PUNXSUTAWNEY — Dec. 11, 2011, will live in infamy for many people in Punxsutawney, for that was the day the Punxsy Hotel died.
For the owners, Ken and Toie Neal, it was tragic night and morning.
The Punxsy Hotel was originally named the Glecker Hotel when first constructed in 1908 on North Findley Street.
Toie Neal said she first became involved with the operations of the Punxsy Hotel when her brother, the late John Mizerock, first bought it in 1967.
Ken Neal said that a major renovation was done when replacement windows were installed in the three-story structure, and stone and brick were put in place of the storefront windows.
Ken said he and Toie bought out John in 1973, allowing Mizerock to pursue other interests.
"In 1975, we constructed the Smuggler's Inn portion of the building in the rear, which appealed to a younger clientele," Ken said.
Ken said one of the most devastating parts of losing the building in the fire was that the blaze destroyed all of the sports memorabilia inside, including local softball and baseball pictures and uniforms and memorabilia pertaining to the career of Sarge Mizerock, a Punxsy product who played for the Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros and Kansas City Royals.
Toie said one of her favorite projects was remodeling the hotel rooms on the second and third floors.
"John was the one who removed the front windows and closed it in with stone, which covered over the windows. The windows stayed that way until it was torn down," Ken said, adding that, under Nancy Pucci and the Main Street program, they remodeled the downstairs.
"There were four layers of suspended ceiling that had to be removed; we took it back to the original tin ceiling in the bar of the hotel and took the floor down to the dirt," he said.
Toie said they had remodeled the second-floor rooms, and each had their own bathroom, while the rooms on the third floor still had one bathroom for the entire floor.
Ken said that if you look at the empty lot where the Punxsy Hotel was located, it "looks so small."
"It makes you wonder how that large building sat on that lot," Ken said.
Toie said her job was to run Smuggler’s and keep the books for the restaurant.
"One of my other jobs was to wash the tablecloths from the restaurant," she added. "I took them home the day of the fire, and they are still down in the laundry room waiting to be cleaned."
Ken said the most impressive sports memorabilia he had was from basketball coach Chuck Daly, who was Ken's favorite teacher when he attended high school and went on to coach in the NBA. Daly is now in the NBA Hall of Fame as a coach.
"In addition to that memorabilia, there were local softball and baseball
uniforms and Rossiter memorabilia from the ‘30s," Ken said, adding that a new sports bar — which will be built on the same lot — will have a wall inside constructed from bricks from the hotel and will display sports memorabilia as a salute to the Punxsy Hotel.
Ken said the night of the fire, members of his staff didn't leave the premises until 2:40 a.m., and by 2:50 a.m., the building was on fire.
"Our license allowed us to serve alcohol until 2 a.m.
Everyone had to be off the premises by 2:30 a.m., and the staff would leave between 2:30 and 2:45 a.m. on a regular basis.
“When we got there, the fire was contained to the kitchen. It just seemed to take off from there and spread quickly to the hotel side."
Ken said there was very little to salvage, no bottles and "not even a box of toothpicks;" it was all burned up in the fire.
Toie said she had been using an old RC Allen hand-cranked adding machine that was reduced to half its size from the blaze.
Ken said they couldn't save anything, as the walls were covered with pictures.
"There was an old radio that was standing in the corner that was destroyed in the fire that had great sentimental value," he said.
One of the things the Smiths miss the most, they said, is the people.
"I miss the older people from my generation that would connect with me when I was working during the day," Ken said.
Toie said she waited every day for the bar to open and had the luxury of having older and younger people who came in at night.
"We always tried to be instrumental in my generation regarding sports.
It used to be there was a baseball team in all of the local towns," Ken added.
Ken and Toie liked that after Groundhog Day became a more-famous holiday, tourists got to know and love the Punxsy Hotel.
Toie said that one time there were two people from Notre Dame looking for a room but couldn't find one.
"The only space we had was in the laundry room," Toie said. "So, I let them sleep in the laundry room."
She said people want to stay in town when they come for Phil's big day.
"I feel bad; people want to come, and we don't have enough accommodations for them in town, which costs our business people money.
The Groundhog Club Inner Circle does a great job, and Groundhog Day is now year-round, with tourists making this a destination throughout the year," Toie said.
Ken said one thing he's had to do after running a family business for so long is accept responsibility for what happened, as odd as it may sound.
"When you're a family, sometimes you have to take responsibility for things that happen," Ken said, "I take the responsibility for it burning down, I apparently had done something wrong that may have caused it. Although, we'll never know for sure."
Due to heavy damage, the cause of the fire was ruled undetermined by the State Police Fire Marshall, with the point of origin believed to be above the stove in the kitchen, in the wiring in the ceiling.
"Years ago, I was interviewed by (former reporter) Tom Chandler of The Spirit, and I told him I was going to slow down from working 70 hours a week and just put 50 hours in as I got older," Ken said, adding that it was still a lot of hours — hours he misses putting in.
Toie said she misses working downtown.
"I miss the people and the daily lunch menus and being with my many friends every day in the restaurant," she said.
Ken said that he, too, misses the people, and he also wanted to say thanks to some of those same people who have been there for him and his wife in the wake of their tragedy.
"There were negatives. I had eight to 10 employees, and it was hard to hire people today," Ken said, "I am grateful to everyone who helped us following the fire — you don't realize how many friends you have until you have a tragedy like that occur. I'm thankful that no one got hurt in fighting that huge fire and that none of my employees were injured."
With a new sports bar in the works, one thing is certain pertaining to the Punxsy Hotel: The memories made there will never be forgotten by