Post office replaced Monmouth’s longest-operating hotel
MONMOUTH, Ill. — Monmouth’s first hotel, built in 1833, was a log tavern with a half-story second floor used for sleeping. Because there was minimal commerce in the early days, hotel patrons were often lawyers and judges riding the circuit to attend court in the Warren County seat.
In the late 1830s, a brick hotel called the American House was erected, logically, within shouting distance of the courthouse, in the 100 block of North Main Street. It was in that building that Judge Stephen Douglas stayed in 1841 when he presided over the famous habeas corpus hearing for Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. Another hotel, which played host to both Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, was erected by Hiram Baldwin in 1850 on the current site of Security Savings Bank.
Demand for lodging changed dramatically with the coming of the C.B.&Q. Railroad in 1855. While all the early hotels stood in the vicinity of the Public Square, an entrepreneur named Jacob Emerick, anticipating the completion of the railroad, in 1854 decided to construct a new hotel within walking distance of both the new depot on South Third Street and the Square. He purchased the home of hardware merchant Chancy Hardin, built in 1850, which stood on the site of the current post office at 235 S. 1st St. It became the office, dining room and family residence for a three-story hotel named Emerick House, which he attached to the rear of the former Hardin home.
A grand opening ball with music by the Burlington Brass Band was held Nov. 13, 1855, with tickets going for a whopping $3 each (about $90 today). Emerick advertised “a splendid supper served up in the Eastern style.” Perhaps he overestimated the demand for the new hotel, for the following April it was sold to Charles I. Church and renamed Church House.
That venture didn’t last long either, as two weeks later Chancy Hardin took over management and named it Hardin House. Shortly after that, Samuel Claycomb, who had operated an early hotel on the Square, agreed to take over from Hardin, and changed the name to Claycomb House, but he was severely injured in an accident at his flour mill on East Euclid Avenue and had to find new management. That came in 1858, when E. L. Norton became proprietor and the hotel was renamed, not for a person but for its location on East Second Avenue (then called Warren Street).
Warren House operated until 1861, when it was purchased by Milton C. Munger, who renamed it the Bay State House, in honor of his native state of Massachusetts. He initially leased it to J. E. Rice, but soon took over management himself. The next proprietor was Francis D. Lipe, followed briefly by the partnership of J. P. Mitchell and J. M. Pollock.
In 1872, the hotel was renamed the Commercial House after being acquired by merchant J. T. Reichard, who installed William Palmer as manager. An 1875 story in the Weekly Review tells of a great social event hosted by Reichard that included 150 guests with an elegant dinner and dancing until a late hour.
The hotel was sold at a sheriff’s sale in 1888, and Algernon S. Harden acquired the property. John W. Lusk leased the hotel from him until his retirement in 1897, when he sold the hotel’s furniture to Hardin and J. W. Bowlen took over the lease.
A bit of historical irony occurred in 1899, when the U.S. Government was considering building a post office in Monmouth. Several property owners were eager to provide the site, including Algernon Harden, who offered his hotel property for $7,500. A site on South Main was instead chosen for the new government building, which opened in 1902. More than a half century later, however, the hotel site would become home to the next post office.
After C. A. Linn ran the hotel from 1897–1901, Norman H. Leader announced in 1902 that he would take over management, install new furniture and paint and paper every room. Eight hundred citizens attended opening night, at which they were treated to ice cream and cake with music by Melvin’s Mandolin Orchestra. The entire building glowed with electric and gas jets. The Hotel Leader lasted just three months, and a sale of furniture was held to try to recoup losses. L. A. Warner of Syracuse, N.Y., in partnership with J. A. Joel of Monmouth, then purchased the property.
The hotel briefly operated as the Union Hotel under George Kenna, who retired in 1905 and was succeeded as proprietor by H. D. Richardson, who formerly ran a popular Monmouth hotel. Just at that time, however, a stock company was formed to build a modern new hotel on East Broadway, which opened in 1906 as the Colonial Hotel. Unable to compete, the Commercial Hotel closed its doors and would remain shuttered for the next 15 years.
The property entered the news again in 1908, when Monmouth was planning to build a high school and L. A. Warner offered to sell the property as a building site for $8,500. The alternative site, which housed the abandoned West Ward school, was instead selected and the current high school was built there in 1909.
In 1921, Warner leased the property to George A. Buckley of Rock Island, who thoroughly renovated the hotel and renamed it Hotel Monmouth. Buckley and his wife, who purchased the hotel in 1929, would successfully operate the hotel for 35 years. After the death of his widow, it was acquired by the Monmouth Homestead and Loan Association, which sold it to James and Loretta Leary. They continued to operate the hotel’s 34 guest rooms for the next three years, but closed its large dining room.
Visiting Monmouth in November 1958, Sen. Everett Dirksen hinted that funding for a new Monmouth post office had been secured in Washington, as the existing post office facilities on South Main Street were severely overcrowded and there was a lack of nearby parking. After conferring with the city council, the Post Office Department in January 1959 took a $35,000 option on the Monmouth Hotel property.
In September 1959, Miss Mary Ann Cox, a high school typing teacher in Vermont, Ill., was awarded a contract to build the new post office — a common practice at the time so the government didn’t become saddled with owning expensive real estate. The daughter of the late T. M. Cox, who had extensive land holdings in Galesburg and Vermont, Cox purchased the hotel property from Leary and made arrangements to lease the new building to the Post Office Department for 20 years, with a 10-year renewal option. By early November, the hotel was vacated and the building, which had stood for 105 years, was razed. The new post office opened the following spring.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.