by LAUREE STROUD PURCELL
Thomas House, the Town of Dayton’s oldest restaurant, has a long, interesting history dating back to 1818 when the main house was built. Looking at it from the outside, one might not guess it contains 26 rooms, 10 bathrooms and 10,000 square feet. Charlie Pennybacker, its 78-year-old owner, has a rich local history of his own with many ties to friends and family in the Shenandoah Valley.
Charlie, who lives in an apartment adjoining the restaurant, gets up around 3:45 Monday-Saturday mornings to mix up an assortment of fresh bread. Then he prepares all the pies and helps his main grill person, Theresa Smith, who works 4 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day. It isn’t unusual for Charlie to prepare 20 gallons of vegetable beef soup by early afternoon. While diabetes sometimes slows him a bit and keeps him from devouring the delicious pies he prepares, he has no plans to retire. “I just take a little rest for an hour around 10 a.m. and then get back to work,” he says. “I can’t imagine what I would do if I retired, I enjoy the fellowship and relationships I’ve made with my customers over the years.”
Pamela Bell likes going to Thomas House because “it’s home-cooking comfort food similar to the way my grandma used to cook.”
Charlie has many regulars who come for the home-style menu with country favorites like baked chicken, tenderloin and gravy, freshly peeled mashed potatoes, green beans, macaroni and cheese, pea salad, cranberry salad, biscuits, rolls and pies. “I always paid attention to what my mother was doing in the kitchen,” he remarks. Pamela Bell of Harrisonburg likes going there with her family because “it’s home-cooking comfort food similar to the way my Grandma used to cook.”
Charlie bought his restaurant in August 1994 in a foreclosure sale. No stranger to hard work, he got busy right away rebuilding the kitchen, turning living quarters into dining rooms, installing new floors and ceilings, and replacing windows and bathrooms to meet health inspection requirements. Then he and his six employees opened for business November 10, 1994.
They started out serving only breakfast and lunch and closing at 2 p.m. But in July 1995, Charlie started serving dinner, too. Lunch is cafeteria style with the menu on a white board and the pies and cobblers set out to tempt everyone in the serving line. Charlie gets his fresh produce from the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction two to three times each week. Every Monday morning, he meets with his vendors so they can resupply his kitchen on Tuesdays.
For the annual Dayton Autumn Celebration, a popular arts and crafts festival also known as “Dayton Days,” Charlie sells pork barbecue sandwiches, biscuits and gravy, brown beans and cornbread, donuts, peanut butter pie, hot chocolate, coffee, sodas and bottled water all from his front porch facing Main Street. Charlie caters many private parties and class reunions and has four private dining rooms customers reserve for groups of 10, 20 or 40 people. One Friday each month, he brings lunch to 70 members of Asbury United Methodist Church, and he feeds 300 employees of Packaging Corporation of America four times each year. Bible study groups from five area churches take turns meeting in his dining rooms on Saturday mornings for breakfast and fellowship. Many groups reserve his private dining rooms for Christmas parties in the evenings from 5 to 7 p.m. in December. Charlie provides a special holiday menu with a choice of entree, sides, salad, cobbler or fruit pie. He has a player piano and a regular piano that can be used for carols during or after the meal.
Charlie hosts a men’s fellowship group each month for some of his friends and their wives. He looks forward to their nights of eating together and having planned programs that may involve a speaker and slide show or a group of musicians. When he turned 75, his family had a fun surprise party for him at the American Legion. He fondly remembers an even larger surprise party at Evers Restaurant when he turned 67. Among those helping him with the business are his brother, Carroll, sister-in-law, Jackie, their daughter Valerie, and another niece, Debbie. Sometimes cousins, nieces and nephews from West Virginia come to stay with him in the rooms above the restaurant. He loves how his work and home life intermingle to make his days very full.
Charlie remembers making a living in other ways before getting into the restaurant business. After graduating from high school in Franklin, W.Va., he immediately took a job clerking in the brick department of the Bethlehem Steel Company in Baltimore. “I was one of their 30,000 employees for 11 years!” he recalls. He came to Bridgewater to be near his mother when his father passed away. After six months of pulling skin off of turkey legs at the Shenmar Foods poultry plant where she worked, he became the night plant foreman over sanitation and packing. During the days, he worked for Rockingham Co-op as a sales clerk, ordering and stocking shelves and, after two years, became the manager of their Bridgewater Store during the late 70s. From 1974 to 1993, Charlie leased two chicken houses and gathered eggs each day.
