MONROE’S HOTELS

  OFFERING ICE WATER & KIND WORDS

By Nowell Briscoe ( nowellbriscoe@bellsouth.net )

(Thank you Nowell for allowing us to use this wonderful article)

(Published  August 2012 in the Walton Tribune-Monroe, GA)

(Republished with permission of the Walton Tribune - To see their website, please click HERE)

 

          Probably the only person in town old enough to remember not only the Hotel Monroe and its predecessor, The Walton Hotel, is Monroe’s own celebrity, Bessie Cooper, the world’s oldest living person.  The old Walton Hotel was built in 1887 and in its prime was known to be the biggest and best between Atlanta and Augusta. It was here that my grandfather, Pierce N. Briscoe, found solace and refuge when he first moved to Monroe in the late 1800’s as a young man.  He occupied one of the rooms on the third floor of the hotel as he sought work in the cotton business and began his own cotton brokerage business in 1892.  After the hotel closed in 1919 and the ground floor and second floor became retail space, he leased four rooms on the second floor which looked out onto Broad Street and moved his business there where he remained until his death in 1953. After his death my father and uncle continued the business in the same location until my father’s death in 1970.  During the summer of 1970 my uncle moved the business to Highland Avenue into the historic old Felker House where he continued buying and selling cotton until ill health forced him to close his doors in 1980. For a period of fifty one years, my grandfather, father and uncle enjoyed a historic business venture in one of the oldest and most beloved buildings in town.

          After the Walton Hotel closed, plans were put into motion for the planning, design and building of a new, modern haven of rest for travelers and other visitors to town seeking temporary shelter.  According to legend, the plans for the new building were patterned closely along the lines of the Nancy Hart Hotel in Hartwell, Georgia.  As progress for the new building continued, The Walton Tribune reported in September 10, 1920 that discussions with the Mackle Construction Corporation of Atlanta were under way with the primary architect to be C. Lloyd Preacher of Atlanta and Augusta.  According to the story, a proposed annex to the building which would have been a duplicate of the original structure was also in the works, showing that the planners were thinking in a big way.

          After the initial plans for the building got under way, next came the proposals of a way to pay for the structure.  An old home which originally resided on the proposed site was moved to the back of the lot so the new building would face Broad Street.

          Many of Monroe’s older businessmen were in high favor of the new hotel and sought ways of financing the new structure.  After much discussion and debate, a stock issue was decided upon to finance the construction with Mr. Morris Mendel being one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the stock proposal and one of the biggest investors of the plan.  Many townsfolk contributed their part by purchasing stock in the venture, well over a hundred participants, some only buying one or two shares.

On a wall in my home hangs a framed stock certificate issued to my grandfather from the Monroe Hotel Company on April 22, 1920 for one share of stock in the newly formed company. The cost of one share of stock at the time was one hundred dollars.  The president and secretary of the company, respectively, were the late John M. Nowell and Albert B. Mobley.  I would be willing to bet I am the last person around who still has in his possession a share of stock from this company which was the beginning of the second hotel in Monroe on South Broad Street and given the name The Hotel Monroe. On a bookshelf in my study is a photograph of the hotel in its heyday given to me by Larry Witcher, Monroe’s historic photograph curator.  Each time I look at that photo I am filled with bittersweet memories of that beloved old three story yellow brick building.  I am certainly not alone in my feelings and memories of that establishment as there are folks still around who share even more memories than I do and I might not be wrong in thinking there are also probably quite a few old ghosts who perhaps still swirl around the land where the hotel stood, wondering just what happened to the building they called home and why there is another building on that property they are not familiar with.  Back then many folks held onto their stock shares through all the turmoil and troubles that faced the hotel over the years and when it was finally sold to an individual in 1957, there were still those relishing their certificates for one or two shares of stock as mementos of a by-gone era.

The original cost of the building was in excess of $100,000 and the first contractor encountered so many difficulties and problems he went broke, abandoning the project.  The building was completed thanks to Monroe native and businessman, Emmett Williams and his associate, Howard Ash.  Mr. Williams’ son, former Mayor Booth Williams, served as President of the Directors of the Hotel for many years and was a staunch believer in the need for the hotel and its value to the town.

