In 1973, Robert Konefal was a young chemist doing research for Nestlé’s but discontented with the corporate world. At the Pine Hill Arms, a historic boarding house in the hamlet of Pine Hill, he drank a good deal of vodka with the owner one night, and next thing he knew, he had bought the Arms.
A decade later, adapting to changes in the tourist business, he opened a restaurant in the building, and now, after 44 years of running the Arms with his wife, Valerie, he’s selling the business. If the deal now in process falls through, he’ll hire someone to take charge of the hotel, but as of April 1, Konefal is done with the restaurant. On a sunny afternoon, Konefal sat in the hotel living room, beneath his mother-in-law’s framed needlepoint versions of Old Masters, two yellow Labradors lying at his feet, and talked about the years before and after he bought the Arms.
Konefal had been told the hotel, originally called the Avon Inn, was built in 1882, but a customer who works at the Shandaken Museum recently discovered evidence that the business actually dates from the 1850s. It became the Pine Hill Arms Hotel when Joe Pessenar bought the inn in the early 1900’s. Pessenar flew single-engine planes that he landed on the lawn behind the building. He added a silent movie theater and ran a speakeasy in one of the small cellar rooms.
Claus and Hedwig Dammann purchased the Arms in 1944 after Pessenar’s bootlegging business went sour, and silent movies went to sound. The movie theater is now a hot tub spa and game room, while skis are stored in the old gin mill. When Belleayre Ski Center was built in 1949-50, the bar at the Arms became a favorite après-ski hangout. In fact, that’s why Konefal was there on that fateful night in 1973. He was working in Fulton, near Syracuse, but was still connected to family and friends back in his hometown in New Jersey. Pine Hill was a midway point where he could meet his buddies for fishing in the summer and skiing in the winter.
Although running a boarding house seemed like a leap for a chemist, Konefal hadn’t been happy with the transition from working with smart people in graduate school to the rigors of the corporate world. “I was looking for a new position,” he recalled. “I decided to give it a shot. I’ve always been a freelancer and a risk-taker — although I didn’t realize the hours would be so long. That first winter, I grossed $3000. Of course, drinks were only 15 cents, but still…”
At that point, the summer business still predominated. Pine Hill had 15 hotels and boarding houses that filled up in the warmer months. The massive, historic Grand Hotel was still standing, just outside of town, although it was no longer open. Within five years, the expansion of air travel had decimated the summer trade, while the advent of snow-making boosted the winter business. Konefal shifted away from the boarding house model, which involved making three meals a day for the guests, and started serving pizza pies on tables made from giant industrial spools. He introduced burgers, then enclosed the front porch to set up restaurant tables, gradually adding more dishes to the menu and enlarging the kitchen. Cooking was not that far from chemistry, and Konefal took night classes at the Culinary Institute of American in Hyde Park. “It’s just a matter of having it all come out at the same time,” he mused.
Meanwhile, the former owners were still around, helping out. “Every time I did something new, Hedwig would love the changes,” Konefal recalled. “Klaus would say, ‘I don’t know about that.’”
The Labradors followed us upstairs and along a narrow hallway to the bedrooms, which are simple and clean, still holding the aura of the 1940s, when New Yorkers flooded north each summer to occupy affordable lodgings. Konefal’s wife replaced the old wallpaper and painted the rooms, one by one, buying bedspreads to match. When hotel standards changed, and a shared bathroom in the hall no longer satisfied visitors, it took him ten years to put a private bath in each of the rooms. (The hotel has 16 rooms in the main house, plus 10 rooms in another house and a few cottages.)
“I learned plumbing,” Konefal said, “and my dad helped a lot. He could fix anything. He was shocked when I bought the place. He said, ‘Why the hell did I send you to college?’ After he retired and moved to Arizona, he spent the summers here. He never finished high school, but he was mechanically smart. He was a maintenance man for a company that made big printing machines. He was the troubleshooter. And he knew what he was doing in the stock market.”
A big photo of Casey Konefal hangs in the bar, alongside pictures of Bob Konefal’s son on skis, skirting slalom gates, and a couple of himself, also downhill racing. Other photos show touring bands that stopped at the bar — ABBA, the Doobie Brothers, Charlie Daniels — posing with the owners. There are pictures of the annual Pine Hill Arms triathlon — bike, snowshoe, and ski — and the awards dinner Konefal used to serve up. For 30 years, the children of the inn’s guests skied free at Belleayre, but when ORDA took over the administration of the ski center a few years ago, they put a stop to the practice.
Konefal is now 73 and finds himself slowing down at a job requiring a lot of physical work. His kids and grandkids have moved away, his son to teach at a university in Houston, his daughter to work as an attorney in Denver. “I found a great island off of Corpus Christi that’s a throwback to the 60s,” he said. “The only sign says to clean up after your dog. I go there to fish and drink and have a good time,” in closer proximity to his kids. Fifteen years ago, he bought a cabin in the Adirondacks, where he spends part of each week. Retirement is looking sweet.
Hopefully, the sale of the business will go through, and the restaurant, after it closes on April 1, will reopen in a few months.
Although running the Arms has been hard work, said Konefal, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I met so many people and had so many good times.”