Before Charlie, Lottie Thomas owned the Thomas House from 1942 to 1988. In addition to living there, she and her husband John Wilbur Thomas operated a large bakery that eventually employed 24 people. Shenandoah College students needed a boardinghouse and a restaurant, especially when their parents came to visit. So the Thomas House evolved to fill those needs, too.
Lottie cut back on baking after John died in 1958, but she kept her boardinghouse. By 1962, she had also opened a full-service restaurant serving meals similar to those Charlie serves today. When Shenandoah College moved to Winchester in 1960, rooms once rented by college students were used by construction workers, salesmen and poultry plant workers. At age 84, Lottie still took care of 16 boarders and kept her restaurant open for three meals every day.
Her grandson, Tom Watkins, operated the business for four to five years after she passed away in 1988. He sold it to the Neff family who operated Old Virginia Ham Café in downtown Harrisonburg. But soon the property became available in a foreclosure sale, and Lottie Thomas’ nephew, Rudolph Evers, recommended Charlie buy it. Rudolph worked for his Aunt Lottie until 1955 when he focused on his own catering business and Evers Restaurant in Mount Crawford. Charlie had met Rudolph in 1976 when he came to Evers Restaurant to sell an overabundance of potatoes from his family’s garden. As Charlie continued supplying Evers with potatoes and worked as his meat carver, he and Rudolph became best friends. So Rudolph encouraged Charlie to bring back the Thomas House to its former glory when it became available. He gave Charlie some of his aunt’s recipes and taught him how to buy from vendors. Charlie had worked several restaurant jobs in the past, so the transition wasn’t too difficult for him.
Another close friend, Margaret Wenger, played a big role in Charlie’s purchase of the Thomas House. Margaret, former owner of the farm on Route 11 now used as the Rockingham County Fairgrounds, met Charlie one day while he was gathering eggs on the Winston Weaver Farm. “I noticed a little old lady walking through the buildings there and asked her if she needed help,” said Charlie. “She told me she was looking for her old Tom cat who had escaped when Doc Weaver was about to perform an operation on him.” Charlie helped Margaret find her cat, and they became close friends. He looked after Margaret until her death, and, grateful for his help, she left him some money in her will.
Nina Goodrich and Charlie became good friends in the early 1980s as she talked with him each week when she came to buy her eggs at the farm where he gathered them. Nina’s husband, Carroll Goodrich, was the pastor of Bridgewater United Methodist Church at that time, and they retired in Bridgewater. When Charlie opened his restaurant in 1994, Carroll and Nina became regulars. They had Charlie to their home for supper every Sunday evening, and Nina and Charlie remained close friends after Carroll passed away in 2007. Charlie had dinner with her each Sunday in her Bridgewater Retirement Home cafeteria and helped manage her affairs until her death in 2014. “Charlie is a very generous and helpful member of our church, and we appreciate him,” says Jim Tongue, the current pastor of Bridgewater UMC. “He does far more than anybody really knows.” Jim’s wife Judy adds “he watches over a lot of people.”
Charlie has many antiques and old dishes he has collected from the estate sales of friends and inherited from family over the years. An entire glass cabinet in his personal dining room is full of pink Depression glass friends brought to his 67th birthday party. Auctioneer Charlie Wetzel has kept an eye out for pieces he knows Charlie would like, and Charlie has enjoyed buying from auctions held by WVPT over the years, too. Many of the 500 plates Lottie Thomas brought back from her vacations all over the United States and around the world are hanging on the walls of the Thomas House. A scaled replica of Silver Lake Mill, which Charlie commissioned in 2006 to pay tribute to one of Dayton’s most historic landmarks, is on display just inside the restaurant’s entrance.
The Thomas House, and the hundreds of people who eat there each day, have been in good hands with Charlie Pennybacker and his friendly staff these past 21 years, and he hopes to keep serving up delicious food to please his customers for many years to come. He enjoys running a successful restaurant and finds his interaction with the local community to be very rewarding.
LAUREE STROUD PURCELL serves as an editorial consultant for Living. She and her husband Steve have two daughters.