Hotel Monroe officially opened its doors to the public in 1921.  The Monroe Kiwanis Club was organized the following year being the town’s first civic club.  From its initial formation, the club meetings were held in the hotel.  In 1938 The Rotary Club was organized and both clubs held their meetings at the hotel through the war years, good years and bad, as the hotel held no secrets from this group of men whose support and loyalty was deeply appreciated by the management.

Mrs. Kate Ellis was one of the first managers of the hotel, having living quarters in the building she and her husband operated for several years.  Judge Henry West leased it for a ten year period, but was not an active participant in the day to day operations of the building.  In his stead, he hired the late Kenon Walters as resident manager.  Mr. Walters later assumed the lease and continued operation for three more years.  Helping him in the day to day operations, he hired J. B. (Jim) Robison as his assistant.  In an interview with him back in the late sixties, Kenon said his memories of the hotel were centered around the difficult times he had in getting enough food in to supply the dining room.

          In 1951, the late Mrs. Lois Grimes came to Monroe with her family to assume the title as lessee-manager of the hotel.  Upon her arrival she was told by her predecessor the “help problem” would probably drive her crazy along with figuring out how to procure enough food to keep the residents and staff fed and happy!  One of the long time “permanent” residents of the hotel, Mrs. J. W. “Mood” Snow, told her about the “romance problem” that seemed to literally seep from the walls of the building, affecting not only the guests in the hotel but the staff as well.  Mrs. Grimes stated in an interview in the late sixties, she was not sure which problem caused the most consternation, the food problem, the romance problem or the problem with the help.  She mentioned that one of the most memorable love affairs in the hotel centered around a 78 year-old groom and his 28 year-old bride!

          Those folks who staffed the hotel were a dedicated lot, and much of the hotel’s success was due to the kind, caring and attentive group who stayed there for years and became famous in their own right.  The kitchen and wait staff was comprised of Fannie, who served as cook and maid for the hotel and was a wizard when it came to frying the chicken that was a mainstay on the menu.  The porters back in the day were Willie Love and the beloved “Easy” who always had a smile on his face.  It was never confirmed if the perpetual smile that adorned Easy’s face was just natural or if it had to do with the well-known “secret” of his propensity for drink.  Nonetheless, Easy was one of the best-loved of the wait staff and was especially popular with the elderly ladies in residence who always made sure he had enough “tip money” for his after-hours visits to Bell’s Café, on the corner of Wayne and Washington Streets.  Larry Grimes, son of hotel manager Lois Grimes, recalled with a laugh how many mornings when Easy would arrive at work before any of the other kitchen staff, he would “make coffee” which consisted of pouring coffee grounds in an iron skillet and filling the skillet half full of water and cooking the coffee on the stove.  I doubt if Easy could tell the difference but I pity those poor folks who got served the first pot of the day when Easy made the coffee!

          The dining rooms and the club room at the hotel provided venues for many of the social functions that occurred in town through the years.  Parties, club meetings, bridal showers and rehearsal dinners were held there along with the board meetings for many of the business organizations on Broad Street.  Often times these meetings included meals from the hotel’s kitchen and the menu from the dining room always left the attendees full and happy.

          In the early years of the hotel’s history, many of the teachers who taught at the grammar school or high school lived at the hotel.  Lois Grimes’ children Larry and Holly Grimes Farmer recalled some of the teachers who had permanent residence at the hotel until it closed.  On any given morning or evening, it was not unusual to see the faces of Julia Hogan, Pauline Spears, Savannah Mayfield, Jeanette Langford, Emily Johnson Stark, Kathryn Smith (Phillips) and Nanette Snelling (later Mrs. J. B. Robison)  enjoying the amenities of the dining room, lobby and club room.  Some of the city’s elderly widows took up residence in the hotel and several times the local funeral home was called to remove one of these ladies whom death had visited in the night.  Monroe resident Joe Early recalled an instance when the new elevator was installed in the hotel and several of the teachers crowded in the elevator to get a ride to their respective floors.  There was so much weight in the elevator that it stalled between floors trapping the distressed occupants.  After much wrangling and coaxing, the elevator lodged itself between the floors at such a point that with the help of a step ladder the ladies, all of whom were wearing dresses, were able to escape the confines of the metal cage and lower themselves down a ladder.  That must have been a site to behold!

