Looking east at Boy's Esso Servicecenter and the Blue Light, ~1950. Erwin Park is in the foreground.
(Courtesy Durham County Library)
The Blue Light, and later Sam's Quik-Shop, had its origins in an Esso Station opened at the corner of West Pettigrew Street and Erwin Road by Carl Boy and his sons Sam, Carl Jr., and James. The site had been associated with Erwin Auditorium and the adjacent Erwin Park as the location of showers and tennis courts. I'm not sure what led to the decision to sell off this portion of the property, but the Boy family opened Boy's Esso Servicecenter in 1946.
Soon after opening, a friend of the Boy brothers asked permission to open a hot dog stand adjacent to the Esso Station. The friend did so, but lost interest. The brothers considered operating the hot dog stand, but soon tore it down and in 1949 constructed a drive-in restaurant instead, which they called The Blue Light Restaurant.
1950s (Boy family)
Looking north at Boy's Esso Servicecenter and the Blue Light, ~1950
(Courtesy Durham County Library)
The Blue Light immediately became a popular destination with local teens. After movies on Friday or Saturday nights, teens would drive up to the Blue Light and order typical drive-in fare: grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, shakes, french fries - even a "Fishwich".
The Blue Light was a typical date destination, or a destination for groups of guys. A Herald-Sun article in 1999 clarifies the social strictures of the day for young women:
"Back then, a bunch of girls couldn't just go out to the Blue Light to grab a bite.... They either went to the drive-in with a date or with a group of guys and girls because 'girls didn't go out by themselves.' And unless there was a special occasion such as a school dance, girls had to be home by 11 or 11:30 p.m."
Duke students frequented the Blue Light as well, notably because beer was not available on campus, but was at the Blue Light.
Up to 50-60 cars could park at the Blue Light, and car hops went from car to car taking orders; music could be heard from the Blue Light throughout the parking area. By the mid-1950s, the Blue Light had a miniature golf course as well, although this doesn't seem to have endured for long.
By the late 1950s, cars would evidently make a circuit from the Topps Drive-In - which I believe was on West Main St. at Iredell St. - down to the Blue Light and back. The Blue Light expanded with an indoor dining area as well. An oral history from the Old West Durham website states that the "Rathskellar" was in the basement, which was a common hangout for Duke students.
By the mid-1960s, Duke allowed drinking on campus, lessening the impetus to go elsewhere, and the popularity of drive-ins had waned. By the mid-1970s John Boy and his wife Gerry, who had run the Blue Light, decided to convert the restaurant into a convenience store, which they named Sam's Quik-Shop. By the late 1980s, their son John took over the business. At some point, the houses on the Case Street side of the store were torn down and replaced with a car wash.
My own memories of Sam's date from this era, where I remember it as an eclectic place with decent beer (nothing like they have now) and an absolute ton of magazines, as well as a video rental business. Over the intervening years, the videotapes disappeared, then the magazines, and they now focus on an incredible beer selection - made all the more unusual by finding it in a convenience store.
Sam's Quik Shop / The Blue Light, 04.04.09
If there is any happiness in the Triangle Transit train having been summarily dismissed by the Feds, it was the intent of Triangle Transit to demolish Sam's Quik Shop in its entirety for a parking lot for the 9th Street train station. Why, with the quantity of vacant land across the street, owned by NCDOT, they felt it was necessary to destroy a vibrant part of Durham is beyond me. I sympathize with Triangle Transit trying to meet Federal standards thrust upon them - but this need to provide gobs of parking places around a train station in an urban setting seems to be sort of missing the point - ? We are still trying to persuade them of this with regard to the Graybar building downtown, but it remains an uphill fight.
So I may not be able to take a train to Raleigh to ride their free "R line" bus around their downtown, but I can relax comfortably with a cold Dogfish Head Palo Santo Marron in my hand and be thankful that Sam's is still around. (2009)
While the repeated failures of Triangle rail may have spared Sam's from the wrecking ball, the Boy family sold the parcel containing Sam's to a developer in 2019; the Blue Light/Quik Shop was then demolished.
11.11.2019 (G. Kueber)
Submitted by Rik (not verified) on Mon, 7/6/2009 - 10:27am
The Rathskeller was beneath Tops Drive In. I believe it was more frequented by Duke students than by locals. Tops was located in the shopping center that faces Broad St. The shopping center was anchored by an A&P grocery. Topps was at the south end behind what was then a Phillps 66 gas station at the corner of Broad and Main. Both Topps, and the Blue Light offered in-car dining. The Blue Light even delivered beer to the car. Many of the drive ins had the servers using roller skates.
