Smitten With Smithton: What’s Behind The Revival of This Historic Spot?
Trekkers on the Great Allegheny Passage are bringing new life to this historical borough that lost half of its population over the last century.
From the Smithton Beach stop on the Great Allegheny Passage, it’s hard to make out Smithton Borough. The hamlet lies past a steep bridge across the tree-lined Youghiogheny River. Most bicyclists and hikers only notice a new trailside sign touting Smithton and old signs warning, “Cross Bridge Cautiously.”
But if you do cross the bridge, you’ll find a historical borough that many locals call “Smithin.” The Westmoreland town is becoming a popular overnight stop for many of the GAP’s long-distance cyclists — it’s about 41 miles from the trail’s start at Point State Park in Downtown Pittsburgh and 108 miles from the trail’s finish in Cumberland, Maryland.
Crossing the bridge is like traveling back in time.
You’ll find about 390 residents wedged into barely a 10th of a square mile. You’ll find small homes whose porches and yards teem with flags, pinwheels, banners, welcome signs, coat hooks, statues and bushes shaped like dogs.
You’ll find a big sign about Shirley Jones, who moved here at age 3 and joined a local Methodist choir at 6 before becoming Miss Pittsburgh. She went on to win an Oscar for her role as a vengeful prostitute in the 1960 film “Elmer Gantry” and later played a wholesome mother on TV’s “The Partridge Family.”
You’ll find three churches, a few stores and offices, mostly with limited hours, and the former brewery of Stoney’s Beer, a regional favorite now made in Latrobe.
You’ll find some new things too. A bed and breakfast. A restaurant with lodgings above. An antiques shop. A salon. A pollinator garden. A “Float Smithton” boat launch. A “Play Smithton” playground just outside the borough, which had no suitable space within. A bicycle repair station — and a kinetic bike sculpture alongside it, mounted about 33 feet high.
You’ll also find friendly people. A young girl will bicycle past you twice and say “hi” both times. Stick around and you’ll find a surprising number of festivals, parades and motorcycle rallies. You’ll also find Joy Riders, a nonprofit based here that gives free tandem bike rides in Westmoreland and Allegheny counties to people with disabilities.
“Everyone here is so nice,” says Joelle Whiteman, who opened Dale’s Place restaurant and lodgings in 2018 with her husband, Eric, capitalizing on the GAP’s growing traffic. “Everyone looks out for each other.”
Native Rosa Smithton-Boyd decamped eight years ago to a nearby farm, leaving behind an elderly uncle. Neighbors still call her to say, “Your uncle’s truck hasn’t moved. Is everything OK?”
First and Center
Smithton’s story is intertwined with Adele’s Bed and Breakfast at First and Center streets. The building opened in 1893 as a hotel, tavern and dance hall and closed nearly 100 years later. It reopened in 2017, mainly to serve trail trekkers. Its hosts are Christine Adele Tutena, Smithton’s 17-year mayor and the building’s lifelong occupant, and her husband, Dan Barthels, a 24-year councilman and the third-generation director of Smithton’s 1924 funeral home.
Adele’s is named not for the hostess but her maternal grandmother, Adele Fabean Ottino, who ran Ottino’s bar here for 51 years while raising Christine. “Gram would get such a big damn kick out of people coming to her home and enjoying it again,” declares Christine, as outgoing and outspoken as Gram.
Smithton goes back to the late 1700s, when Dan’s ancestors and others started farming nearby. Coal mines and coke ovens followed. The borough was incorporated in 1901.
Adele’s began as Smith House, then Jones House. In 1907, the story goes, proprietor Bill “Stoney” Jones, Shirley’s grandfather, won Eureka Brewing in a poker game and moved it to town. Locals started asking for “one of Stoney’s beers,” according to the brewery’s history on its website, and the name stuck.
In her 2013 memoir, Shirley — age 89 at this writing and living in Los Angeles — calls Smithton “a Norman Rockwell painting in living color … small, self-contained, innocent, and ideal.” (Other local notables include suffragist Hannah Patterson and wrestler Ryan Mitchell.)
As Christine likes to recount, her Gram was raised “up the holla” nearby with eight siblings and went through three husbands, No. 2 being John Ottino. In 1940, he turned Jones House into Ottino’s bar. But he was diabetic and liked to sample the merchandise. Adele warned him, “You’re not going to last 10 years.” He lasted six.
Adele kept Ottino’s going with help from family; up to 17 members occupied the building at a time. But Christine’s mother died before she turned 3. “I don’t have any memory of my mom,” says Christine. “Adele was my mom.”
Gram, as many regulars began calling her, opened the bar at 7 a.m. for night crews heading home and closed it after the 11 p.m. news. She often fed hungry customers for free. Others brought in vegetables, rabbits and giant meatballs.
