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John Nicholson, owner of popular 1950s drive-in, dies at 96

John Nicholson, whose Gainesville drive-in hamburger restaurant was a landmark dining spot and cruising destination in the 1950s and '60s, died Saturday at Lanier Park Hospital after a brief illness. He was 96.

Nicholson was famous for his 13-cent "Nicholsonburgers" and onion rings, sold by carhops in the parking lot at Nicholson's Drive-In, just beyond Alta Vista Cemetery on what is now Jesse Jewell Parkway. He and his wife of 58 years, Mildred, operated the restaurant from 1955 to 1970.

"It really was the hangout back then," said Nicholson's daughter, Jackie Nicholson, who worked at the restaurant on Saturday nights as a teenager. "It was fun. It was our version of the Varsity in Gainesville."

Nicholson also built the Georgianna Motel in 1952 and the Imperial Restaurant in 1957, both located on Atlanta Highway.

He and his wife, who married in 1950, ran restaurants for 25 years before retiring to pursue other ventures, including poultry, farming and a grocery store. His daughter said they got out of the restaurant business as the fast-food chains began to take hold of the market.

In later years, Nicholson could be seen attending Bible class at Central Baptist Church and mowing his immaculate yard on Lanier Avenue.

At 93, Nicholson gave up two lifelong passions: fishing and cigars. The well-known angler sold his boat and refused to buy cigars after they rose over $1 a piece.

In its heyday, Nicholson's Drive-In bustled with the traffic of 100 cars, with city police directing traffic. He employed 18 carhops to take orders and installed an automated patty maker and conveyor belt to char burgers over a grill. He also built a reputation for his specialty: a fried half-chicken that sold for a dollar.

Nicholson and his wife never missed their 13-hour workdays at the drive-in after retiring, though they continued on with other enterprises.

"I've been lucky all my life to get a seven-day-a-week job," Nicholson joked in a 2005 interview.

Nicholson continued to remain active up until recent weeks, and last mowed his own lawn two months ago, his daughter said. He faced the end with dignity and died peacefully, she said.

"The doctor said he was amazing," she said. "He was a wonderful Christian father and left a legacy to our family and to the many people he knew and employed throughout Gainesville."

Little-Davenport funeral home is handling arrangements, which were incomplete at press time.

Retired Times editor Johnny Vardeman contributed to this story.

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