Column #139 - July 8, 2001
MONONGAHELA HOTEL OFFERED A
PREMIER DINING EXPERIENCE
by Glenn Tunney
The telephone receiver was
picked up on the second ring. A lady's voice said, "Hello?"
"Hello," I replied. "This is Glenn Tunney calling, ma'am. I write a newspaper column for the Herald-Standard about Brownsville's history. I wonder if Grace McCune is there?"
"This is Grace," the lady replied. From the sound of her voice, I guessed she was possibly in her fifties or sixties.
"Mrs. McCune," I said, "Joe Lesko gave me your name and telephone number, and he suggested that I talk with you about the Monongahela Hotel. I am writing a series of articles about the hotel, and he told me that you had worked there."
"Yes I did," she replied. "What can I tell you about it?"
"Could you give me an idea of when you worked there?" I asked. I knew that Joe had been a bartender there in the late forties and early fifties, and I assumed she had worked there in that era or later.
"When they opened it up," she said. "But I do not recall what year that was."
Grace's answer confused me. I had not realized that they had closed the hotel at any time, even during the Depression. Yet her answer implied that it had been shut down, then reopened.
"I didn't realize that the hotel had been closed and reopened," I told her. "So I don't know what year it would have been that you started working there."
"Oh, no," she said. "I mean I worked there when they built the hotel."
I considered that answer, then decided that we must not be communicating very well.
"Mrs. McCune, I know when the hotel had its original opening," I said. "But that was way back in March of 1925."
"Then that's when I went to work there," she replied confidently.
I resolved to clear up my confusion by breaching etiquette and asking the question no gentleman asks a lady. "Mrs. McCune, may I ask . . . ?"
Before I could get it out, she said, "I'm ninety-one years old."
"Oh!" I exclaimed in surprise. Then I laughed, "From your voice I would not have guessed that! I didn't think you really meant that you started working at the hotel when it first opened in 1925!"
Grace laughed too, then went on. "I was a waitress in the Coffee Shop when the hotel opened. My maiden name was Davis, and my parents and I lived in Rices Landing. I was about sixteen years old, looking for work, and when I heard about the new hotel in Brownsville, I applied for a job. During the year I worked there, I lived with my cousin Leona Johns on Second Street."
"You worked in the coffee shop?"
"Yes. That was during Prohibition, so there was no bar, of course. Besides the coffee shop, the hotel also had a dining room that served lunch and dinner. The dining room would close around 2:00 in the afternoon, then reopen around 4:30, but we served food all day in the coffee shop. I still remember the uniforms we had to wear, blue and white striped with a white apron."
"So you were there in 1925 when the hotel first opened," I marveled. "What do you remember about it?"
"I don't remember much about the grand opening itself. When it opened, it was supposed to be a million-dollar hotel, and it really was nice. If you walked into the main entrance and down the hall, you would come right into the dining room. It was beautiful, and everything was very modern for the time. The coffee shop where I worked was over to the right, and it was also run by the hotel."
"Were you a waitress for both the dining room and the coffee shop?"
"Oh, no, the dining room had its own waitresses. I only worked in the coffee shop."
"Now, did you say that you only worked at the hotel for a year?"
"I didn't like it. So I went down to Tidball's Restaurant under the old bridge. I worked there for a good while, then I went to work on the river boats."
"Oh, the river boats!" I responded wistfully. "That would be a fascinating life!"
I visualized standing at the boat's rail on a cool early summer morning, gazing at the misty river as the boat silently plied the water, seeing the . . .
"It was very confining," Grace brought me down to earth. "You might go for a month without tying the boat up!"
During the year 1925 when Grace helped open the Monongahela Hotel, and in the years that followed, the hotel employed a large staff. Joe Lesko of Brownsville was bartender at the hotel from after World War II until the early 1950's.
"About forty people worked in the hotel," Joe estimated, "counting maids, laundry room, bartenders, clerks, cooks, bellboys, waitresses, etc. Many of them staffed the dining room and the kitchen."
Thomas Liberator of Portland, Oregon, remembers that impressive dining room, which doubled as a ball room. A 1941 graduate of Redstone High School, Tom visited the dining room in the company of his uncles.
"It was quite ornate and formal," Tom told me. "Linen tablecloths and napkins, palms and flowers about, classy food and drink. My gay blade uncles, wearing their blue-black gabardine slacks with their big-cuffed bell bottoms, used to dine their dates there."
"They called it the Crystal Ballroom," added Joe Lesko. "A huge crystal ball was hanging from the middle of the ceiling, and when they had dances in there, they turned it on and it rotated. It looked like it was made from many segments of mirrors. The food in the dining room was excellent. The hotel had a French cook, a German cook . . ."
Not every diner chose to sample the French or German cuisine though. Jim Vecheck, formerly of West Brownsville (Blainesburg) and now of Severn, Maryland, worked at the hotel as a teenager in the early forties. He remembers one particular diner with unusual culinary tastes.
"One of the strangest things I saw in the dining room," he said, "was a local shoe shop owner who frequented the dining room and regularly had a bizarre order. He always brought his own Saltine crackers and would order hot water and ketchup. Then he would make his own tomato soup!"
Jim also remembered that shiny ball hanging from the dining room ceiling. "When I worked there in the early forties," he said, "it had been broken for years. I decided to get a ladder and fix it. We turned on the motorized ball, and it spun for the first time in years. Many employees and residents cheered as it brought back their fond memories of dances in that room."
Some folks chose a more casual dining experience in the hotel's bar and grill.
Bartender Joe Lesko recalled, "When we first opened, we advertised it as ‘the longest bar in Fayette County!'"
"Why was that?"
"Because it was connected with the lunch counter on one end. Where the two counters met, the bar could be raised so workers could get behind the bar. You could get a drink at the bar, or you could get food from the grill."
One woman who was cooking that food during the late 1940's and early 1950's had a familiar face. It was Grace Davis McCune!
"Grace, you went back to the hotel?" I asked her.
"By the time I went back there to work, I was married," she said. "I went to work for Sam Sunkin and Charlie Long, who were the hotel's owners in the late forties. My mother, Emma Mae Davis, worked there as a cook, and so did I."
"Were you cooking for the dining room or for the grill?"
"Both. I told Sam Sunkin, ‘Sam, I won't go out there and work in the bar. I will not serve drinks.' Sam said, ‘OK, Grace. We may ask you to come over and make breakfast if we're short.' There were booths in the grill where people could eat.
"Joe Lesko was the bartender. He'd say, ‘Grace, come out and help me,' so I would go out and make pancakes or fry the bacon, whatever they desired for breakfast. And I'd say, ‘If they want anything to drink, Joe, you're the guy who's going to give it to them. I'm not!'
"I did most of the baking. I worked five days a week for Mr. Sunkin during the forties, then part-time when Mr. Carlen took over in the early fifties. I'd go in and make twenty-four pies about once a week when they were expecting a big crowd. We had much of the town's dining business, the Rotary and Kiwanis met there, and we often had banquets. And some permanent residents of the hotel would occasionally come downstairs and special order something. Nelson Bowman lived there, and he'd often come down to the grill and say, ‘I want a good steak!' so we'd make it for him."
While many were visiting the Monongahala Hotel to eat, others were arriving to stay the night (or longer) at the big 130-room hotel. Bellboys, maids, day and night clerks, Western Union personnel, shoe repairmen, hat blockers . . . all stood ready to serve the hotel's clients. Next week, former bellboys and night clerks will share their experiences working at the Monongahela Hotel.
Readers may call me at 724-785-3201, e-mail me at email@example.com or write me at 6068 National Pike East, Grindstone, PA 15442.
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