Photograph by Jamie West McGiver
By 5:30 p.m. on a foggy Sunday in December, the Stony Creek Inn was already half-full, the hot dishes crowding the covered pool table and Dot Bartell flitting from one knot of friends to another, eyes and smile radiating more warmth than the woodstove.
Beaming, she bumped and hugged and ducked her way from the food table—“Isn’t it a thing of beauty?”—to the dance floor worn pale and smooth by boot soles and bare feet; to the “yuppie room,” far enough from the stage that customers could hear each other talk; to the corridor that leads from the bar to the kitchen, where staff and visitors ran into each other all night long.
In the kitchen, John Fickel, Dot’s husband and business partner, had three extra-large saucepans of chicken cacciatore and other stews going on the eight-burner gas range and was lifting one bubbling casserole after another out of the ovens. “Veterinarian,” he yelled, sliding a casserole onto the counter. “Veterinarian!” Later, he explained: “That’s someone who doesn’t eat meat.”
Shaggy, with a gleam in his eye like Dot’s, Fickel runs the kitchen with the same readiness to laugh that his wife employs in the front of the house. “I can tell by the ticket who’s out there,” he said, reading an imaginary order: “Gluten-free with this on the side—Oh, that’s Sheila, say hi.”
Normally, they have table service at the Stony Creek Inn, but this night—the Sunday that marks the end of hunting season—was the seasonal closing party. It was also a celebration of Dot and John’s 35th year of running the inn—a milestone, but not yet their last.
“Every year for the last 10 years, my husband says, ‘How much longer are we going to do this?’” Dot said. “I say, ‘I don’t know. I’ll let you know. You’ll be the first to know.’”
Cancer nine years ago—first John had lung cancer, then Dot had breast cancer—did not discourage them. Instead, the inn, so often used as the site of fundraisers for others, became the site of fundraisers for them.
Cancer-free now, they direct money from their biggest annual fundraiser, Dot & Johnstock, to Cindy’s Retreat, which helps people living “with and beyond cancer” pay for healing weekends at Silver Bay and Roaring Brook Ranch in Lake George; and to the Southern Adirondack Musicians fund, which helps musicians and their families who are facing hardships.
“We used to have community Thanksgivings here until Dot and John got the cancer,” said Pauline Gregory, a self-described regular at the inn since the late ’80s. Gregory married her husband, Mike, at the inn in 1997, and the two of them were regulars together until he died three years ago.
“What my husband remembered most about our wedding day was a bunch of hunters brought a freshly killed buck in to be weighed. That was the most memorable thing that happened,” she said, dark eyes flashing in mock outrage. “Something else happened that day!”
Although Dot and John are beloved in Stony Creek, older customers also remember the days before they took over, when the inn was already established as a crossroads hub, a local gathering place and a musicians’ mecca.
The original building on the site was put up in the mid-1800s, when it was run by Richard Rhodes as the Creek Center Hotel. First fire claimed the building late in the century, then—after it was rebuilt across the street—the flood-swollen Roaring Branch Creek destroyed it in 1904. It was known by that time as the Collins Hotel and owned by the Collins family, which rebuilt it again, back on its original foundation. That building, with a few alterations, still stands.
The Arehart family bought the inn early in the 1900s and succeeding generations ran it through most of the 20th century, until Art Pratt, a fiddler, took it over in the 1970s. Pratt hosted square dances, bringing in bluegrass musicians and French Canadian fiddlers and establishing its reputation as a premier spot in the Adirondacks for live music.
The Mansfield family owned the inn for a couple of years in the late ’70s, but when both parents died, it went on the market. Dot was in the Florida Keys at the time, and her friend Gail Shaw called from Stony Creek to suggest they buy the place. When Dot returned, she brought with her the shaggy guy with a friendly smile who had been washing dishes at the restaurant in the Keys where she was waiting tables.
A couple of years later, Gail left to get a nursing degree, and Dot and John took over. “We cashed my first three unemployment checks for our first beer delivery,” John said. “Eight or 10 years ago, we got our first piece of new equipment—an ice machine,” he said.
The kitchen was an addition. To build it, John bought an old carriage house from a man in Glens Falls, cut it apart with a reciprocating saw, trucked it up to Stony Creek and hammered it back together against the end of the inn.
In the early years, Dot and John kept the business open year-round, but they’ve gradually shortened their calendar. Now they close after hunting season—about 50 deer a year get lugged into the inn for weighing, Dot said—then reopen at the beginning of May.
Dot used to work as a home health aide in winter, but with her and John in their mid-60s now, they rest in the coldest months, snowshoeing around their property in the town of Day and “reconnecting with everything,” Dot said.
As the crowd on closing night swelled to about 200 people, with every chair and barstool full and only the corners offering enough room to bend down and unlace your shoes, the Stony Creek Band started warming up.
The five-member ensemble is the inn’s longtime house band, but its roots go back more than 40 years, when singer John Strong and guitarist Hank Soto recruited a bass player for coffeehouse gigs around the Northeast. Soto and Strong are still in the band, with bass player Dave Maswick, drummer Mike Lomaestro and mandolinist Fred Lantz. The band was smooth, sharp and tight, sophisticated and danceable.
When the fiddling started, Kathy Pittelli sashayed onto the dance floor, followed by a smattering of women, but by the second number, inhibitions had fled, the dance floor was full and shoes and boots were being yanked off in corners. “It’s the greatest hometown band ever,” said Pittelli, who has lived “just down the road” for 16 years.
Later, on a break, guitarist Soto talked about the special quality of the inn and the Stony Creek community. “This is one of those places where all kinds of music is appreciated,” he said. “Stony Creek Inn is music central in the Adirondacks.
“We can bring our music here. We’ve got one leg in country, one in rock ‘n’ roll … It’s like a musical gumbo. We make it all kind of fit.”
The clientele is a mash-up, too. “We get limos pulling up next to beaten-up old Ford pickup trucks with a bear and a deer in the back,” he said.
All are welcomed in the good humor that bubbles up from the crowd at the inn. “Up here, we learn to laugh at ourselves,” said Ginette Bailey. She and her husband live in Oxford, Massachusetts, but when they rolled through Stony Creek a few years ago on a motorcycle, they felt immediately at home.
Bailey offered an explanation for Stony Creek’s uncommon hospitality: “There’s no cell service. They have to talk to each other.”
Joe Altman, a cook at the inn for nine years, had another explanation. Altman was hired as temporary help when John got lung cancer, then stayed on when Dot got sick, then never left. With his shaved head, earrings, bushy goatee and striped shirt—and an apron wrapped around his middle—he looked like the mess chief on a pirate ship.
“Where else are you going to go?” he said. “The place where people are like a mom and dad to your kids, to you, to your wife? A place where they love you and you love them?”
Altman seemed to choke up and fell silent, watching the room, where the crowd was eating and dancing and talking like each one of them had to create enough warmth to last until the inn reopened in May.