One of the questions that’s been floating around for decades is whether housing official Heber Hiram (aka H.H., aka Hi) Stephenson actually bumped into Ronald Tammen at a hotel restaurant in Wellsville, NY, on Wednesday, August 5, 1953. If it did happen to be Ron, the next question would be: who were the men he was with? And third: why were they there?
As I’ve pointed out elsewhere on this blog, these questions could have been fairly answerable back in 1953, after Hi told Carl Knox, dean of men at Miami who oversaw the university’s investigation, about his encounter. Knox could have helped spur the process along by asking H.H. this no-brainer: “Which hotel, Hi?”, and then calling his contact at the FBI. The FBI’s Buffalo office could have chased down some of those details and, if they determined that it was likely Ron, they would have had a super hot lead on their hands. If they decided it wasn’t Ron, they would have reported that info back as well. It’s what they do. But, for some reason, Carl Knox didn’t get that ball rolling.
For what it’s worth, I believe H.H. saw Ronald Tammen that day. I believe it for three reasons. One is that H.H. knew Ron and, as his son has told me, he never forgot a face. That’s big, in my view—much bigger than a stranger who saw a photo in a newspaper and thought that same person had showed up at her doorstep late at night two months prior.
My second reason has to do with human behavior. H.H.’s account is consistent with how two people who think they recognize each other in an out-of-context location would normally act. I mean, we stare, don’t we? We wait for eye contact, assessing whether the other person recognizes us too, and if they do, then we say something. And that’s what they both did—they stared at each other. Because it was less than four months since his disappearance, Ron would have looked about the same, as did H.H. And although we wish he would have acted differently, even H.H.’s decision to not approach the young men’s table seems consistent with what many people would have done in that situation.
OK, perhaps that wouldn’t apply to readers of this blog. Members of our little clique would have likely spoken up. Maybe something like: “Pardon my intrusion, but you look like someone I know. I don’t suppose your name is Ron Tammen?” Or, as one reader pointed out, he would have expected a 1950s version of “WTF, Ron?!?” Either would have been a normal response. But H.H.’s decision to walk out the door and immediately regretting it is normal too. And what did Ron’s lookalike do? He got the heck out of there before H.H. returned. If it were Ron, isn’t that what you’d expect him to do—to run as soon as he had an opening?
The third reason is that H.H. reported his encounter to Carl Knox the next day. If Stephenson had any reservations about who the young man was, he might have said something like, “Wow—I just saw a guy who, if I didn’t know better, looked exactly like Ronald Tammen.” But H.H. fully expected Knox to act on the tip. Considering the fact that they were colleagues and he was putting his credibility on the line, he obviously had no doubt in his mind that it was Ron.
“I was sure it was him,” he told reporter Joe Cella in April 1976.
There is, however, one thing I learned about Hi Stephenson that doesn’t quite jive with my theory. According to his son, Hi Stephenson kept a journal throughout his life, and, as of our phone conversation in February 2013, his son still had the collection. Needless to say, when his son shared this news with me, I was stoked. To obtain a more complete accounting of that encounter in Wellsville would be amazing, would it not? Maybe Stephenson would have described the table of guys a little more—their appearance, their demeanor. Maybe he’d included the name of the hotel and what the daily special was. (The latter tidbit wouldn’t add much to the mystery, but it’s the sort of color I adore.)
Unfortunately, a couple weeks after we spoke, his son sent me an email saying that, after looking through his father’s journal for the date in question, he couldn’t find an entry regarding the Ron Tammen sighting. Of course I was profoundly disappointed, not to mention surprised. On a day when most of Hi’s time was spent reading road signs and counting miles, how he could have thought to write anything other than “Gadzooks—I just spotted Ron Tammen!” is beyond me.
In September 2014, I took a little trip to Wellsville myself.
When I’m on one of my typical Ronald Tammen road trips, there’s one song on my playlist that I crank up louder and more often than the others. It’s Brandi Carlile’s The Story. The studio version is great, but the version with the Seattle Symphony is my all-time favorite. The reason I love this song so much is that A.) It allows me to scream like a rock goddess when she hits that high note, and B.) I feel the lyrics apply to my search for Tammen. I mean, I’ve literally or figuratively done all of those things (which I won’t name, for copyright reasons) for Ron. And that thing she says about her, um, creases in her countenance? After dedicating nearly nine years of my life to this project, well, let’s just say that that hits home in a very big way too.
So there I was, one sunshiny fall Tuesday, blasting Brandi along the highways between my then-home in D.C. and Wellsville, NY. Wellsville is the name of both a village and surrounding town totaling around 7400 people in the southwest part of the state, just eight miles north of the Pennsylvania border. As I neared my destination, I had a strong sense that I was passing the same houses and barns that Ron would have passed by—if indeed it was Ron in that hotel restaurant.
Even a billboard for a restaurant called Texas Hot, which has been serving up chili dogs to Wellsvillians since 1921, looked as if it had been standing along that stretch of road for decades. I knew as soon as I passed it that I’d be eating dinner there that night on the off chance that Ron might have eaten there too.
