Vacation Like It Used to Be
“I like to say we keep it simple,” says Brett Brubaker, who, along with his siblings, parents, and uncle, Jack Brubaker, is one of the owners of Seneca Lodge in Watkins Glen. The rustic, rambling log cabin on Walnut Road opposite the south (upper) entrance to Watkins Glen State Park evokes simple, solid, relaxation. But behind the scenes, it houses a hive of activity including the business office, bar, dining rooms with enough space to seat about 200, kitchen, and brewery. Built in 1947—then rebuilt in 1948 after a devastating fire—it has the feel of a comfortable, earlier time.
Brett’s grandfather, lawyer Donald Brubaker, (a.k.a. “Mr. B”), had heard about and researched the Watkins Glen area in the early 1940s. His ideas became plans after his wife died in childbirth with their fifth child. He bought what was then known as “White City Tourist Camp” and moved here from Altoona, Pennsylvania, with four of his five children and two cousins. For a time, the infant stayed with her grandmother.
Jack Brubaker shows a photo of what they saw when they arrived—a bustling encampment of more than sixty tiny cabins and tipis. Plumbing was confined to a central bathhouse; the camp store offered access to daily necessities. Campers could walk to the state park across the road, as they still do today. The boxy, old-fashioned cars seen in the photo could easily bring quantities of people in search of more amusement down the hill to Watkins Glen for shopping, sightseeing, and dining out. But back then, many summer visitors wanted to simply rusticate. Many came from the city by train and bus, and were chauffeured from Elmira or Ithaca by one of the Brubaker sons. Back then, when the main goal was getting away from urban living for the hottest weeks of the summer, many guests stayed for a week or longer.
These days everything has become faster-paced. Brett says many first-timers stay at the Lodge after having located it online as a place to stay for a few nights during a nearby event. Later they’ll return for a longer vacation, using it as a base for exploring the surrounding areas. Ideally, they’ll take some time to “vacation like it used to be—put their feet up and not try to cram everything into a few days,” he says. The last handful of years, he notes, many guests are adding an extra night.
“Maybe we’re re-learning how to relax,” he says.
From the beginning, Mr. B consulted his children before making major decisions. Jack recalls his father asking whether calling it a “Lodge” would make it sound too exclusive, like a private club. “We didn’t know one way or the other,” he says. Seneca Lodge it became.
The children went to school in Watkins Glen, and spent a lot of their free time replacing old cabins with newer ones and with modern motel buildings.
“I carried a lot of shingles and mixed a lot of concrete,” he says. Seasonal employees stayed in some of the cabins, the rest were rented to tourists. The re-building and maintenance remains constant, but Brett says the Lodge’s eighty-unit capacity remains unchanged. There are still a few original cabins left—one serving as the lawn-mower depot—and it has not yet been decided whether these will be replaced by one larger motel unit or more of the popular A-frame cabins constructed in the ’60s.
Mr. B opened a restaurant in the log building with a forward-looking emphasis on natural foods. His farm raised the organic beef and produce served there; bread and pies were whole wheat-based and baked by his cousin Mary Cobean. In fact, Mr. B served as president of the Natural Foods Society of New York. He became active in Watkins Glen life, serving as president of the Chamber of Commerce. During his tenure there, he was instrumental in bringing sports car racing to the Glen—the original road course runs past Seneca Lodge. Archery was important, too—Mr. B brought the annual National Field Archery Association tournaments to the area. The last of these was held nine years ago, but it’s still visibly remembered, as tournament winners were invited to shoot an arrow into one of the logs in the bar. Over time, those areas came to bristle with imbedded arrows. He was also one of the founders of a summer theatre in Corning, but that’s another story.
And its proximity to Watkins Glen International is only one reason NASCAR folks and other sports car enthusiasts return year after year. “It’s like a family reunion,” Brett says. “For the most part, the same rooms are rented to the same people year after year.”
The restaurant is still a breakfast-and-dinner staple in Watkins Glen enjoyed by visitors and a loyal following of locals. Look up—look around—there are features seen only after a second (or third) perusal. A huge bear lurks on the rafters of a room off the bar—shot in Alaska by a family friend who presented it to the Brubakers. The bar’s ceiling sports a colorful riot of college pennants, a tradition that began when Mary Cobean hired college students as summer workers. Ever since, guests who don’t see a flag from their alma mater often bring one to add to the collection on a subsequent visit.
Under the flat-screen TV is a 1920s-vintage nickelodeon jukebox, complete with bellows and player-piano innards that still operate with the insertion of a nickel. Brought up with Mr. B, it somehow escaped the re and was re-installed in the Lodge, where it remained until a local resident offered to repair it, a lengthy but eventually successful endeavor. There are also mementos of race events, hunting trips, and an eclectic collection of baseball caps forgotten by patrons and hung on arrows until they’re reclaimed. Or, if you happen to be sipping a cocktail in the upper bar, look outside—an attached bird feeder attracts a variety of feathered diners when there are no humans having a meal or a drink on the porch. And on tap, by the way, is their own Seneca Lodge beer. Six varieties of it are brewed in the spacious cellar, where it’s also bottled—a good souvenir for those who love small-batch brew. Brett began the brewery but passed responsibilities to current brewmaster Jason Curran. Last year they produced 5,000 gallons, and every year they increase production.
It’s all a good reminder to slow down and appreciate the moment. “Even though we’re fast-paced, we try to be old-school and treat people the way they should be treated,” Brett says.
Find more information at senecalodge.com or call (607) 535- 2014.