Part 3 — Hotel Haunts: “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts”
Old hotels come with a lot of legends and stories repeated by staff and guests over the years. I’ve stayed at places that were two hundred fifty years old and some places that had early lives as textile factories and bordellos. If there are such things as ghosts, I think an old hotel would be a prime spot to encounter one. I have yet to meet one…I think. I’m a skeptic but strange things do happen and sometimes they happen in some places more than others.
THE STRATER HOTEL, DURANGO, COLORADO
Let’s dispense with the Strater ghost stories first. When we stayed at The Strater Hotel, probably in 2002, there were lots of stories of mysterious sightings and ghostly experiences. Each room had a room diary where guests would record their stay and comment on what they liked about the place and what they did during their stay. The diary in our room had entries from people from all over the world — including a Saudi Prince. There were frequent references to the resident ghosts…but mostly that they had not seen any. There are plenty of folks who claim to have seen one of the three alleged ghosts, including the sister of a previous owner. Fast forward to 2013 and the current hotel management disavows all knowledge of a resident ghost and says that the hotel is not haunted and never was. Well, I suppose that is the official word on the topic. I’m sure the stories still circulate. I don’t know how you would prove that the hotel is not haunted if people claim that it is and imagine that they have experienced a visitation.
The Strater Hotel was built in the late 1880s and is quite large. The architectural style might be Colorado Wedding Cake…the place certainly commands attention. It was built by Henry Strater (yes, he is one of the ghosts) a local pharmacist. He built the hotel in a bid to make Durango a permanent place rather than a mining camp. The original cost was $70,000. I think he did a great job…the place is impressive. Besides the many hotel rooms there is a classic saloon…the Diamond Belle Saloon…that offers kind of an updated old west saloon experience. When we were there they had a resident ragtime piano player who was great and put on a good show.
The Strater’s rooms are furnished with antiques. The hotel has the largest collection of Victorian-era walnut furniture in the United States. Our room was decorated like a room in a bordello…complete with bright red flocked wallpaper. Now, really, how would I know what a room in a bordello looks like? They could be trying to fool me. Today the summer AARP rate for a classic queen room for two is $192.00. I don’t recall paying that much but maybe we did. We were there in October so rates might have been less. I would pay the current rate but I like these old hotels. The Strater is part of the Historic Hotels of America and there might be discounts through the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is a unique place.
We didn’t eat at the hotel. We opted to go out and explore the downtown area of Durango and found places to eat close by. We slept well and were not awakened or startled by any ghostly beings. There were writers here. Louis L’Amour always stayed in the room over the saloon because he liked the noise and it helped him write his western novels.
SWEDISH COUNTRY INN, LINDSBORG, KANSAS
Lindsborg, Kansas, is located south of Salina, sort of in the middle of east-central Kansas. The town is mostly made up of transplanted Swedes, or more probably folks with Swedish ancestry. They are very proud of their Swedish background and have invested in a number of fiberglass Dala Horses that are decorated in various themes and placed around town on street corners. They make a big thing about being Swedish and that draws people to town who have similar interests. When they come to town they can stay at The Swedish Country Inn. Our visit was the first stop on a expedition following the route of the Santa Fe Trail.
This hotel is small…only sixteen rooms…and is almost more like a B&B. It was originally built as a feed store — mostly alfalfa seeds. It was once a Studebaker dealership. Finally the owner had it converted to a hotel with a plan for thirty-two rooms. They ran out of money at sixteen rooms. It has sort of a Spanish look to it but that was the style back then. It was a dormitory for the local Bethany College for a few years and then eventually was renovated and returned to being a hotel. They have worked hard to make it appear Swedish in it’s current life. The annual Messiah Festival is a big deal so you might have trouble getting a room around Easter.
The rooms are all fairly similar and are furnished with…you guessed it…Swedish stuff. The exposed woodwork is all very lightly stained or simply allowed to be unstained and lightly varnished. Furnishings are sparse…not a lot of stuff crammed into the rooms.
The breakfast spread is Swedish, too, but very good and there is plenty to choose from. You will not go away hungry.
Now I’m not saying that the Swedish Inn is haunted but something weird happened the night we stayed there — I found it somewhat spooky. At about 3 AM I was awakened from a sound sleep by a strong smell of garlic. I’m not talking about just a little bit of garlic. This was like someone drove a truckload into the room. I don’t ever recall being awakened by a smell before and it never happened since. Joanne did not smell it but she was not awakened. I finally decided that someone was cooking breakfast (at 3 AM?) and tried to go back to sleep. The smell continued until I finally got back to sleep. The next morning the smell was gone but I expected to see something on the breakfast menu containing a lot of garlic. Nope…not a sign of garlic in anything we had for breakfast. I made a casual comment at the front desk about all that garlic they had cooking and they had no idea what I was talking about. So what was that smell? Folklore associates garlic with vampires but mainly as a protection to ward off vampires and werewolves. Maybe that smell was keeping the Kansas vampires and werewolves away from us out-of-state and non-Swedish visitors.
