The Cole Bin in the ’50s

This story and one by Gene DeRoin ’49 on the 1940s Cole Bin, originally appeared in the summer 2000 Cornell Report.

At decade’s start, the “in” spot was George Brown’s Quonset hut establishment, on an alley across the street from Brackett House. But when it closed in 1952, the only hangout for a game of bridge, dancing, smoking, etc. was the white frame Cole Bin (successor to the original off-campus Cole Bin) located in the valley between Armstrong and Pfeiffer Halls.

It was purchased as a World War II nurses’ barracks and its name was a play on the name of then-President Russell D. Cole ’22 and the term coal bin (yes, in the ’50s there still were houses with furnaces fueled by coal, which was stored in coal bins).

1950s Cole BinThe room at the far end of the Cole Bin, housing one of the very few TV sets on campus, played along with the “coal/Cole” motif when it was named the Furnace Room. Being darkened by drapes, equipped with sofas, and closed off from the rest of the building, it soon began to generate its own heat, and coal was not the fuel. (It was rumored that the TV was broken for more than a week, and no one complained, or even noticed.)

Students who staffed the short-order snack bar were charged with retrieving dishes and glasses as well as doing some cursory cleaning of the Furnace Room. To avoid curses from the couples occupying the room, various strategies were employed. One was try to keep your eyes on the ceiling while cleaning up (no easy feat) but during my time as counter person I used the “noisy approach,” knocking chairs against tables in the main room, loudly singing or whistling, and then pretending that I was having trouble turning the doorknob. That usually sufficed to have all but the most passionate pairs establish some semblance of decorum.

With only a handful of student cars on campus it was not easy to find the privacy needed for serious dating encounters. Abbe Creek was wonderfully remote but had a short–nonetheless glorious– season. The also aptly named Practice Houses (two former residences whose rooms were equipped with pianos)–checked on occasionally by a night watchman who was afraid of the dark–also gave shelter to young lovers. At times the only things upright in the practice rooms were the pianos.

But the Furnace Room not only was sheltered from the vagaries of Iowa’s weather, it had sofas!

By today’s standards, perhaps the most shocking situation in the Cole Bin was its unrestricted welcome of student smokers. One senior, a veteran of counter work, said he had considered bringing a canary to work to warn him when the carbon monoxide levels got too high. In the ’50s, with two out of three doctors supposedly endorsing a popular brand of cigarette, student hands also were busy holding cards (bridge was the “in” game), cups of coffee, and Chesterfields for hours at a time, down in the valley behind Bowman.

Business at the Cole Bin had its own rhythm, picking up when the daily (yes, daily) Chapel sessions were held, after a sports event, and on Friday evenings when the smell of fish cooking drove Cornellians away from the Pfeiffer and Bowman dining rooms. Students were allowed 15 Chapel cuts a semester, after which you then had to pay the then-significant sum of $1 a cut. Some daily Cole Bin regulars at Chapel time had connections with certain Chapel roll takers.

Other features of the Cole Bin, in addition to the Furnace Room and food service area with booths against the walls, included a large, hall-like room complete with tables, chairs, jukebox, and Ping-Pong set. Dances were held there. I remember our band, led by Paul Pizner, playing there for events such as a St. Patrick’s Day dance, when we called ourselves Paul Pizner and his Sons of Erin–the fact that a Swede named Carlson was playing the piano was given little notice.

The offices of the yearbook, the Royal Purple, were in the Cole Bin. And overall operation of the place usually was supervised by a local woman who kept the larder stocked and up-to-date.

Ah, but it was the way a relationship would progress–from playing bridge in the snack bar area, to dancing in the main hall, to an afternoon or evening in the Furnace Room–that comes to the minds of many alumni when the late, unlamented Cole Bin is mentioned.

Duane Carlson ’55 retired as vice president of communication for Blue Cross and Blue Shield and is now a consultant in Chicago. He squired his wife-to-be, Ann Holcomb (Carlson ’55), at the Cole Bin.