Ed note: Etta’s Lunchbox Cafe & Museum owner Timothy Seewar passed away in late 2010. It’s unclear whether or not Etta’s will remain open.
Do you remember what lunchbox you used to carry to school?
I sported a metal Charlie’s Angels box featuring Kate Jackson, Jacklyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd (apparently Farrah didn’t stick around long enough to be thus immortalized). I used it to carry my typical lunch: a peanut butter or jelly sandwich (back then I was persnickety and wouldn’t eat the two flavors together), a cookie, carrot stick and an apple. I’m ashamed to admit that the healthy stuff usually ended up in the garbage.
These memories came flooding back at Etta’s Lunchbox Cafe & Museum. Located on route 56 just outside the Hocking Hills, (which hosted me for the trip), Etta’s is one of those marvelous roadside attractions that you’d kick yourself for missing, if you are ever in the area. It’s pure kitsch, in the best – and sweetest – meaning of the word.
With over 800 lunchboxes with themes ranging from Davy Crockett to Star Wars to the Powderpuff Girls, the Lunchbox Museum is the brainchild of LaDora Ousley, a native of the rural Hocking Hills area. An avid thrifter, she originally bought the lunchboxes to house her cassette tape collection (remember those?)
Those lunchboxes became kitchen decorations, then kept spreading. Now the cook and general store owner often receives lunchboxes in the mail from customers who want to contribute their own memories to the collection.
Viewing the collection is like witnessing the last 50 years of pop culture, in overdrive. LaDora has a whole wall of Barbie lunchboxes, and large groupings of Disney and Peanuts-themed boxes. You really can tell people’s ages by the box they carried: a writer younger than me carried He-Man, while a woman older than me stuck with a simple – and at the time, bestselling- tartan plaid.
And while I don’t know anyone who carried a Bugaloo box, the theme song leaped into my head as soon as I saw it.
Metal lunchboxes disappeared in 1985 after it was ruled they could be used as a weapon, so the industry switched to plastic. The plastic boxes are also more compartmentalized than the open metal boxes that I grew up with, which surprised me. Did more rigid lunchboxes portend the rise of helicopter parents?
And what ever happened to those cool Fisher-Price toys? (I must have owned a dozen of those, including the airport, a circus train and a castle).
It’s worth sticking around Etta’s to try LaDora’s food. Our meal started with a shared pizza that was as delicious as it was filling. I split a turkey melt, while others in our group braved the menu’s Spam sandwich. The meal finished up with a piece of coconut cream pie.
As we ate, general manager Tim Seewer introduced us that area’s Appalachian ties by picking out tunes on his banjo.
Tim and LaDora have quite the menagerie on the property outside with llamas in the back, kittens in the front and chickens walking freely outside.
The lunchbox museum is free; sandwiches and pizzas are almost all under $10 (larger pizzas can get up to $20). While Etta’s doesn’t have a website, they do have a fan page on Facebook. The phone # is 740-380-0736 and the address is 35960 St., Route 56 in New Plymouth, OH. If you love pop culture or just want a few minutes to wallow in your childhood, go.
Now that I’ve revealed my secret lunchbox shame, it’s your turn – what did you used to carry?