If These Walls Could Talk: Knickerbocker Hotel

Anderson, Grenz & Straub. "If These Walls Could Talk: Knickerbocker Hotel." Northwest Blade, 25 August 2011, 6 & 12.

Elegance, entertainment and escapades are three words that describe the Knickerbocker Hotel. In present day Eureka, one may ask, what is the Knickerbocker Hotel? Let us go on a bit of a historical journey.

George and Sarah (Jones) Knickerbocker were born, reared, educated and married in Illinois. George was proficient in masonry and building, and he was successfully engaged in the contracting and building business in Illinois and several neighboring states. At the age of 27, George, wanting to expand his business, moved his young family, consisting of his wife, Sarah, Gertrude, born in 1873; and Harry, born in 1875; to Minneapolis. While there, George and his wife Sarah ran one of the biggest furniture businesses in the city. This business was destroyed by fire in 1882. Financially devastated, the young Knickerbocker family decided to move westward.

In 1885, the Knickerbocker family was some of the first settlers in the western part of McPherson County. Two years later, in 1887, the family settled in Eureka, SD. Sarah Knickerbocker was said to be the first native English speaking woman to reside in Eureka.

Seeing the need and the great financial potential for a hotel in Eureka, George built his first hotel on the right of way of the Milwaukee Railroad Co. In less than one week from the start of construction, the Knickerbocker Hotel, the first hotel in town, was open for business. An interesting sidelight to this business was that there was never a protest by the Milwaukee Railroad for building on their right of way. Popular consensus was that the officials of the railroad had such admiration for George Knickerbocker’s audacity and entrepreneurship. And possibly, the fact that the railroad workers and railroad travelers needed a place to stay might have been the reason no complaint was ever issued. This first hotel was completed August 12, 1887. A second one was built, located on the corner where Fauth Excavating is now located.

A need for a larger hotel prompted the building of a large two story wooden structure on the corner of Market and Main Streets where the current Dakota Woodworking addition to the Eureka Bazaar is now located. The Hotel was completed circa 1900. The Knickerbocker had 28 rooms for lodging, and was most famous for its dining room, which was said to be the finest west of Minneapolis. One entrance led to both stories, a wide colonial veranda faced the east, and shade trees along the east side made it even more appealing to the patrons. Sarah Knickerbocker had a garden on the west end of the hotel which provided fresh vegetables and some fruit, such as strawberries. An ice house kept food cold. Horses were often tied up in front of the hotel when their riders visited one of the many nearby saloons. Rates were $2.00 a day, and they advertised the best cigars in town!

The dining room was fancy and elegant, with tables covered in linen cloths, urban cutlery and beautiful dishware. It was furnished in Victorian tables and chairs. Other noted features were the murals on the walls and the beautiful chandeliers. One of the cooks was Carrie Springer, who was known for her delectable meals. Many fine banquets, receptions and "fashionable dinner dances were held in the elegant dining room, where the menu was of the quality that might be found at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. … An orchestra played for these balls, and when there wasn’t live music, the hotel entertained its guests with the first phonograph in Eureka." (T. Straub autobiography)

Sarah Knickerbocker hired many local young girls to be her waitresses. There could be six waitresses serving at one time. She had strict requirements and made all of them wear long white dresses. Her goal was to bring refinement to the eating establishment and to train the young waitresses in etiquette, proper speech and manners. Three of the young waitresses were Christine Bollinger Aman (mother of Mae Wolff), Kathryn Eiseman Schulkoski (mother of plumber Robert Schulkoski) and Rosa Junker Eiseman (mother of Ione Beck). These young girls were steadily taught how to be proper and efficient.

George "Colonel" Knickerbocker made frequent stops at the railroad depot advertising his hotel and then would hurry back to the hotel to warn the cook as to how many customers he thought that she should prepare food for that evening. Because of his stops at the depot, many salespeople, agents, politicians, and an occasional "sharpie" would come to dine and stay overnight at the Knickerbocker.
George and Sarah Knickerbocker had two children, Gertrude and Harry. Gertrude married into the local banking dynasty when she married J.E. Reagan. This young couple had three daughters, but sadness engulfed the entire Knickerbocker family when Gertrude died an untimely death, at age 24, in June 1898. Son Harry became a proficient musician and often entertained at the Knickerbocker on his violin. He became a music teacher out east and also died young at the age of 35. He left a son and daughter.

