Elderly New York Residents Return Home After Fire

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.''

``I was waiting to get on the elevator one day and this nice black man got on with me. I asked him if he was a Hall of Famer. He said, 'I will be by Monday.' I don't remember his name but I remember he was the batting coach for the Cleveland Indians. It was so exciting,'' said Bliss, who had just met Eddie Murray, the one-time Baltimore Orioles slugger who also played for Cleveland, among other teams.

Neither Clark nor General Manager John Irvin cared to say how much the hotel's generosity cost.

``We've never stopped to look. Money was never an issue,'' Irvin said.

The hotel encouraged their lodgers to mingle with guests, and residents often dined with hotel visitors or enjoyed afternoon tea in the lobby, where Harrington might be found at the Steinway.

``I'm going to miss them,'' Irvin said. ``The friendships have been very special. Seeing how they live life so actively and fully, it is encouragement to everyone around them.''

The Thanksgiving Home's origins date back to the Civil War era.

It opened on June 1, 1868, as Thanksgiving Hospital _ a name expressing gratitude for the end of the war, according to a 40-page historical narrative written by Joseph Vidosic, a longtime resident who died in January.

The hospital closed in 1875 for financial reasons but a new Thanksgiving Hospital was built and opened in 1896. In 1927, it became the Walling Home for Aged People and was renamed a year later, honoring the wife of a local judge who was the home's first president.

Three residents have died since the move to the Otesaga and two others have moved to nursing homes, and because the Thanksgiving Home had suspended new admissions until it reopened, the dwindling numbers had become painfully obvious.

``We are like family, so it's been hard not to notice'' (when someone was missing), Donnelly said. ``It will be nice to see our family grow again.''