By Jacob Misener and Daniel Thompson
Editor & Reporter 

Railroads, dust and grasshoppers - memories of the Wheat Growers Hotel

 

Western Nebraska Observer file photo

A steam engine sent through the Nebrasak drifts to provide heat for the Streamliner finally freezes up in Kimball.

Editor’s Note: This is the second segment of a three-part series on the Wheat Growers Hotel, located in Kimball, NE. The final segment will run in early June.

“After more than 40 years, are the memories put to rest--or will they continue with me?” - Betty Bouck, Western Nebraska Observer, Thursday, March 1, 1979.

After the fall of Frank Cunningham’s empire and the initial closing of the Wheat Growers Hotel, the building stood vacant, much the same as it does now. The only difference being that time had not yet cruelly taken its toll on the elegant structure, erecting vines along the sides, fading away the emblem on the center floor, and stealing the bright hue of the paints used in the mural on the second floor.

However, soon after Cunningham’s downfall, the building was sold to C. L. Taite of Omaha and A. L. Johnson of Denver, Colorado who came to Kimball in order to refurnish the gutted inside of the building, which was reported in the June 4, 1925 edition of the Observer.

“C. L. Taite of Omaha arrived in Kimball last week and is having the Wheat Growers Hotel remodeled and furnished. He expects to be open to the public June 15th. Only the rooms will be opened at first. The dining room will be opened later,” The Observer article read.

However, as with the previous opening, it was delayed, this time due to waiting for the new furnishings for the hotel to arrive according to a report in the June 18,1925 edition of the Observer. The new furniture for the Wheat Growers finally arrived the week of the July 30, 1925 edition of the Observer with the opening expected to be set after the first of August of that year.

The Wheat Growers Hotel opened under the new ownership on August 6, 1925, according to the August 13, 1925 edition of the Observer.

“The Wheat Growers Hotel opened last thursday with complete new furnishings. Eighty of the two hundred are being used at present, some by transient and others by resident roomers. The opening dance will be held Saturday night of next week,” the article read.

The Moore family also played an integral role in the running of the Wheat Growers at this time, from mother and father all the way down to the children. In 1926, Vern Moore and his wife Gladys Naomi Hallet joined with their children, Dick and Dorothy, to help with the hotel. At that point in time, just 17 rooms were open for use.


An outstanding bank balance was slowly paid down by the new leadership, and in time, all 86 of the rooms were renovated and re-opened. The hotel even realized its former glory at certain times each year, particularly when Frontier Days in Cheyenne took place.

As much as wheat was a staple in the previous success of Cunningham, the railroad became a lifeline for the Wheat Growers Hotel. Throughout the ‘Roaring Twenties’, some 26 trains passed through Kimball on a daily basis. The children and other employees were often kept busy, rolling luggage across the street on a cart built by Alfred Moore himself. Then, as quickly as the hotel had reclaimed its former glory, the Thirties grabbed hold of the region, and with it, quashed the well-being of the hotel.

With the air so thick and dusty you could hardly breathe, and the hordes of grasshoppers that accompanied the dust, times were hard in the Panhandle. The garden that once stood south of the hotel was stripped clean by the insects. Vern Moore recalled that the onions were devoured top to bottom by the grasshoppers, leaving gaping holes in the ground where the plants once stood.

To combat the increasing threat the grasshoppers posed, the Moores stumbled upon an unlikely solution. The Cromwell Produce Company sold turkeys to the hotel, and when the birds were kept in the garden, Vern noted that the grasshopper problem all but vanished.

The never-ending and ever-irritating dust was another problem altogether. Despite the efforts of the entire family, the fine dirt could not be kept from “slithering in through the finest cracks, turning all their cleaning to naught,” Vern recalled in a 1979 interview with the Observer. “Wet towels and blankets were hung over the dining room windows to keep the grit off the tables and good.”

Guests from all walks of life called the hotel home in the forties, including Kay Siewert Clinger, whose father was transferred from the JC Penney store in Fremont to the location in Kimball in 1944.

