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All Things Czech
By Linda Mowery-Denning
Ellsworth County Independent, Thursday March 15, 2000

Wilson continues tradition of family businesses.

Photo by Peg Britton

The photographs in the glass frames line one wall of the House of Memories Museum in the basement of the Opera House.

Soukup Grain. Klema IGA.

"A lot of those businesses aren't with us, " tour guide Joyce Podlena said.

Some closed their doors. Others had name changes. Stiles Mortuary is now Foster Mortuary, for example.

A few continue to thrive in this town of more than 800 residents.

Rudy and Vi Hoch still operate the Snack Shack on the east edge of Wilson during the warm months of summer. Mikes' Heating and Plumbing has passed to a second generation, Larry Ptacek, who also serves as Wilson's mayor. His mother, Dorothy, also continues to help with the business.

Wilson Telephone is into a third generation of Grauers. So is Shaw's fine Foods, which was started by Roy and Viola Shaw in 1947. The business is now managed by their son and grandson.

Across the street, at La Shiro's Boutique, owner Lavange Shiroky offers a photograph of her father taken in about 1920. Ernest Skalicky patched tires and did other work. The photograph shows him in his shop.

This is now the place of Shiroky's fabric shop.

"I'm walking in my daddy's footsteps," she said.

Shiroky and her boutique are included on the wall in the museum. Years ago, Wilson State Bank sponsored a series of advertisements on local businesses. They eventually were framed and hung in the museum.

Heritage is important in Wilson.

According to information provided by the Wilson Czech Opera House Corporation, which also owns the museum.

In 1865, the Butterfield Overland Dispatch route was established to Denver. The clear springs found a short distance to the southeast became a stage stop called "Swing Station."

According to legend, a horse trader named "Wilson" set up business there.

Photo by Peg Britton

In 1868, the Union Pacific Railroad advanced west, opening the area to settlement. Residents called their new town Wilson. In 1871, the U.S. Postal Department named the small community "Attica." Several months later, residents changed the name to "Bosland," which means "Cowland."

"The settlers were so happy to have land and cows of their own," corporation officers wrote in a brief his history of Wilson.

In 1873, the postal department officially named the town Wilson, thus giving the stagecoach station, train station and city hall the same name.

The first citizens were railroad workers. They were French, English, Irish, and Italian. The first homesteader was J.T. McKittrick. In 1872, 20 Pennsylvania Dutch German families arrived there.

In 1874, Francis Swehla, accompanied by others, became the first Bohemian to settle Central Kansas.

"These immigrants brought many talents---different trades and wisdom. With their hard work and determination, dreams came true." According to the corporation history.

"They organized city officials with a mayor, officers, banks, schools, churches, and merchants of different kinds."

Today, Wilson looks to its past with dreams for the future.

The Opera House was built in 1901. After being restored, it continues to be the place in Wilson for dances, pageants, and other public events.

The opera house, like many other buildings in Wilson, is made of native limestone. The museum has clothing from Czechoslovakia and other reminders of the town's Czech heritage. There also is a hair wreath; quilts devoted to the family histories of a woman who was reared at Lucas. Her grandparents lived south of Wilson. The museum also has a collection of tramp art made from the wooden boxes that used to contain cheese.

Wilson is part of the famous Post Rock Country, which stretches through Central Kansas.

Photo by Peg Britton

Another attraction is the Midland Hotel, a handsome example of this region's limestone construction.

The Midland is owned by the Wilson Foundation, which operates as part of the Opera House Corporation. The foundation has its own set of trustees.

The Kansas Department of Transportation, through the historic category of the Transportation Enhancement Program, has given the foundation a grant to restore the hotel, which was built in 1899 north of the Union Pacific Railroad tracks near the center of town.

When finished the hotel will have a restaurant, visitor's center, lounge and modern rooms with the latest in technology for the traveler with a computer.

Wilson Czech Opera House

Built in 1901 from Dakota limestone, the upper floor contained a large dance floor and a kitchen, and later a movie theater to provide the newly settled Czech community a place to join together in the ways of their native homeland.

The basement originally housed the "Sokol" lodge gymnasium floor where young athletic men were trained in gymnastics. Today the basement is a "House of Memories" museum where family photos, keepsakes and other memorabilia are preserved from the Czech community.