The large house behind the Esso station was a well know "liquor house" that seemed to get a wink from the local law. It was known as "Ollie's" and I believe was operated by a fellow named Ollie Estes.
In the 60's, teens would drive from Topps to the Blue Light to see and be seen, occasionally venturing out Guess Rd. to Honey's drive in, and down to Avondale Dr. for a run through the Oh Boy and Shoney's drive ins.
CB radios were popular with the locals in the 60's and often we would go to Shoney's for lunch with the first arriving using the speaker on the menu sign to place the orders for those enroute who called their order over the CB radio.
It was Happy Days.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 7/6/2009 - 1:52pm
My husband tells me of the extensive basement that lies below Sam's. he always says its about 5 basements worth, and goes down deeper and deeper. He always feels privelaged to have gotten this tour late one night after closing.
Submitted by Jeremy T (not verified) on Mon, 7/6/2009 - 4:28pm
Wow, I somehow missed that Sam's was on the chopping block. Thank god it fell through, Sam's may be the single best thing about living in Durham. Seriously.
What was the actual reasoning for putting a train station here, when the Jetson's Bus Station and the new Amtrack station are over by Chapel Hill St.? They had already been setting that area up as the "transportation hub," so I can't imagine why they'd want to put a major station several blocks away. When the old Amshack station shuts down, there's going to be a nice vacant lot to fill over there...
Submitted by Steve (not verified) on Mon, 7/6/2009 - 5:12pm
It appears as if the original Esso station was torn down and replaced with the car wash (or at least the car wash is where the Esso station once was). Any idea when the station was demo'd? Where was the miniature golf course?
So glad the TTA isn't going to destroy this place, as its beer selection is amazing (and its prices are great too).
Submitted by devil (not verified) on Mon, 7/6/2009 - 5:17pm
Several years ago I was lucky enough to get the old jukebox that was in the basement of The Blue Light. Had to bring it up from the basement on the old service elevator which had not been used in years--pretty scary -and fun !!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 7/6/2009 - 8:51pm
As a freshman at Duke in 1965 I had an "older woman" take me there (she was probably 23 or so. Sorry, can't share the rest of the story but very memorable recollection of the Blue Light! Thanks for the post.
Submitted by John Schelp (not verified) on Mon, 7/6/2009 - 10:44pm
More memories of the Blue Light...
Hello West Durham. My name is Lois Ramsey. I was born in Durham on May 25, 1935 to J.D. and Nettie Carden. I was born on Edith Street. My mother and father worked at Erwin Mills. I grew up in West Durham and went to E.K. Powe School. We lived on Case Street in Monkey Bottom. I went to work for Sam Boy at the Blue Light around 1956. When I worked there the Esso Station was going full force also. This was also owned by the Boy Family. By this time I had married and was Lois Bennett.
I worked at the Blue Light when we had car hops (good old days) I remember one young man Ervin Hester who later became a newscaster for WTVD. He a was a very ambitious young man. Sam had a room down stairs at the Blue Light called the Ratskeller. I worked the evening shift from 4PM to midnight. When I would get a break I would go through the kitchen and take the freight elevator to the basement to look in the room. The Blue Devil football team hung out there. I had the pleasure of meeting Sonny Jergenson there who later went pro and played for the Redskins. I also got a friend of mine a job there, Gladys Carrington who still works for John Boy at the Quik Shop. This is the only job Gladys has ever had. I met my present husband while I worked at the Blue Light. He was working for Daniel Construction Co. They were building the Biological Science Building at Duke University he was the field engineer. So you see the Blue Light has a special in my heart as does Sam and Gerry Boy. I am proud of my heritage and my home town.
Submitted by Edgemont (not verified) on Mon, 7/6/2009 - 10:54pm
Can't recall Topp's having a basement. Frequented Topp's steadily from 59-63 during my high school years. The cruising during that time was Topp's to Blue Light to Honey's and to Northgate Dairy Mart (on Roxboro Rd) and occasionally to Shoneys (on Aondale). Looked old enough during that time I could actually order and get a beer at the Blue Light, probably when I was 16. Never set foot inside the Blue Light until the mid 90's looking for some out of state newspapers and of course it had been converted to Sam's by then. There was one other place during that time good for a cold beer and some decent BBQ, and that was The Forks which was located between Holloway (Wake Forest Rd) and Miami Blvd where they cross, seems like there is a chicken place there now. Gary, you hear it quite frequently but just want to say thank you again for doing such a wonderful job with Endangered Durham.