          Lois Grimes once recalled those running the hotel coined the phrase, “ice water and kind words”, meaning those were the only two things the staff could be absolutely sure of offering at any given time without fail and she said with her usual smile “that there were occasions when the ‘kind words’ came mighty hard!”

One of the priorities of the hotel management was to ensure the highest standards be met in providing the best food and service possible under the sometimes limited circumstances.  During the days of Mrs. Kate Ellis tenure as manager, the dining room achieved a wide reaching reputation for its family style meals which was based on plentiful “plain cooking”.  During the time of Judge West’s leasing the building, he made sure plenty of home grown vegetables and meat from his farm near Good Hope were made available to Fannie and her staff to ensure the freshest produce and meats were always on hand. In the early fifties with the closing of the beloved Greer House on North Broad Street, the city was without a place for the Sunday church crowd to enjoy the noon meal.  In 1952 the hotel opened its dining room to the public, offering a smorgasbord type meal at noon every Sunday.  It was one of the most successful ventures of note, having tables covered with linen cloths and napkins.  For years these Sunday meals brought folks not only from Monroe but from surrounding counties to enjoy the fine dining offered up by The Hotel Monroe.  This was my first venture for a meal outside the home; one that made an indelible impression on my young mind.  The Sunday dinners at the hotel thrived with hundred of satisfied happy customers until the hotel began its decline and the doors to the dining room closed for the last time in 1959. 

With any business, accidents do happen that are unpreventable like the time Mrs. Grimes recalled a waiter dropped a tray containing 30 glasses of iced tea just as the guests for a Rotary Ladies Night were entering the dining room or the time a large section of plaster fell out of the kitchen ceiling during a ladies luncheon causing the meal to be fashionably “late”. 

          The hotel was for this writer a magical place as it was where my beloved Aunt Ruby Landers lived from 1954 until her death in August of 1957.  With the death of my grandmother in 1953, she left the family home place on Edwards Street and moved to the hotel where she had many friends in residence.  With the Monroe-Walton County Library next door in the old City Hall Building, walking to her job as city librarian only took about fifteen steps from the hotel to the steps of city hall.  Summertime at the hotel was enjoyable for me as many evenings I would have supper with Ruby in the dining room and then retire to the wide front porch where high backed green wicker rockers beckoned.  Ruby would sit in one rocker with her ashtray and ever present Pall Mall cigarettes while I took the one next to her with my dessert, a Hershey’s Chocolate Bar with almonds.  We would enjoy the coolness of the early evenings watching folks walk up and down the sidewalks as Ruby would give me a “mini biography” of some of the folks she knew passing within our view.  Saturday mornings in the summer I would run errands for her, paying a bill or two or picking up an order from Monroe Drug Company or a package from Viola Hale’s Millinery Shoppe.  Ruby did love a nice hat.  And it was at The Hotel Monroe where Ruby died in her sleep on August 3rd, 1957, the day after my 11th birthday.  Her death was sudden but not totally unexpected as she had been in failing health for some months.  Always concerned about her appearance no matter the occasion, when Death came for her she was ready; her comb and brush in her hands ensuring she looked her best even in sleep.  That day my world shattered; I lost someone who meant the world to me.  She was my “Auntie Mame”, the one who opened my eyes to the world of books and literature and to whom I owe everlasting appreciation.  On this day, August 3rd 2012, fifty five years after her death, she remains as much alive and magical to me as she always did. Every time I take a book from my shelf I remember the smile on her face when she first placed a book in my hands.  On August 3rd, 1957, my love affair with The Hotel Monroe ended when Aunt Ruby left the hotel for the last time.

          Monroe lost an iconic landmark when hotel closed in the early sixties, much of its interior being auctioned off on the front lawn prior to the building being torn down. A photo from the Tribune at the time shows the auction in progress as townsfolk vie for various pieces of the hotel’s history.  A bank is now where the hotel stood.  There are quite a few folks left, myself included, who even though they see another building on the property, in their mind’s eye they still see, appreciate and remember what we knew and loved as “The Hotel Monroe”.

          Lois Grimes once said The Hotel Monroe touched the life of almost everyone in Walton County at one time or another.  I  think she was a hundred percent correct in her assessment.

(Appreciation is extended to the late Lois Grimes, manager of the hotel, her children, Holly Grimes Farmer and Larry Grimes and Joe Early and Nanette Robison for their memories and recollections)