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It was a great way to connect with current friends and meet new ones.
It was a great way to express one’s automotive taste and stylings, and perhaps display what you had under the hood.
It was a great way to pass summer time, because when engaged, it felt like time stood still.
There’s never been anything quite like cruising the circuit. Its power as an adolescent activity transcended multiple generations.
For the better part of 50 years, from the 1950s until the turn of the century, as the importance of the automobile in our culture was evolving, Lebanon County was growing up right along with it. Not everyone was cruising the circuit — just the cool kids.
“There were different kinds of people who cruised,” said Cornwall resident Tim Zimmerer, a product of the 80s. “There were guys who were into cars. It was kind of an addiction. I felt like I missed something if I didn’t go in one night. I was more of a car guy. I was into the cars, and the racing. Then there were the partiers. There were some people out looking for trouble, but they were very few.”
“That was our generation,” said local resident Elaine Brandt, who did a good part of her cruising in the 60s. “That’s what we did. We’d start at the Dixie [Drive-In in Avon] or the car wash at Eighth Avenue, and we’d go around and around and around all night. We all had nice cars and we’d drive with our tops down.”
Lebanon’s circuit — or “loop,” as it was sometimes called — really came into its own after Cumberland Street became a one-way street. Following the natural flow of traffic, the Dixie Drive-In became one of the natural starting points, or later, the east-end McDonald’s, or for “Northsiders,” Coleman Memorial Park.
Read More: Why Cumberland Street is one-way, and why it’s unlikely to change
Groups of kids in revved-up cars would travel west on Cumberland Street and make a left-hand turn at Eighth Street, 12th street or circle around the old west-end McDonald’s, to Walnut Street. After proceeding east on Walnut, cruisers would wrap around Hills’ Department Store — now a Home Depot — and complete the loop back at Cumberland Street.
“In 1985, they had just build the east-end McDonald’s, and the circuit went to the west-end McDonald’s,” said Zimmerer. “It’d be bumper-to-bumper traffic on Friday and Saturday nights, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.. At the light at Lincoln Avenue and Cumberland Street, traffic would be backed up to [Good Samaritan]. It’s when muscle cars were still around, and cruising was in its heyday. There were neat cars lining the streets. There were no emails or cell phones. That’s how you caught up with your friends.”
“You would wait until the rest of your gang got there,” said Brandt. “Everybody would be pulling in and if someone wasn’t there, you knew they were already on the circuit. You’d go over the Avon bridge, past the Key Drive-In, into town, turn at 12th and Cumberland and got to Walnut Street. We would always drive that, and we’d end up at the Dixie. Now we’re parked and everybody’s talking.”
For teenagers back in the day, the Dixie wasn’t just known for its special pork barbecue or the French fries with gravy that were brought out and served at your car. It was a place to hang out and catch up on the latest gossip or flirt with the cute member of the opposite gender you had just driven by.
If you were rousted, there was always the circuit.
“It was fun. Our gang used to be called the ‘Dixie Queens,’ because we all hung out there,” said Brandt, who did her best cruising in a Chevy Corvette. “We always ended up at the Dixie. We’d hang out inside our cars or outside. We’d play music, but we were very orderly. You don’t know how many relationships started at the Dixie. Some of those people are still married to this day.”
“The Chevy guys would hang out together,” said Zimmerer, who did his cruising in a 1960 Chevy Bel-Air. “The big, four-wheel drive guys would hang out together. People would hang out at different places, and there were parking places. We’d hang out around the hospital. Gas was expensive, so I’d do a couple of trips around the circuit, then I’d hop in one of my buddies’ cars to ride-share and save gas.
“In 1986, the Lebanon Daily News put out a story that there was going to be a cruising ordinance in town,” Zimmerer added. “[The city police] were trying to close the circuit down. If you went past a certain point three times in one night, you could be cited for cruising. They tried it, but it didn’t hold water.” (Editor’s note: The ordinance, however, still remains part of the city’s traffic code, with violators subjected to a $25 fine.)
By the late 1990s, with the rise of technology, cruising in Lebanon began to fade away as a summertime activity. Today, cruising the circuit is nearly non-existent, simply a fond and faded memory lost on the current culture.
“Around the later 90s, cruising started to slow down,” said Zimmerer. “By 2000, no one cruised any more. People just didn’t want to do it any more. It just kind of fizzled out.
“It was a way to see your friends or just meet up,” Zimmerer added. “We wouldn’t call each other. It was an unwritten rule that you’d see them on the circuit. You’d find them or they’d find you.”
“Some went off to college, but when they came back, they’d hang out at the Dixie,” said Brandt. “Then we wanted to have a reunion there. We met so many people from different areas and so many different walks of life. As time went on, the owner wanted to get out of it. We were losing our favorite hot spot. It just wasn’t the same. It just faded away.”
But to this day, the memories still persist.
In a way, Zimmerer is still honoring that past by living it. He helps manage a Facebook group dedicated to cruising in Lebanon and has helped organize a “Cruise The Lebanon Circuit” event, every third Saturday of the month over the summer — which, appropriately enough begins at A&M Pizza on east Cumberland Street, the site of the former Dixie Drive-In.
“I kind of got tired of the car-show scene,” said Zimmerer. “I like to be busy and I wanted to drive around. We just got some of the old-timers who were still around. It’s a great way to get those guys back together. We just want people to have fun. I credit cruising to a lot of the friends I made.”
Cruising got you where you wanted to go, especially in a societal sense.
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