Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

Wheat Growers Hotel clings to life as it lingers into the 21st century

Editor’s Note: This is the final segment of a three-part series on the Wheat Growers Hotel, located in Kimball, NE. There will be coverage of any new developments concerning the property.

“The Wheat Growers has enjoyed good times, survived bad times, adapted with changing times, and projects a link from the past to the future.”

The Wheat Growers Hotel, fondly nicknamed the “Grand Ole’ Lady”, closed its doors for the final time to the public in 1983. Since that time, many dreamers have come to the old structure with the hopes of breathing life into her, and allowing her to thrive into the new century.

Through sweat, hard work, and certainly some tears shed by the men and women here and there who still hold the memories of the old place in the very sinews of their hearts, the Grand Ole’ Lady has clung to the life support lent to her by the community as she waits for a donor to replace her vital organs.

The first to try their hand at saving the storied structure was local resident Ed Avila who bought the building for the back taxes owed on the property in 1999. The first thing Avila attempted to do was clean up the property that had been neglected for nearly two decades.

“The courtyard is where I started when I bought it. It was just an overgrown, evil-looking mess with trees and vines. I went to work cleaning up that stuff. I spent the first year trying to get that so it didn’t look like Sherwood Forest,” Avila said.

However, Avila soon turned his attention to getting the hotel the recognition that it deserved by seeking out the Nebraska State Historical Society in order to get the Wheat Growers Hotel added to the National Register of Historic Places. Avila’s efforts paid off on July 11, 2002, when he received a letter from the Nebraska State Historical Society informing him that the hotel had successfully been added to the national registry.

“It is a landmark, and the State of Nebraska has recognized the hotel as being significant to the extent that they want to do what they can to save it. They just don’t have the money to help save it,” Avila said.

There were many ideas for what to do with the building at the time. Avila even came up with ideas of what to do with the building even if its time as a hotel had come to a close, and new uses for the property had to be considered.

“I always thought that if a guy was going to try and do something with a museum and that kind of thing [in the building], they’d have kind of a hall of fame for the average working person where you could put a relative or a football coach or an old drama teacher that epitomized a role model with maybe a little video piece on them and a designated spot for them. That way travelers through town could stop and see all these people that helped shaped lives in the area,” Avila said.

The shabby appearance of the monumental building did not go unnoticed by those familiar with her rich history.

“I drove through Kimball in 2002 as I moved with my three sons from Portland to Columbus, Ohio,” said Naomi Roberts (Barr). “I was devastated by the way it had been let go and vandalized. When we lived there in the early 1980s, it was a thriving and beautiful hotel.”

After nearly five years of working on the building, Avila decided to sell it to Missionaire International, a group that trains pilots and rebuilds airplanes for use in missionary work. In 2004, the elusive promise of bringing the historic relic back to life seemed tangible.

Jon Foote, Missionaire founder, told the Observer in March of 2004 that the company planned to convert the front half of the building into offices, classrooms, and the back half into eight apartments for staff housing. The intention was to also spruce up the old ballroom and make it available for community events.

At the time Missionaire took ownership of the hotel, a study conducted by Santa Fe Land Company of Colorado revealed the staggering cost of renovating the building.

“A new roof, electrical and heating system and interior were at estimated more than $2 million. The reason for someone to undertake the renovation of this building will have to be more than just economics,” the March 18, 2004 Observer article reads.

Throughout Kimball, people believed Missionaire was finally the group that had found a ‘reason other than just economics.’ However, within a short period of time, the company’s board decided to put the building up for sale and abandon the project.

Approximately seven years ago, the current owners, Kent and Sue Worker, fell for the charm offered by the Grand Ole’ Lady, purchasing the property from Missionaire on April 21, 2006.

“ Caretakers” are what we really feel best describes our part in the history of this magnificent building.  We bought this Hotel for two reasons: to secure it from being torn down (and, yes, even though the Hotel is on the National Historic Registry it can be torn down) and to keep this valuable piece of Kimball (and American) history in the hands of people who care and love ‘her’,” said the Workers in a statement online.

Their plans, according to Avila, would have brought the hotel into the 21st century, with an array of offerings that would have served the often struggling community well.

“Their desire was to have a microbrewery downstairs, to have a steak house on the main level, and to have the upstairs as suites,” said Avila. “They were going to combine a lot of the small rooms and make maybe eight large suites that would maybe have hot tubs or something fun in them.”

Several small events have been hosted at the Wheat Growers in the past three years or so, but it’s former glory is quickly fading into the Nebraska dust. If not for a freak hailstorm a few years ago, the roof, which was failing terribly, could have cost the Wheat Growers its life.

“A hail storm came through and one day the adjuster called me to go over there and take a look at the damage. We went up on the roof, and he said the roof was a total loss,” said Bob Abramson, who looks after the property for the Workers. “This adjuster went out and bought a new roof for us. It has a brand new $40,000 roof on it. That added several years to the amount of time we can wait for somebody to do it with it, because it was going fast with that roof leaking like that.”

Today, the structure is crumbling quickly. Floorboards have begun to rot from the moisture that has worked its way into the wood. The walls are bare, stripped of all plaster and lathe, leaving bare bone studs exposed to the eye. Several animal carcasses lie on the second floor near windows that were left open or broken over the years.

The once majestic lobby has lost much of its luster, its once rich colors now coated in a thick coat of dust and dirt. The tiles on the floor are cracked and faded, and the stairs leading to the bedroom are now nothing more than bare concrete. Once in the basement, the ballroom that was often filled with the sounds of laughter and music is as silent as a tomb, its walls lined with old sinks from upstairs and wooden trim off the walls. It is painstakingly apparent. This is a graveyard, home to memories and dreams that have long since faded.

Standing in the midst of the rubble strewn across the ballroom floor and thinking back on Frank Cunningham’s once lively dreams for the Wheat Growers Hotel and his predictions of the promising future of the establishment, one cannot help but be reminded of the quote by French philosopher Paul Valery.

“The trouble with our time is that the future is not what it used to be.”