Ridgway Sisters Taking Steps to Reopen Hallton Hilton
HALLTON, Pa. (EYT) – The Hallton Hilton is starting to show signs of life. The nieces of John B. Handley, Melissa Bush and Laura Oknefski, of Ridgway, are taking the necessary steps in a long process to reopen the bar and restaurant.
With the unexpected death of their uncle, owner John B. Handley, 68, on June 13, 2015, many people wondered if the Hallton Hilton would open its doors after closing.
“The rumors are wrong,” said Bush. “We didn’t lose the liquor license, and it’s not closed for good. Let’s pray this all goes through, so we can get moving and start cooking burgers for you all. Thanks for being patient my friends, and we hope to see you all as soon as we can. Say some prayers that we don’t have too many more bumps in the road.”
The sisters officially applied for a liquor license on Friday, July 29, after purchasing the building earlier from the estate of John B Handley. Once approval is received, renovation of the building can start.
Many stories and legends surround the Hallton Hilton, known for its half-pound belly buster burgers.
Officially titled the Hallton Sportsmen’s Lodge, it is located in Elk County eight miles south of Ridgway on the banks of the Clarion River. According to relatives, people just started calling it the Hallton Hilton, and the name just stuck. Word of mouth brought many people and, in some cases, visits resembled a pilgrimage of sorts.
This wasn’t some fancy lounge offering a changing variety of booze in the middle of nowhere. The burgers were rumored to be part venison; restrooms were often an adventure in themselves; and John was always there to talk to people and provide some of his perspective, at least when he wasn’t in his pickup truck parked next to the building. Some of the highest praise came from the people he served for years, describing him as quiet, honest, and honorable.
John Handley owned the business for 40 years, and he had plenty of stories to tell about the town where he lived all his life. He also had no illusions about his town, once telling a writer, “When I was born, this town was on its deathbed.”
Handley graduated from Ridgway High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Seton Hall in 1969, and a master’s degree in 1971. He tried substitute teaching for a while and eventually took over the family business in about 1975. The Hallton Hilton became his classroom, and he had plenty of pupils over the years.
John’s parents, John L. and Elmira L. Handley, bought the bar in 1964 from Blair Burked who started the bar.
An article written by Sam MacDonald and published in Western Pennsylvania History Magazine in its Winter 2005 issue offered a history of the Hallton Hilton building.
“Hallton residents built the structure in the early 1920s as a hall for the local grange, a fraternal organization for farmers. At the time, the township in which it was located, Spring Creek Township, was booming. The remote region’s hemlock and hardwoods were immensely valuable to the increasingly industrial American economy, especially as timber resources became scarce around Williamsport, 100 miles to the east and at one point the lumber capital of the world.”
“By 1890, more than 1,400 people lived in Hallton, Arroyo, and other Spring Creek communities. In Hallton alone, a sawmill, shingle mill, wood-chemical plant, and tannery slowly stripped the hillsides. The town boasted two barbershops and three churches. The company store was three stories high with elevators. Clerks wore red neckties and bowed to customers. There was a town band. But Hallton’s population peaked at just over 2,100 in the early 1900s. Mills and factories closed as the timber industry moved west and the industrial economy found substitutes for many of the region’s wood-chemical products. The company store burned to the ground in 1930. By then, the entire township’s population had plummeted to 427.”
“By the time the chemical plant closed after World War II, the roads were so bad that schoolchildren had to take a special train every day to Portland Mills before boarding the bus to Ridgway. The Hallton Post Office closed in 1974, when just six families called the town home. The Hallton Hilton is the last business left, sharing the wooded area with hunting camps and a few permanent residences.”
“The building changed from grange hall to general store to boarding house before becoming the Spring Creek Sportsmen’s Lodge.”
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