Facing demolition, old McDonald's was 'one of the first'

The McDonald's in Beverly when it opened in 1963.Photo courtesy of Stephen Reynolds

BEVERLY — When the former McDonald's on Water Street is demolished to make way for a new restaurant in the next month or so, nobody will lament the loss of the deteriorating building that has long stood as a symbol of the city's underutilized waterfront.

But at the very least, its impending demise has sparked memories of a place that helped usher in the fast-food era on the North Shore.

Former employees said the McDonald's was the first one on the North Shore when it opened in 1963. Built with the now-famous (and now long-gone) golden arches, the restaurant was a curiosity that drew long lines of customers, said Gary Eckmann, who started working there as a 16-year-old a couple of months after it opened.

"The line would be out to the road," Eckmann said. "It was a success from the day it opened."

Stephen Reynolds, who started working there as a teenager in 1966, said all of the McDonald's restaurants were assigned a corporate number based on when they were built. He recalled that the Beverly site was the 525th "out of all the McDonald's in the world."

"It was definitely one of the first in Massachusetts, and certainly the first McDonald's on the North Shore," he said.

Reynolds, who is the oldest of eight children, said he and his siblings used to ride their bikes to the McDonald's from their home in Ryal Side.

"A three-course meal was 37 cents," he said. "Burgers were 15 cents, fries were 12 cents, and drinks were 10 cents."

Eckmann said the McDonald's became a destination for young people, part of the Friday and Saturday night "cruising" scene.

"If you were out with your friends or your girlfriend, you had to go to McDonald's to see who was there," he said. "It was a novelty."

Doug Gerry, whose family owned the land and leased it to McDonald's, said the restaurant was popular for more than just the cheap food.

"It was a hangout for any of the guys in the '60s," he said.

Reynolds pointed out that it was one of the few McDonald's in the country that was accessible by boat.

After starting out as teenagers making milk shakes and toasting buns, both Reynolds and Eckmann went on to long careers with McDonald's.

Reynolds worked for the company for 20 years, rising to director of national personnel in training at McDonald's headquarters in Illinois. In 1988, he helped organize a 25th anniversary celebration of the Beverly McDonald's that was was attended by former employees and Beverly state Rep. Fran Alexander.

Eckmann worked for McDonald's for 54 years until retiring two years ago. He also worked at corporate headquarters in Chicago and ended up owning 10 franchises in the Bangor, Maine, area. His son, also named Gary, now owns three of them.

The McDonald's, which is located at the foot of the Beverly-Salem bridge, closed in 1994 when a road realignment necessitated by construction of the new bridge made it more difficult for cars to get in and out of the parking lot. The city bought the property and has been trying for years to get a new restaurant built on the site.

That appears to finally be happening, with the approval process for a restaurant called Mission Boathouse underway and a hoped-for opening of next summer. Mike Collins, the city's commissioner of public works and engineering, said the city is planning to demolish the McDonald's building "in the next month or so." A wall mural painting by artist Emile Gruppe inside the building will be removed, restored and installed in the Beverly Public Library.

Bill Finch, the chairman of the city's Historic District Commission, said the building has some cultural significance as one of the earlier McDonald's buildings, but added, "It's kind of lost its integrity as a commercial archaeological artifact."

Eckmann, who lives in Maine, was not particularly sad when informed that the old McDonald's would be coming down. But he did acknowledge that whenever he comes back to Beverly, he goes out of his way to drive by the place and give it a wave.

"It was the start of my working life," he said. "It certainly worked out for me."

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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