CARATUNK — Neither Eric Angevine nor his son Zachary have hiked the Appalachian Trail, but they have no shortage of stories from life on the 2,200-mile footpath.

There were the five hikers who stole the ice cream supply at the Sterling Inn, where the Angevines are the innkeepers; the couple who arrived with no money to pay for their stay and surreptitiously camped in the backyard; the city-slicker who offered to work in order to pay for his stay but had to be taught how to use a lawnmower; and the pair of high school sweethearts suspected of hitchhiking between camps while their parents paid for their “hike.”

“There are lots of funny people that come through here and most of them that you meet are great,” said Eric Angevine, 67.

The father-son duo, who took over the inn in 2012, are part of a long-standing tradition of hospitality at the big white house on a desolate stretch of U.S. Route 201, about 50 miles from the Canada border.

Eric Angevine sits in a rocker beside a wood stove as his son, Zachary, gets something from a cabinet in the kitchen of the Sterling Inn in Caratunk.

Eric Angevine sits in a rocker beside a wood stove as his son, Zachary, gets something from a cabinet in the kitchen of the Sterling Inn in Caratunk. Photos by David Leaming/Morning Sentinel David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

The inn opened in 1816 as a stagecoach stop between Quebec and Boston, as well as one of the area’s earliest dance halls and post offices. Today, a large portion of its business comes from hikers on the Appalachian Trail, which passes about a mile away.

At 200 years old, the inn – whose bicentennial anniversary will be celebrated the weekend of May 14-15 – has seen many changes over the years, but the Angevines believe it is poised to be successful well into the future.

Small inns and historic homes like the Sterling Inn play a large role in Maine’s tourism industry and are part of what distinguishes New England as a destination apart from other places in the U.S., according to the Maine Innkeepers Association. And while the culture around small inns is changing – visitors increasingly expect modern conveniences and more outsiders, like the Angevines, who are from Oklahoma, are taking over inns that were once handed down generation to generation – they remain an important part of what draws visitors to Maine.

“It’s a tremendous marketing advantage that we have these older buildings and older inns, and those that we can verify that have had activity for that long,” said Greg Dugal, president and chief operating officer of the Maine Innkeepers Association. “People sort of gravitate towards that and there’s really no place like Maine in the number of these smaller, older historic homes in proportion to the overall lodging properties. Probably no other place in the country has that sort of representation in the inn stock.”

THE HOTEL STERLING

The Sterling Inn opened 1816 by Joseph Spaulding Jr., who moved to Caratunk from Embden, and it was called The Hotel at Caratunk. It was a stagecoach stop along the Canada Road, the primary trade route connecting Quebec to the Atlantic Ocean.

At the time it had just four guest rooms and no plumbing. Electricity was still several years from being harnessed for use.

The Sterling Inn in Caratunk will celebrate its bicentennial this month.

The Sterling Inn in Caratunk will celebrate its bicentennial this month. David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

In 1836, upon the death of his father, Joseph Spaulding Jr. took over operation of the hotel for nine years before selling it to Joseph Clark Jr., a businessman from the Bingham area.

The Clark family and their descendants ran the inn for more than 100 years, with Clark’s son, daughter and wife at times running the hotel over the next 70 years.

Around 1910, Ralph Sterling, a great-grandson of Clark, took over operation of the hotel with his wife, Leona. It was by then known as the Webster Inn, named after Sterling’s grandmother, Abby Clark Webster, but he renamed it the Hotel Sterling.

Sterling was chief Maine fire warden and a state legislator who oversaw major renovations of the hotel, including adding electricity and indoor plumbing.

In 1934 Sterling also built Pierce Pond Stream Sporting Camps at nearby Pierce Pond. The site was not accessible by road and visitors to the inn would be ferried across the Kennebec River then required to hike three and a half miles to the remote camps.

After Ralph Sterling’s death around 1950, Leona, daughter Mildred and her husband, Harold Smith, continued to run the inn until 1988, when they sold it to Matt Polstein, a businessman and rafting guide.

Polstein developed the property into a tourism business, the New England Outdoor Center, constructing a lodge, dining pavilion, and a dozen cabins across the street from the inn. Today the cabins remain in operation as a separate business, Maine Lakeside Cabins.

Wallace and Nancy Pooler bought the inn and ran it as a bed and breakfast for four years before selling it to Eric Angevine in 2012.

Bob Henderson, of Bingham, the grandson of Ralph Sterling’s brother, said most of the descendants of the family are no longer in the area, but those who are still have an interest in seeing the inn preserved.

