The following was written by Pete Jones who writes a weekly column of Americana for The Wabash Plain Dealer. He writes about people, places, and events in American history, usually with a focus on local stories. You may contact Pete at email@example.com
Construction of Hotel Indiana here began in earnest ninety years ago. The new hotel was the center of conversation in town for weeks, and many people doubted it would ever become a reality. But in June 1919, enough stock had been sold to guarantee that the new hostelry would in fact be built.
Once the money was in hand, the Jenkins Company of Saginaw, Michigan, principal owners of the hotel, quickly began to clear the site of the old Rice Photography Studio and perhaps two or three other structures. One of the other buildings housed Lawrence Blake’s restaurant, one of several eating places then in the downtown area. The last of the buildings was out of the way by the end of June.
The first part of what would soon be a small army of workers appeared on the site at first light on the morning of July 8. They set to work erecting a small frame building which served as the construction office, and they put up one or two storage sheds. They also worked at shoring up the north wall of the old Dawes Livery Stable on the south boundary of the hotel property because of fear that it would collapse during construction. By 1919, the Dawes building was known as the Motor Inn Garage. Instead of renting horses and buggies, the firm now rented automobiles and provided automotive repair services.
The ever-present gang of downtown loafers quickly gathers at the corner, eager for the entertainment that the hotel project provided. The original plans called for the erection of a tall solid wood fence around the entire property. This, of course, would prevent bystanders from watching the excavation work. But finally E.A. Johnson, the boss of the work crew, gave in and said, “Citizens are interested in the building and should have the right to view the construction as it progresses.” SO a low fence went up instead, and that please the sidewalk superintendents.
A week or so after work got underway, George Hipskind, a local contractor hired to dig the basement for the hotel, moved a large steam shovel onto the property. “With hissing of steam and a medley of grunts, the steam shovel started its labors in the excavation of the hotel site this morning,” said The Plain Dealer on July 17.
Twelve teams of horses and wagon waited in line for the shovel, a large one for the day, to begin its work. It took only three bucketfuls for the steam shovel to fill one of the wagons, which then moved out and the next team took its place. The dirt was dumped somewhere not far away on West Canal Street. But those dozen teams and wagons could not keep up with the big shovel, and Hipskind advertised for more help.
It took more than a month to finish the excavation, but this work was held up by a shortage of teams and wagons and by the mechanical failure of the shovel. The presence of large boulders also slowed the digging, but the newspaper made no mention of troublesome limestone.
The crowd around the fence grew when it was time to bring the big steam shovel out of the basement pot. Many onlookers doubted that the machine could make it to the street level under its own power. But sure enough, the mechanical monster slowly crawled up the dirt ramp and those who had made side bets that it couldn’t happen sadly paid up.
One of the problems facing the builders of the new Hotel Indiana here in the summer of 1919 was a shortage of labor. Things were good in town that year. Dozens of new homes were going up, the Motox Tractor Company was taking shape out on Manchester Avenue, and the Service Motor Truck Company was finishing a modern, three-story office building on Stitt Street.
The going rate for workers at the hotel site was 45 cents an hour for a ten-hour workday and a six-day workweek, but that pay was not quite enough to attract a sufficient number of workers. Finally, the contractor boosted pay to 50 cents an hour for common labor. Once brickworks began on the hotel, masons found they could demand $1.50 per hour.
The new hotel carried an estimated price tag of $250,000, including furnishings. An unknown but significant amount of that sum came from some 150 Wabash investors whom the builders solicited for pledges. These stockholders formed a company known as the Wabash Hotel Corporation, which, in turn, leased the hotel to an operating firm known as Red Apple Inns, Inc.
The hotel’s architect, Charles W. Nicol, of Lafayette, Indiana, was in and out of town constantly, checking not only the progress of the hotel but also on three other projects he had going in Wabash. The young architect, who was in only the sixth year of practice, had already established his reputation. In Wabash, he was designing the Motox Tractor Company’s new building (now the county highway garage), and the Wabash County Hospital which would soon be built on East Street. Nicol’s other project here was the striking administration building for the Service Motor Truck Company whose building opened in the summer of 1919.
It seems the new hotel captured the interest of nearly everyone in town. The Plain Dealer chronicled in considerable detail the progress of the early phases of construction, and the newspaper acted as a clearing house for suggested names for the hostelry. However, there is no evidence that a contest to name the hotel was ever sanctioned by its owners.
Some of the suggestions for names reflected the spirit of times, as World War 1 had recently ended. Two or three people proposed such names as “Hotel Victorious,” “The Victory Hotel,” and “The Allies Hotel.” Additional suggestions were “The Wabash Grand,” “Travelers’ Rest,” and “Hotel Progress.”
Still, other suggestions were “The Sycamore Hotel,” “The Dream Hotel,” and “The Gene Stratton-Porter Hotel.” The latter proposal referred to a former Wabash County resident who was then one of America’s best selling authors.
In the end, the Red Apple Inn Corporation chose “Hotel Indiana” as the name and, except for the last years the hostelry operated, that name stuck. The Dekau family, owners of the hotel from 1946 until about 2006, eventually renamed the hotel The Red Apple Inn.
Just ten months after Contractor George Hispkind’s big steam shovel bit into the earth on the southwest corner of Market and Miami Street, the gleaming new Hotel Indiana opened for business. Nearly 325 people gathered in the hotel’s basement ballroom and the main dining room at the building’s grand opening dinner on May 6, 1920 and heard a Chicago banker speak with optimism on the future of Wabash.
As guests streamed into the hotel, the band of the Service Motor Truck Company was playing in the middle of Market Street. After dinner, waiters cleared away the tables and the band moved into the ballroom to play for dancing.
The new hotel had already become a source of pride for the city. In an era when salesmen made regular visits to their customers and travelers turned off the highway to find overnight accommodations because there were no motels, small town hotels were busy places.
There were four other hotels in town then, and three of them were sub-par. The Tremont, just a half-block up Market Street, was once the city’s best hotel. But now, in 1920, The Tremont, in and out of receivership through the years, stood in faded glory.
Just before the Indiana’s grand opening, Thomas F. Vaughn, president of the investor group known as the Wabash Hotel Corporation, was busy leading tours of the building. There was much for him to show off. The two-story lobby was resplendent with plaster decoration in neoclassical motifs which formed a frieze and trim around the second-floor mezzanine openings. Clerestory windows admitted sunlight to the lobby which was furnished with handsome tables, chairs, and couches.
Floors of shiny terrazzo were in the lobby, the dining room, the cafeteria, the ballroom, and the barber shop. The inviting mezzanine was outfitted with furniture of brown wicker, Wilton carpets, and matching tapestries. The new Otis elevator, one of only two passenger elevators in town, carried visitors between floors.
The hotel actually crept into operation about two weeks before the formal opening. H.W. Houge, a salesman for the Kellogg Switchboard Company who was probably seeking business from the Home Telephone Company which was buying new equipment, was the hotel’s first paying guest. Manager A.B. Riley assigned room 408 to the Indianapolis man. The hotel’s cafeteria, which occupied one of the storefronts on Miami Street opened early as did the main dining room.
Like the glory of the old Tremont Hotel, the brightness of the Hotel Indiana faded late in its history. Transient business fell off and most of the 80-some room became apartments. New owners took over the building in mid-2007 and began a complete refurbishing of the old hotel. Now called the Charley Creek Inn, the hotel awaits its second grand opening and a new lease on life.
(This article was written prior to the Grand Opening of Charley Creek Inn which took place on March 17, 2010)