Today dances and other special events are still held in the Opera House.
The Opera House may be contacted at 785.658-3505

Historic Midland Hotel
Midland Hotel Web Site

The historic Midland Hotel, one of the main stops between Kansas City and Denver back in the 1920s and 1930s, was acquired by the Wilson Community Foundation in the late part of 1997. The foundation is a non-profit organization. Its main goals are to preserve the Czech culture, historic buildings and to improve economic growth in the community.

The foundation first raised enough money to stabilize the roof. With the help of local volunteers, the group cleaned out the hotel in preparation to begin restoration. In September 1998, with approval from the city of Wilson, the foundation applied for a federal grant.

In February 1999, the foundation received notice of acceptance for an 80 percent-20 percent match grant. Plans were drawn up and went out for bid March 2001. Construction began the first part of June in that year. Thanks to many supporters, funds were raised to accomplish the largest amount of the match. Thanks also to Rolling Hills Electric Co-op, our local banks and the Wilson Czech Opera House for their support.

The project originally planned to take one year grew into a two-year project. With the efforts of Mid-Continental Restoration and the sub-constructors, the spirit of the hotel has been restored.

With construction complete, furnishings and equipment in place, the qualified staff of the Midland Hotel and Drummers Tavern is there to offer you fine dining and a home away from home.

Larry Ptacek, president

Wilson Foundation

(This history of the Midland Hotel was part of the application to the U.S. Department of Interior for the National Register of Historic Places. The Midland achieved historic status in 2002.)

In 1899, when the Hotel Power (now the Midland Hotel) was constructed, Wilson had two or three other hotels and the Union Pacific Depot stood as a testament to the role of the railroad in the community.

None of the existing hotels catered directly to the railroad. W.B. (Willis/Wilke) Power, an investor from Philadelphia, Pa., moved to Kansas and used a portion of his son Harry's $50,000 inheritance to build the Hotel Power, directly across from the depot. The announcement of the hotel's opening boasted "It has all the equipments of a modern first-class hotel". The hotel became a well-known stop on the Union Pacific line, recognized for its hospitality and good food from Kansas City to Denver. It was a frequent stop for vendors and businessmen who traveled the railroad to sell their wares. Merchants came from Claflin, Holyrood, Lucas, Sylvan Grove, Dorrance and surrounding areas to buy merchandise displayed by the salesmen in the hotel's sample room. In March 1900, shortly after its opening, the hotel was in the Commercial and Hotel Register published in Topeka with W.D. Witwer of the Hotel Power listed as a member of the Kansas Hotel Keepers Association.

Tragedy struck the hotel on Nov. 7, 1902. The Nov. 13 edition of the Wilson Echo reported the details under the heading Wilson's First Class Hotel Destroyed By Fire.

About 4 o'clock Friday morning Miss Wilda Bayless, waitress at Hotel Power, was awakened by smoke in her room. She called the clerk, R.B.Bryant, who ran out into the street and gave the alarm of a fire. It at once was discovered that the northwest part of the hotel was on fire and that great headway had been made by the flames and everything in the hotel was burned, except some of the furniture on the first floor, which at the request of Miss Bayless, was removed.

Guests lost all of their belongings. Two gentlemen, Ralph Brown and R. T. Levitt, formed ropes from sheets and blankets, tied them to their beds and climbed out of the windows to safety. Within a half hour after the fire was discovered, everyone knew the hotel was a loss and efforts were concentrated on adjoining buildings which were saved. No one knows how the fire originated. It is supposed that it started in the kitchen and had been burning all night. Mr. Power had no insurance on the building; he sustained a lost of $8,000 and it was understood he would not rebuild.

That same issue of the Wilson Echo carried a story headlined The Hotel Will Be Rebuilt.

On Saturday evening, a meeting of citizens was called by Mayor Pelishek to consider the matter of rebuilding and a committee composed of Messrs. Lang, A.S. Jellison and Tampier, was elected to confer with Power in regard to securing the site and if possible, find someone to undertake rebuilding the hotel.

