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Fridays with Fred: the Beloit Hilton

March 21, 2013 at 9:45 pm

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Long before the ubiquitous Holiday Inn Express and its fellow inns, the Hampton, Quality, Comfort, Rodeway, and Econo Lodge crowded the Milwaukee Road strip near I-90, downtown Beloit boasted one of the finest small-city hotels in the Midwest. Sometime around 1903, a successful Chicago hotelier named General C.C. Hilton cast a sharp eye on Beloit as the perfect place for his next venture. By the turn of the 20th century the city had begun to thrive, with an ever-growing populace, successful large-scale industry, and a prestigious college. However, as the Beloit Daily News complained, residents and the “traveling public” were “obliged to put up with second class accommodations or seek comfort in other cities.”

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Charles C. Hilton impressed the citizens of Beloit. Like the city’s founders, he was an easterner, having fought in the Civil War with a Massachusetts regiment. He moved to Chicago after the war and for the next 40 years worked his way up in the hotel business, from desk clerk to manager to owner. In 1895, Governor John P. Altgeld appointed Hilton Adjutant General of Illinois, a post he served for two years, overseeing the Illinois National Guard among other duties. He cleverly retained the military appellation, which proved useful in recruiting potential backers of his hotel projects. Beloiters raised the money by subscription and in early 1904 work began at the corner of East Grand Avenue and Pleasant Street. Construction of the $80,000 hotel took six months, and Hilton set the grand opening for late June. Meanwhile, he purchased top-of-the-line furnishings and equipment and scoured Chicago for the finest, most experienced chef, pastry cook, and headwaitress available.

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Tuesday, July 25, 1904, dawned under threatening skies. C.C. Hilton declared that he might have to cancel the gala reception planned for that afternoon. The idea of muddy shoes scuffing up his precious “encaustic vitrified” tiled floors made his spine crawl. He liked to brag that the Hilton was the only hotel in the United States that did not feature a single wooden floor or baseboard. He explained that his exquisite new hotel was entirely fire-proof. Spatters of rain dampened the dusty street outside the brick building, but by early afternoon, a stiff wind puffed the clouds away and one by one, carriages clattered to a stop, lining the streets nearby. Men and women, dressed from head to toe in Edwardian finery, held onto their hats and stepped along the wooden sidewalk and then crowded together in anticipation. At 3 p.m., General Hilton turned the key and the first of over 1,000 people flowed into the new hotel. Bellboys in uniforms that seemed to consist entirely of buttons greeted everyone with welcoming smiles. Hilton and his son George offered tours.

Visitors entering one of the 85 guest rooms tread on a soft Brussels carpet, shielded their eyes from the glare of a shining brass bed and marveled over their discovery that each room featured hot and cold water and one of those newfangled telephones. Downstairs, in the lounge, they tried out the sofas upholstered in leather or visited the spacious dining room, painted bright orange, lemon and white, which offset the darker mahogany furniture and woodwork. Beloiters interested in the latest technology rode up and down the Otis passenger elevator, a contraption the Beloit Daily News described as featuring an “electro-magneto control so that a child can run it.” General Hilton, however, took no chances! He’d instructed his staff to turn away any child attempting to enter the hotel during the opening reception. A Beloit Daily News reporter later commented, “The universal expression was one of surprise and delight at the generous furnishings and splendid convenience of the place.”

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That night Hilton proudly showed off his namesake to 250 stockholders. Then, as midnight approached, he at last turned the key again and caught a few hours of sleep before Thursday’s official opening. His beaming smile was understandable. Not only had the reception proved highly successful, he had one more ace up his entrepreneurial sleeve.

Back then, a retired U.S. congressman lived in Beloit. While serving in the Fifty-second Congress, Clinton Babbitt had become a close friend of the famous Nebraskan orator and politician, William Jennings Bryan (pictured below), three times an unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate, who later served as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. On July 26, Bryan, who was traveling to Delavan to give a speech, sent Babbitt a telegram: “Will arrive 7:40 and spend night.  Answer whether convenient.” Not only convenient for Babbitt, it proved a golden opportunity for C.C. Hilton.

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When General Hilton opened his dining room for dinner on July 27, he greeted William Jennings Bryan as its first customer. Considering the many trade journal representatives exploring the hotel, what better publicity than entertaining a famous guest? No doubt the royal mulligatawny soup agreed with Bryan. Or perhaps it was the boiled ox tongue or escallop of veal. “I can endorse this hotel without qualification,” he told a reporter. “It is one of the most attractive places I’ve ever stopped at.” And dinner cost only 75 cents.

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That opening day, eager visitors thronged the dining room and registered for rooms, which cost from $2 to $3.50 per day, depending on location and bath privileges. The Beloit Daily Free Press recorded J.M. Hilton, of Aurora, Illinois, as the hotel’s first patron to “inscribe his name in the register.” Though apparently not a relative of the proprietor, the reporter added that “J.M. bought the first cigar and the first mouthful of wet goods at the hotel bar…”

Charles C. Hilton died the following year and the family sold the hotel, which continued as a major force in Beloit commerce for decades, playing host to many other famous visitors, such as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, golfer Jack Nicklaus, and poets Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost.  By the late 1960s, the hotel entered a confusing period when it was sometimes a hotel, sometimes a college dormitory, and sometimes a flophouse. 

It avoided demolition on more than one occasion. At the turn of the 21st century, the Hotel Hilton underwent renovation and restoration, transforming the decrepit structure into something resembling its glory days, but with repurposed functions. The upper floors became quality apartments. In 2001, Beloit College moved its bookstore to the main level, where it resides today as Turtle Creek Books, the Beloit College Bookstore.

See earlier iterations of Fridays with Fred here