“It’s always been a fixture,” said Henderson, 73. “In my opinion the new owner seems to be doing things to preserve it as a place of historical interest and that’s important. It’s very dear to me.”

Marilyn Gondek, who is also a descendant of the family and a member of the Old Canada Road Historical Society, which covers most of Somerset County north of Bingham, said the inn “is certainly the oldest thing up the river (from Bingham) that has lasted.”

“Most of those old structures burned, and luckily it has escaped that,” she said.

Eric Angevine and his son, Zachary, sit in the dining room of the Sterling Inn in Caratunk. The inn opened in 1816 as a stagecoach stop between Quebec and Boston.

Eric Angevine and his son, Zachary, sit in the dining room of the Sterling Inn in Caratunk. The inn opened in 1816 as a stagecoach stop between Quebec and Boston. David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

‘I KNEW I WOULD LOVE IT’

Angevine spent most of his career as an engineer, but said he always had an interest in working in hospitality after working at a restaurant in high school.

“I originally wanted to go to hotel school but I got sidetracked because everyone in my family was an engineer and I thought I should be an engineer too,” he said.

After retiring from his job as a professor of architectural engineering at Oklahoma State University, Angevine spent eight years working at the Habana Inn, a 21-and-over gay resort in Oklahoma City, and got the idea that he might like to operate his own hotel.

He chose Maine as his destination after spending summers in Saco. He looked at an old home in Lincoln and considered converting it into a bed and breakfast, but was deterred by too many expenses.

That’s when he came across the Sterling Inn.

“I didn’t know it, but they had just dropped the price and were desperate to get rid of it,” Angevine said. “They were talking about tearing it down and selling the contents. I fell in love with it immediately.”

In March 2012, Angevine bought the inn for $195,000 fully furnished. His son, Zach, was a freshman at Oklahoma State at the time and helped his father run it during the summer.

When he graduated last year, Eric Angevine told him “he had to work for me or find a full-time job in Stillwater.”

“It’s a college town, so finding a full-time job in the summer is tricky,” said Zach, 24.

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He’s been at the inn ever since.

The inn is one of several hotels, restaurants and white water rafting businesses that make up a large portion of tourism in the upper Kennebec River valley.

Half of the licensed lodging properties in Maine have 12 rooms or less, according to Dugal, of the Maine Innkeepers Association, and there is healthy demand in Maine for rooms in small unbranded properties like the Sterling Inn.

“A lot of people like the consistency of someplace like the Hampton Inn and knowing exactly what they’re going to get, but there’s an equal number of people who like to get something that’s not cookie-cutter,” Dugal said.

Hospitality, according to Eric Angevine, “isn’t about knowing what people should have. It’s about giving them what they want.”

About one quarter to one-third of the inn’s business comes from hikers on the Appalachian Trail, while the rest is driven by outdoor sports, including hunting, snowmobiling and rafting; overflow wedding guests from the next-door Maine Lakeside Cabins; and tourists, many of whom are on their way to or from Quebec.

Rafters want a bed to sleep in before getting up early to get on the river. Hikers want a comfortable place where they can stay an extra day to rest, and Snickers bars.

The Angevines are also willing to provide services that it can be hard to find elsewhere, like pickup and drop-off for section hikers on the trail. Thru-hikers who started hiking the 2,190-mile trail in Georgia have gone about 2,000 miles once they hit Caratunk.

There’s no store in Caratunk, and after hikers started asking the Angevines where they could buy supplies, they started one themselves. They called it Stephen’s Resupply, after a friend who had originally intended to help run the inn.

“When we started our store we had no knowledge of Appalachian Trail hikers and what they use,” Eric Angevine said. “But it’s all about keeping your ears open.”

“I’m going to confess that Snickers bars are very popular on the trail,” he said. “For every candy bar we sell that isn’t, we sell a Snickers.”

The Angevines have also learned from experience to adapt to life in rural Maine.

Angevine grew up in East Aurora, New York, a town with a population of about 6,000 people. Stillwater, Oklahoma, where the father and son came to Maine from, has a population of about 47,000. The population in Caratunk is 69.

“Our neighbors have been extremely generous to us because we’re seen as the people who saved the Sterling Inn,” Angevine said. “Instead, it could have been, ‘These people from away, what do they know about Maine? What do they know about the Sterling Inn?’ ”

It’s increasingly rare for inns to be handed down generation to generation, according to Dugal.

“It’s really a lifestyle thing,” he said. “You’re not going to get rich owning one and you might get poor depending on how it works out.”

The Angevines have never had a second thought.

“I love it here,” Eric Angevine said. “Zachary loves it here. It’s a different kind of life and it’s not for everybody, but we like living here.”