By Monday morning, Samuel Anspaugh, a rancher from north of Wilson, had met with the committee and agreed to reconstruct the hotel if the citizens would contribute enough money ($2,250) to purchase the site. At the time of publication, nearly all of the money had been raised.

The hotel was rebuilt, renamed the Midland Hotel and entered a period of prosperity. The hotel was listed in a 1909 brochure of the Union Pacific Railroad entitled, Hotels and Resorts on Union Pacific. The brochure listed a capacity of 20 rooms, at a rate of $2.00 per night, under the management of Mrs. Monro. In 1915, the rear addition was added and it was said that Mr. Anspaugh had the classiest hotel in Kansas. It was running 120 percent occupancy with only the floor available for late arrivals.

Mr. Anspaugh (and his estate) are listed as owners of the hotel from 1903 to 1928.

In Land of the Post Rock, it states that Mr. Anspaugh and his wife lived in the hotel, but they leased it to an operator. A letter from Levergn Vlcek states that her aunt and uncle, Frank and Josephine (Kluber) Small operated the hotel for 3-4 years in the early 1920s. Mrs. Vlcek remembers visiting her aunt and uncle. In her letter she recalls Aunt Josephine did the cooking and baking while Josephine's daughter Helen and her sister Iva Vlcek helped with the cleaning, washing and in the dining room. After the evening meal, Helen played the piano in the parlor and she and Aunt Iva sang to entertain the drummers (salesmen). Clyde Tobin was a drayman --- he carried trunks from the depot to the hotel. She recalls that local merchants, Mrs. Gregor and Mr. Schermerhorn came to the hotel to order dresses and coats to sell in their stores.

I remember a man coming from Oklahoma about 1922. This man brought cattle to the stockyards east of the hotel and somebody from The Flats would come in and load them up. This man was quite funny and it seems like everybody laughed at him. He was always talking to Aunt Josie about quitting her job and going to work a the 101 Ranch in Oklahoma, which she eventually did about 1923 or 1924. When she came back to Wilson, I learned that the man responsible for the job at the 101 Ranch was none other than Will Rogers who had a ranch close by.
The only advertisement found for the hotel was in the local paper, the Wilson World, in September 1916. The ad lists Frank Small as proprietor. A 1918 article in the Wilson World reported that Frank Small closed a deal with Samuel Anspaugh to sell back this interest in the Midland Hotel. It appears that the Smalls operated the hotel for Mr. Anspaugh for a period of 3 to 4 years, possibly with a purchase option or contract. The dates stated in the letter may be off. According to local newspaper articles, the Small's management of the hotel was around 1915-1918.

In 1917, the hotel had one of two long distance phone booths in Wilson as promoted in an advertisement for the Wilson Telephone Exchange. Around the same period, a number of doctors advertised regular monthly visits to the hotel to see patients. Advertisements were found in the local paper for Dr. M. Jay Brown, an eye and ear surgeon from Salina in 1915 and Drs. E.E. Sparr and T.C. Brown, both of Kansas City, Mo., in 1917 and 1919, respectively.

Mr. Anspaugh died April 8, 1919. According to the Register of Deeds records, his estate sold the hotel to the Midland Hotel Company in 1928, who retained ownership until 1943. Although no documentation could be found on the Midland Hotel Company, it is reported that six to eight Wilson businessmen bought the hotel and leased it to operators to assure its existence for many years.

In the midst of the Great Depression, the hotel continued to prosper. Interviews with two local women who worked at the hotel in the 1930s confirm that business was booming. The Register of Deeds records a lease from the Midland Hotel Company of H.M. Radrin in 1932. Mrs. Velma (Kleinschmidt) Kvasnicka, a Wilson resident began working at the hotel at the age of 15 in 1929. She worked for Mr.and Mrs. Mac Radrin who managed the hotel at the time and lived on the first floor. Mrs. Mac, as she was called, managed the staff.

