite!) and Thursday (Wing Nite!) and could hardly get in the door.
We asked the lady at the next table, who was sharing a bucket (literally) of Thai wings with some friends, what time she’d gotten there and whether the place had been crowded when she’d arrived. After offering us some wings, which we swiftly accepted, she explained that when they’d arrived about 5 the place was already starting to fill up. ‘It’s Wing Nite!’ she explained. ‘But whatever. We’re just happy that people keep on a’ coming. We want this place to stay open forever.’ Amen, sister.