Maine's Longest Standing Governor

"Everyone has a story." And if you spend more than a short time with Leith Wadleigh , founder of Governor's Restaurant, you may have the privilege of hearing one. He has, after all, been collecting stories at the restaurant for more than 50 years.

governorBorn and raised in Old Town, Wadleigh and his wife of 55 years, Donna, founded the iconic restaurant chain in 1960.

"I was getting ready to start my last year at the university (UMaine in Orono), and I needed to declare a major. I didn't know what I wanted to do so my advisor suggested I take a year off to figure it out, and I did."

His father owned a grocery store adjacent to the current restaurant location, and Wadleigh spent a year working in the family business. He got the idea to start an ice cream stand on the spot of the current restaurant. "There were a couple of old cabins out back that were in such a shape that the students would not rent them", said Wadleigh. They had $300 that Donna had saved from her job at the university for seed money, so they hired someone to push the cabins together out by the road, bought a used soft-serve machine ("that was broken more than it worked"), and went into business.

At the end of that first season, Wadleigh recalls "we didn't have enough money to pay the outstanding bills." So he and Donna set off for Florida in search of winter jobs. Donna found work as a waitress at the Tropicana Hotel. Leith took a job driving an ice cream truck in North Fort Lauderdale.

A harbinger of his future entrepreneurial talent, he soon noticed that the people living in the area he served with his truck didn't want chocolate ice cream. They wanted lemon. Looking to maximize his profits, he asked his manager to provide him with lemon and remove the chocolate. His manager refused, so Leigh went and bought some lemon extract and mixed his own. His sales soared.

Each week Leith and Donna would gather their earnings and send home money to pay their outstanding bills. They chipped away at them, but money was tight.

"I don't know how they found us in Florida, but we received a repossession notice on my wife's sewing machine. We couldn't afford the monthly payment of $9.64. To this day that number stays with me."

Come spring, it was time to head north and re-open the business. Leith worked deals with their vendors so that they could continue to pay their outstanding bills while getting the supplies they needed to open for the second year.

They continued operating the business seasonally and working in Florida until the third season. That year they expanded the menu by adding hamburgers, hot dogs, and fried clams. This was also the first year they stayed open throughout the winter. According to Leith, the winter was bleak. But then something happened that saved his business.

McDonalds opened a restaurant next door.

At first he thought that would be the end of his business. His crew went from 9 people down to he and Donna. But then his business started to improve. People driving by to eat at the new McDonalds also noticed his restaurant, and they stopped in to check it out. Their sales went up from there.

About this time, they decided to change the name of the restaurant from "Creamy" to something memorable. Leith admits that he has always had a hard time remembering people's names. "I'd always greet somebody with 'How are you today, Governor', and Donna suggested that should be the name." It stuck.

The two cabins that comprised the first restaurant are still part of the building. The original restaurant has been expanded 18 times. Not wanting to go into debt, Leith and Donna would add on to the building, pay for it, and then expand again.

The original building had a shed style roof that sloped to the rear. They eventually expanded to the point that the roof line was becoming too low within the restaurant for people to walk. They had to expand the roof line upward to continue to grow the building.

When asked what the secret to his success was Leigh unabashedly says that he "married the right woman". Donna and Leith raised 2 children. Their daughter lives out of state, and their son, Randy, assumed operation of the business 9 years ago when Leigh retired.

Leith also points to the fact that he and Donna were driven and willing to make the necessary sacrifices. During their first 7 years in business, they did not take any time off. There was a lot of beans, spaghetti, and peanut butter in their diets.

Randy Wadleigh has a slightly different take on his Father's success. "He has the rare gift of recognizing when somebody can do something better than he can. When he finds that person, he gets out of their way and lets them do their job."

Over the years, Governor's has developed a reputation for their home cooked style of meals and for their decadent desserts. Unlike many other restaurants, they still make everything themselves. All of their breads, rolls, pastries, and pies are made from scratch, right on site. According to Leith, they could cut costs by going to prepared foods, but that is not the type of restaurant they want to be.

One look at the dessert case and you can understand the unofficial motto of the restaurant, "Eat Dessert First". According to Leith, emphasis on desserts began when he first saw a revolving pie case. "I saw it, and I just had to have it."

A popular question concerns the history of the Governor's iconic caricature logo. According to Leith, he was reading a magazine and saw a cartoon of Boss Tweed. He took the image to well known Brewer sign painter Harry Lord to see what he could create based on the cartoon. From that image, Harry developed the now well known image of the” Governor". Several years ago, one of Leith's grand daughters asked why the Governor smoked cigars when Leith did not smoke? The cigar was promptly removed from the logo.

A functioning electric train circumnavigates the dining areas in both the Bangor and Old Town restaurants. According to Leith, the train was added as a children's attraction in the mid 70's after another area restaurant added a clown and children's entertainment area.

The photos of Maine's governors were also added in the mid 70's as a point of interest for customers. It seemed a natural idea, given the restaurant's name.

After nine years of retirement, the drive and enthusiasm that brought Leith the success he earned is very much still in evidence. While Randy operates the business, Leith is still a frequent visitor. He still maintains an office at the restaurant, but he uses the office for personal business, preferring to stay out of the day to day operations of the restaurant chain.

He and Donna enjoy travel, and they try to take two trips a year. They also winter in Florida, although Leith returns to Maine the first week of every month for a visit.

When not traveling, Leith works to maintain his health. Actively involved in the community, he swims 2 times a week at an area pool, and he and Donna walk 5 miles every other day. He and Donna maintain a power boat in a local harbor which they use as a "floating camp".

Leith also has an affinity for tropical and salt water fish. He currently maintains 3,200 gallons of aquariums in his Veazie home.

Yes. Everyone has a story and now, you know the story of Maine’s Longest Standing Governor and why he says “Eat dessert first."

Robert E. Pushard Jr. is the Publisher of Hometown Newspapers and CEO of Maine Multimedia Partners.