The Exchange Hotel of Apalachin
In terms of blues and barbecue, it doesn’t get much better than this – but it did. That’s when a familiar guitar strain echoed through the room. It was the opening to the classic blues song “Red House,” and it brought the house down. Red House is the story of a man that returns after being away, only to find his girlfriend’s house empty and the door locked. The song would prove prophetic.
A few weeks later I drove back to the Smokehouse, but this time the building was closed and dark, the door was locked. As the song goes, “Wait a minute, something’s wrong here.”
It was not the first time this building had gone silent. In fact, the Exchange Hotel as it was formerly known, exchanged owners more than two dozen times since it first opened and has gone under several names.
Potato farming and lumbering were the main activities at that time. In addition to Steele’s shop, hotel and tavern, there were other businesses: a village blacksmith and “Frisbee’s Wagon Shop.” Together they made up Apalachin’s early business district – what was then called “the Corners.”
Situated on the Owego and Montrose Turnpike, the hotel was in an ideal location. Things seemed even more promising when the Erie Railroad announced plans to run tracks along the north bank of the Susquehanna River and construct a depot just across from the hotel. Seizing the opportunity, Steele and his partner formed a stock company and, in 1849, built a bridge.
It must have been quite a disappointment when the depot was eventually built a few miles down stream – but the worst was yet to come. According to Town of Owego Historian Emma Sedore, shortly after completion a flood washed part of the bridge away. After repair, a farmer and his team broke through the bridge, fell into the river and sued the stock company, and soon after another flood washed the bridge completely away.
During the Civil War, John Barnaby purchased the hotel and converted it into an exclusive school. After a few years “Barnaby Academy” closed and it reverted back to a hotel and tavern.
In the early 1920’s a gas pump was installed out front and it became the first building in town to receive radio broadcasts, said Sedore. “When motorists stopped to buy gasoline, they would put on headphones and hear a radio broadcast for the first time in their lives.”
Apalachin Tavern was the place to be on Friday and Saturday nights. During the 1940’s the community turned out for square dancing with the “Chuck Wagon Boys.” Two decades later the crowd enjoyed country music of Dick and Bill Ely.
In 1957 an infamous mafia meeting and raid at the Apalachin estate of Joe Barbara brought national attention to organized crime, and to this small community. The tavern shared in the limelight.
At that time, owner Milo Kirch was asked if all the attention had boosted business. “Oh yeah…” he said, “People stop, want to know where Barbara’s place is, have a few beers. They know Apalachin all over the world now, before that they never heard of it.”
Twenty years ago realtor Marjorie Korteweg of New Jersey, bought the tavern. She had plans to relocate to the area, but by then the tavern was attracting a tougher crowd. Soon after opening under new management, an altercation in the parking lot resulted in the death of a young Apalachin man.
The tavern continued to operate for a few years. “I’m afraid it has fallen on hard times,” said Korteweg, who still owns the property. Since the Smokehouse door was locked in 2003, the old “red house” in Apalachin has remained closed.
Today the building is empty. The upstairs rooms have been altered over the years, windows have been replaced and suspended ceilings installed. “A new roof was put on a couple years ago,” Korteweg said, adding that the building is winterized and electricity has been kept on.
Large wooden planks form the floor of the attic. Above, heavy hewn timber used in pre-Civil War construction is held in place with large wooden pegs, hand-chiseled into shape. The fieldstone foundation looks nearly as it did 175 years ago. Overall, the building appears to be structurally solid.
In a corner of the large dance floor a small stage sits empty, the room is silent. It was on this stage that the Chuck Wagon Boys, Ely brothers, Badweather Blues, and countless others brought this big red house to life each weekend.
Apalachin artist Eda Brent, who did a painting of the hotel a few years ago, wants the building brought back to life. It could be saved, “like the old school and jailhouse in Owego,” she said. “It could be a destination.”
Owner Marjorie Korteweg agrees, as does long time resident Robert Collins, who remembers frequenting the tavern fifty years ago. “Somebody could clean it up, run it as a bar, serve dinner at a working-man’s price – maybe add a pick-up window for hot pies,” it could work, he said.
Now, if it just had a catchy name…