Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Days At The Columbian Hotel

By Lester J. Cox, Copyright 2009

When I graduated from high school in 1935, I decided that I would like to attend the University of Missouri. I also had to have a job to finance my education. This country was in a deep depression and jobs were hard to find.

I went to the Columbian Hotel and was hired as a bellhop. I had never stayed overnight in a hotel. Although I did not know it at the time, I think I learned more about people whole working there than I learned the rest of my life.

The Columbian Hotel had just been taken over by a lady named Cleo Robinson. She had previously been a traveling saleswoman. She had sold buttons and was known as the “Button Woman.” The hotel was leased through a local bank.

The hotel consisted of three stories. All the rooms and apartments were on the upper two stories and consisted of about 40 units. The street level consisted of the lobby, a kitchen, and two large dining rooms. No food was served to the public, but we ate in the kitchen. One of the dining rooms was rented by a used furniture dealer. The other dining room was rented by the Federal Government and was used to can vegetables for the needy. This was one of the many Federal projects during the Depression.

[Images above right show the hotel building in 2009, now used for retail space and apartments, and an ad for the hotel from the 1940 Columbia City Directory.]

When the hotel was built it probably was considered elaborate for its time. It now catered to traveling salesmen. There was a “sample room” on the second floor but it was seldom used. The room had several tables, and at one time the salesmen used it to display their wares to local merchants who came to shop for their stores.

In addition to the Columbian hotel, there were two other hotels in Columbia, the Leonard and the Tiger. The Columbian Hotel was not close to being first choice.

Many of The Columbian’s rooms did not have a bath. Those rooms rented for one dollar per night, and the ones with a bath rented for $1.50 per night. There was a common bathroom on each floor. There were no showers in any of the rooms. There was a phone at the front desk and an extension phone on the first floor. Each room had a “call button” which was used to call the desk for service.

The hotel was heated by steam radiators. Temperatures were controlled by turning the radiator off and on, or by opening the windows. In the summertime, the heat would almost knock you down when you came into some of the rooms, especially on the third floor. There were no fans.

The hotel had several permanent residents who lived in a room or an apartment. We had traveling salesmen who came on a regular basis. We also had transients. The usual tip for my services as a bellhop was a dime. Most of the tips came from bringing luggage or ice water to a room. I got more tips during the summer.

Most of our residents and guests were good people, but the hotel had its share of bad ones. Cleo, the manager, ran a pretty right ship. We knew that the Columbian was the cheapest hotel in town, and we got our share of crooks and scam artists. One must remember that this was during the Depression and the country was full of crooks, bank robbers, etc. Some of the Hotel guests were scam artists who took pictures, collected money, and never delivered any pictures. There were magazine crews who collected “up front” money and never delivered any magazines. We once had a guest who stayed at the Hotel for a week. Nobody seemed to know what she did until we found out she was a detective from Kansas City who was investigating shoplifting at local stores. They arrested several University students.

We had the usual number of guests who failed to pay their hotel bills. It was the practice that guests with a suitcase would pay their hotel bills when they checked out. Some left their suitcases behind and skipped out. We had a collection of worthless suitcases, some containing bricks!

One of the local theaters hosted some vaudeville acts. They usually stayed at our hotel, and it was interesting to carry in the various props used by the acts. Props included such things as chains for the strong man and all kinds of animals in cages.

Many of the hotel’s problems with guests were centered around alcohol. There was a Professor Roma who was often featured in one of the cafes as a palm reader. He always came back to the hotel drunk. He set a bed on fire. Cleo finally booted him out for good after he ran the lavatory over and flooded the place.

One night when I was returning from the post office I noticed several people who were standing across the street from the hotel and looking up at it. I soon noticed that a naked man was running around the room and screaming. I rushed to the room and found the man was still running around the room and over the bed. He was screaming that he was chasing snakes, alligators, and other animals. Of course, he was an alcoholic and was having hallucinations, sometimes called the DTs. I had heard of such, but until then had thought it was a joke.

Of all the drunks, one made a big impression on me. He was a permanent guest who was well educated and, despite his education, could not hold a job.

This guest created many incidents around the hotel. One night a cab driver came in and asked if a one-legged man lived at the Hotel. As I helped the guest through the Hotel lobby, a pint of whiskey fell from his pocket and crashed into several pieces on the floor. On another night he pushed the call button, and I went to his room where I found a big gash on his leg. He told me that a rival editor had attacked him. Of course, he had somehow injured himself. We had to call a doctor at midnight to come to the hotel and stitch his leg.

This man was taking a drug whose name sounded very much like formaldehyde, the preservative and embalming fluid. There was a mix up at the pharmacy and he was dispensed formaldehyde by mistake. This made him very sick and we thought that he was going to die. He ended up in a Veterans Hospital and he eventually lost his battle with alcohol.

There were many good and interesting people around the hotel, and I learned a lot from them. One of them was Grace Chow. She came from China to study journalism at the University. Grace was fluent in English but her problem was with slang, idioms, and of course, the Ozark expressions, of which there were many. None of her English study in China had prepared her for these challenges. She would often ask for help with them which I was glad to do. I was fascinated with what she told me about China. Grace later became associated with Pearl Buck, the famous author whose works are set in China.

I was not always busy as a bellhop, so I had time to visit. One person that I enjoyed a lot was an old fellow by the name of Les who had been a resident of the Hotel for many years. Les was a native of Columbia, and he knew a lot of history of Columbia and the University. I can remember how he told about the fire that destroyed the University. The columns on campus remain from that fire According to Les, there was an effort by a group from Jefferson City to rebuild there. Of course, that proposal failed.