One reason Sarah hired Rosa Junker to be a waitress in the early 1900’s was that not only could Rosa wait on tables, she was proficient at handling horses. Sarah often had Rosa hitch up her fancy buggy and take her and her three orphaned granddaughters to the cemetery to visit the grave of their dead mother, Gertrude. Sarah said she could hear her daughter speaking to her when she would visit the grave. These trips were halted when the three daughters complained to their grandmother about her belief that their mother was talking to them.

One person who stayed at the hotel was a salesman from Minneapolis. He started dating one of the young waitresses. This relationship was going along very nicely until the salesman’s wife showed up one day asking to speak to him. The other waitresses were hesitant to tell his wife where he was. This ended in a divorce, remarriage, two daughters and a new career in Eureka as a postmaster!
One hotel employee disappeared after only a few weeks of working. The Knickerbockers and the rest of the staff noticed food was missing from the kitchen. The wayward employee was found to be hiding in the attic of the Knickerbocker. He was later returned by the local sheriff to a place not recorded for his outstanding misdeeds.

On weekends, the rural "schoolmarms" would come to the Knickerbocker for overnight lodging and a weekend of shopping, entertainment and possible courting in the town of Eureka.

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed George Knickerbocker the postmaster of Eureka. At that time, he and his wife, Sarah, moved into a new home and sold the Knickerbocker Hotel. A 1916 Eureka Business Directory lists Albert Miller as the proprietor of Hotel Knickerbocker. It was later sold to Fred Wenger, who is listed in a July 11, 1920, Aberdeen American News article as owner of the Eureka Hotel. Wenger converted the dining room into the first movie theater in Eureka. The silent movies were accompanied by a piano and shown with a hand cranked projector. Kathryn Schulkoski always said the first movie shown there was a Douglas Fairbanks movie.

Saturday night dances were held in the Knickerbocker to the music of an Edison Phonograph with cylindrical records. Some of these recordings featured the Knickerbocker’s son, Harry. During the 1920’s, Lawrence Welk came to Eureka on the Milwaukee Railroad train and would often play at the Knickerbocker. Sometimes he had only his accordion, and other times several musicians accompanied him. After performing at the Knickerbocker, Welk and his musicians would continue on to Aberdeen. Mr. Welk was said to have an interest in the pretty girls that he would meet at the Knickerbocker!

The hazard of fire was always very great in Eureka because of the many wooden structures.

As stated in the 1937 Eureka history book, an 1893 city ordinance was passed requiring all business owners to have a barrel of water handy as fire protection. Later, a city water system was established, and in 1896, the Eureka Fire Department was established. Henry Straub Sr. was worried about his new business, which lay just west of the Knickerbocker, so when he built the structure that is now Straub Furniture, the wooden walls were lined with asbestos and then covered with metal.

The fear of fire was prophetic when on a cold winter day, March 1, 1923, the Knickerbocker (Wenger Hotel) burned down. It burned fiercely and quickly, with burning shingles blowing in all directions. The north wind blowing and the intense heat of the fire broke the large windows of the Eureka State Bank directly across the street to the south of the hotel. The Eureka fire department worked feverishly to save everything, including Straub Furniture, directly to the west. Due to the foresight of Mr. Straub, the walls were charred, but the building survived. Unfortunately, the Knickerbocker was a fatality to the whims of fire.

Certainly after this fire, an era had passed. Elegance, entertainment and escapades were never seen as they had been seen during the heyday of the Knickerbocker Hotel. These walls can no longer speak to us, but its memory should not become a ghost of the past.

Probably the 2nd Knickerbocker building, located where Fauth’s Excavation is now-(Mae Wolff’s mom, Christine Bollinger Aman in white blouse, holding child)

The last and largest Knickerbocker Hotel, located on the corner of Main & Market Streets (currently G Ave. & 7th St.)

Knickerbocker Hotel in foreground on Old Main Street  (current G Ave.), looking east to west

Knickerbocker Hotel Lobby

Knickerbocker Hotel Dining Room

Knickerbocker Hotel Dining Room-notice the elaborate murals on the walls

Story courtesy of the Northwest Blade, Eureka, SD.
For this story and more, please see our website at www.pridepublications.net

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller