Kewanee House Hotel built for rail traffic before laying the tracks
One of the first buildings constructed in our hometown was a hotel to accommodate expected guests arriving on Central Military Tract Railroad trains. While the track had not yet been laid, the line had been leveled and a location for a depot had been selected. The hotel would be located across from the depot, at the first glance passengers would see disembarking in the new village. It would simply be called the Kewanee House.
This is a brief history of this hotel.
As we know, in the early 1850s, the CMTR had already decided to bypass Wethersfield. Early in 1854 he had also decided to set up a depot about a mile and a half to the north. That spring, the Wethersfield contractors acquired 155 acres of the northwest quarter of Section 33. Combined with another quarter section to the east, these men owned most of the land that would become the new village of Berrien, later changed to Kewanee.
After Berrien was tackled, two of these Wethersfielders, Ralph A. Tenney and Sullivan Howard, acquired two lots near where the depot was to be located, on the condition that they build a hotel. Howard was one of the first settlers in Wethersfield, arriving in 1836. Tenney was related to early settlers Abner and Nancy Tenney Little (his nephew), and he arrived in Wethersfield in 1852.
Howard had been responsible for the design and construction of many buildings in the county, including the first Henry County Courthouse in Cambridge. He took charge of the design and construction of what became the Kewanee House. The hotel was completed in August, about a month and a half before the railway reached the village at the end of 1854.
In 1856, EV Bronson acquired the hotel. Bronson was born in Connecticut and became a merchant in New York before moving to Rockford, Illinois, in 1854. A year later he moved to Kewanee.
For many years, the Kewanee House was the only hotel in the village and was the center of much Kewanee and Henry County activity. In addition to providing accommodations for overnight guests, the hotel has hosted a myriad of events — symposiums, dances, meetings, music recitals, plays — requiring elegant space.
Bronson was at the center of many civic and social activities. He was also associated with multiple business activities. Bronson helped organize and then served as president of the Muscatine, Kewanee & Eastern Railway and the Continental Railway Company, the former being an unsuccessful attempt to bring another railroad through Kewanee and the latter a railroad from the ‘East. He was also a man of temperance and did not allow alcohol to be served in the hotel.
In the late 1870s, Bronson retired from the day-to-day operations of the Kewanee household due to ill health. In 1883 he sold the property to AO Warner, who would soon operate a new hotel, and Henry Clay Merritt.
Merritt, born in New York in 1831, moved to Henry County in the 1850s and to Kewanee in the 1860s. He eventually developed notoriety as a hunter, businessman, traveler, and author.
When Merritt came west, he saw the abundance of golden plovers and prairie chickens as a golden opportunity. He soon began hunting and hired other hunters to collect game and ship to New York and other major cities, and Merritt became wealthy. He eventually owned valuable commercial blocks in Kewanee, including the Cliff House building at the corner of Chestnut and Second streets, and all the rest of that block except the Butterwick Brothers building. He also owned property in Atkinson and other surrounding villages.
Merritt immediately made plans for a three-story brick commercial building at the southwest corner of Tremont and Third Sts., where the old Kewanee house stood. This old frame hotel would be relocated to the rear of the lot to the west and a new three-story brick hotel would be built in front of the relocated old hotel. The new hotel would also be called the Kewanee House. The new and old hotel would be connected, with the old hotel housing a dining room, kitchen and storage space.
The new buildings opened the following year and each was a great success. The “Merritt Block” housed a multitude of businesses, while the hotel added a modern respite for Kewanee visitors, as well as a saloon. There were now other hotels in the growing town. But the Kewanee House, conveniently located opposite the train depot, next to Tremont’s main shops, around the corner from the town hall and east of “Whiskey Row”, was still the favored spot for outsiders. visitors to the city, as well as for special events.
In the 1890s, the original Kewanee House frame behind the 1884 iteration gave way to a brick building used as a “sample room” and for storage. Another connection to Kewanee’s birth has been lost.
At the beginning of the 20th century, changes were underway. In 1903 the Pekin Brewing Company leased most of the first floor of Kewanee House for a saloon – another saloon was already operating in another part of the first floor – and the hotel office was moved to a storefront of store in the Merritt Block at 219 N. Tremont St. The top two floors of the block were extensively remodeled to create 17 additional hotel rooms, and a covered connection was added between the second floors of the block and the existing hotel. By early 1904, the “new” Kewanee House was in operation.
In 1919, new owners took over the hotel and renamed it Wilson Hotel. Later, another change in ownership led to another name change, the Earle Hotel. Then, in 1958, the entire hotel was destroyed by fire and not rebuilt.
Today, hotels are a thing of the past in towns like Kewanee, with motels providing lodging for visitors. But when Kewanee was born, a hotel along the rails in a town ready to grow was a necessity.
The founding fathers of Kewanee foresaw the need and built one that has made our hometown famous for over half a century of its existence.
[After I finished this story, I happened across a Dave Clarke column from 2005. Dave described Richard Lee Daniel who, in June 1958, was “a 6-foot-5, 310-pound army veteran who worked at Walworth and played a gorilla in a traveling horror show.” What
had Dave write about Daniel was that three months after the Earle Hotel fire, Daniel was arrested by the Henry County Sheriff and later confessed to setting the fire. Daniel was eventually committed to East Moline State Hospital, later released, and eventually had all charges against him dropped. It turned out to be a case of “false confession”, prompted by a “run” with the sheriff who “helped” Daniel understand the circumstances of the case. Based on these facts obtained, the judge declared the confession inadmissible.
I once served on a team of attorneys representing a Louisiana death row inmate who also “confessed” to a murder after lengthy interrogation. After 15 years on death row at Angola State Prison, he was cleared through DNA testing and released. The “false confessions” continue to plague us to this day.]