The “toll house” from which this famous cookie gets its name was built in 1709 in my home town of Whitman, Massachusetts. The proprietors collected tolls, and offered lodging to people travelling between Boston and New Bedford. In 1930 Ruth and Kenneth Wakefield purchased the toll house and named it the “Toll House Inn”. Having run out of butter one day for a cookie recipe, Ms. Wakefield decided to try chopping up a chocolate bar into bits and mixing the bits into the dough, hoping that the chocolate chips would melt into the dough and provide the oils and moisture that the butter typically would. Ruth didn't know it yet, but she had invented the chocolate chip cookie and the rest is history.
The historical information above was paraphrased from http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/wakefield.html, I don't actually have all that on tap! Now we come to the part of the story that I tell from memory.
By the time the 1980's rolled around the Toll House was strictly a restaurant (not an Inn), but it was still owned by the Saccone's, and it had become a very successful restaurant, often used for wedding receptions and other such functions. This is where I come into the picture. I got a job at the Toll House as a dishwasher/computer programmer in 1984. (Three nights a week I washed dishes, and one night a week I wrote software for them on their office computer, an Apple IIe.)
I really enjoyed working for Mr. Saccone, he was always very kind to us staff. His sons were also good to me and were fun to work with, always cracking jokes and being entertaining. Sometimes I would be the last worker out after the restaurant closed at midnight and would speak to Mr. Saccone on the way out. He must have been dead-tired at the end of such a long day at work but he would take time out to talk to his employees, even a lowly teenage dishwasher such as myself.
In the last few weeks of 1984 (as I recall the year), we (the workers) were informed that the restaurant would be closed for the first two weeks of 1985 for some much needed kitchen refurbishing. The oven stacks needed to be cleaned of grease-residue and much of the kitchen equipment was going to be modernized.
On New Years Eve, 1984, I was working with the crew of dishwashers scrubbing dinnerware and pots at length. It was very late, approaching midnight, but the restaurant was full of diners. At this point very little new orders of food were coming in, mostly deserts and drinks as people celebrated the holiday, but there was something cooking in the oven. I have no idea what it was but I could see the openfaced oven clearly from my work area.
As the orders had slowed down, the cooks had moved down to the far end of the kitchen and were listening to music, chatting, and laughing. That was when we dishwashers noticed that whatever it was in the oven that was cooking had caught fire. Different members of the dishwasher crew including myself waved to the cooks and pointed at the oven saying “You got a fire in there!” I don't think they heard us but they smiled, nodded, and waved back at us.
During this time the fire continued to burn, and though we weren't sure if a small oven fire was serious (we were all just dumb kids working our first jobs), we decided that one of us should go down to where the cooks were and tell them. I can't remember which dishwasher went down there but after he left I went back to washing dishes figuring the problem would be taken care of. Within a minute or so I heard a loud ruckus and looked up, the fire had gotten huge and one of the chefs was running up to the oven with a large fire extinguisher. He sprayed the inside of the oven to put out the fire, and then registered alarm at something. I couldn't see what the problem was, the oven fire appeared to be out. Then I glanced out the window and noticed that outside the building, the fence and street seemed to be illuminated with flickering orange light.
The oven fire had set the caked grease in the stack on fire, the fire had raced up the stack and had set the roof aflame. I ran to one of Mr. Saccone's sons and told him the roof was on fire, then I raced upstairs to my locker to retrieve my jacket and a partially completed crude novel I had been writing which was also stored in my locker (see, I was just a dumb kid–fire on the roof, so where do I go? Duh, upstairs!). On the stairwell I met one of my coworkers running down. I had never seen panic before that time, but there was panic in his eyes. He screamed at me to get the you-know-what out of his way and pushed past me.
Once in the locker room I saw swirls of smoke coming out of the seams of the room, so I wasted no time grabbing my jacket and book and then ran back downstairs and out the back door. There I quickly unchained my ten-speed bike and pedaled across the street where the rest of the dishwasher crew was waiting, among them my good friend Dave. One of dishwashers was annoyed that I had gotten my jacket and not his. I told him that he was welcome to try and go get it. We found a payphone (this was before the era of cellphones) and we each phoned our parents to let them know what was going on and that we were okay.
Meanwhile the Saccone's and the restaurant staff carefully but urgently ushered the diners out of the restaurant. Many of them couldn't believe the toll house was on fire. Some of them had been coming there every New Years Eve for years to celebrate. A lot of them pulled their cars across the street and watched the old place burn with tears in their eyes.
The fire department showed up, but it seemed to take a very VERY long time for any water to be sprayed on the fire. I was told later that spraying water on grease fires was dangerous, as the burning grease will float on top of the water and as a result the fire will spread more quickly. I knew the Saccone's shared my opinion that not enough was being done to save the place when I saw one of Mr. Saccone's sons standing on the roof of the building pulling a garden hose behind him, obviously planning to douse the fire himself.
The fire department wasted no time in getting him out of there. If the roof had collapsed under him, that would have been the end of him. Within an hour the building was completely engulfed in flames. The janitor, who had worked there for 20 years, went a half mile down the street to Billy Condon's Pub and applied for a job on the spot. I knew there was no way the building was going to be saved so I said goodbye to the dishwasher crew, glumly wishing them a Happy New Year, and biked home. Apart from my friend Dave, I never saw any of them again.
The next day my Dad gave me a ride back to the Toll House, and the Toll House wasn't there anymore. Just a mass of burned and smoldering debris. All that remained was a small section of the building at the rear. From across the street I could see my locker, with the door hanging slightly open as I had left it. Also remaining, ironically, was the old sign out with a carving of a town crier ringing a bell, and the words “Toll House Inn, Established 1709″.
Wandering around the perimeter, peering into the ruined building I finally managed to locate my dishwashing station. The enormous dishwashing machine was a twisted lump of metal. I found incomprehensible the thought that the whole place, which had seemed so real and permanent to me, where I had been standing and working 8 hours before, had basically vanished. It was made all the more poignant by the fact that the fire happened in the last few hours before the oven was scheduled to be shut down and removed, and the grease deposits cleaned out of the stack.
The next, and last time I saw Mr. Saccone was on public access television some weeks later, talking about the loss of the Toll House with someone who was interviewing him. He was clearly brokenhearted over the loss of the place. At the time somebody told me that he also ran a Toll House Bakery at another location, so he wasn't completely without income.
The Toll House was never rebuilt, although the sign has been preserved as a historic landmark and it still stands there, to this day at the corner of Route 18 and Route 14 in Whitman. There is a new restaurant on the lot now–a Wendy's.
It wasn't until months later that I began to appreciate how significant a portion of the history of Whitman and Massachusetts the Toll House was. For me it had just been a job.