The Arctic Bear neon sign shines outside Mathews Funeral Home on Gillionville Road in memory of Norton Johnston, former owner of the iconic Albany restaurant.
ALBANY, Ga. — Lee Norton Johnston, 89, passed away last Wednesday. He was predeceased by a giant ice cream-licking polar bear and a popular family restaurant.
All live on in memory.
A native of Coolidge, Johnston served in George Patton’s 3rd Army during World War II and spent most of his life in Albany. In the early part of 1950, Johnston and his brother Clarence made a radical move that would change the Albany urban landscape and the leisure time of thousands.
“In 1950, Uncle Norton and my daddy went to California to a Civitan convention,” said Mike Johnston, Albany resident and the son of Clarence Johnston. “They saw a McDonald’s drive-in out there and came back thinking about the same thing here.”
That was before McDonald’s came to be in almost every city of any size not only in the United States, but all around the world. In fact, Ray Kroc’s famous McDonald’s expansion wouldn’t begin for five more years, when Kroc bought the rights to the McDonald’s name.
“(The brothers) went to see Mr. Haley at First State Bank to see about a loan for the restaurant,” Mike Johnston said. “In those days drive-ins were pretty much just soft-serve ice cream. Mr. Haley said he just didn’t think a place in Albany could do much with that — selling cones for a nickel each.”
Undeterred, the would-be restaurateurs pitched their cause to C&S Bank and got their start-up funding, Mike Johnston said. On June 15, 1950, the brothers opened the Arctic Bear on the corner of Slappey and Oglethorpe Boulevards. It was hard to miss the place — just look for the sign — a neon polar bear licking a gigantic ice cream cone. Norton Johnston was 29 years old.
You could hardly call it a “restaurant” then. It was really just an ice cream stand, with soft-serve cones the single item on the menu. Later on the Johnstons added hot dogs and their famous homemade burgers. Ultimately, three sizes were available: The Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear. One them had to be just right, the brothers figured.
According to past Herald interviews with Norton Johnston, while McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants were charging 15 cents for “frozen patty” burgers, The Arctic Bear’s bigger burgers were made from scratch, included a “special ingredient,” and sold for a quarter each. For economic reasons, the homemade patties were replaced with frozen in the late 1970s. That was also the decade Clarence Johnston sold his “Bear share” to his brother Norton.
In the early days, “the Bear” had been a hangout for area teens but eventually, with expanded seating and additional menu items, Johnston’s dream became more of family restaurant.
In 1989 when Johnston was growing older and wanted to retire, he sold the building to “a young man who didn’t work out,” according to a Herald interview with Johnston. After just seven months of “retirement,” Johnston was forced to step back into the business. For “financial reasons,” The Albany landmark got a new name: The Polar Bear.
Finally, to the heartbreak of thousands who had grown up with the Bear, on April 8, 1995 it finally closed its doors. In its place today stands a Checkers drive-through, specializing in low-cost hamburgers and fries.
In 2005, Realizing its widespread recognition, Albany real estate developer Peter Studl negotiated with Johnston for rights to the Arctic Bear name. According to Herald articles of the day, Studle’s offers never went high enough for Johnston and no deal was ever reached.
In 2006, Albany-based Easter Seals of Southern Georgia created 24-karat gold over brass Christmas tree ornament to help raise funds for the organization. It featured a happy polar bear licking a gigantic ice cream cone. According to Easter Seals, it sold out.
The original “ice cream bear” sign was saved and some years ago was donated to Albany’s Thronateeska Heritage Center, where it remains for all to see.
This week sign has been wheeled out, though, and will stand at Johnston’s funeral at Gillionville Baptist Church today — a silent testament to the man who made it famous.