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June 2014

Ashes Hotel

Tales of a Warrensburg landmark

Driving by Ashes Hotel on Warrensburg’s Hudson Street, I always turned my head to admire the attractive white three-story structure with its green trim, wide second-floor balcony and vintage neon sign. It reminded me of an Old West saloon; I could picture horses tethered to the posts out front. Something about the building called to me—Have I got stories for you.

I had heard that Ashes—no longer a hotel but a bar with apartments above—was a biker hangout, and people I mentioned it to gave me the impression that it was somehow scary, or at least a little rough. If most of them had never set foot in the place, it didn’t prevent them from having an opinion.

Undaunted, last June I took a friend along to see Ashes with my own eyes. Inside it looked like an average bar—digital jukebox, TVs tuned to sports, an old video game, a pool table and dartboard. We were there during Americade, a week-long motorcycle touring rally that attracts tens of thousands of people to Lake George, a few miles away. Only a half-dozen or so custo­mers were sitting at the bar on this week­day afternoon: a few amiable mo­torcyclists from western New York; a lo­cal 20-something trading friendly barbs with the bartender, Di­nah; and a couple of women who worked nearby.

Scary? Pshaw—not a bit. At least, not in the way I had imagined.

After the stories Dinah told me, though, I wouldn’t want to be caught alone in the building after closing. In the wee hours following their shifts, Dinah said she and other employees have heard strange noises—stools creak­ing across the floor, a girl’s voice—and have seen apparitions of a man in a top hat or a woman in a maid’s uniform.

The building must have called to the ghost-hunting author David Pitkin, too. One day he walked into the bar and asked if anyone had ever witnessed paranormal activity there. The employees’ tales are detailed in Haunted Warren County, Pitkin’s final book before his 2013 death.

One person who’s never seen a ghost at Ashes is John Abbale, the owner since 1987. I went to meet him a few months after my first visit, and he didn’t seem too troubled by the spooky re­ports. “I don’t think they’re mean spirits,” he said with a slight smile.

Ghosts, like crooked floors and drafty windows, come with the territory when you own an old building. When Abbale visited Ashes be­fore buying it, “the place was in tough repair,” he said. But he “fell in love with the history of the building, the charm. It was one of the only grand old hotels still intact.”

The building dates to 1888, when Henry Ashe purchased 260 acres and a six-room boardinghouse next to the fairgrounds. He added on to the structure, which by 1906 he had named the Agricultural Hotel. Ac­cording to War­rensburg, New York: 200 Years of People, Places and Events, a new book by the Warrensburgh Historical Society, Ashe held horse races at the old fairgrounds, which came to be known as Ashland Park. In later years it hosted stock-car races. After Ashe’s death, in 1922, his son Maurice took over the hotel and re­named it Ashe’s. (The apostrophe disappeared somewhere along the way.)

Maurice ensured pat­rons were entertained, instal­ling a radiotelephone—only the second one in town—so baseball fans could hear the 1922 World Series. He didn’t let Prohibition get in the way of customer satisfaction, either. An old-timer once showed Abbale the closet under the stairs where the well-connected Maurice, tipped off before a raid, would hide the hooch. To judge by newspaper reports, the ruse didn’t al­ways work. In 1931 Maurice was ar­rested, his ale and liquor seized. The fol­lowing year he was fined $275 for violating Prohibition.

Despite its storied past, when Ab­bale bought the building, he planned to shut the bar and convert all three floors into apartments. But the previous own­er, whom Abbale agreed to let run the tavern for the first year, kept telling him what a good investment it was. He also got an earful from locals who had had their first drink at Ashes, and who were hap­py about the im­prove­ments Abbale had made to the building. He relented.

I spoke with a longtime customer, Lonnie Rumpf, who said his parents met at Ashes in the 1960s, when his dad was a flagger for the stock-car races and his mom came to watch her brother compete. “This place is very sentimental to me,” Rumpf said. “It’s a down-home feeling, like your other living room.”

Though Ashes was “kind of a guys’ bar” when Abbale bought it, he has since made an effort to keep shenanigans to a minimum. “I tell people, ‘If you like this bar, protect it. Don’t trash it,’” he said. It’s biker-friendly, a frequent stop on char­ity poker-runs, but “not a biker bar by any means.” He sees it as “a North Country Cheers, where bank­­ers and loggers and teachers come together.”

But after nearly 30 years Ab­bale’s ready to semi-retire and the building is on the market. “I want to find the right owner,” he said. “I hope to keep [the business] going.”

I wanted to check out the scene on a Saturday night, so my husband and I headed down in a January blizzard. There was supposed to be karaoke, but the snow had kept the DJ, and probably many customers, away. The bartender, a slim young woman with bleached hair, put $20 in the jukebox and left the song selection up to the dozen or so patrons, most in their 20s and 30s.

One woman, undeterred by the lack of karaoke, sang along lustily—and im­pressively—to a Janis Joplin song. “Feeling good was good enough for me,” she belted. And it appeared it was.

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