For the past 30 years Mark Cooper has been serving up entrees with a side of history at his Drover's Inn. The establishment is located in the Northern Panhandle town of Wellsburg.
Cooper purchased the 166-year-old landmark in 1986. The previous owner, the late Mary Marko, had spent two decades restoring the inn. Cooper picked up where Marko had left off, upgrading the property and adding to its antique furniture and fixtures.
"When I first bought the place, there was no real business to be had," he said. "That first year there were days in January and February where I had no business. But keeping consistent hours, being there all the time … it takes time, but each year you build on what you did the year before. I tried to add something every year, whether it was an improvement in the kitchen or doing something to make it better for customers."
The sprawling building has four dining sections, including an addition Cooper put on in 2003, as well as a tavern carved out – literally – from an old root cellar.
Built in 1848, it was located at the 3-mile mark of a 6-mile toll road between Wellsburg and Washington, Pa. Known early on as the Inn at Fowlerstown, it provided overnight lodging for travelers, in addition to housing a general store, drug store and post office. Original owner John Fowler also had pens for animals, a shoe shop, buggy shop and sold food.
"It was a hub of activity back then," Cooper said. "After the Depression, they stopped taking in overnight travelers and went to renting rooms by the week. The general store closed and then it became a private family residence."
A companion property next door, a 225-year-old log cabin, had been rented to families in the 1850s. Now it's empty, although Cooper hopes eventually to reopen it as a guesthouse. It's on the National Register of Historic Places.
Cooper said his business has come a long way since those early days when customers were few and far between, crediting his staff for giving them a reason to come back, again and again.
"My kitchen manager has been with me 28 years," he said. "My bar manager's been here 22 years. A lot of our success is the food we put out, the atmosphere we provide, but it's also about our staff. They've helped create what we have today."
Open Wednesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 7 p.m., Drover's offers a menu that runs the gamut from traditional chicken, steaks and fantail shrimp and to smoked salmon and smoked baby back ribs. There's also a selection of sandwiches, including a vegetarian black bean burger, barbecued pork and barbecued pulled chicken, salads and a range of appetizers and tasty desserts.
"We can't get rid of anything," he said. "As soon as we do our customers ask us what happened. We have customers that don't even have to look at the menu. They know what they want as soon as they walk in."
The Inn also has nine varieties of wings, with "suicidal," "atomic" and "hurt-me" among the sauce options.
"We started doing wings in February 1987," Cooper said. "A kid who'd been doing a soccer coaching internship at Bethany College told me how wings were very popular (in his hometown) and we should sell them. So, for the next eight weeks I had him come in and I'd make sample sauces and have him try them out."
Cooper said he runs a family establishment. Kids are welcome throughout the property, even in the tavern before 9 p.m. as long as they're accompanied by a parent. Reservations are accepted, though walk-ins are welcome.
"We just want our customers to have a good, enjoyable, relaxing dinner," he said.
To find out more or for reservations, call 304-737-0188 or visit www.droversinn1848.com.