The costliest sandwich shop on planet Earth, Part 3

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The Mystery Ship sandwich shop / restaurant near the airfield at Bradenton, Florida. Manatee County Public Library System, M01-04287-A

The Felixstowe F-5L which became the winged sandwich stand in the photo above apparently left Miami, Florida, in late January 1931. Its crew landed on Sarasota Bay on the following day and cast anchor near the municipal pier. The F-5L had left Cape May, New Jersey, a few weeks before, with another flying boat operated by Atlantic Coast Airways Corporation of Delaware. Its crew had flown to the Magic City, as Miami was / is called, in order to attend the third All American Air Races held in January. At the time Atlantic Coast Airways Corporation of Delaware wanted to use several flying boats to set up a wintertime route linking Sarasota, Florida, and Havana, Cuba, or other cities on Florida’s west coast.

The pilot of our F-5L, incidentally, was none other Eugene Taylor “Smokey” Rhoads. In May 1919, this former aircraft engineer, allegedly one of the best in the United States Navy at the time, had taken part in the very first transoceanic flight. Rhoads had flown from the United States to Portugal as one of the 6 crew members of a Curtiss NC flying boat. The next time you find yourself in Pensacola, Florida, my sweaty reading friend, you may wish to consider having a look at this machine in the National Museum of Naval Aviation. Please remember that this huge flying boat actually belongs to the Smithsonian Institution, more specifically the world famous National Air and Space Museum of Washington, District of Columbia.

Sadly enough, this writer does not know if the route linking Sarasota and Havana or other cities became a reality. What is clear is that the future winged sandwich shop was not involved. Indeed, it is possible that Atlantic Coast Airways Corporation of Delaware went out of business around that time. In any event, the F-5L sat on a beach for more than a year. As was to be expected, the stranded flying boat attracted a lot of gawkers. A (former?) pilot from Sarasota, Almon W. Griswold, saw a business opportunity and bought it. The F-5L was dismantled and moved to a spot on the road between Bradenton and Sarasota, near Bradenton’s airfield, in August or September 1932.

The flying boat was re-assembled, re-painted and re-fitted as a hot dog / lunch / sandwich / soda stand. A small structure, the actual stand, was beneath a wing. Known to some as the “$ 100 000 Sandwich Shop,” it was presumably the costliest establishment of its type on planet Earth. In early October, Griswold allegedly invited a newsreel crew to immortalize his creation. The entertainment provided on that day included 20 or so young women in bathing suits, a local stunt pilot and a trick car operated by Myron “Buck” Baker, a well known clown from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Griswold’s eatery was formally christened the Mystery Ship no later than December 1932. Whether or not people could actually sit inside the flying boat is unclear.

By 1935, customers could peer in one or more cages containing a number of monkeys. Other wild animals might have been on display as well. One of the female monkeys actually gave birth, in May. Its offspring was quickly named Mystery, of course. In early September, a tropical storm hit the Bradenton area. Blown away from its moorings, the F-5L ended up at an angle to the nearby road. Most of the fabric that covered its huge wings was torn away. The site itself was under almost two metres (about six feet) of water. Yours truly recalls reading that one or more animals, monkeys perhaps, escaped during the storm and set up residence near Bradenton. I wish I could find the reference for that little gem.

As a result of the 1935 storm, the F-5L was put on top of a small building. Months went by. By the middle of 1939, the Mystery Ship had become a breeding place for malice, to paraphrase a Florida state attorney. Numerous crimes had occurred or been planned there, said Clyde H. Wilson, some of them very serious indeed. The attempt he launched by to shut down the place came to naught as its owners voluntary put the key in the door. The Mystery Ship was back in business no later than 1941, however, with larger premises. This building was enlarged yet again later on.

The Mystery Ship was still going strong in the late 1950s but may not have been a place for families with children. Teenagers and young adults, on the other hand, loved the hot music played by visiting bands. The bar and dance hall became the Village Barn at some point in the 1960s. A plastic calf replaced the F-5L on the roof of the building. Sadly enough, the old flying boat, the last more or less complete example of a distinguished family, was destroyed. The calf, in turn, was replaced by a cow in the mid 1970s, when the floor area was doubled. By then, the Village Barn was becoming a haven for country music lovers. A new owner took over the site in 1996 and seemingly turned it into a multi-entertainment venue. As of early 2018, the site was occupied by the Joyland Country Music Club.

The author of these lines wishes to thank all the people who provided him with information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

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Rénald Fortier