Gram welcomed occasional Black visitors to this nearly all-white town. She booted intolerant or combative people but tolerated drunken ones. Men often urinated in a trough beneath the bar. A woman lost her false teeth in it. Another napped in a tub upstairs.
During those decades, families typically stayed in Smithton for generations. Bill Manack, the borough’s last barber, recalls, “You never saw a real estate sign.”
Kids roamed free, and grownups kept watch. Dan Barthels says, “If you did something, your parents knew before you got home.”
Many homes lacked garages or driveways, so cars lined the curbs. Former Mayor Robert Prah Jr. recalls, “Everyone knew who had which parking spot.”
Councilwoman Karen Primm, who runs Joy Riders, moved here 45 years ago. Soon after arriving, she went to buy a loaf of bread. “Your husband already bought one,” she was told by a worker, who already had figured out the two newcomers were a couple.
Smithton endured floods and worse. In 1907, the Darr Mine Disaster in nearby Van Meter killed 239 workers, still a Pennsylvania record. In 1982, a fire wrecked Ottino’s third floor for good.
From Ottino’s to Adele’s
Christine helped at Ottino’s for decades despite working full time as a mental health therapist for local hospitals. In 1991, with Gram’s health flagging, the bar finally shut down. “We had one hell of a closing party,” says Christine. “The whole town smelled of spaghetti sauce.”
Christine retired in 2020. Now she devotes herself to Adele’s and Smithton. The bed and breakfast’s 2,584 square feet includes richly painted walls, six guest units, a big balcony, a lush garden and plenty of memorabilia. There’s a “Couples Only” sign meant to keep single women from preying on married men. A stained-glass transom made and donated by a guest. Seasonal decor crammed into every room, even in winter, when the place is closed to the public. Photos of Shirley Jones, FDR and a United Mine Workers leader. (The proprietors are Democrats, and this old union town still leans left, though currently supporting a Smithton Republican, State Rep. Eric Davanzo.)
The trough is gone, but 39 feet of the bar’s original 53 feet survive, as does a 5-foot-tall doorway screening the kitchen — “If Danny and I had a dollar for every time we banged our heads!” Christine says.
She plies guests with homemade snacks and breakfast pastries. Dan fixes their bicycles and serves them omelets with veggies from his ancestral farm.
Online, customers extol Adele’s. “So many memories and so much character in that lovely tavern” … “Breakfast was fabulous” … “Christine regaled us with the town’s history and her family stories.”
The borough spends about $113,000 per year, mostly for five part-time workers. Elected officials are unpaid and usually unopposed.
In 2000, Christine volunteered to bring back Christmas lights along the town’s streets. The next year, voters surprised her by writing her in as mayor.
She and Dan say that, late in 2005’s campaign, tired of infighting, they asked to be voted out. In 2009, worried about borough spending, the spouses retook office. If anyone considers their posts in conflict, Dan says he’d gladly give his up.
Many people have given Smithton up. The population has plunged by more than half in the past 100 years. Grocery stores have dwindled from seven to one. “We try to serve the community with a little bit of everything,” says Marlene Fabean, Adele’s niece-in-law, who has tended Jack’s Meat Market and General Store for 62 years.
Stoney’s stopped brewing here in 2002. Now its roughly 40,000-square-foot complex has just a few small business tenants and some code citations. “If this were Downtown Pittsburgh,” says owner Rob McKeown, “it could have million-dollar condos.”
Prah, the former mayor, says of Smithton, “You’re tucked away, you’re trapped and you’re landlocked. There’s nowhere to grow.”
Barber Manack says, “It’s just a shame it’s on the wrong side of the river.”
Today and Tomorrow
But locals still seem “Smitten with Smithton,” as the borough’s website puts it. Realtor Mary Joe Popp says homes sell fast.
The hamlet is hidden but not isolated. Urban sprawl has brought many stores nearby. Interstate 70 and Route 51 are close, too.
The GAP Trail reached Smithton Beach in the 1990s and draws about 161,000 people per year. Bryan Perry, who runs the GAP Conservancy, praises the hamlet’s new offerings. “Smithton’s becoming a destination.”
Christine and Dan, childless in their 60s, say they haven’t thought about Adele’s future. As for Smithton’s future, they hope to plant more trees, pave a playground path, enhance the pollinator garden, welcome a photo studio to a long-closed opera house and make other improvements.
“I hope other businesses would take a chance here,” Christine says of the town.
Dan doesn’t want it to change too much. “I hope it keeps its small-town feel,” he says.
Grant Segall is a national prize-winning reporter who has written for The Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Philadelphia Magazine, Time, Reuters, Science, Oxford University Press and other outlets.