Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

Wheat Growers Hotel is more than brick and mortar

Nearly a century later, Cunningham's monument lingers on

 

Jacob Misener

The Wheat Growers Hotel has been vacant for several years, but at its inception was a proud monument in Kimball and has hosted more than its share of history since it was opened in January of 1919.

“This new hotel is a great addition to Kimball, and it is safe to say that Kimball people appreciate it. The furniture, carpets and in fact the hotel as a whole, is equal to those of the large cities.” – The Western Nebraska Observer, Thursday, January 9, 1919.

The brick-covered Wheat Growers Hotel has long since been vacated, and is devout of any of its former glory that was detailed over 90 years ago. This iconic building was a marvel to the public when it first opened in early 1919 under the ownership of Frank H. Cunningham.

Cunningham was deeply involved in large-scale farming operations in the area, which led to the now famous name of the building that is etched in cream-colored bricks against a dark red brick background. In the main lobby, a sheaf of wheat is engraved into the floor, indicating, “the faith he had in wheat as the continuing mainstay of the area.”

The farming mogul spared no expense in the construction of his 86-room hotel. After buying the land in December 1918 for $20,000 ($335,183.94 in today’s money), Cunningham set to work on the construction of the property. The building contained several distinguishing characteristics that remain visible to this day.

“These are the kind of things that were always historically noted, the inlay wheat stock and the wheat growers out in the front. There’s a mural upstairs that was pretty significant. [Andy] Borgeson, he was a guy that was a noted painter and had a commercial operation out of town for a long time, and he painted this mural,” said Ed Avila, a previous owner of the Wheat Growers.

According to the Moore family, who bought a half initial interest in the hotel and became part-time managers in 1925, the grand opening, which was open only to certain stakeholders and friends of Cunningham, was something to remember.

“The gala occasion, it was said, included booze, gambling, and “ladies of the night” imported from Denver and Cheyenne.”

The much-anticipated public grand opening was scheduled for December 1918, but Cunningham’s plans were postponed indefinitely due to poor light service at the time. But when his plans came to fruit, they blossomed into an event the town would be chattering about for weeks.

Over 200 people from Kimball showed up to the event, and spent the evening dancing in the hotel dining room. These dances became a regular occurrence, as evidenced by a February 27, 1919 article that describes the joy and grandeur felt at the events:

“One of the greatest crowds as yet to assemble at the Wheat Growers was present last Saturday night. It was a wonderful sight; a perfect sea of people – hundreds of them, keeping perfect step to the most inspiring music. One could hardly believe that so many people would come from other towns and cities, miles away. Many came from Cheyenne and Sidney. Sixty Sidney people by actual count were seen on the floor. Fast train No. 6, which does not stop at Kimball was ordered stopped by the Union Pacific officials for the benefit of the Sidney people. There is a dance every Wednesday and Saturday evenings with the best orchestra music and jolliest bunch of young folks in Western Nebraska.”

Looking into the dirt-covered windows of the building now, one struggles to see the elegance the structure once contained within its walls. The floors once passionately twirled upon by couples, young and old, as they took in the music of a four-piece orchestra, are now rotten in places, covered with the unmistakable dust of time and surrounded by an unending silence.

The stairwells leading upstairs creak and moan with the weight of anyone who ventures inside and the wind blows incessantly through the cracks around the window frames and doorways. Each sound made passes through the barren walls without so much as a hint of an echo. The former dignity and stateliness of the building appears to have crumbled into the very dust that now lines every inch of the aging structure.

The early years for the Wheat Growers Hotel were rife with ups and downs, much the same as the United States during this time period. In February 1919, a coffee urn exploding caused a small fire, and the hotel incurred $200 in damages (approximately $2,783.00 in today’s money). A month later, a second fire caused by another urn exploding badly burned one of the Wheat Growers’ employees. However, no serious damage was reported to the furniture or the building itself.

