It's Maryland's 'last best-kept secret,' but hunters know the way

November 28, 1993|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

GRANTSVILLE -- Every deer season they come. From places like Baltimore and Harford County, they shed down-filled and fluorescent orange coats, nurse $1.25 cans of beer, shoot pool and tell tales of the day's kills or near misses in the Western Maryland woods.

They come to a log cabin nestled in a quiet grove of bare trees and green hemlocks on the banks of the meandering Casselman River. They come to a cozy, almost-forgotten place on River Road called the Meshach Browning Club, named for the man some say was Maryland's greatest hunter.

Trophies of salmon (caught in Michigan and presented by a local family), squirrel and deer adorn the walls. Beneath the head of an eight-point buck appropriately rests a black-and-white portrait of Meshach Browning, an early colonist in the mountains who, legend has it, slew 500 bears and 1,200 deer in these parts from the late 1700s into the mid-1800s.

Restroom doors are labeled "Squatters" and "Standers." Among other signs above the bar hangs this one: "When the world ends I want to be in Garrett County -- it's always 20 years behind time."

As a sign on U.S. 40 points out, the Meshach Browning Club is "Maryland's last best-kept secret."

Regulars like to tell the story of a group of state officials who promised $50 to whoever could find the most rustic, unchanged bar in Maryland. When the officials walked into the Meshach Browning Club, they promptly handed $50 bills to the lucky fellow who knew the place.

Nothing much has changed -- in decades. A wood-burning stove eases the chill of a cold November evening, just a few days before Thanksgiving and the start of deer season.

Rheba Cofiell works behind the 10-stool bar, serving Budweiser and Coors to a handful of customers. Some are drinking Coke. Sixty cents a can. Diet Coke is in stock, too, occasionally. Pepsi. But no other brands or flavors.

A 1940s-style Formica table and a pool table are in the center of the cabin.

"It's not the Holiday Inn," says Ms. Cofiell, a twice-widowed Garrett County native who has owned the club for 15 years.

"At my age, I can't keep it up like I used to. I'll be 71 in January. I can't climb and I can't lift things over 10 pounds."

The Meshach Browning Club lures more than hunters and fishermen. Local politicians and businessmen, lawyers and their wives, state officials and teachers frequent the establishment.

They come for cheap beer, camaraderie, conversation and country music.

"I don't know a better country-music jukebox around," says Steve Prosser, a Grantsville printer who has been a regular customer since moving up this way in 1987.

"Every once in a while, Rheba will bring something out of the kitchen -- beef stew or turkey. It's not for sale; it's just for everyone to eat," he said.

"It's better that they do eat," says Ms. Cofiell, sitting on a cushioned seat at the end of the bar, smoking a cigarette and sipping a 7-ounce bottle of Bud Light.

"It makes them shape up a little before they go out on the road. If you're gonna run a place, you gotta run it right or word gets around.

"I don't want it where I got to call 911."

About that jukebox: pure country music. Well-grooved 45-rpm records play Patsy Cline, George Jones and Conway Twitty. The most contemporary sides are '80s Randy Travis.

Walls are plastered with album covers of country music's finest, performers such as Porter Wagner, Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.

"Do you like rock 'n' roll?" Ms. Cofiell, who once sang with Grandpa Jones, asks of a customer. "The closest I got is Elvis Presley."

Rheba -- as every patron calls her -- talks with each and every customer that comes through the door. She'll talk about weather, hunting and fishing (she used to do both) and politics.

"I'm a little opinionated, but nine times out of 10, I'm right," she says. "I tell it like it is. We don't discuss religion. We do argue about politics a little."

A registered Democrat, Ms. Cofiell says she voted for George Bush last year.

Pictures of the former president are stashed around a mirror behind the bar. A political parody titled the "First Book of Democrats, Psalm 1993," which takes a few jabs at the Clinton administration, is plastered nearby.

"The guy I bought this place from was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat," Ms. Cofiell says. "He would roll over in his grave if he knew I voted for Bush again."

She was born and raised just a mile or so down the road from the club. She left the mountains for a while, served in the Navy, lived in Florida, California and Baltimore, working at several bookkeeping jobs.

"I just decided to come back home," Ms. Cofiell says about her decision to buy the place in the late 1970s.

"This place carried a lot of sentimental value for me. My daddy helped build it. I wanted to be in the woods away from it all."

She is the club's fifth owner. It was originally in another building on the 2 1/2 -acre tract near a pavilion that burned in the 1950s. The cabin, built in 1920, was formerly living quarters.

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