Texas Hot is named for a type of hot dog topped with mustard, chili sauce, and chopped onions, all on a soft, steamed bun. They are, culinarily speaking, ridiculously delicious. The iconic restaurant has been owned and operated all these years by the same two families, and is now run by the grandsons of the longtime partners and Greek immigrants who got it all started, James Rigas and George Raptis. If you’re anywhere near Wellsville, you have to go. (No, seriously, promise me.)
After finishing off the specialty of the house, accompanied by french fries and gravy, I roamed the town and was soon drawn to the old train station located one block north of Main Street on the corner of Pearl and Depot Streets. The red brick building, once bustling with visitors and the people who welcomed them or bid them goodbye, was boarded up and rimmed with weeds. Located in the center of town, it ostensibly had been a pipeline that helped power Wellsville’s prosperity in the early part of the 20th century.
Most noticeably, the train station was steps away from one of the four hotels that, with the help of a 1953 phone directory, I’d narrowed down as being H.H.’s and Ron’s most likely meeting spots. That was the Hotel Brunswick, at the corner of North Main and Pearl Streets, which now houses a real estate office among other businesses. The other three possible hotels, all of which are no longer standing, were the Fassett Hotel, which was a short walk southeastward on Main Street (55 North Main), Pickup’s Hotel (38-40 North Main), and, a little less than a mile to the north, the Wellsville Hotel (470 North Main), where the Lutheran church now stands.
The proximity of the train station to the Hotel Brunswick led me to wonder: Could Ron have been journeying by train and stopped off at Wellsville for a quick bite or to spend the night? Before that little epiphany, I’d been operating under the assumption that Ron was temporarily living in Wellsville—that perhaps he and his associates were being prepped for some clandestine purpose in a nearby government facility. But if Ron was traveling by train to parts unknown, then the odds of Ron and Hi Stephenson bumping into one another were even more astronomical than I’d originally thought.
The next morning, I paid a visit to the office of Craig Braack, Allegany County’s historian, whose building was located one town over in Belmont, the county seat. Braack, who has since retired, seemed genuinely intrigued by the Ron Tammen mystery, and he ventured a guess that the hotel in which the sighting occurred was probably the Fassett or Brunswick, which had been my top two choices at that point as well. In addition to occupying space among the businesses that lined Main Street, both hotels seemed upscale enough that they would offer the type of restaurant that might suit the tastes of a woman in her mid-thirties—Hi’s wife Kay. Then again, the restaurant couldn’t be too fancy, or it might have discouraged a group of young men from eating there, at least one of whom was on the lam and possibly didn’t have a lot of cash on him.
Braack wasn’t aware of any government training facility, covert or overt, in Wellsville. He was more inclined to believe that Ron was just passing through town, by road or by rail. He informed me that before the Interstate system, Main Street was part of State Route 17, a major east-west thoroughfare at the time. (State Route 17 has since been replaced by 417, which circumvents Main Street.)
“Route 17 goes parallel to our New York-Pennsylvania state line, so it’s possible that they could have been on that,” he suggested.
“Sounds reasonable,” I replied, “as long as they had access to a car.”
I explained that Ron had left his car parked outside of his dorm the night he disappeared, though there was also a chance that he could have been riding in someone else’s vehicle. The other option would have been the train. Braack pointed out that Wellsville’s train station was a major stop along the Erie Railroad, which, like Route 17, ran east and west. Each day, three or four passenger trains would arrive in Wellsville, connecting Chicago to New York City and places in between.
“If they were taking the train, that would have been a way to easily travel a long distance in a very short period,” he said. “That could also be why he was at the hotel.”
Later that afternoon, I stopped by Wellsville’s Nathanial Dyke museum. I was greeted by Mary Rhodes, who was town historian when I met with her, but who recently moved to South Carolina, and Jane Pinney, then-president of the Thelma Rogers Genealogical and Historical Society. (A September 18, 2018, article in the Wellsville Daily Reporter describes Rhodes’ and Pinney’s commitment to preserving the history of the area and their many contributions.) They agreed with Braack that the Erie Railroad and State Route 17 were the two most likely means by which Ron might have rolled into town, since that’s how most people did it back then. Pinney recounted how neighborhood kids peddling lemonade on Main Street would play the license plate game, making a list of the states that were represented as cars either barreled by or pulled over to make a purchase.
“They had every state in the union by the end of the summer,” she said.
But there were plenty of reasons for people to stay in Wellsville as opposed to just passing through. There were jobs there—lots of them. In the late 1800s, oil was discovered in the region, and a refinery was built, which, in 1953, was owned and operated by Sinclair Oil. The refinery was shut down in 1958 after a fire, but the remnants of oil money are still evident by the string of mansions, oozing with opulence, along the roadside north of town.
“OK. Now the name Wellsville makes sense,” I said. As if by reflex, both women jumped in to correct me, something they’d no-doubt done with out-of-towners many times before. Wellsville wasn’t named for its oil wells, but rather for Gardiner Wells, who was the principal landowner when residents were deciding upon the important matter of what to call themselves.
