A dream becomes reality

By on October 31, 2018
New owners Doug and Christine O’Brien, Akron, are turning the historic Clay Hotel into the StoneHouse Cafe. Photo by Bonnie Adams

New owners Doug and Christine O’Brien, Akron, are turning the historic Clay Hotel into the StoneHouse Cafe. Photo by Bonnie Adams

New owners reinventing historic Clay Hotel as a café

The 1760’s inn that offered food, libations and lodging in the village of Clay will once again be a gathering place, but this time with a modern, java twist.

Its new owners are reinventing the historic Clay Hotel as a restaurant and coffee bar called the StoneHouse Café.

If its interior stone walls could reveal the past, one would hear of its role as a polling place, a Civil War draft location and also about the sobering 1833 meteor shower that reformed hard-drinking patrons, at least for a time.

“This building just speaks for itself,” said co-owner Doug O’Brien, Akron. He and his wife, Christine, sat in the former bar area recently and discussed how they are making their new business a reality.

“Everyone we talk to is super excited,” Christine said. “We can’t wait.”

A self-described dreamer, O’Brien said he has wanted to open a café for some time and his wife agreed.

“First you said, ‘Dream with me,’” Christine said, smiling. She drives a school bus for Ephrata Area and works at a Weis supermarket. Doug has worked in the food industry, owned a business and most recently served in the pastorate.

“I actually left the pastorate to do this,” he said. Christine spotted the building for sale along state Route 322 and they bought it last November. He went into demolition mode after that.

Most recently the building at 2415 W. Main St. was Wahtney’s Inn that served alcohol, but StoneHouse Café will not have a liquor license.

It’s been called the Clay Hotel, Red Lion Hotel, Eagle Hotel, Wheelman’s Rest and Keller’s Hotel over the centuries. Large timber beams support wide, wooden floor boards overhead. Deep windowsills rest within the thick stone walls.

“We’ve got the old used in a new way,” Doug said. The café will offer a full breakfast and lunch menu and a lighter dinner. It will cater to those who prefer traditional fare, but also vegetarian and vegan foods. A host of specialty coffee drinks and baked goods will be available.

The café will serve Square One Coffee from Lancaster and Philadelphia.

“We’ll be buying as locally as possible,” he said.

Much of the cafe staff is already hired, including the couple’s son, Doug Jr., as barista, with hopes of opening later this fall. But as with any renovation, there are surprises that cause delays.

“Every time they open a wall, they find something new,” Doug said of the contractors. The O’Briens said they haven’t found any hidden cash, but there are architectural gems. A massive door they believe was part of the original front entrance rests on the floor upstairs.

The eight-foot, panel door has black strap hinges. Doug pointed out a unique feature that allows the door’s upper portion to slide down. He said the panel could have been closed to protect the inn from possible Indian attacks, but he said there is no proof that ever happened. The metal reinforced window shutters are gone.

Doug, 52, has spent much of the past year doing demolition and working with contractors. The couple wants to retain the historic ambience but also add what he called a “contemporary, hipster feel.”

He said there might be live music and community events and that if StoneHouse opens this fall, they would like to host an event for area cyclists.

The dining area on the building’s west side has a large, stone fireplace and a section of wall made of roughly hewn wood with intact straw and mud packed between the timbers.

“We wanted the building to express itself,” Doug said.

The coffee house in the east side of the building will have a concrete bar top supported by old metal cylinders called roving cans from the textile industry. The O’Briens bought the cans from a farmer in Schaefferstown.

The red containers say “Spaulding’s Rochester Roving Can” in black letters. A 1920 trade ad touted them as being so well made that if they wore out within five years, they would be replaced free of charge.

The O’Briens have explored the building’s history with the help of the Historical Society of the Cocalico Valley in Ephrata. Doug read about the November 1833 meteor shower that frightened the inn’s patrons.

“All the drinking stopped at that point,” he said.

“The History of Clay and the Clay Hotel,” published in 1916, said the inn during the meteor shower “was crowded with teamsters and drovers and the yard with horses and cattle. Consternation reigned, the horses and cattle made unearthly yells, and strong men wept and prayed, drinking and carousing ceased and swearing was unknown. Everybody thought the end of the world was at hand.”

No cornerstone is visible on the exterior but there is U.S. Geological Survey bench mark embedded in the stone. It is dated 1903 and lists the elevation as 343 feet above sea level. Bench marks are surveyor’s reference points used to determine other altitudes.

The enclosed tiki bar on the west side of the building is being demolished. The open patio will provide outdoor café seating. Christine, 48, said an old well is located there and the couple might renovate that area so that customers can view the well, similar to Reflections Restaurant in the Leola area.

Above the StoneHouse patio, what appears to be a large “E” made of dark stone is built into the second-floor exterior. The history of the building said Peter Eberly operated a public house there and added the west wing in the 1780’s. It’s uncertain whether the “E” stands for his last name.

Public house, inn, hotel, bar, polling place and other labels have identified the 1767 building. Despite its many uses, Doug said the ongoing common thread of its purpose will live on at the coffee house.

“It was a gathering place for townsfolk and travelers alike. We want it to be a place where there is community.”

Bonnie Adams is a correspondent for The Ephrata Review.

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2 Comments

  1. Eric Lewis

    November 19, 2018 at 8:35 am

    I am SO excited for the O’Briens and this new adventure! My wife and I were engaged at the old Wahtney’s and I was a server there for a few years before it closed. Great memories! We’re very much looking forward to returning on a regular basis as customers again, for some good food and coffee with friends.

  2. Jill

    July 17, 2019 at 3:18 pm

    Eric,
    Must be a “magical” building—for Wahtney’s is where my husband and I went on our fist date AND on the night we got engaged. It is indeed a special place! I’m so excited that this historical building is being preserved and maintained in what appears to be an excellent manner. Less than a minute drive for us…we plan to be regulars!

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