Sunday, March 25, 2012

Chariton's first hotel: 1850-1898


This engraving of Chariton's first hotel, in its dilapidated ca. 1894 state, was published in a special courthouse dedication issue of The Chariton Patriot on May 22, 1894. Behind at least part of the false front and later siding was a double log house.

Since the Hotel Charitone has been so much in the news lately, I thought it might be interesting to go back more than 160 years and talk a little about Chariton’s first hotel. This discussion also drops neatly into a gap between the first and second parts of Joseph Braden's 1902 memoir (here's Part I of that). He, after all, provided some of the most specific information about this historic, although very modest, building.

 The hotel was a story-and-a-half double log house constructed ca. 1850 and operated by Henry and Susan Allen until about 1854. During their tenure, this was the only hotel in Chariton and any stranger who arrived in town with the resources to pay for a bed would have slept here, often sharing that bed with a complete stranger.


The hotel was located on the southeast corner of the square, at the intersection of what now are Grand Street and Court Avenue, on the site of this rambling brick building built by Ed Lewis ca. 1898 as a grocery store. Lewis demolished the old hotel and later additions to clear the way. The newer building, blended by a 1950ish fa├žade shared with the building immediately to its south, now houses State Farm Insurance, a beauty shop and two apartments.

Henry Allen
Lucas County land records show that Henry Allen (left) acquired official title to the property here (Lot 2, Block 15, Original Town of Chariton) from the county judge on June 9, 1853, but it seems likely that his informal title to it went back to perhaps four years earlier, when Chariton was located and platted. Because the county had only a pre-emption claim to the town site for more than two years, from the fall of 1849 until the fall of 1851, there was a considerable delay in issuing lot deeds. In fact, few were issued until the U.S. Land Office moved west to Chariton from Fairfield during 1853.

Henry had been in Chariton, however, for as long as it had been Chariton, having been appointed Lucas County’s first school fund commissioner during a meeting of the first county commissioners at Buck Townsend’s Chariton Point cabin on Sept. 11, 1849.

When the 1850 census was taken, Henry, age 37 and born in Maryland, was enumerated in Chariton with Susan, age 32, and their two daughters, Lydia, 7, and Catharine, 5, as well as a boarder, Daniel Chase, age 24 and a farmer, born in Ohio. Henry owned real estate valued at $600, according to the census record, and his occupation was given as “hatter,” just one of multiple job descriptions he would have during what seems today a relatively brief but very busy life.

Joseph Braden, who opened the land office in Chariton during 1853, writing for The Chariton Herald of March 27, 1902, provided the most comprehensive description of the Allens' inn as it stood when he arrived during January or February of 1853:

“In January, 1853, there was but few houses in the, then, village, only one hotel, a one and a half story frame, or rather a one story with low garret which served as a bed chamber and contained six beds, just room enough to pass between each bed. There was no dearth of patrons. Hotels did not receive their main support from commercial travelers those days; had they done so, they would soon have closed for want of guests. These beds were usually occupied by two.”

Susanna (Millan) Custer, who arrived in Lucas County with her husband, James, during 1849, remembered Henry Allen as a “dandy,” in the sense of nice guy rather than sharp dresser. She recalled, in a memoir written late in her life, that both preaching services and dances were held “alternately” about 1850 in the public room of the Allen hotel.

And Benjamin B. Siggins, who went on to become a prominent Colorado attorney, took the bar examination in Des Moines during the summer of 1852 and recalled --- again in a memoir written late in life --- that he walked from Des Moines to Chariton that July to “hang out his shingle” and boarded with the Allens. Susan Allen cooked for hotel guests who wished both bed and board.

Joseph Braden also was the source, during 1894 while helping the editor of The Chariton Patriot prepare historical copy for his courthouse dedication issue, for what apparently was one of the most widely told stories about the hotel --- recorded in The Patriot of May 22, 1894. Recalling one of Braden's first nights in Chariton, the editor reported:

“When it came time to go to bed (during January or February of 1853), the landlord (Henry Allen) informed Mr. Braden that he would have to sleep two in a bed. It so happened that those present, being somewhat acquainted, paired off leaving Mr. Braden, who was a stranger, to himself. However he was told there would be another occupant for half of that bed. So he went to bed. Some time along about midnight a man came up stairs in the dark, making a good bit of noise and as soon as he entered the room began running his hands over the beds, as he came to them, to see which one of them had but one occupant, as he had been told by the landlord that there was one half bed left. Mr. Braden had risen up just as the man was in the act of reaching out on an investigating tour and his hand came in contact with Mr. Braden’s head, who immediately laid down. Just at that moment his other hand feeling along on the pillow came into contact with Joseph’s head again. “Two men in this bed, two in every bed in the room,” growled the disgusted searcher after a place to sleep, and he straightway went downstairs and raised a big row with the landlord about it. That man was Dr. Charles Fitch (a pioneer physician). It was a good joke on him and caused no end of fun. The doctor for a long time called Joseph Braden the man with two heads."

