Summit Inn Resort provides relaxing escape
The psychics sat at the resort’s bar a few years back, regaling patrons with tales of the spirits around them.
But Karen Harris figured the psychics were phony. The women made no mention of the one soul who should have been lingering at The Summit Inn Resort: her father, Donald Shoemaker.
“If there was somebody here, it would be my dad, because he loved this place,” Harris says.
Shoemaker and his wife, Eunice, loved the Summit so much that they borrowed from the bank and sold what they could to buy the resort in 1964, seven years after moving there to manage the inn near Farmington, Fayette County.
And while the Shoemaker family has spent 50 years tending to the resort atop Summit Mountain in the Chestnut Ridge along Route 40, those 50 years are only half the story.
This year, the Summit Inn, a grand old resort hotel on 1,000 acres, celebrates its 100th anniversary.
It was opened in 1907 by a group of Uniontown businessmen, who thought a hotel overlooking their town along the National Road would make a good investment.
Tourists weren’t flocking to Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob back then — they didn’t exist — so the Summit and the beauty of the Laurel Highlands were the attraction.
From the inn’s wraparound porch, visitors can gaze out over five counties. And Harris says that on a clear day, the U.S. Steel building in downtown Pittsburgh is visible.
Ten years after its opening, the inn played host to the “American Science Wizards,” including Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, who raced down the mountain in automobiles. A copy of the guest register from their visit hangs in the hotel lobby, complete with signatures and room assignments.
In 1918, Leo Heyn took over as manager of the inn. Twelve years later, he bought the resort. Eunice Shoemaker, 81, says Heyn “really got this hotel on the map.”
Heyn was a “real colorful character” who kept two dachshunds at the resort to greet guests. A Bichon Frise, named Tootsie, serves as the resort’s mascot.
Under Heyn’s watch, the Olympic-sized outdoor pool was built, complete with high and low dives. He used to have contests for people to walk on logs in the pool, Shoemaker says. And Heyn added skiing to the resort’s offerings, although today, the Summit closes for the winter.
Summit Inn advertisements from the 1930s still hang on the walls. Harris, 52, chuckles recalling some of the claims, such as the inn being free of asthma, fireproof and having no mosquitoes.
At the time, guests could pay $50 to become “King for a Day,” which offered an unlimited expense account and the opportunity to eat everything from caviar to Maine lobster.
“I was thinking about today how much it would cost to have somebody be ‘King for a Day,’ ” Harris says.
The inn hit harder times during the Depression and war years, as fewer people were taking driving trips. The Heyn family sold the hotel in 1946 to Maxwell Abell.
In 1957, Donald Shoemaker moved his family from Bedford so he could take over as manager of the Summit. Eunice Shoemaker recalls that the Mission and Craftsman-influenced building had fallen into disrepair.
The owner was in Chicago and didn’t care to spend money on the inn, Shoemaker says. Her husband was ready to take a job in Puerto Rico when he was offered the chance to buy the inn.
“We sold everything we could and got money from the bank,” Shoemaker says.
They bought the inn in May 1964 and started renovations. They did a few rooms at first, enough so that Shoemaker could invite her bridge club over and not be embarrassed.
“For years, my father was a conservationist. If he could save anything, it was saved and it was used,” Harris says.
The whole family joined the effort to make it work. They lived across the road from the inn but spent most of their waking time at the resort. Harris was 5 when she and her parents moved there.
“The lobby really was my living room,” she says.
“She grew up with the hotel, and that’s why she’s able to run the hotel so well today,” Shoemaker says.
When Harris was little, she was paid a penny for every fly she killed. She folded napkins, too.
“The day (guests) came in, I’d sit on the porch and wait for someone my age,” she says. “When they’d leave, I’d hide because I didn’t want them to leave.”
As she got older, Harris became popular among friends.
“I used to have slumber parties, and my friends could not wait until it was my turn,” she says.
With its multiple staircases and lots of nooks, it’s easy to get lost in the massive building. But it also has a sense of intimacy.
“I think that’s the attention that our guests of today totally enjoy,” Harris says. “It’s more comfortable. Even though we have 94 rooms, it has the feel of a bed and breakfast.”
Harris says many guests think of mountain resorts from two movies — “The Shining” and “Dirty Dancing” — when they see the Summit.
But the inn made history in its own right, having been added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
Things have changed over the years. Shoemaker remembers that the inn used to be run like a cruise ship.
“You had something planned every day and night,” she says.
Today, guests enjoy relaxing by the outdoor pool or swimming in the heated indoor pool. They might golf a round at the nine-hole course or play video games in the game room. But many guests choose to stay at the Summit and venture out to other attractions in the Laurel Highlands.
And while there used to be a formal dress code for the dining room, today’s guests arrive in jeans and shorts. Guest rooms have private baths, televisions and air conditioning. No two rooms are decorated the same.
“A building like this is just a constant renovation and upkeep. We just do what our eyes tell us needs to be taken care of,” Harris says. “We take probably 15 rooms or more a year and redo them totally, and the others we’ll just paint.”
But many things have remained the same. Guests still walk to the lobby down a grand staircase, the sun shining on them from two large stained-glass windows.
In the lobby, they sit on the same Gustav Stickley furniture that Ford and Edison found there. And they can look at — but not touch — an 1868 Steinway square grand piano.
Carol Rubaker, 68, of Baldwin, Allegheny County, first stayed at the Summit in the early 1960s. She was looking for a place she and her then-husband could drive to for a getaway.
“It was only a 45- to 50-minute ride from Pittsburgh, and when we got there, it was like a million miles away from home,” she says.
“I love the old-fashioned charm of it,” she says. “No matter what room you get, you’re not beside an ice machine that’s clunking all night long.”
Rubaker says she’s stayed at the Summit every year since 1971.
“Everybody that knows me knows that I go to Uniontown for my vacation,” she says. “I’ve been to Hawaii. I’ve been on a cruise, but everyone remembers I go to Uniontown.”
Mary Boord, of Newark, Del., used to go to the Summit Inn as a child in Canonsburg, Washington County, about 65 years ago. She remembers the two dachshunds and the pool.
“The swimming pool had a slide going down into it,” she says. “I thought that was a lot of fun.”
She grew up and married her husband, Robert, a Masontown, Fayette County, native, and they moved away. About 12 years ago, on a trip back to Western Pennsylvania, the Boords, now in their late 70s, decided to take Route 40. They came across the Summit Inn and decided to stop for lunch and met some golfers, who had played the resort’s course. The Boords — golfers themselves — vowed to go back and try it out.
“In the past 12 years, we’ve been back 16 times,” she says. “That says we like it.”
“As a retired designer I look at the environment, and the lobby is sensational,” she says. “The rooms are all different, which is nice, because you have a lot of these cookie cutter places.”
The Boords note how friendly the inn’s owners and employees are.
“They must spend a lot of hours there tending their guests,” Robert Boord says. “It’s just nice to go somewhere where you’re recognized and you get to know them.”
The Summit should be in the family’s hands for a long time. When her father became ill in 1993, Harris started learning more of the business from him. By the time he died four years later, she was running the show.
Now the youngest of her three children, Amanda Leskinen, who just graduated from Washington & Jefferson College, will be helping more.
“She’s going to come back this year and start working, and maybe I’ll get to play a little golf,” Harris says.
Jennifer Reeger can be reached at email@example.com or 724-836-6155.