Submitted by John Martin (not verified) on Tue, 7/7/2009 - 12:28am
I never knew that there was place under the Blue Light called the Ratskeller. It must have closed by the time I got here (late sixties) because I and my various disreputable and disorderly friends got to know most of the dives in Durham.
For a long time there was a bar called the Hofbrau under Topps. As the name implied, it had a pseudo-German decor with fake stained glass windows showing merry peasants speaking pidgen German: "Wir drinken bier und maken musik," or some such. But it was a good place to consume a pitcher (or more) with friends.
Submitted by Rik (not verified) on Tue, 7/7/2009 - 12:41am
John Martin is right about the Hofbrau, I think it was The Student Prince Hofbrau, but my memory is fuzzy. I do not recall ever knowing about the Ratskeller under the Blue Light. There was (is?) a Ratskeller in Chapel Hill.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 7/7/2009 - 6:25am
Alas, "The Rat" in Chapel Hill closed a couple of years ago and is still vacant. You haven't lived unless you had the Gambler, preferably before your arteries turned 30. Head lettuce with french dressing (no subsitutions) the sizzling platters of flank steak (single, double or triple), equally greasy french fries, garlic bread and sweetened tea. The waiters had all been there at least 20 years.
Pretty much all I remember from the Blue Light is having PBR talls delivered to my car while necking with my girlfriend.
Submitted by Dave V. W. (not verified) on Wed, 7/8/2009 - 5:43pm
My mom was at Duke during the late-40s to mid-50s, when she got her grad degree. When we came down here, she made it a point to take us to see the Blue Light in Durham and "The Rat" in Chapel Hill. Loved the food at The Rat and was very disappointed when it closed.
Submitted by David N. (not verified) on Wed, 7/8/2009 - 6:59pm
Is there any connection between the Durham Rathskeller and the Chapel Hill Rathskeller? My father attended Duke around 1969-1971 and remembers going to the Chapel Hill location. Did it move at some point?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 7/10/2009 - 4:49am
Pretty positive NOT the same one. The Chapel Hill "Rat" goes back to at least the '50's.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 8/18/2009 - 8:58pm
I remember going to the Hofbrau in the late 80's and early 90's to see bands and drink beers as a teen. It was underground to the left of what is now Whole Foods.
Rathskeller in Chapel Hill was a great dive to eat at as a teen as well. I hate to see old places like this close.
I always heard that Sam's Quik Stop formerly Blue Light was a lunch counter/drug store type place.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 9/17/2009 - 4:27pm
I used to pick up kegs of Stroh's beer from Sam's (and also Jim's Party Store) back when I was at Duke as an undergrad in the late 70's/early 80's. Now they have a lot better beer selection then back then. And I can actually afford to buy better beer too, since I have a job, more or less.....
Submitted by Deb & Ken (not verified) on Mon, 5/21/2012 - 12:01pm
My father, Pappy, was night manger at Sam's in the 70s and 80s, remebering going thre for candy and a drink. He loved working there and talking to all the students from DUKE.
Submitted by Joe Broown (not verified) on Fri, 12/19/2014 - 9:41pm
Does anyone remember Tops Top Topper Time and Shoney's Show Time ? These were productions put on by WSSB 1490 AM during the time of Gary Edens and Charlie Brown.
Submitted by formertarheel on Tue, 6/2/2020 - 8:17pm
You never know what you will discover surfing this website--
Way back in 1972, when i moved to Durham to be with my love interest, we lived for a short while with her sister. Her sister had a son, her oldest child. He was about 10 years old, I won't mention his first name, and I never knew his last name. She had two other, younger children, preschool age. I never heard mention of the older boys' father from anyone, including him. After we moved to our own place, I asked my girlfriend who his father was. She said a bootlegger named "Ollie." Well, today, when I read that, I was stunned. It has been 48 years since I met that child-- have to wonder what happened to him. The last time I saw the child was when my girlfriend and I moved out.
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