(B.A. Plummer and his wife will tell the tale of their hotel, including what went wrong and what when right, during the "When Tombstones Talk," on Thursday, Sept. 5 and Saturday, Sept. 7.)
The Hotel War of 1900 nearly tore the citizens and businesses of Forest City apart. However, in the end, it not only brought the city together, it produced Waldorf (College) University.
Recently, Winnebago Historical Society Board member Riley Lewis gave an historic presentation on the Hotel War of 1900.
In the Hotel War, according to Lewis, things started to progress in Forest City in the 1890s.
The new courthouse had been built and there were four banks and two bankers: B.A. Plummer, who was considered the south bank, and Charlie Thompson, considered the north bank.
There were five trains passing through Forest City, two of which were passenger trains.
Thompson and Plummer both thought Forest City would be a great place for people to stop and spend the night, so they were each going to build a hotel.
Lewis said there was a meeting with people who were interested in the downtown district. At the meeting, Plummer said it should be at the courthouse, but Thompson said it should be on the north end of town because that was where they wanted to grow.
“Well, they got into kind of a discussion and they left the meeting, and the next thing we read in the papers is B.A. Plummer was going to build a hotel, and it was going to be what is the Waldorf right now,” Lewis said.
When Thompson heard Plummer was going to build the Waldorf, he decided he was going to build his own hotel.
Thompson’s house was what is currently the home of the Mansion Museum, and his hotel, the Summit, was what is now City Hall. His bank was in the building where Ay Jalisco currently resides, according to Lewis.
He built the bank in 1896-97, the Summit in 1900 and the mansion, which cost over $6,211 to build, at the same time as the Summit.
The Waldorf was the south hotel, and it had a white theme with white table cloths, white horses, white carriages and white uniforms for the servants.
The Summit was the north hotel and had a black theme with black table cloths, black horses, black carriages and black uniforms for the servants.
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“So when they went down to the rail depot to pick up people, they (passengers) had a choice of white or black,” Lewis said.
Each hotel had chefs from the east coast to cook the meals. They each also had 53 rooms, costing around $70,000 to build and were $1 a night. Room service was $2.
The two started building within six months of each other and were finished within four months of each other.
This created a civil war in the town, with people doing business in the south expected to stay in the Waldorf and people doing business in the north expected to stay in the Summit. Otherwise, they wouldn’t do business with them.
“It really split the town,” Lewis said. “The two bankers had them both split.”
After a little over a year, it became apparent they did not have good businesses here and were not getting people to stop, so the two bankers met and agreed to put a bid in for each other’s hotels and whoever had the highest bid would get both hotels.
Thompson won the bid with $43,000 for the Waldorf, which he immediately shut down for a year while the Summit kept going.
The town then came together to think of how to get people to come to Forest City. They decided they wanted a state college like the University of Northern Iowa, but still no one came.
C.S. Salveson, a Lutheran pastor, had a dream to open a higher standard school for people to learn, according to Lewis, and he got together with the town to buy the Waldorf.
Combined, they bought it for $18,000, of which $6,000 came from the city of Forest City, $6,000 came from the Lutheran Association and the remaining $6,000 came from Salveson after he mortgaged his family farm in North Dakota.
The college then started in 1903 with its first classes of just shy of 20 students, teaching farm and management courses as well as basic things such as how to be a secretary.
Thompson continued to run the Summit until around 1909, when he left Forest City and sold the hotel to Plummer. Since then, until the top half of the hotel burned in 1915, it was known as the Plummer hotel.
“When you look back at the leaders of Forest City at the time, they basically took a lemon and made lemonade out of it,” Lewis said. “For 115 years now, what an investment that’s been to the community to have Waldorf as a college in our town all because three factions came together and said, ‘We can make this better.’”