At The Hotel Leger:
Everything Old is New Again
“Just a job” took on a whole new spin twenty years ago when Jane Canty met Ron Pitner. Canty was the bartender at Mokelumne Hill’s historic Leger Hotel. Pitner the maintenance man and resident musician. Love at first sight? Maybe. For certain, work became lots more fun. Still, no one could ever have guessed what fate had in store for them.
Jane and Ron became a couple, then a married couple. Jane worked for three Leger owners, Ron for two. A familiar refrain around their house was the dream, “Now, if that place were ours…”
Jane’s daughter, Ashley, grew up and became an interior decorator in the Bay Area. She visited her parents often. Driving by the Leger, a place where she’d literally grown up, the interior decorator in Ashley saw its possibilities. “I felt the old building calling out: ‘Save me! Save me! Make me pretty again!’”
The rest is history. In November 2002, Jane, Ron and Ashley leased the tumble down hostelry with an option to buy. In less than two years they have not only exercised the option but received six Calaveras County awards for excellence. Here’s the list:
Best Place to Stay Best Local Night Spot Best Place To Dance Best Place To Play Pool Best Pick-up Spot Best Mixed Drink Concoction
Additionally, Ray Jursnich, the hotel’s new chef, earned the Best Prime Rib accolade and tied for Best Kept Dining Secret.
Does the Leger sound like party central? For guests, obviously. For the owners? Well, that’s another story. In less than two years they have re-plumbed the building, painted the interior, put in air-conditioning and heating upstairs, pulled up the carpeting and sanded the floors, painted the pool, landscaped the backyard, and restored the ballroom.
Ashley’s expertise as an interior designer came to the fore in renovating the 13 bedrooms now filled them with antiques. The crowning achievement has been the restoration of the building’s exterior. A plaster coating was removed from one wall revealing original stonework. The rest of the wood hotel was repainted the original
buttercup yellow depicted in a Gold Rush era painting.
“She’s the ‘Golden Lady’ again,” Ashley days. “You can feel her special energy reaching out to all.” Apparently so. In its brief “new” history, the Leger has been host to seminars, workshops and book signings while rock bands liven the scene on Saturday nights. On Monday nights, visitors may choose between free pool or poetry reading.
“Something for everyone,” Ron points out, grinning at the understatement. A genial man with a performer’s enthusiasm for people, he enjoys playing “master of the house” in a bar-restaurant that’s turned into the town living room.
The hotel’s recent renaissance isn’t surprising. The Leger has historically been the hub of town activity. Beginning in 1851, a hotel—probably a tent—existed on the corner of Lafayette and Main. Its owner and proprietor was the bon vivant Frenchman, George Leger.
Part of the building served as the Calaveras County courthouse. This stone section dates from 1855; the annex in back, also made of stone, from 1862. In late August of 1874 George Leger embellished his hotel with a new bar. It was said to be a gorgeous creation of black walnut, maple and laurel. The Calaveras Chronicle raved: “All the hotel lacks to make it equal to any house in our rival city of San Francisco is an elevator.” Unfortunately, the building was gutted a week later in the Sept. 4 fire which raged through Mokelumne Hill. The hotel as we see it today dates from April 1875,
With no much history, there has to be controversy. “It centers around George,” Jane explains. “Many say he haunts the hotel. Last year a psychic research group from San Francisco came up to investigate. They brought all kinds of fancy equipment but their findings were inconclusive.
“That didn’t surprise me. People can’t even agree on how to pronounce his name. Some say ‘Ledger,’ others ‘Legger’ or ‘Luh-jhay.’ Recently a historian—a professor from Paris—came here just to research it. Her findings, too, were inconclusive.”
The owners are in agreement on “Luh-jhay.” Actually, they
seem to be in agreement on everything. “A family business works for us because we all love and need each other,” Ashley says. “I don’t know how a couple could do it. Running a hotel-restaurant like this one is definitely a three person job. Everyone has his or her own work to do and has to do it. We work hard but we have fun. It’s close knit family feeling that’s spread to our staff.”
The edition of their prize winning chef, Ray Jursnich, has enabled Ron to get out of the kitchen. Now there are new plans afoot for a winery in the “dungeon” of the Leger. (During Gold Rush days, when the hotel doubled as a court house, miscreants were housed in the stone cellar.)
In the immediate future, owners and staff are busy with plans for an Oct. 9 gala to celebrate not only ownership and awards, but Jursnich’s new menu. The piece de resistance is announcement of the restaurant’s brand new name: Lafayette and Main.
“People have been coming here to have fun for more than 150 years,” Ashley says, “we hope that’s jus the beginning.”
WHEN YOU GO The Leger is located 8304 Main St., Mokelumne Hill. Phone: (209) 286-1401
1) The newly restored Hotel Leger 2) George Leger established his enduring hotel on the corner of Lafayette and Main in 1852 3) Ron and Jane Pitman and Ashley Canty working together are responsible for putting the renaissance of the Hotel Leger.
(Perhaps a sidebar?)
AND NOW A GREAT MARTINI: Many think it was Jane’s pixie smile that first attracted Ron. But others suspect it was her prowess with a martini shaker. Whatever, the Leger’s martinis are prize winners. Perfect martinis are hard to come by. Here’s Jane’s cherished recipe: Put a martini glass on ice. Fill shaker three-fourths full. Add one-half ounce dry vermouth (Jane prefers Martini and Rossi). Swirl--don’t shake--four times. Drain off vermouth. Pour in three ounces of your favorite gin. Swirl 17 times! Pour into chilled glass. Add two olives. Rim the glass lightly with olive juice. Enjoy! A.M.