WESTON — Bernice Charlton was sitting in her office on Sunday, Sept. 5, when a couple came knocking on her door.

She had no clue that smoke was billowing from the roof of the Weston business she’s owned for three decades.

“They told me, ‘Get out! It’s on fire!’” Charlton said.

She ran into the kitchen of the Long Branch Cafe & Saloon, hoping to save some of her belongings and possibly put out the fire herself. By then, the flames were reaching toward the ceiling.

Another person — Charlton never saw their face — came knocking on the back door with a fire extinguisher and put out the blaze emanating from the deep fryer. But as the flames reached higher into the overheard vents, she ran back outside, just as firefighters arrived.

Charlton spent most of the next six hours sitting at the post office across the street. She thought of little besides hoping that the flames would be extinguished quickly. She was not thinking of what she would do next. She sat there and watched the flames consuming the beloved Weston business — an institution that had drawn people from far and wide for decades — fizzle out.

Plans to rebuild

Four days later, Charlton sat on the bench in the front of her business, the smell of smoke and char still lingering in the air.

She has red hair and wore a green and white flannel, blue jeans and crocs. She was tired from a busy week of talking to state agencies, insurers and countless concerned friends and family members asking what she would do now. The day was eerily quiet, devoid of the customers that frequent the longstanding business.

“It’s just not the same,” Jackie Howard, Charlton’s sister, said while standing outside the business that day.

By then, Charlton had begun the long process of salvaging the restaurant. Most of the ceiling over the restaurant had caved in and the water damage was extensive. Insulation covered the ground along with beer cans and fully wrapped loaves of bread. But the bar, from waist height, looked almost as if nothing had ever happened. The rows of classic salt and pepper shakers — donations from community members to commemorate the deaths of parents — remained.

Charlton hopes to reopen the bar soon, perhaps by the end of September. To do so, she’ll need to serve food, so she plans to either open a food truck or serve food from the bar. Meanwhile, Sheldon Delph, a retired teacher and local historian whose parents opened the Long Branch decades ago, is seeking funding for the repairs and is looking at writing grant applications.

“I wouldn’t dare not open,” said Charlton, 78. “They’d hang me from a pole.”

An institution

Since the fire, a steady stream of people have flocked to the Long Branch to see the damage, Charlton said. Some arrive with hopes of a meal, only to be disappointed. Others stop by to see the damage and express their sympathies. To many, it’s a testament to how much the business means to the region.

For decades, the Long Branch has served as an institution for Weston. Its massive breakfast meals — ham, eggs, hashbrowns and pancakes as big as your head — drew people from across the region. It has served as a pitstop for travelers, a destination for weekend bikers, a place of celebration for the community. It’s a place where people felt welcome, where you could find a ride home after a night of drinking or pay days in advance for your parents’ meal.

“Women felt safe here,” said Tracy McCarthy, a resident of Milton-Freewater and longtime customer who visited Charlton at the Long Branch on Sept. 9. “Nobody bothered us.”

One resident who came to the Long Branch on Sept. 9 was Tim Smock. The day before the fire, the community held a celebration of life at the Long Branch for Smock’s father, Don Smock, a longtime customer and farmer who, for decades, had come to the restaurant almost daily, mostly for its famous chicken fried steak, according to his son. The wake drew more than 50 community members, friends and family from across the region.

“It was fantastic,” Smock said of seeing his family again.

Charlton has not spent the last several days sulking. Though she remains concerned over what insurance will cover, she remains optimistic. Through the pandemic, she said she’s grown used to handling hardship, and this is just another one to overcome. Over three decades of management, she’s endured many challenges.

“Whatever will happen,” she said, “will happen.”

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