There probably was modest provision in the inn for women, but female guests would have been rare in large part because the transient  population was overwhelmingly male, and young. Women tended to arrive with family units accustomed to roughing it  until cabins could be built or found or arrived in town as wives and daughters after housing had been prepared for them. For a woman to travel alone and arrive in Chariton unattached would have been considered scandalous.

Men and women did socialize together at the inn, however, because it doubled as the new town's social center.

As the old hotel was being torn down during May of 1898, a woman who identified herself only as “Grandmother” wrote a little letter to the editor of the Herald, published on June 2, lamenting the passing of “that old wooden building, the rickety building, that stood there so long.”

“Mr. Editor,” she wrote, “many a dance have I attended in that house; many a prayer meeting, too, both very interesting to me, especially the dances. This house was a story and a half, very low ones though, and had a cute rough ladder in one corner for the ladies and gents to ascend and descend to divest themselves of their wraps.”

“Henry Allen, the first landlord we had, was a jolly good man; his latch string was open to a meeting of any kind, and his wife, God bless her, could dance or cook equally well. When a traveler stopped at that hotel he often got a good bump in going up stairs unless he was told first that he could not stand up straight; that was the half story, you know, but I am pretty sure, dear readers, that none of you enjoy life like we did in those days. E.A. Temple and wife and Mr. Braden and myself were all boys and girls then. The most of the ladies are gone now and I feel like one who treads alone ….”


While serving as landlord and, quite likely working as a hatter, too, Henry Allen continued to be active in the public life of this new county and town.

He was a Democrat, however, and that doomed him to defeat in a run for county sheriff during 1850, but he continued in his post as school fund commissioner until April of 1852.

Because he also had experience as a surveyor, Henry helped Nelson Wescott resurvey Chariton during April and May of 1850 (the initial survey had proved to be faulty). In May, he was appointed clerk to the county commissioners and served in that position until August. And during October of 1850, he was commissioned to draw up the first tax list for Lucas County.

During 1852, Henry decided to run for state representative and, although still a Democrat, was successful  during an August election. Although he failed to carry Lucas County, three other counties --- Clarke, Monroe and Wapello --- were in the election district and there he had more success. As a result, he served in the Iowa Legislature during its 4th General Assembly, from Dec. 6, 1852, until Dec. 3, 1854.

Iowa City was Iowa’s capital then, and legislative sessions were held at Old Capitol, now the centerpiece of the University of Iowa campus.

During Henry’s absence from Chariton, according to Joseph Braden, the management of the hotel “was in the hands of his estimable wife, assisted by Lowry Boyle as clerk.”

Henry Allen, was among other things, a very restless man and by the second year of his legislative term, he apparently was beginning to prepare to move along. In addition, he no longer had an exclusive franchise on Chariton’s hotel business. During the summer of 1853, a second small hotel opened; and that fall, the substantial two-story log hotel called most often St. John House although it had many names, was built on the current site of Hammer Medical Supply. The much larger Hatcher House, on the southwest corner of the square and of wood-frame construction, was added in 1856.

During May of 1854, Henry and Susan sold the old hotel to Daniel Mussleman and apparently moved elsewhere in Chariton.

They were still living in Chariton during the forepart of 1855, when Henry was admitted to membership in Chariton Lodge No. 63, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, something that would influence his life greatly in years to come.

His brief career in politics also apparently had allowed him to make the contacts needed to further an emerging career as a public surveyor and to snag future appointments as a post master.

All of these circumstances combined with Henry’s restless to spirit to propel the family toward the frontier during 1855, when they packed their household goods into a wagon and headed for Council Bluffs, the first of many new homes in the West.

As the years passed, the old Chariton hotel acquired a false front and assorted additions, but continued to serve Chariton’s business needs until 1898. It had been acquired during 1866 by William E. “Uncle Billy” Lewis, who operated a grocery store in part of the building before moving across the street north a year or two later into a building later occupied by J.T. Crozier & Co and replaced, also during 1898, by the current two-story brick Richardson Romanesque building at that location.

The Lewis family continued to hold onto the old hotel property, however, most likely renting it out to assorted tenants until it became virtually derelict. During 1898, Billy Lewis’s son, also William E. Lewis but known as Ed, decided to demolish the ramshackle old building and replace it with the current brick structure.

The Chariton Democrat, on May 12, 1898, reported, “W.E. Lewis is tearing down the old building on the southeast corner of the square and in its stead will erect a nice brick structure. The building which is being torn down was an old landmark having been built about fifty years ago. It was then used as a hotel and was the stopping place of Col. Dungan, Jos. Braden, C.F. Temple (actually E.A. Temple), Dr. Fitch and other pioneers when they came to this country.”

That was the end of Chariton's first hotel, but I’ll have more to say another time about Henry Allen and his career after leaving Chariton.

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