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Landmark building burns down in Saturday blaze

December 12, 2011

Firefighters from the Big Run Area Volunteer Fire Company stand by as flames burst through the upper floors of the Hotel Punxsutawney early Saturday morning. (Photo by Tom Chapin/The Punxsutawney Spirit)

PUNXSUTAWNEY — Sunday, Ken and Toie Neal began the rest of their lives without the Hotel Punxsutawney, which has been a part of their lives since 1973.

“Today was the first day (Ken) didn't get up, get a shower and say, 'I'm going to the Hotel;' that was his life,” Toie said Sunday night. “We wonder where the guys will go for lunch. His brother (Gubby) said, 'I told my wife (Candy), she'll have to start packing my lunch.'

“He's going to miss that with all the guys,” she said. “They would come in for lunch, in the same seats, and they talked baseball; we knew when family members were sick. Where are they going to go?”

The Hotel Punxsutawney — or simply, the Hotel, as it was known by its customers and owners — and Smuggler's Inn were unoccupied at the time of a violent fire that broke out around 2:57 a.m. Saturday. Staff at the two establishments that shared the three-story building at 108 North Findley St. had closed for the evening before the fire broke out.
The Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal said one firefighter was treated and released after suffering a minor injury.

Punxsutawney Fire Department Chief Paul Hense said the firefighter was injured when he was struck by debris falling from the building.

The fire moved so fast that it endangered firefighters' interior attack, as the flames spread through the building's ceiling and ripped through its hallways.

“My biggest concern was for the safety of the firefighters and the people surrounding the building,” Hense said. “It moved so fast, we had to pull people out of there. It just got too dangerous.”

Hense said he was also concerned that the upper walls would collapse on firefighters and bystanders.

Watching firefighters clear debris from the scene early Saturday morning, Ken and Toie Neal were nostalgic about the customers they have served.

“We've had people come in for 30 years for lunch,” Toie said. “Where are they going to go? It was like a social event, and they became our friends.”

The Neals also expressed concern for their 10 part-time employees, who are now without jobs.

“We've had a lot of good employees,” Toie said. “We think we've had the best employees.”

The building that housed the Hotel Punxsutawney and Smuggler's Inn was built in 1903, Ken said. Prior to purchasing the business from Toie's late brother, John Mizerock, the couple lived in Washington, D.C., where Ken worked as a system programmer at the U.S. Library of Congress.

Toie said with two young daughters at home, she and Ken decided the time was right to leave Washington and return to their native Punxsy when her brother offered to sell them the building and business.

“Basically, our parents were still living, and my brother wanted to sell us half the Hotel, so we decided that this was a good chance to get home,” she said.

Guests at the Hotel Punxsutawney would be quick to recall the numerous items of sports memorabilia on its walls, from high school, college, professional and classic baseball, football and hockey teams, celebrating legends such as former Punxsy basketball coach and 1992 Olympics “Dream Team” coach Chuck Daley.

The walls also displayed local sports and historical lore, from the flood of 1996 to PAHS baseball and basketball state championships, among many others.

Toie said most of Ken's Notre Dame items came from their daughter, TJ, who attended the university. Other items Ken found on his travels, and he took many of the photos himself.

Notable pieces include photos of Toie's nephew, John “Sarge” Mizerock Jr., during his days with the Houston Astros and the Kansas City Royals, as well as pictures of 2007 PAHS graduate and current Cincinnati Reds catcher, Devin Mesoraco, which were gifts from his parents, Doug and Laura Mesoraco.

Toie said Ken didn't intend to display his sports items when they bought the Hotel in 1973. That concept arose when they undertook ground-floor renovations, which included tearing out false ceilings and restoring the original tin ceiling above.

“That just came along,” she said about the historical sports items in the bar and dining area. “The dining room was called the Ranch Room, with the wagon wheels, but it kind of doesn't go with the sports items: The Ranch Room filled with sports memorabilia. Along the way, we did some remodeling, and he decided to make it a sports bar.

“Any time he saw something, he'd get a frame and say, 'Let's put it up,'” Toie said.

“The items on the walls will be missed,” Ken said. “They can't be replaced.”

The Neals had renovated the six guest rooms on the second floor, stripping the original spaces to the bricks, and they had hoped to remodel the third floor with exercise and meeting spaces. The third floor, however, was relatively unfinished at the time of the fire.
In the aftermath of the fire, the Neals have been thankful for the outpouring of support from friends, family and customers.

“What a wonderful feeling,” Toie said. “You don't realize it until you go through something like this.”

She said a niece in Las Vegas sent her a text, saying she would be in touch within a few days, given the flood of calls the Neals have received since Saturday morning.

“She said, it's like a death in the family,” Toie said. “That just says it all right there. It's been in the family for so many years.”

Toie said she and Ken haven't made any decisions about what's next. She noted, however, that they are intent on clearing debris from the lot they own in a timely fashion.

“It looks terrible,” Toie said.

In addition to Punxsy Borough Police, the Punxsy Fire Department was assisted at the scene by companies from Big Run, McCalmont Township, Sykesville, Brookville and Reynoldsville. DuBois was on stand-by at Punxsy's station.

Hense said the fire is believed to have originated in the kitchen area between the Hotel Punxsutawney and Smuggler's Inn. How the fire started, however, remains unknown, he said, and the PSP Fire Marshal would again investigate the scene today.

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