The Mearns Era, 1946–1960
In 1944, Arthur and Pauline Mearns moved into 81 Hamilton Street, the house on the corner of Hamilton and Pulteney, which would later be known as the Twin Oaks Condominiums. Like many of the residents of Hamilton Street, they operated a tourist home there. In 1946, Pauline was looking out her back window at the empty field behind her house and decided to build a tea room, "where the students of our college could pass the quiet hours of the day."
According to the Herald, "Pauline and Art, her husband, went out onto the lot, took their staff in hand and proclaimed, 'Here will be Twin Oaks.'"
The name came from the two large oak trees on the property. There had originally been three until one was removed in the 1920s. In 1951, another split in a wind storm and damaged the Mearns’ house, which meant that there were two oaks at the Twin Oaks for only the first 4 years of its existence.
By the time the City Planning Board approved its construction in 1947, the plans for the Twin Oaks had transformed from a tea room into a coffee shop and restaurant with apartments on the second floor.
The Herald wrote, "Instead of the tinkling of delicate Dresden cups and saucers, there is the epitome of modern college relaxation; the roar of the juke box, the knock of the pin ball machines, the shadows of television, the chugerlug of beer and the gentle reverberation and echo of songs, of the long American tradition. Occasionally a student who has homework to do, is seen drinking a cup of coffee with just a little cream."
The restaurant quickly became a favorite spot of Hobart and William Smith students, and was advertised in the Herald as the place “where boy met girl” and “Hobart met William Smith.” Pauline, or Ma Mearns, as she became known to the students, became a trusted confidant. "Everyone told her their sorrows, and she could always be depended upon for some consoling reply.”
On the first anniversary of the business, the Mearns threw a party and over 1500 slices of cake were served; and in the first two years of business, she received letters and postcards from alums in eleven countries and seven states.
The chef at the Twin Oaks during this time was Clyde C. Mathis. Clyde had worked previously as a chef at Sampson Navy and Air Force Base and the American Legion. He worked at the Oaks from when they opened in 1948 to 1968, when he took a job working for Saga. He retired in 1980.
In the early 1950s, several WEOS programs broadcast from the Oaks. In 1951, “Breakfast at the Oaks” aired every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 7:30 to 9:00AM. The following year, in response to student complaints that WEOS was “dull” and “lifeless,” “The Twins at the Oaks” with George Erhardt and Noel Feigin began broadcasting. They would interview people in the restaurant and play records described as “different.” WEOS said that the show was “unclassified and beyond description.”
Pauline "Ma" Mearns passed away in 1952, and Art continued to run the Oaks with his friend Ed McCracken.
The Twin Oaks became well known for their “carry-out service” which was a relatively new concept at the time, and for chicken in the rough, which they first advertised in 1952. A precursor to the “carry-out service” was the Hobart Student Service, which, in 1950, would deliver food to the dormitories between the hours of 9 and 11 at night, except on Saturdays. For the 3rd anniversary of the “carry-out service” in 1955, the Twin Oaks offered a special 6 pound pail of fried chicken with 2 pounds of French fries for $4.75.
By 1954, the Oaks was serving up to 2000 burgers a week, and Art said he considered himself a branch of the Lincoln Rochester Trust Company, as he was cashing over 200 checks a week. Over a dozen couples had become engaged there since they opened, and the restaurant was often the scene of fraternity hijinks. Pledges would be tasked with obtaining waitresses names and phone numbers. Various undergarments would be found on the coatrack and make their way into the lost and found. Two pledges tried to carry one of the pinball machines out the front door, another jumped up on the counter and started dancing, and yet another came in dressed as a woman with a goat on a leash.
In 1958, Art Mearns retired at the age of 59, and the restaurant was run for a short time by Marie Sigler.