Birdsall House survives its heyday

By Jerry Barney
Sunday Spectator
November 25, 1973
Transcribed by Kathy S. Bentley


BIRDSALL - Mention the Birdsall House to residents or former residents in the Birdsall area and you get a variety of reactions.
“I think it ought to be torn down”: Mrs. Anna Connors, Birdsall–Canaseraga Road.
“I guess there was quite a history, but I don’t know much about it”: Miss Martha Gelser, hamlet of Birdsall.
“There isn’t much left of it, is there?” Mrs. Mary Norton of West Almond, formerly of Birdsall.
“Sometimes it was pretty rough, sometimes it was pretty good”: Spencer Warden of Grove, about 3 miles from the hamlet of Birdsall.
But perhaps the most telling comments about the old building, at least in its most recent years of operation, come from Mrs. Verna Taylor of the Birdsall–Canaseraga Road, who with her husband, managed the Birdsall House for all of 1959 and part of 1960.
“It was a Birdsall Dodge City!,” she said. “It was the uniqueness of the thing that drew people there. It was so far out, the thought that the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Commission) would let it run as it was.
“There was a near murder there once. We’ve had horses from the (Almond) Horsetraders’ Convention in the barroom. Hunters shot holes in the potbellied stove with their shotguns.”
Mrs. Taylor said the Birdsall House was for a time famous for its lack of sanitation and other facilities, and implied that upstairs rooms with beds were maintained specifically for rental by the hour.
No one seems to know exactly how old the Birdsall in building is. Its early years seem to be a big question mark in the minds of Allegany County Historian Bill Greene, Birdsall Historian Mrs. John Clancy and former Birdsall Historian Miss Gelser.
Birdsall House (Sunday Spectator photo)“All the old-timers from Birdsall have passed on,“ said Mrs. Taylor.
“It was standing there when I was a kid and I’m past 72,” said Warden, noting that legend has it that the building was built by a man named Ray Arnold.
“I lived in the area all my life,” Warden said. “It’s always been a restaurant and tavern. The tavern part was closed during the 18th amendment (Prohibition from 1920 to 1933). It’s always been a hotel, too.
“A. C. Helm was the first owner I can remember. Then Fran Helm. Then the McNeil boys.”
Mrs. Norton, the former Mary Sullivan, agrees. She said, “A. C. Helm and his son Fran ran it way back years ago. They were the first ones that I can remember that ran the hotel. Then it was taken over by Frank and William McNeil. They were brothers. They served lunches there, and Mrs. Frank McNeil was a very good cook.”
Frank McNeil sold his interest in the business and Mr. and Mrs. William McNeil ran it by themselves for a number of years, said Warden.
“‘Drummers’ (salesmen who traveled by railroad) used to stay there,” he said. “The old Shawmut Railroad used to run through Birdsall. There were never any stages that ran through there.”
Warden said he doesn’t think the Birdsall House is old enough to have been a stage coach stop.
Mrs. Taylor, however, has somewhat conflicting recollections. She said she moved with her parents to Birdsall from Port Allegany, Pa., in 1932 when she was eight years old, and remembers at that time, hearing area oldsters talking about stagecoaches stopping in Birdsall.
“Mr. and Mrs. William McNeil owned it then,” she said. “They were like a team of horses. They ran a pretty straight ship.”
Although the Birdsall House as run by the McNeils was respectable and relatively high-caliber, with all three of the original functions maintained, it offered little variety in food and drink, Mrs. Taylor said.
“If you went in for a beer, you bought what Mr. McNeil had and that was it,” she said.
Everyone seems to agree that the Birdsall House was a “pretty nice place” through the end of the McNeil era.
“It wasn’t a very good place after McNeil let it go, about in the early 1950s, although no one seems to remember exact dates in connection (with the Birdsall House). It wasn’t kept up,” said Mrs. Norton. “Clete Sansone bought it and hired help to run it,” said Warden.
Sansone, Mrs. Taylor explained, is a Rochester-based produce dealer. She said that the period in which she and her husband, P. Howard Taylor, were hired to manage the Birdsall House for Sansone represents “14 months that I will never erase out of my mind.”
“It’s a fact that the place was cobwebby and dirty with no water,” she said. That’s what brought the crowd in. It was a tremendous business. We served 300 meals some weekends. There was no liquor at that time. Just beer and wine.
“The no-facility thing is what drew people. There was no running water. We had to carry it from a pump out back. All of the (drinking) glasses were old jelly glasses.”
“We’ve got lots of memories in that place.”
Once, she said, a delegation from the Almond Horsetraders’ Convention was visiting. One member of the group suggested that his horse was probably dry and would no doubt enjoy a beer. A few minutes later, Mrs. Taylor said she turned around to see a horse drinking beer from a pitcher.
Another time, a group of hunters, decided to improve their skills by using the barroom stove for target practice, she said.
“One crispy cold night, it was probably 20 below and the moon was shining, one of those days that snow crackled under your feet, the door flew open and a barrage of snowballs flew in, and all the wine bottles were knocked down,” said Mrs. Taylor.
“I said to my husband, ‘Let them have their fun,’ and we ducked behind the bar,” she continued. “After about 20 minutes of it, a bunch of hunters walked in, cleaned up, laid $20 on the bar for damages and left.”
A ‘near murder’ occurred, Mrs. Taylor said, when a group from the Angelica area with “raunchy mouths” came in and drew rebuttals from a customer who “had enough to drink and tried to make them shut up.”
“They pounded him with their class rings until he was almost dead,” she said.
The Birdsall House once had the nickname “the crock,” said Mrs. Taylor, explaining that those particular words made specific reference to a ceramic fixture in the men’s restroom which substituted for modern plumbing facilities.
Mrs. Taylor said Sansone discontinued the hotel business at the Birdsall House when he purchased it. However, several old beds are among the debris remaining in what is left of the old building.
“As far as my husband and I were concerned, those beds weren’t there,” said Mrs. Taylor, indirectly admitting that she may have observed periodic exchanges of money, after which couples would go upstairs.
The Taylors’ association with Sansone was terminated by a disagreement over standards in food sanitation, said Mrs. Taylor, noting that she was frequently encouraged to do things that she could not bring herself to do.
As an example, she said, she was once asked to cover up the mold on an old display-case pizza with spaghetti sauce and then serve it to a customer.
Of her former employer, Mrs. Taylor said “he’s a Rochester man, and he didn’t care what happened to people around here. But heaven forbid, I live here, and I did.”
With what may have been a sense of awe, Mrs. Taylor said of Sansone, “He never got sued or anything.”
Mrs. Taylor said that after she and her husband ceased being associated with the Birdsall House, a long series of short-term managers was hired.
“I didn’t frequent the place too much after that,” she said, guessing that standards may have become even less exacting before the business ceased to operate in about 1962.
Today, there’s not too much left of the Birdsall House. A building shell remains, as does a lot of debris inside.
The bar is fairly intact, and there are beer bottles, cans and cases lying about. There are also tables, chairs, kitchen appliances, shutters, beds, mattresses, shoes and other miscellaneous items in various stages of disassemblage.
There are old newspapers strewn around, including one 1947 copy of the New York Times.
In one room is a piano, on which about every key produces some sort of a musical sound, most of which are sharp, flat or otherwise distorted.
Other semi-musical sounds can also be heard at times upon investigation, they are found to be produced by melted snow dripping from the roof into a rainbarrel.
“There isn’t much of anything there now,” said Miss Gelser.
But there was a time.

Photo is from the Sunday Spectator.