“Our first home was an apartment on the second floor of the Wheat Growers Hotel,” she says on the Wheat Growers website. “The Moores were very tolerant with my brother and myself, and as long as we did not get in the way of the guests, we pretty much had the run of the hotel.”

In 1946, the Moores sold the hotel to T.I. Dutch and his son-in-law and daughter, Chuck and Hester Mary Halstead, who worked as resident-managers in the Wheat Growers. With the new ownership, came a new era for the Wheat Growers, and the Panhandle, as a whole.

Three years into the new ownership group, an event struck Kimball that, to this day, remains frozen in the memories of those who experienced it – the Blizzard of ‘49.

With air so cold, livestock froze to death while standing outside, snow drifts over ten feet high blanketing the region, and winds over sixty miles per hour mixing with temperatures as low as five degrees below zero, it was a truly miserable, and dangerous, time in the history of the Wheat Growers.

A Union Pacific Train, The City of San Francisco, could not overcome the elements, and stopped at the station in Kimball to attempt to wait out the storm. However, after several very comfortable hours, “the diesel’s water began to give out, and stem heat could no longer be provided,” according to a January 17, 1949 issue of Life magazine.

The conditions were so perilous that a rope had to be run from the debilitated train to the Wheat Growers Hotel, something that Nagel’s father played a part it.

“My dad and a man he worked for, Joe Morris, hooked a line from the Wheat Growers to the train and helped people get off and go into a warm building where there were rooms and where they could eat and spend the night until these big trains came along to clear the tracks.”

The hotel was so crowded, beds became a thing of dreams. Travelers from across the country had to sleep on floors, tables, couches – even on relays. Many of the hotel staff were snowed in, and these travelers essentially ran the Wheat Growers while trapped there during the three-day storm. According to the Life article, “one served as a clerk at the front desk, others as chambermaids.”

The oil boom in the 1950s, and the missile boom a decade later were something altogether new for the region.

Kimball resident Carol Jo Nagel recalls her own family’s experience in this exciting era in the Wheat Growers history, when the oil boom brought money, jobs and perhaps most importantly, people to the area.

“I remember Mrs. Ledbetter who sat back there,” Nagel recalled. “Whenever you had to go on a bus or anything, you went there to buy your ticket. She’d give you a ticket and stamp it and you’d wait for the bus … There were a lot of chairs and couches and whatnot, kind of similar to a doctor’s office, but you didn’t feel like you were in a doctor’s office.”

The Halsteds, much like each prior management group, did some remodeling of their own, adding bathrooms and some living quarters for their family. However, following the death of Mr. Halsted, Hester Mary decided to sell the hotel to Mr. Blaine Jackson in 1964.

The beauty of the hotel was still evident, even under Jackson’s ownership. The aforementioned 1979 Observer article describes the hotel in those days:

“Still beautiful are the gumwood columns and the divided staircase in the lobby with its wooden balustrades starting at the foot and continuing around a balcony area overlooking the lobby. A painting high above the entry door, across from the balcony is faded … In the morning, the light is best for distinguishing the scene of a crew threshing wheat from a stack.”

This era in the history of the Wheat Growers was particularly transformative. Hotel guests no longer arrived from the Union Pacific trains that were once a staple in the community. Instead, the hotel was the designated stop for the Continental, Greyhound and Star Bus lines.

These bus lines, as well as “the Western Union franchise and a 24-hour telephone answering service” both contributed to extending the life of the hotel. The restaurant also converted during this time to a cafeteria style, with a sign nearby stating, “All you can eat, but eat all you take.”

Perhaps there is no better way to reflect on the days’ long past and the history of the Wheat Growers than a quote, written by Observer reporter Gretchen Ebel in 1979.

“The Wheat Growers Hotel, the embodiment of Cunningham’s dream of a really grand hotel welcoming visitors to Kimball, has aged. But is has survived all the changes that more than 60 years have brought. The name remains the same and Cunningham was right that wheat would remain a basic part of the local economy.”

In the words of a then-hit song, “Dreams don’t die – only the dreamers.”

Jacob Misener

The once-new plumbing in the hotel’s room has decayed to a point where it is no more than a rusty pipe protruding through the floorboards.

 

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