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Alexandria’s grand hotel era

“This place has been here for a long time…a little bit of prairie held loosely in the fingers of sparkling blue lakes clothed in gloves of the dark green foliage of oaks and other trees that grew along the shores,” wrote Harold Anderson, a local historian and businessman of Alexandria.

In 1871 the Alexandria Post reported: “Alexandria as a summer resort compares in its air to sunny Italy. Indeed, the whole of Douglas County seems to be intended for one grand pleasure garden. We have scenery, which though we cannot call it either grand or majestic, is not surpassed for loveliness.”

One grand pleasure indeed. The first visitors surely saw it, and once they did, word of mouth spread. The first visitors went home and told their friends, and their friends told their friends, and soon there was a large clientele arriving every summer.

William Everett Hicks has been credited with giving Alexandria its second start in 1866 when settlers began to trickle back after the first settlers fled during the Civil War and the Dakota Uprising of 1862. From Delaware, Hicks, who was in failing health, had been encouraged by his doctor to go west, “where the air is clean and the water is pure.” He got as far as the west side of the lake that had been named Lake Agnes in Alexandria. He soon encouraged businessmen to visit for the pleasure and sport of hunting and fishing. From that time on, the lakes were not only for those who lived in the area.

Of course, growing tourism brought a growing need for transportation and accommodations. The Douglas Hotel was used as a stopping place for the stagecoach, and when the railroad reached St. Cloud in 1866, the trip from St. Paul to Alexandria would be considerably shortened. By the time the rail arrived in 1870s, the Wissahickon and the Minnesota House (once located on Broadway in today’s downtown Alexandria) were hosts to sportsmen from far away. The Alexandria Post carried advertisements inserted by people from Minneapolis, St. Paul and other cities asking for quarters for summer boarders close to a lake.

The Letson House was the first resort/grand hotel in Alexandria. It was built a block off of Broadway, at the intersection of Fillmore Street and 6th Avenue. Photo compliments of Douglas County Historical Society

J.H. Letson arrived with the railroad. He could be considered one of the pioneers who developed Minnesota’s vacation business. In the summer of 1880 a group of railroad men went to the Letson resort in Excelsior on Lake Minnetonka. While at that resort, they decided to make a hunting expedition to the more remote districts of the state, something that might almost be compared to a journey to the jungles of Africa. Mr. Letson accompanied them to the wilderness surrounding the village of Alexandria and was so charmed by the area that he made immediate plans for a hotel in Alexandria.

Mr. Letson did not realize at the time the impact his dreams, goals and achievements would have on us. Since the trip from St. Paul to Alexandria was considerably shortened with the railroad, more tourists started to arrive. And, with those tourists, new business prospects began to develop, and the city grew. The first resort/grand hotel in the area would be the Letson House, built a block off of Broadway, at the intersection of Fillmore Street and Sixth Avenue, a spot not far from the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba railroad tracks. It offered elegance to the city people. The “Grand Hotel Era” had begun.

The June 23, 1881, issue of the Moorhead Argonaut contained this article entitled, “Alexandria”:

“Alexandria is a summer resort on the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba railroad with beautiful lakes and a good hotel. Alexandria is a village of about 1500 inhabitants, the county seat and metropolis of Douglas County, MN and one of the principal towns on the Minneapolis, St. Paul, Manitoba road; it is about 100 miles from Moorhead and Fargo. Alexandria is naturally one of the finest summer resorts in the state owing to the fact that there are twenty good sized lakes within five miles of town, all surrounded by luxuriant groves and abounding in fish of the choicest varieties. There is no possibility of these lakes being fished out as they all communicate and are fed by a river. Several parties there for the first time this season have had pronounced success, in some instances catching 400 pounds in one afternoon. There is a charming hotel not far from the shores of one of these lakes right in the town site, called Letson House.”

The Geneva Beach Hotel burned Sept. 2, 1911. The cause of the fire was thought to be “those newfangled electric lights.” Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society

Within two years Letson bought a sizeable piece of lake shore on the south end of Lake Geneva and built Alexandria’s first summer hotel which he at first called Alexandria Hotel. It was an excellent choice for location because it was easily accessible to a fisherman’s favorite lakes: Geneva, Victoria, Jessie and Le Homme Dieu. Now we had the Letson House in Alexandria, and the Alexandria Hotel on Lake Geneva, both built by Letson. Sixth Avenue was extended eastward to provide a route from the village of Alexandria to the new hotel. He used horse and buggy to get people from Alexandria to Lake Geneva.

The grand opening of Alexandria Hotel on July 20, 1883, was a gala event. There were many visitors, including Minnesota’s Secretary of State Von Baumbach. During the day of the gala livery teams made regular trips between the Letson House in the village and the Alexandria Hotel on Lake Geneva. Visitors reported the Alexandria Hotel to be “a large, commodious and well-arranged hotel with large airy rooms and wide, pleasant halls. The building was surrounded by a piazza and was surmounted by an observatory overlooking the surrounding country.”

“A new steamboat was on hand for the opening to accommodate visitors. While many sailed around the lake and enjoyed the scenery, others remained at the hotel to listen to the musical concert presented by the Alexandria Cornet Band. In the evening guests enjoyed themselves dancing to the music of Allen’s band. At the close of the evening, Mr. and Mrs. Letson furnished a repast wherein nothing seemed lacking,” a report in the Douglas County News stated.