Of course, we also had our humorous events around the hotel. One man was bumped by an auto and stayed at the Hotel while recovering from his injuries. The insurance adjuster saw him several times. One day the injured man was sitting in the lobby and discovered that he had lost his wallet. He forgot his injuries, left his crutches, and ran up the stairs to his room.

In those days many law breakers were caught at hotels. We had our share of the, and the police frequently came looking for someone. I remember one man who had his room full of everything that one could think of. Most of it was stolen.

We never knew much about many of the guests, and we did not trust most of them until we knew enough about them to feel comfortable. Once we had a guest who did not come out of his room and had his meals brought to his room. We were suspicious of him and it was soon discovered that we should have been. One afternoon a group of law officers came and asked that the hotel porter go with them to the guest’s room. They told the porter to knock on the door, tell the guest that he had a letter for him, and then step back away from the door. The officers all drew their guns and when the porter opened the door, they seized the guest. He was a bank robber, and they had traced him through the mail. He had several thousand dollars and a hand gun in his room.

Of all the events that occurred at the Hotel while I was a bellhop, the most memorable happened on Valentine’s morning of 1936. Right after I had made the six o’clock wake up calls, I heard two shots. I ran back up the stairs and located a room from which I heard screams for help. The door to the room was locked, so I backed off and kicked and pushed the door in.

A man was on the bed and a woman was on the floor. There also was a hand gun on the floor. They were both incoherent and hysterical. Authorities were called, and while waiting for the police and ambulance, those of us who arrived on the scene determined that the man was shot in the abdomen and the woman in the chest. We did not disturb anything, but when the police got there, one of them picked up the gun and put it in his pocket, destroying the finger prints. The man died that afternoon and the woman about four days later. It was never determined who did the shooting, and since both of them died, I guess the authorities thought it did not make much difference.

The shooting made national news, and I was pestered by reporters for some time. Nobody knew anything about the dead couple. They were rather reclusive. He came from a well known and wealthy family in Kansas City. He was a student at the University and was taking courses in agriculture in order to manage some of the family’s farms. The woman, his wife, was said to be the daughter of an English Army Captain. After their deaths, the man’s father came to the hotel to get their belongings. I visited a little bit with the father while I helped carry the dead couple’s belongings downstairs. He gave me his son’s activity tickets from the University. As he gave me a tip, his parting words were “My boy was a funny boy.”

Because of health problems, I left the University and the Hotel after two years. After regaining my health, I finished my studies at another university. Cleo, the manager, lost the hotel lease in about 1940. The hotel later became the Ben Bolt. I kept in contact with Cleo until her death. My wife, children and I would stop to see here if our travels took us through Columbia.

© Copyright by Lester J. Cox 2009

The Columbian Hotel was built originally as the Athens Hotel around 1900. Probably about 1925 it was sold and renamed the Columbian. In 1939 or 1940, it was sold again and renamed the Ben Bolt Hotel. It is now (2009) retail and apartment space.

A newspaper article in the November 30, 1929, Missourian newspaper reported that Miss Cleo Robinson of Tonkawa, Oklahoma, was to take over the Columbian Hotel on December 1, 1929. She purchased the “goodwill and furnishings” of the hotel from E.R. Ketner who had owned the hotel since August, 1925. The 1930 Federal Census shows that Cleo M. Robinson, age 47, was a “hotel proprietor” and pardner [sic] with Bert W. Wooden at the hotel at 811 Walnut. At the time of this census (April 18) there were four lodgers at the hotel.

Mr. Cox says that during the mid-1930s “there were two other hotels in Columbia, the Leonard and the Tiger.” The “Leonard” hotel must have been a reference to The Daniel Boone hotel at 7th and Broadway, which was managed by the well-known Frank Leonard. That building has long ceased to be a hotel and now (2009) houses the City of Columbia’s main administration offices. The Tiger Hotel opened in 1928 and is now being converted from mostly empty space to a boutique hotel.

These were clearly the three main hotels in Columbia at the time but there were other businesses listed as hotels in city directories. For example, in 1936 downtown Columbia “hotels” included Smith’s Hotel at 603 Walnut and the Robinson Hotel at 1203 E. Broadway. Four additional places of lodging were located near Highway 40 on the north edge of town. They included the All States Tourist Camp at the intersection of Highways 40 & 63; F. C. Garrett’s at 7th & Highway 40; the U.S. 40 Hotel at 822 N. 7th; and the new Sinclair Pennant Hotel on west Highway 40.

The 1936 Valentine’s Day shootings at the hotel were a major tragedy at the Columbian Hotel. The man who died that day was Warren Thornton Phister, 26 years old, of Kansas City. His death certificate is online at the Missouri State Archives web site and lists the cause of death as “gun shot wound - homicide (Coroner’s jury’s verdict)” at a “hotel.” He was the son of Laurance and Harriett Phister of Kansas City, Missouri. The same Missouri State Archives web site does not have a Boone county death a few days later that could be the woman referred to above, Phister’s wife according to Mr. Cox.

This article, in slightly expanded form, was also published in the Genealogical Society of Central Missouri's GSCM Reporter, Vol. 28, No. 4, July/August 2009, pp. 103-107.


Anonymous said...

I found this article to be extremely interesting----especially that it was written by Lester Cox. Lester, himself, was an extremely, intelligent personality. He was my principal when I was in high school at Northwestern High School in Palmyra, Il. in the 1950's. You had to get up pretty early in the morning to "put one over on him"!

Thornton said...

Thank you for your recollections, Mr. Cox. Warren Thornton Phister was my great uncle and namesake. I had heard the story of his death, but your account helped me to "fill in the blanks". My family and I are most appreciative of your contribution to our family history.
Thornton Phister

Anonymous said...

I have lived here at the former Columbian hotel for 8 years now. I wish I could talk to someone who knows about this place before it was apartments.

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