Elderly New York Residents Return Home After Fire

They ate filet mignon and lobster for dinner and slept in $500-a-night rooms. When they weren't relaxing on a sun-kissed verandah overlooking the serene upstate New York lake immortalized by James Fenimore Cooper, they hobnobbed with baseball legends.


COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) -- They ate filet mignon and lobster for dinner and slept in $500-a-night rooms. When they weren't relaxing on a sun-kissed verandah overlooking the serene upstate New York lake immortalized by James Fenimore Cooper, they hobnobbed with baseball legends.

Despite such amenities, there's still no place like home for the nine remaining elderly residents of The Clara Welch Thanksgiving Home who were displaced by a fire and spent the past 18 months at the celebrated Otesaga Hotel.

``We've been treated like royalty. Everyone here has been wonderful to us,'' said 87-year-old Ellamae Hanson, a retired school teacher who has lived at the home for 12 years. ``(But) there's a sense of security and closeness that comes with having your own place.''

As much as the residents were sad to leave the Otesaga last week, their elation at returning home _ and a spanking new one, at that _ was palpable. It has an exercise room, an art studio, a beauty parlor, a library, a game room and six porches, including one that overlooks the residents' flower garden.

``Despite rooms full of boxes, everybody is just so happy and so excited in the midst of the chaos of moving. Everybody is so happy to be back. They just can't stop smiling,'' said Patricia Donnelly, the home's administrator.

Peg Harrington, who turns 104 next month, sat right down and started playing an old classic, ``Peg o' My Heart,'' on the grand piano in the living room, even though the pedals were missing.

``I'm a little bit tired out, but it's good to be in a new place,'' she said. ``I just love to play that piano.''

In September 2002, 14 residents moved into the five-star Otesaga expecting to stay just a few months as Thanksgiving Home underwent a $4 million renovation.

But last March, a month before their scheduled return, a malfunctioning propane heater started an early morning fire that destroyed the historic home that for nearly 80 years was part of the fabric of life in this village of 2,400 just 60 miles west of Albany.

``There was never a question of what we were going to do. It was just a question of how,'' said Jane Forbes Clark, whose family owns the four-story, 136-room Otesaga and who is on the Thanksgiving Home's board of directors.

The hotel invited the residents to stay on _ free of charge.

``I can't imagine this happening anywhere else,'' Donnelly said. ``It was one thing to let us stay here in the offseason when the hotel is closed. But to give us an entire wing and let us stay here through the peak season, it's one of the most heartwarming gestures I've ever experienced.''

The hotel placed residents and the 32-member staff in one wing of the building where they would have privacy. Then the owners specially outfitted the wing to make getting around easier and safer, even adding a private entrance so their long-term guests could avoid the crush of the lobby during the busy tourist season.

Brothers Edward and Stephen Clark built the grand hotel in 1909 on the southern shore of Lake Otsego, referred to as Glimmerglass by Cooper in his ``Leatherstocking Tales.'' The Clark family helped found the Singer sewing machine company and later The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

The hotel is closed from Thanksgiving until mid-April, but the rest of the year is typically sold out, with some rooms reserved more than a year in advance. Every summer, it hosts baseball greats who come to Cooperstown for the annual Hall of Fame inductions.

For 95-year-old Doris Bliss, that produced one of the highlights of her stay.

The former schoolteacher used to listen to baseball games on the radio with her father and eventually took a liking to the Cleveland Indians ``because they needed someone to cheer for them.''

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