By Johanna Zomers
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Wilno — The handover of the popular Wilno Tavern to new owner Wendell Henry on June 25 will likely be bittersweet for Corinne Higgins who has been at the helm of the historic hotel for some 40 years.
The original “stopping place” across from the Wilno train station first changed hands in the early 1900s and was renamed the “Exchange Hotel”. In 1913 blacksmith Frank Shulist bought the hotel and for the next seven decades the Shulist family served the community and the many travellers passing through “the Wilno Pass’ by rail and later by road. In 1979 it had changed hands briefly and when Corinne and Miroslav (Merc) Lentz came to the Valley from Fort MacMurray in 1981 in search of ‘a summer or retirement property’ they found the hotel listed for sale as the Wilno Tavern.
“Although Merc was Polish, it was pure co-incidence that we ended up in a Polish community,” remembers Corinne. “We’d been camping at Carson Lake and really liked the area. We decided we could run the tavern and live here full time instead of travelling back and forth to Fort Mac.”
The couple moved into several rooms on the second floor of the historic building and divided up the work shifts with Corinne, who had worked as a school counsellor in Fort Mac, doing days and Merc covering the evenings. They had occasional seasonal assistance from Audry Bromwich who worked at Mount Madawaska during ski season, and from Pat McCaffrey whose spouse Barney later became a regular entertainer at the tavern. Corinne recalls how the present-day large tavern room was still divided in two and that Barney would be positioned so that he could be seen and heard through the doorway. A small patio where today’s dining room is situated, created extra outdoor space in summer. “Our clientele were the Polish bachelors and local loggers,” says Corinne. “It was a men’s tavern with occasional women visitors.”
By 1988, the couple had two children to support and stricter drinking and driving regulations were affecting alcohol sales.
“We realized we couldn’t survive on the sale of beer and pickled eggs anymore,” Corinne recalls, and they made the decision to expand into food service.
Local builder Heinz Schimansky was enlisted to enclose the side patio into the current dining area. The kitchen was renovated to accommodate a menu including traditional Polish food along with burgers, sandwiches, homemade desserts, and hearty soups. In 1990, Monica Pletz took over the management of the kitchen and remained the chief cook until 2021, joined later by Jo-Jo Yakabuskie. Dozens upon dozens of local students landed their first jobs in the tavern kitchen washing dishes and chopping vegetables, often graduating to cooking or becoming servers in the increasingly popular and busy dining room.
To become tavern staff was to become part of a family—not only in the sense of being colleagues but in the sense of often working alongside siblings, cousins or even alongside one’s mother and aunts who were long time servers in the dining room. That friendly familial and neighbourly atmosphere extended to the customers, local as well as returning summer cottagers who were greeted by hugs from servers who remembered even the smallest details of their favourite food and drink.
In contrast to the dark and dim atmosphere of many taverns and pubs, the Wilno Tavern was a bright sunny space filled with original local art and an intriguing collection of farming and logging tools displayed on the walls. Over time, the old fashioned stigma of ‘going to the hotel’ faded and the tavern became a community hub of sorts, hosting everything from bridal showers, baby showers, anniversary and birthday dinners, retirement and golf gatherings as well as celebrations of life after funerals. Performances by local bands Thin Ice, the Wilno Express and a popular Sunday afternoon event led by Tom Franey and the Moon River Crooks proved popular with locals and cottagers alike.
In 1992, Corinne, who was born in PEI, extended her traditional Maritimer hospitality to local musicians Pam Ogelsby and Mark Norris who were looking for a space to play music informally with friends. Tuesdays were quiet nights in Wilno, ideal for long rambling jam sessions. Word spread and the weekly Blues Night soon attracted people from near and far.
The original Blues Night band who formed the backbone of the impromptu jam sessions, over time expanded to two full bands who now alternate Tuesday nights. At its height before COVID-19 disrupted the tavern schedules as it did everywhere, Blues Night brought hundreds of diners and dancers to the Madawaska Valley, filling nearby restaurants and accommodations when the tavern was full. An outing to Blues Night featured regularly on the calendars of campers, cottagers, canoeists for miles around.
As well as the challenges of the pandemic, the tavern also faced the difficulties of staffing that are now an issue for all local business. One of the drawing cards of the tavern are the warm welcomes from long time staff who ‘know your name’. That warm welcome is backed by a kitchen that makes much of its food from scratch including thousands of handmade perogies, cabbage rolls, spiced red cabbage and the rich bread puddings that are menu favourites and require a supply of young energetic kitchen helpers who are in short supply with fewer young families and more retirees. The result has been reduced opening hours, especially during the slower off season.
The war in Ukraine had an unexpected effect on the tavern as long-time server Tetyana Moiseyeva, born in Zaporiska, took on the challenge of raising money and supplies for the conflict which expanded into several local families welcoming Ukrainian refugees into their Madawaska Valley homes. Several of the newcomers found work at the tavern which helped with the labour shortage.
“We can get past the language barrier,” says Corinne, “but the biggest problem was available housing”.
Even as the Ukrainian refugees moved on to other parts of the province, the tavern retained a legacy which is a traditional layered Ukrainian honey cake added to the dessert menu.
Another unique tavern feature is the Wilno Heritage Beer, created to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the hamlet of Wilno. Originally brewed by Hart breweries and bottled in the distinctive brown stubby bottles with a label featuring traditional Kashubian floral designs, the amber beer is now brewed by the Kitchissippi Brewery and remains on tap at the tavern.
Although she is continuing to make herself available to the new owner during the transition period, Corinne is looking forward to a less structured retirement which will hold more opportunities for travel, curling, reading and less daily stress and commitment.
“I will miss the people and the sociability” she says, “but the new owner knows this community well having previously owned the Ashgrove Inn in Barry’s Bay. The tavern will continue to operate as it always has with the current staff and the familiar menu.”
Plans are underway for a ‘transition party’ at the tavern on Sunday, June 25, where customers, staff, friends, and the community are invited to meet the new owner and to wish a fond farewell to Corinne.