Mrs. Kvasnicka shared her memories of working at the hotel. Other hotel employees at the time included Elsie Lillie and Helen Kepka two young single women who shared a small room on the third floor of the addition. Other employees included sisters Hazel and Maude Robas, Celia Waska, Levena Purma, Maria Rabas and Levi Pohle, the night clerk. Henry Hoch took care of the businessmen , using a baggage cart to haul their trunks from the train. Mrs. Wolf was the cook. The girls shared duties from washing dishes to waitressing, and helping with the housekeeping and laundry. She recalls a washhouse out back and a mangle in the hallway off the kitchen to press the sheets. The restaurant served a full menu and she remembers a lot of birthday and wedding parties. The primary customers were salesmen and businessmen from the train and surrounding area. She remembers the hotel as a busy place running at maximum occupancy; on several occasions during snow storms that stranded travelers or when travelers came in late, they would put cots in the lounge when the rooms were all full. Mrs. Kvasnicka worked at the hotel for 10 years; she worked seven days a week and earned $1.00 a day. She absolutely loved it.

Another local resident, Lavange Skalicky, worked at the hotel during high school in the Dirty Thirties. She shared her memories of working in the hotel. Her duties included peeling potatoes and helping in the kitchen; stripping beds and carrying the laundry out to the wash house in the back; and cleaning rooms. The employees were allowed to leave in the afternoon when the laundry and cleaning were done; they came back at five o'clock to work in the dining room. Mrs. Wolf was the cook and there was a large wood stove in the kitchen. The hotel raised their own chickens in a chicken house out back, next to the wash house. Henry Hoch worked at the hotel; she recalls him taking care of the chickens and cleaning the brass spittoons out front. Ms. Skalicky remembers local businessmen and wealthy local residents coming to the hotel to eat but says that the railroad workers and travelers were the primary customers for the hotel. The basement was still used as the Sample Room during this time. Ms. Skalicky worked for $5.00 a week and remembers saving a grand total of $13.00 in tips one summer.

It was in the 1930s that the Golden Belt Highway was constructed which followed section lines from Kansas City to Denver. It was a dirt-sanded road that connected towns through the center of Kansas. In 1934, the pavement of U.S. Highway 40 reached Wilson from the east, "pavement all the way to New York" was the local boast. The hotel was a center point for truck drivers who were transporting goods instead of the railroad. It also became important for tourists traveling through Kansas.

In the 1960s, the hotel was purchased by John and Agnes Hill, who operated the hotel and restaurant until around 1980. It was during this period that the hotel experienced another boom . Agnes Hill was born and raised in Wilson. John Hill was an oil field worker and later a driver for Bankers Dispatch. In the 1960s, the town enjoyed temporary financial boosts from federal projects in the area: an Atlas Intercontinental Missile base (soon abandoned) two miles east of town, the construction of the Wilson Dam, 11 miles north on the Saline River, and Interstate 70 through Kansas. In 1972, the Union Pacific Railroad discontinued passenger service. The hotel's claim to fame was the filming in the 1970s of the movie, Paper Moon, starring Ryan and Tatum O Neal. A number of scenes were filmed in and around the hotel.

Under the Hill's ownership, the hotel became known for its fine Czech dinners. In 1960, a room without a bath cost $1.75 and $2.50 with a bath. It was during the Hill's tenure that a number of improvements were made. Wood paneling was installed on some walls, ceilings were lowered and carpeting installed. After a fire in a Holton, Kan., hotel in December 1976, State Fire Marshall Floyd Dibern inspected a number of Kansas hotels. The Midland was one of 11 of the state's old hotels that were told they had to meet life safety codes or close. At least one of the 11, the Warren, in Garden City, did close. A second Garden City hotel, the Windsor, was inspected in the fall of 1976 and soon closed its doors. Agnes Hill, who had operated the hotel alone since her husband's death in 1973, was determined not to close the hotel. Improvements were made to comply with the codes, however, due to health concerns, Mrs. Hill was forced to retire and sell the hotel in the late 1970s.

Around 1980, the hotel was purchased by Phil and Martha Cloyd and then by Daniel and Cheryl Phillippi. Mrs. Phillippi's mother, Ruthelma, ran the hotel for a short time. Later, a man named Kansas Walker operated the hotel. He advertised the famous 80-ounce steak, free to anyone who can eat it in one sitting. The Walkers, the latest in a succession of owners, were in the process of purchasing the hotel when it closed in 1988. The hotel has stood vacant since that time.

The end

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