Other major industries in 1953 were the Air Preheater Company, which produced equipment for improving the efficiency of electrical power plants, and the Worthington Corporation, which produced steam turbines, also used in energy production. According to Pinney and Rhodes, the companies were frequent recipients of federal contracts, especially during WWII, and it wasn’t uncommon for hotels to be filled with clients who wished to tour the facilities, to inspect the product, or to be trained in operations. Pinney recalls driving to her job at 7:00 a.m. each day and seeing 20 or 30 executives who were visiting from China performing their exercises on the sidewalk in front of the Fassett Hotel.
In other words, at the time that Ron was potentially spotted by Hi Stephenson, Wellsville was by no means just a tranquil little town along the Genesee River. It was a player, both nationally and internationally.
“The place was booming,” said Rhodes.
Even so, I couldn’t see Ron throwing his old life away to reinvent himself in Wellsville, NY. I mean no disrespect to the good people of Wellsville. It’s just that I don’t understand why there would be any urgency for a young man to run away, cutting off all ties to friends and family to pursue a career in the power industry. I asked if they had any idea which hotel Ron might have been more likely to eat or spend the night in—if, again, it was Ron. Mary said that she thought that the Brunswick was being used as a residence hotel by then, so the sighting probably wouldn’t have been there. Jane’s husband Dave, who’d grown up in Wellsville and who’d joined our conversation by that time, agreed, and added that he didn’t think the Brunswick had a dining room then. The three decided that the Fassett was a more likely candidate. Or Pickup’s. Or the Hotel Wellsville.
Months after my visit, in an email, Mary let me know that she had followed up with one of the town’s residents, who said that the Hotel Brunswick only had a coffee shop and a bar. “Not a real dinner place,” she told me.I decided to eliminate it from consideration, narrowing the options to three.
In Joe Cella’s 1976 news article, Hi had remarked that “he and his wife walked out of the hotel onto the street” when he told Kay about his possible Ron sighting, which is consistent with the locations of the Brunswick, Fassett, and Pickup’s hotels. The Hotel Wellsville, however, was set farther back from the main road, on landscaped grounds. I eliminated it from consideration as well. I was now down to two possibilities: Pickup’s Hotel and the Fassett Hotel.
Pickup’s might seem a little weird for the name of a hotel, but it was named for the family who bought the building in 1936. Constructed in 1852, it was the oldest building in the Main Street business district, though the owners had modernized it. The building had a big sign that said “RESTAURANT” out front that would have been a draw for travelers. An article describing a 1961 fire that “ravaged” the hotel noted that very little of the building was devoted to hotel space and the “principal business activity…centered around its restaurant on the ground floor.” For these reasons—the prominence of the restaurant, and its nice-but-not-too-nice modern touches—Pickup’s was becoming more appealing to me as the backdrop of Hi’s potential Tammen sighting. Plus, it would have likely been the first restaurant Hi would have seen driving into town.
But the Fassett Hotel had its pluses too. Built in 1870, it was a stately brick building whose ground floor had been updated in the 1940s with eye-catching window treatments. It, too, was a popular place for dining—it advertised a “Dining Room” on the sign facing Main Street—in addition to hosting other events.
“You don’t happen to know where I could get my hands on some old hotel registries, do you?” I asked the trio as I was getting up to leave. At once, I felt silly for suggesting that anyone would hold onto 60-year-old hotel registries—even there, in a museum, among people who were fanatical about preserving their town’s history.
Mary said that the former owner of the Fassett Hotel still lived in town and she promised to ask him for me. I thanked her, but I knew the chances were next to nil he would have stored them away somewhere. Unfortunately, I was right.
And that’s where I’m afraid we’ve hit a dead end. My best guess for where Hi Stephenson saw Ronald Tammen or Tammen’s lookalike is at Pickup’s Hotel or the Fassett Hotel, with my personal choice being Pickup’s.
Either it was a run-of-the-mill doppelganger sighting, nothing more, or it was a coincidence beyond all coincidences—an encounter whose odds of occurring are so remarkably small that it appears that something or someone bigger than all of us may have stepped in to make it happen. Call it fate. Call it the universe. Call it a supreme being overriding free will and moving a couple human chess pieces himself. I can think of no other explanation for why two people so close to the Tammen mystery—one being Tammen himself—would land 480 miles away from Oxford in the tiny town of Wellsville, on the same day, at the same hour, and in the same hotel restaurant. But that’s exactly what Hi Stephenson believed had happened.
And Carl Knox? Regardless of whether it was Ronald Tammen or not, the only reasonable explanation for his inaction is that his investigation into Tammen’s disappearance had taken a back seat to his other university responsibilities sometime between June 29, 1953, when newspapers reported Clara Spivey’s possible Ron sighting, and August 6, when Hi Stephenson reported his. Did someone of a higher ranking step in during that period to call off the search? That’s my best guess too.
Wdyt? Was it Ron Tammen or just someone who looked a lot like him? Feel free to register your vote.