By Jeanne Sager
FERNDALE October 21, 2005 Nelson and Mae Townsend had a love affair with the restaurant business.
Now theyre closing the book.
The owners of Inn by the Falls, the countys oldest family-run restaurant, wont be coming back for another season in Ferndale.
The eatery opened on Maes 17th birthday by her dad, Anthony Nick Esposito, is undergoing a renovation in preparation for sale to the highest bidder.
The very idea brings tears to Mae Townsends eyes, but, she said, its time.
Eight years ago, she suffered a stroke thats made coming back from Florida each spring to reopen the inn a little tougher as the years have gone by.
A stroke makes a big difference in your life, she explained. I had an excellent assistant, Nona Roal shed do all my prep work and set me up, but not one dish went out of that kitchen without me.
That kitchen has been a part of Maes life since the 1940s when her father, owner of Nicks Bar and Grill across the street, purchased the old tannery and blacksmith shop to fulfill his dream of owning a real restaurant.
Mae, Nicks only child, was especially close to her father after losing her mother at age 9.
The elder Esposito taught his little girl to cook, and he held his grand opening on her birthday, June 5, 1946.
Thats why Ill never forget it, Mae said. My dad was very sentimental.
He ran Nicks Falls Inn for the next three decades, boasting a loyal clientele that made his one of the three biggest restaurants in the area, Mae recalled.
He served Chinese, American and Italian fare, doing some of the cooking himself and hiring Chinese chefs to help round out the menu.
Mae worked the floor that first summer, waiting tables while her father manned the kitchen.
A year later, Nick Esposito hosted the inns first wedding reception in honor of his daughter and her new husband, Nelson Townsend.
The couple met in a restaurant when Mae was just 10 years old.
Annes Coffee Shop on Main Street in Liberty was run by Nelsons sister and brother-in-law.
Nelson still remembers when Mae walked in the door.
She was cute, he said with a grin. Shes cute yet look at her!
Nelson, home from a stint in the Army, opened his own refrigeration and air-conditioning business, and the couple set up house in his family home in White Sulphur Springs.
Winters they spent in Florida where Mae eventually became executive director of the Turf Club and Nelson worked as club manager.
Between their two hometowns, they raised two children, Nelson Lee and Teri, who now live and work in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Townsend family now includes five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
It wasnt until the 1970s, when Nick fell ill, that the inn went through major changes.
Nick moved to Florida to live with the Townsends, eventually dying there.
Mae decided to lease the restaurant out, but after five years things didnt seem to be working.
We came back, and I said, Mae, why dont you run it yourself? Nelson recalled.
Mae went to work adding her feminine touches to the place, from mirrors on the wall to lace tablecloths and candles on the tables.
In June 1984, they reopened with the name Inn by the Falls and two chefs working the kitchen.
Our opening night, we opened up and we had such a mob in there the chefs couldnt keep up with it, Nelson recalled.
So my wife fired both of them, he continued with a laugh.
I said, Take your knives and go home, Mae recalled with a sad smile. I had a silk dress on I was hostessing that night I rolled my silk dress up and went in the kitchen.
They had nothing prepped, nothing ready, the veal wasnt thawed.
I dont know how they thought they were going to feed all those people, she added. So I went in and did the cooking.
Shes been head chef since that day, putting her special touch on prime rib, fettucine alfredo and the inns well-known trout dishes.
Thats one thing my dad and I both have, Mae explained, we cook with love.
Shes got magic in her hands, in her mind, Nelson said. She does tremendous things with flavors.
She doesnt do as much cooking now I do it and she tells me what to do, but I dont have the touch, he added.
What Nelson did have was the skill to keep the restaurants equipment running he fixed the bar cooler and made sure her refrigerator was still running. Even when he sold his business in 1991, he stayed around to keep things going.
Then she promoted me to dishwasher, he said with a laugh.
Hed keep the customers entertained at the bar while Mae kept things going behind the scenes.
Her work was an ode to her father, her decision to keep the inn going a tribute to his dream.
The main thing I want people to remember is my father started it, she said. While I was there, I told my staff that if anyone asked for Nick to send em in the kitchen.
My kitchen was like Grand Central Station, she added. People would come in and say, I used to come here when your dad owned it, or My parents used to come here back when.
It made me feel good, she said.
Saying goodbye is hard.
Youre married to the business, it gets in your blood, Mae explained.
It was a lot of fun, Nelson added. We met an awful lot of nice people . . . but somebodys going to buy it and have an awful nice restaurant again.