The Moosehead Lake Hotel / Long Branch
By Travis H. W. Wallace
Moosehead Lake Hotel had been built in the days when vacationers arrived by passenger train. The hotel towered near the railroad trestle in the Junction and could be seen in the distance from any direction, four stories tall and rambling, with classic, stately lines and a mansard roof and a white-painted 2nd floor balcony porch that hung in the air near the street. From this porch I could look out over the street and down onto Wiggin Stream and the row of small, working-class homes along the opposite bank. High on the ridge beyond these homes stood the lumber mill that gave the Junction its sound—a far-off din of screeching saws and diesel engines and warning beeps that settled over the valley every day from morning until night, and no one ever complained about the noise because it meant that men were working.
The people who stayed at the old hotel were the blue-collar sportsmen who traveled to northwestern Maine for the woods and the water and the remoteness. They neither sought luxury or found it. Though never been known for elegant accommodations, by the 1970’s Moosehead Lake Hotel had also become dated and tired. Guest rooms still opened with skeleton keys and hallway floors squeaked beneath your feet, and the long balcony porch, now weathered and warped, stretched along the building’s front like a wrinkle on an old woman’s brow. Few rooms had private baths, fewer still had TVs. None offered air conditioning. But guests appreciated the clean rooms and modest rates with hearty meals and boxed lunches included in the price. They also enjoyed the staff’s genuine, small-town hospitality. And, of course, they loved the hotel’s street-level barroom, called The Long Branch. Everybody loved The Long Branch.
Spend enough time in Maine’s north country and you’ll encounter people who drank at “The Branch.” Each will tell you in his own way that there’s never been another place like it, and then you’ll hear the stories. If you’re lucky, you might hear about the day Dave Holmbom married wife number four while standing behind the bar in front of the Budweiser tap, the Protestant minister presiding, or the night that Charlie Barriault, irritated at having been shut off by the bartender, fetched a chainsaw from his truck and attempted to cut down the cedar posts that held up the ceiling and the three floors above it. You might hear about the otherwise quiet afternoon when Rollie Lizotte found himself being thrown out the front door only to be thrown back in a minute later—this time through a window. If you’re very lucky, as I have been, you may encounter a man—a senior citizen now–who will tell you about his very first visit to The Long Branch.
The man and his friend were from out of town. They’d spent the morning fishing for trout at a small pond north of Greenville and were heading home when they decided to stop at The Long Branch for a drink. The two fishermen found the place empty, not a customer or employee in sight, and they hesitated inside the entrance, wondering if perhaps the barroom hadn’t yet opened for the day. But then they heard the smacking sound of billiard balls coming from out back and decided to stay. They sat down at the bar and waited. The bartender appeared a moment later, a man is in his 60s with a horseshoe of white hair and a pool cue in his hand. “Hello there! What can I get for you, fellas?”
The men ordered whiskey and gingers and the bartender rested his pool cue against the bar rail and began scooping ice into glasses.
The man telling you this story will then offer this aside: “Now I did a lot of drinkin’ in my time, but I never saw a bartender make a drink like this, anywhere. Ever.” The man will then go on with his story. He’ll tell you how the bartender placed two ice-filled glasses on the bar. Then he’ll tell you how the bartender opened two cans of Gingerale and placed those on the bar. Then he’ll tell you how the bartender placed a bottle of Canadian Club on the bar, said, “Holler if you need anything,” took his pool cue and walked away.
I heard this story many years ago. The man who told it to me chuckled hard at the memory and I smiled at him and felt the sting around my eyes because he’d been talking about my Dad.
The bar opened at 1:00 o’clock each afternoon and so my father and I would arrive in late morning. He parked the pickup truck out in front and I slid across the seat and he set me down. I heard the sounds of the lumber mill coming down from the hill across the stream and I felt the summer heat radiate up from the asphalt. The air always felt warmer here than at home. We moved into the shade beneath the porch and Dad unlocked the hotel’s wide wooden front door and then I followed him past the lobby and the staircase to the barroom. The heavy door shut behind us with its rhythmic whoosh and satisfying clank, and then the only sounds were the hum of beer coolers and our footsteps along the plywood floor. We walked amid a strange daytime darkness through a maze of tables and chairs and bar stools, and the air felt cool and smelled of cigarette smoke and stale beer.
Dad went behind the bar to the circuit breaker box. He snapped the switches one by one and The Long Branch revealed itself section by section. On came the florescent light over the air hockey table, then the light over the pool table, the foosball table, the other pool table, then the wall lights on each side of the fireplace, the entryway lights and finally, the bar lights themselves. He flipped one more switch to turn on the jukebox and it flickered to life in silence. Sometimes the jukebox would turn on in mid-song at extremely loud volume, filling the room with the twang of whatever 1970s country record had been playing at closing time the previous night. Whenever this happened, Dad would walk over and reach behind the jukebox to lower its volume. He liked music, only not so loud so early.
My father swept the floor with the push broom while I retrieved my Big Wheel from the dance floor and went for a cruise. I rode giant loops around the building’s first-floor, pedaling down the middle of the two-sided bar and continuing on down the hall. I took a sharp right after the liquor closet and drove through the hotel lobby, past the the ladies’ room and the men’s room and the staircase and back into the bar through the main entrance. Dad moved tables and chairs as he swept, providing me with a brand new obstacle course each time I came barreling through the door. I zigged and zagged as fast as I could peddle, and as long as I didn’t drive through any dirt piles, my father never seemed to mind.
When he’d finished sweeping, Dad took the change drawer out of the safe and placed it in the cash register. I climbed onto a stool and watched him count the money.
“…eight, nine, ten, yes, dear?”
“Can I have a Shirley Temple?”
“…thirteen, fourteen, fifteen–what do you say?”
“…seventeen–sure, give me just a minute, Trav, and I’ll make you one. Eighteen, nineteen…”
When he’d finished counting, Dad filled the ice bin and made my Shirley Temple, spooning cherries into it from a gallon jar. He tossed a cardboard coaster in front of me and set down my drink. “That’ll be fifty cents.”
“Daddy, you know I don’t have any money.”
“Well, that’s alright. Your credit is good,” he said with a wink.
I drank my Shirley Temple and stabbed the cherries at the bottom of my glass while Dad restocked the bar. He filled the reach-in cooler with fresh bottles of Budweiser and Busch and lifted each liquor bottle from the rack and held it up to the light to check its level. If one appeared low, he jotted it on a piece of paper. Next, he placed red hot dogs and fresh hot dog buns in the steamer and filled the chip rack and wiped down the bar with a wet towel. Hot, soapy water helped erase the rings of beer. Finally, he fetched the string mop and metal wash bucket from the closet and filled it with hot water and Lestoil, and as he waved the mop back-and-forth across the gray painted floor, the strong chemical pine smell filled the room and signaled a brand new day.
The floor was still damp when Dad walked across it to the picture window and pulled the string on the neon OPEN sign. He went back behind the bar and called me over to the cash register. He pushed the NO SALE button and the drawer sprang open with a loud “ca-ching.” My father took two quarters and dropped them into my hand. “Rack ’em up!” he said. Time to play pool.
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