EPHRATAH - In the early 1800s, a pioneering entrepreneur named Peter Schram ran a tavern in the center of this sleepy rural town, establishing Ephratah as a place for stage-coach travelers to stop for rest and refreshment on the way from Johnstown to Canajoharie or Little Falls.
Schram built the Apollo Hall in 1813 and turned his business into a social center for dining and dancing, and two hundred years later, the establishment long since known as Saltsman's Hotel continues to attract travelers with appetites for traditional fare and a connection to the past.
The restaurant was owned by five generations of the Saltsman family before Jim and Tammie Subik bought it from Raymond Saltsman Jr. in 1979, and for many visitors, a trip to Saltsman's is like a trip back in time.
Tammie and Jim Subik are seen Thursday in the main dining room at Saltsman’s Hotel in Ephratah. The 200-year-old restaurant was owned by five generations of the Saltsman family before the Subiks bought it in 1979. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
One of the oldest restaurants in the state, it stopped operating as a hotel sometime before World War II. Some of Saltsman's more famous guests have included Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Nelson Rockefeller, philanthropist Owen D. Young and longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas.
An early 20th century guest book on display in the foyer this week was open to a page bearing the signature of J. Meyer Schine, owner of the Glove Theatre in Gloversville and a nationwide chain of movie theaters.
The building is filled with other memorabilia, including photographs of the hotel in its heydey and specimens of taxidermy. A stuffed raccoon who greets guests in the barroom with a toothpick holder is one of the more memorable pieces.
According to Ephratah Town Historian Evelyn Frasier, Saltman's was a popular spot for public auctions, social gatherings and holiday banquets, and in the winter time, people from nearby communities would organize sleigh rides to the restaurant for parties.
Now, Saltsman's is open only between Easter and October, giving the Subiks a winter break from the 16-hour work days they often put in during the summer.
"They close in the winter, and people are banging on the door for them to open at Easter time," Frasier said. "It has its original architecture, its original setup ... the menu is still the type of food that they would have served [in the early days]."
Frasier said her grandmother Fanny Hickox worked at Saltsman's as a kitchen helper and housekeeper in the 1920s. The restaurant is known for its good food and hospitality, she said, and for many people, the country drive to get there is an enjoyable part of the experience.
"You don't have to fight your way through the traffic to get to it, though you might have to look for a parking space sometimes," Frasier said.
Tammie Subik said Saltsman's is a "destination restaurant," a place where people make plans to visit and look forward to returning year after year.
"We're only 10 miles from the Thruway exit, which is great. We pull customers from the Cooperstown area, from the Albany area. The Thruway exit at Canajoharie couldn't be easier ... 'Take Route 10 north, and you'll drive right into our parlor.'"
Some families have been returning customers of Saltsman's for five or more generations.
"They come here because they can depend on the meal being what it was like last time," he said.
Some of the employees have been part of the fifth generation of their families to work for the restaurant.
"We're very fortunate in terms of our help," Tammie said. "We try to hire locally, and we have people that have worked for us for 25 or 30 years."
Saltsman's is known for its hearty cuisine, and repeat customers often ask for the creamed onions, creamed potatoes and corn fritters that are served family-style along with meat, poultry and fish entrees.
"We're not a pasta place," Jim said. While fried chicken and prime rib are longtime popular entrees, he said, in recent years more and more customers have been ordering salmon.
Along with the restaurant's long history and warm service, Tammie said, the restaurant has a reputation for using fresh, quality ingredients, including vegetables provided by local farmers.
"Our stuff is all good stuff, and it's all prepared by hand - we don't just pull everything out of the freezer," Tammie said.
Two of the restaurant's signature dishes are available only for brief periods each season: Milkweed is served for just a couple of weeks at the end of May and beginning of June, and elderberry pie is available at the end of August.
"Crawling through the farmers' fields to pick milkweed," Tammie says, is the hardest part of her job. She picks three big boxes each day while the plant is in season - after early June, it becomes too tough and stringy.
"It tastes like asparagus," Jim said. "People come from all over to get it."
Anita Hanaburgh of Johnstown, who writes The Leader-Herald's food and hospitality column. "Anita A La Carte," said she has fond memories of Saltsman's from childhood. She said it's a rare restaurant that can boast 200 years in business.
"Saltsman's does 'comfort food' to perfection," Hanaburgh said. "Creamed potatoes, creamed onions, chicken, ham, elderberry pie or milkweed ... What's not to love?"
"Over the years, I don't think the menu has changed much, and our desire for their homemade dishes hasn't, either. There is something about Saltsman's that touches the soul. I think the appeal is in the food but also in the atmosphere, the family service and the generous helpings," she said. "I know, at Saltsman's, I always eat too much."
The Subiks say they are starting to think about retirement. That would mean selling Saltsman's, as their son Dana and daughter Nicole live outside the area and have professional careers in other fields. They have had some inquiries from potential buyers, but for now, as Saltsman's celebrates its bicentennial, it will stay much the same as it's been for the last 200 years.
"We're a fast-paced society now," Jim Subik said. "But people can come here and visit a bygone era, revisit the good old times. People have a connection to this place."
Saltsman's Hotel is at the junction of Routes 10 and 67 in Ephratah, about 10 miles west of Johnstown and eight miles north of Canajoharie. For more information about the restaurant, call 993-4412 or see its website, www.saltsmans.com.
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.