So popular was the Alexandria Hotel that the railroad built a side rail track and station, established so trains could stop and leave passengers at the hotel’s front door, only 500 feet from the rail.

Most of Letson’s guests at his Minnetonka resort (in the Cities) were wealthy people from Chicago and southern cities, especially St. Louis and Kansas City, coming north for a respite from the summer heat. A number of these tourists followed Letson to Alexandria and became the nucleus of an ever-expanding summer migration from the south to the cooling lakes of Douglas County and the surrounding lakes region.

The Alexandria Hotel was the first resort hotel north of the Twin Cities. That development at Alexandria was the forerunner of Minnesota’s summer resort business north of Minneapolis, and ever since Letson came to Alexandria the resort industry has been booming.

Dickinson Inn had three indoor toilets to serve more than 70 guests at a time. Each bedroom had a washbowl with running water. Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society

In 1896, J.L. Dickinson acquired the Alexandria Hotel at Lake Geneva from Mr. Letson and changed the name to the Geneva Beach Hotel. The hotel burned Sept. 2, 1911. It was thought the fire was caused by “those newfangled electric lights,” which everybody felt were dangerous. Since the hotel was about two miles from town the fire gained too great a headway before the fire department arrived.

J.L. Dickinson gave his son Harry and his bride Muriel a wedding gift – the money to rebuild the old hotel. At a cost of $80,000, a hotel was rebuilt in 1917 by Harry and was called the Dickinson Inn. The Inn had three indoor toilets to serve more than 70 guests at a time. It also had plenty of chamber pots. Each bedroom had a washbowl with running water. Also built were small cottages surrounding the hotel, which were not equipped with electricity or indoor plumbing. In 1917 a bathtub was added to the Inn, but the lake and a bar of soap remained popular. Rates for guests were: $31.50 to $35 per week for one person and $49 to $52.50 for two. Two persons with twin beds cost $56. Children 2-6 got by for half-rate. Over 6, they paid the full amount. The young waitresses who waited on tables and cleaned the rooms in the hotel and cottages and were given FREE lodging in the basement of the hotel.

This hotel was sold by the Dickinsons in 1930 to A.J. DuBeau, and the name was changed back to Geneva Beach Hotel. In June 1936, the property was sold to the Roberts Company who operated it until 1943 when it was sold to Robert F. and Evelyn Brown…who renamed the location as Brown’s Geneva Beach.

John Blake and his wife built the Blake Hotel so it had a view of Lake Carlos and Lake Le Homme Dieu. Photo courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society

Also during the “Grand Hotel Era” was the Blake Hotel (or Hotel Blake). John Blake and his wife built the Blake Hotel so that it fronted on Lake Carlos and was just across the road from Lake Le Homme Dieu, providing a view of both lakes. Wealthy people from Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri drove north to live at the Blake Hotel. John Blake had acquired the land from J.H. Brown, who owned much of the land on the east side of Lake Carlos and property on Lake Darling (Brown’s Point) in Douglas County. The hotel opened in the spring of 1905. When the Blake Hotel burned in 1910, most of the guests lost everything. They had to secure lodging elsewhere, mostly the Geneva Beach Hotel. The dining room, famous for its tree in the center, survived the 1910 fire.

The hotel was rebuilt and deemed a financial success. Dinner dances were held, fishing guides were provided (novices were paid $12.50 a week, while experts received $3 a day), and room and board was provided. A regular ritual was for successful anglers to exhibit their fish on the lobby floor before the dinner bell rang at 6:30.

But alas, the rebuilt hotel burned down too. And, another fire in 1920 partially destroyed the Blake Hotel. When tragedy struck in 1920 everything burned except some cooking and dining facilities and the quarters for the help. It was thought that the fire started from a baby’s bottle heater which set a curtain aflame. Though the fire department arrived, the hoses weren’t adequate to pump water from Lake Carlos. A.J. DuBeau bought the hotel property from John Blake in 1925 and changed the name to what we are familiar with today, Blakes by the Lakes (which are condominiums).

Another hotel-resort during the “Grand Hotel Era” was the Maryland Hotel, on Lake Mary. It was built by game warden, OJ “Fuzzy” Reynolds, whose wife was a very popular cook at Dickinson Inn. The Reynolds felt that many of the guests would follow her to the Maryland because of their fondness for her cooking. Fire destroyed the Maryland, too.

Fire ultimately destroyed the grand hotels (built with native timber), leading to the end of their era.

Back in the day, you were the Dickinson Inn people or the Blake people or the Maryland people. The same families went to the same places year after year. You arrived on the same date in June or July and left Labor Day weekend. You would arrive by train, or as the roads improved, by car. You had the same accommodations, sat at the same table in the dining room, swam at the same appointed hour of 3 p.m. Families did the same thing every year.

Resources and photos used for this article include: Newspaper archives of the Douglas County Historical Society; “And Then Came Summer…Alexandria Remembered,” by Peggy Schoellkopf and Jane Carey DeLay, copyright 1978, Revised 2011; Alexandria, Bicentennial Celebration, 1976; and various history files of the Douglas County Historical Society.

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