This old hotel
By ANDREW MCGINN
There was no such thing in 1913 as TripAdvisor, but considering hotels now run the risk of being lambasted if the continental breakfast runs out of sausage before 9 o’clock, it’s fair to guess what an outbreak of smallpox might have done to an establishment’s rating.
That was the crisis confronting the Mason House, a local hotel, in the spring of 1913.
For nearly two months, the occupants were quarantined inside — presumably until the last of their scabs fell off.
Fortunately, the only occupants at the time were the proprietor, his wife, their five kids and one boarder.
The Jefferson Bee on May 14, 1913, later reported that the premises were “thoroughly fumigated.”
That’s probably good news to anyone considering a stay in 2018 at the Mason House, which recently reverted to that name for the first time in more than 100 years.
For what it’s worth, though, smallpox has long been deemed eradicated. Thanks to vaccination, there hasn’t been an outbreak in the U.S. since 1949.
Lifelong Greene County residents Nick and Annette Foster are the latest in a line of innkeepers stretching back to 1889 at Jefferson’s oldest-surviving hotel.
The Fosters recently changed the establishment’s name to the Mason House on Lincoln Highway — a nod to the hotel’s past — and plan on returning the hotel to as close to the 1880s as they can.
“We’ll probably be doing it our whole life,” Nick, 57, confessed.
The dirty work of physically saving the hotel was done a decade ago, when Jefferson residents Jim and Nancy Teusch took a chance on what had long been an overgrown, dilapidated apartment complex.
As Nick remembers, “When I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to come over here. It was really cheap rent.”
For the Teusches in the summer of 2008, an influx of bicyclists on the Raccoon River Valley Trail presented an opportunity that hadn’t existed since the height of rail travel on the nearby Milwaukee Road, which the hotel was built to serve.
The trail follows the abandoned Milwaukee Road railbed.
“I hadn’t ever thought of myself as a business owner,” Nancy said. “This was a hobby I was doing as a community service.”
After 10 years, it was time to pass it on. The Teusches quietly put the building on the market last fall.
“We were tired,” Nancy said. “And we really hoped someone would take it on and take it to the next level.”
Enter the Fosters, who are in their inaugural season as innkeepers.
“I’ve always wanted to do a B&B,” Annette, 55, explained, “but the thing for me is the history. It’s hard for me to see all these old buildings being torn down.”
Nick, who farms and raises 5,000 pigs the old-fashioned way (that is, outdoors), is quick to credit the Teusches for their work.
“They’re the ones who saved it,” he said. “It was their labor of love.
“They wanted somebody else to continue.”
Few can appreciate the building’s history like the Fosters, both of whom trace their roots in Greene County back to the 1800s.
Annette’s family tree includes none other than Enos Butrick, the namesake of Butrick Creek and one of the first two white settlers in the area.
The Fosters have a theory that Butrick was actually first to Greene County, an honor reserved for Truman Davis and family.
“My theory is he was a little wilder,” Nick said. “The Davises were good Methodist folks.”
Butrick could claim to be a hunting partner of Chief “Johnny Green” — the Potawatomi chief whose real name was Che-Meuse — but he eventually decamped for what became Carroll County.
“And that’s why Carroll’s wet,” Nick said with a laugh.
Others expressed interest in taking on the hotel — which the Teusches had christened the Old Lincolnway Hotel — but Nancy sensed they didn’t realize how much work would be involved in maintenance alone.
“It’s a big deal,” Nick said. “It’s a big undertaking.”
Buying the hotel gives the Fosters something to do at each end of Jefferson’s historic Lincoln Highway corridor.
To the west, Annette and daughter Nicole Timmons — both former elementary school teachers — are about to open Natural Wonders Learning Center on Westwood Drive for children ages six weeks to 5 years.
The hotel is on the east side of town.
“Life is about experiences,” Nick said.
The Fosters also organize the Old-Fashioned Threshing Bee each July, an event that showcases steam-powered farming technology from the early 1900s.
“People need to invest time in this town to make it happen,” he said.
Nick now looks at the Mason House the way he does his century-old 80 hp Case steam tractor.
“It’s just like the steam engines,” he said. “We’re the caretaker of them.”
The first thing they did was to learn as much about the hotel as possible, which is easier said than done.
No one’s sure when it was built, but Nancy Teusch guesses 1889.
She also theorizes that, originally, each window represented a room.
Today, the hotel has just three rooms.
The Mason House took its name from W.R. Mason, who was listed as far back as 1896 as the proprietor.
Its owner at that time was most likely Matilda Dodd, a Jefferson woman who was later eulogized as a “benefactress of humanity” when she died in 1915 at 87.
A Kentucky native who made it to Greene County in 1877, Dodd was one of Drake University’s biggest donors at the turn of the century, giving the school at least $51,000 and even throwing in a hotel to boot.
In 1900, Dodd gifted the hotel in Jefferson to the Iowa Christian Convention, then affiliated with Drake.
A year later, Mrs. W.R. Mason bought the hotel from Drake for $1,600.
It was then owned by the Masons — with various innkeepers — until 1915, the year fire gutted the hotel.
Mahlon Head bought what was left and rebuilt the hotel.
By then, the hotel across from the train depot was presumably something akin to an airport Motel 6, given the rise of a new generation of hotels downtown in the 1890s, including brother Albert Head’s elegant hotel of steel (today’s Lincoln Building).
Ironically, the Mason House’s old-world charm, complete with claw-foot bathtubs, is now the draw.
“Cyclists and lots of travelers are interested in unique places to stay, not chain hotels,” Nancy Teusch said.
Nick said he consulted with one local hotel owner about how much they should be charging per night. The Fosters currently charge $84, but were told they should be charging $110.
“He said, ‘We’re just a lodge. You’re a destination,’ ” Nick said.
Back in its heyday, the Mason House was a hub for all sorts of activities, a sort of prehistoric convention center.
An advertisement in 1899 announced the arrival of an oculist and expert glass fitter at the hotel.
After the oculist came the occultist.
In 1905, a certain “expert palmist” named Madame Plamondon placed the following ad:
“I am at the Mason House and prepared to read the Past, Present and Future in the hand. Advice given on social and business affairs. It will pay you to consult me. 25 cents for thorough readings.”
“It would be fun to have a palm reader come back,” Annette said.
Even today, though, you never know who might be staying the night.
On June 22, Janel Reinhart was a guest.
The former Janel Meiners grew up in the hotel when it was an apartment complex that, in her words, “wasn’t the nicest.”
A 1999 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School, Meiners went on to become a mental health counselor before becoming a stay-at-home mom in Plano, Ill.
She knew it had been renovated, but hadn’t been inside for the better part of 20 years.
“It was different, but similar,” she said. “It was really cool to see my room and stay the night.”
For her, home has never looked better.
“It was beautifully done,” she said. “We plan to come back.”