However, by March, things were looking up once again. The size of the crowds that frequented Wheat Growers were so vast that the hotel had to stop serving “midnight lunch” in their regular fashion, and instead switch to serving cafeteria style. Advertisements such as, “I’ll meet you at the Wheat Growers tonight” and “Meet me at the Wheat Growers for Sunday dinner” were spread throughout the pages of every issue of the newspaper.

Later that year, future five-star general and United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, visited the Wheat Growers while traveling with the First Transcontinental Convoy from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco, California. According to Avila, this was at the insistence of Mamie.

“From what I understand it wasn’t uncommon for them to have a banjo player, little Victorian type furniture up here. There was a sitting room. Can’t you see Mamie Eisenhower sitting here waiting for Ike to walk in the door?”

Guest logs, the only remaining link to verifying whether or not Eisenhower did, in fact, stay at the hotel, were long gone by the time people sought to check this rumor. However, it is unlikely that 28-year old ‘Ike’ stayed in the hotel, due to the fact that the men in the caravan had a camp, just “south of the high school. The officers in the caravan included two colonels, six lieutenant colonels, six majors, five captains, six first and seven second lieutenants.

On August 7, the convoy experienced relatively serious mechanical problems, with a fire breaking out on one of the trucks near Sidney. That night, according to the logs of the trip, “The Commercial Club gave dinner-dance for officers at the Wheat Growers Hotel. Fair and warm. Good gravel roads. Made 86 miles in 11 1/6 hours. Arrived, Kimball, Nebr. 5:40 p.m.”

The convoy continued on westward at 6:30 the next morning, according to the log for August 8, and experienced “some difficulty in negotiating soft sand under railroad bridge” near Bushnell, due to heavy rains that had occurred the night prior, before continuing westward to the Pacific Ocean over the course of the next month.

However, as the pattern had gone for Cunningham and his masterpiece contribution to Kimball, things again spiraled downward. His financial empire crumbled beneath him, leading to the foreclosure proceedings, which began in the 1920s by the Denver Dry Goods, who later repossessed the hotel’s stylish furnishings.

In a March 1979 issue of the Observer, Moore describes this time in the history of the Wheat Growers:

“The not-too old structure was “stripped of everything that would identify it as a hotel, except for the big coal-burning furnace. Even some of the plumbing was removed. Laundry, kitchen and dining room equipment and all the furniture was repossessed, and it was boarded up.”

The impact of a series of unfortunate events brought considerable financial difficulty to the father of the Wheat Growers. Yet, even in the midst of watching his empire begin to crumble beneath his very feet, Cunningham still considered the Wheat Growers Hotel his dream come true as he wrote in an essay in 1923:

“I had been a farmer for all my life, and I had never seen such a prosperous stretch; indeed, I have never seen one since. I knew anything that good couldn’t last. Owning my very own hotel had always been a dream of mine, so I took the opportunity to move out of farming and into the hotel business. Right now, I am just happy to run the ‘Jewel of Western Nebraska’.”

However, Cunningham’s words that “anything good couldn’t last” would prove to be tragically prophetic of what was to come for the Wheat Growers as he was doomed to wake up from his American dream less than a year later.

Ed Avila

The Wheat Growers Hotel, above, is shown here during its busy days - with several automobiles lined up in front of the buidling.

Later that year, Cunningham was under bond, awaiting trial, on a charge of obtaining money under false pretense. The Building and Loan Association of Beatrice had foreclosed on the hotel after his financial demise, and in turn, Cunningham had made arrangements to pay for the coal to keep it open, according to the Wheat Growers Hotel website. After confusion between the two parties, the case was dismissed a couple of months later.

Less than a year later, Cunningham, “at one time the greatest wheat raiser in the west had filed petition in bankruptcy…”

Looking at the still-prominent structure today, it is easy to imagine what that must have looked like – such a grand building, left to sit – with nothing but questions left for the townspeople to ponder. Currently, a large ‘FOR SALE’ sign sits in one of the front windows, and another is merely held together by black duct tape; a sure sign of the state of being throughout the small town that likely emanated almost 90 years ago when the doors were closed for the first, of many, times.

 

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