I also recall the horrendous thunder and lightening storms that we had while we stayed there. It really was a dark and stormy night.
Just to finish the story… We were actually on a road trip following the route of the Santa Fe Trail across Kansas and eastern Colorado. After my rough night we left Lindsborg and struck out across Kansas past Pawnee Rock and Fort Larned and through Dodge City where the car started making odd sounds. Undaunted, we drove on until we lost a wheel bearing just west of Las Animas, Colorado. We limped back to Las Animas and found a Best Western motel. Las Animas is located near the Purgatory River and the original name of the place was La Ciudad de Las Animas Perdidos en Purgatorio, “The city of lost souls in Purgatory.” That seemed fitting for that trip. The car had to be flat-bed trucked 125 miles to Colorado Springs. Things got better after that.
Part 4 — Historically Speaking
Almost by definition, old hotels are historic hotels but some are more historic than others. We stayed in a old hotel in San Antonio once that had been refurbished and then became a “boutique” hotel. Also in San Antonio there is the Crockett Hotel, 100+ years old, that stands about a stone’s throw from the Alamo (I dare you…). Then there is the Menger Hotel in San Antonio which is famous because Teddy Roosevelt rode his horse into the Menger Hotel bar in 1898 and recruited volunteers for the Rough Riders. That Teddy story trumps the boutique and the chance to make history by throwing rocks at the Alamo…so I’d vote for the Menger for my next visit.
BEEKMAN ARMS, RHINEBECK, NEW YORK
If you are in the Hudson River valley and can work it out, stay at the Beekman Arms…or at least, eat at the tavern. It is hard to beat the Beekman Arms at the historical hotel contest. The Beekman is the oldest continuously operating inn in the USA going back to well before the Revolutionary War. George Washington slept, ate, drank and did just about everything else here. Back then, the tavern looked out on the village green and he would sit in the tavern and watch the militia drill out on the green. Remember Chelsea Clinton’s wedding? Yep…in Rhinebeck, and the Beekman played a big role in the wedding. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton traded insults at the Beekman which eventually led to their duel and the death of Hamilton. Benedict Arnold was a common sight at the Beekman. Rhinebeck is a short distance from Hyde Park…FDR’s home…and the Roosevelts were here too. I’m sure some of my ancestors darkened the doorway at some point since they were from a nearby town.
Back in the old days, guests shared beds…maybe several guys to a bed. Private rooms were hard to come by. Today the Beekman Arms has a few small rooms in the actual old Inn but they have expanded to take over a half dozen or more historic structures in Rhinebeck and there are some very nice accommodations. You don’t have to sleep in a bed with a stranger. The time we stayed here we actually had a three-room suite on the upper floor of the old Rhinebeck firehouse…where the fireman used to sleep, but much nicer. The rooms were furnished with a few antiques (maybe replicas…?) and canopy beds.
Apart from registering at the front desk, you might not spend much time in the actual old inn unless you go into the tavern. The tavern is a classic old colonial-style tavern. The menu was varied and the food was good. Needless to say, if you are coming to the Beekman Arms, bring your money. There is a lot to see and do in this part of the Hudson Valley and it’s well worth a visit.
BROOKSTOWN INN, WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA
Winston-Salem is steeped in history all by itself. The Moravians settled the place and there are several blocks of old and restored buildings in the historic “Old Salem” district. Everything looks historical. Wake Forest University is here and its main campus looks like a relic from the 1700s. Winston Salem was also an early industrial site. Entrepreneurs from the town traveled north to see how the textile mills in New England functioned and then came back and established a cotton textile industry.
One of those early 19th century mills has been converted to the Brookstown Inn. The inn is in the main mill building but there is ample evidence of a sprawling complex of mill structures. Back in the day, the unmarried mill girls lived in a dormitory in the attic of the mill. When the renovation work was underway, workers cleaning and stripping the walls in the attic found lots of old graffiti, poems and sketches that the girls placed on the walls of their dormitory. Some of those are preserved and on view up on the top floor. Nothing tremendous happened here but you can see and understand a little of what mill worker life was like back before the Civil War.
The rooms in the inn are sparse with old-style furnishings and bare brick walls. The rooms are mostly on the actual mill floors with as much left as possible to give the feel of the old building. Considering the structure and the industrial history, the place is bright and cheery. The restaurant is nice…I think we only had breakfast but it was good food.
The Brookstown Inn offers a good base for exploring the rest of Winston Salem.
There are a couple organizations that serve as a resource if you want to stay at a good historic hotel. The National Trust for Historic Preservation established Historic Hotels of America in 1989 and they are active in maintaining standards and they keep their list current. The website is http://www.historichotels.org. Another similar listing is Historic Hotels of the Rockies at http://www.historic-hotels.com.