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THE SUMNERS

THE HESSES




THE SUMNERS


The new owner was a man of varied experience. A native of Ann Arbor, Jim Sumner had received only a third-grade education, but among other things, he had been on the Ann Arbor fire department, had been an award-winning salesman of Whippet cars in Brighton, had sold cars in Lansing, and most recently had been running a small hotel and dining room in Fowlerville. When he came to St. Louis with his second wife, he was committed to the success of the Park Hotel. They moved into the owner's suite on the second floor, and he said he could see possibilities in St. Louis both in an up-to-date hotel and in the curative value of the mineral baths.

Using his customary artful management, he doubled Sunday patronage in the dining room within a month. Fried chicken dinners became a Sunday specialty, and Chef Joseph Kobus made a hit with his varied menu and a popular businessman's luncheon.
Now in his mid-70's, Jim Stafford severed his connection with the Park. His association with the institution had lasted nearly 50 years. He and Harriet retired to their large home on the river to live their remaining years as members of the town's aristocracy.
The entire hotel complex had not fared well in the late 20's and was badly in need of renovation. The sanitarium had been closed, and its rooms stood full of dust and debris. in the hotel the rooms still contained wash-stands with pitchers and bowls; common toilets were still in use on each floor.

James Blaine Sumner, former Mayor of Saint LouisJames Sumner, owner and operator of the Park during the 1930'

The condition of some of the rooms was attested to by one salesman who was asleep in bed when a section of plaster fell off the ceiling and hit him.

Sumner soon began the long-needed modernization by installing toilets and lavatories in each room. He outfitted the rooms with new furniture. He disposed of the old furniture, including solid walnut, marble-topped washstands, for a dollar apiece. He installed an electric elevator which supplanted the antique that had served for many years. Electric refrigerators in the kitchen and radios in the lobby added to the improvements.

Sumner advertised the Park Hotel as the "Home Away from Home," and the place ''Where Nature Helps Nature." He solicited testimonials for his new advertising brochure, and chief among the enthusiasts were G. E. and Alice M. Lee of Gladwin, Michigan, who had first come to the Park in 1928. At the time, Lee, who hadn't walked in four months, had been carried into the hotel. After seven months of treatments he walked out. His wife had suffered from rheumatism and bladder trouble, yet nine weeks of treatments at the Park had cured her. Now they came several times a year to fill their huge bottles with the spring water which they drank exclusively.

Both the American and European plans were available at the Park. Rooms with baths could be had for $2.00-$2.50 per day single occupancy or $3.00-$3.50 per day double occupancy. Room and board plus baths cost from $25.00 to $45.00 weekly. A total of 21 baths was recommended for those with rheumatism. Grace Updegraff and "Little" Jim Stafford headed the bath departments. Although the baths were not as popular as they had been, many former customers continued to come to the Park for a relaxing soaking and massage.

Among those customers was former governor Chase Osborne who always stopped en route to his hometown Sault Ste. Marie. A big, distinguished man who fit the image of a governor, he would arrive with his secretary, have dinner, and luxuriate in a hot bath administered by Jim Stafford.

The Park took on new life under Sumner's management. More visitors and travailing men began using the hotel. A sample room off the lobby was provided for salesmen. The discovery of oil in the Porter field northeast of St. Louis brought a whole new clientele — leasing men and oil speculators. These men conducted their various wheelings and dealings at the hotel and sometimes treated local farmers to a hotel dinner in an attempt to obtain drilling rights on more property. The Oil Scouts, a group of about thirty geologists from various oil companies met regularly at the Park to exchange ideas.

Since two hospitals recently had been opened in Alma, the sanitarium was no longer being used for patients, and Sumner sought a use for the building. With the arrival of Repeal in 1933, he tore out the walls and turned it into a nightclub called the "Showboat." A band played for dancing, beer was served, and St. Louis had a popular nightspot. The roustabouts from the Porter oil field, along with local people, those from neighboring towns, and members of the farming community all congregated at the "Showboat". This intermingling, coupled with the beer, kept the St. Louis police busy breaking up fights and answering complaints. Since the band could be heard for blocks, and the merrymaking continued until 2 a.m., many neighbors were irritated. The general dissatisfaction with the establishment grew until Sumner bowed to pressure and closed the "Showboat."
Next he renovated a room in the hotel's basement and called it the "Rainbow Room." It was the site of much poker playing and beer drinking among local men. The empty sanitarium next became a roller rink.

A frequent resident at the hotel was Jim Sumner, Jr., Sumner's teenage son from his first marriage. Young Jim, whose room was on the third floor, soon found himself involved in clerking, shining shoes, giving baths, and filling in where he was needed.
He also was responsible for performing a unique task at the spring-house. The iron in the water would stain glassware an amber color. People brought glass items to the spring to receive this popular decoration. Jim had to place the glassware under the flow in the spring-house until the proper hue had been achieved.

From the days shortly after the discovery of the mineral well, the water had been bottled and shipped across the country by a variety of individuals. In 1937 Charles S. Huntley organized the Michigan Mineral Water Company to promote the sale of the water. The bottling works was located in the old building to the south of the hotel on Mill Street. Huntley, who hailed from New York City, quickly gained both a reputation and a nickname; people considered him a flashy promoter and called him the ten-cent millionaire.

In his promotional pamphlet he advised users to drink two glassfuls before breakfast and six during the day. The liquid was best served cool or slightly chilled and was available by the case which contained six green, half-gallon bottles suitable for use at the table.

In 1938 Huntley changed the name of the product to "Natural Ray Mineral Water," stating that "... its beneficial and curative properties have been attested to by thousands of men and women who since the discovery of the well some 70 years ago, have visited St. Louis to drink and bathe in this remarkable water." He claimed that the chemical make-up of the water resembled the celebrated Vichy Water of Europe. He cited the testimony of James R. Stafford, now in his mid-80's, who stated he had been drinking the water for 58 years and credited the water for his remarkable health.

Also in 1938 the city replaced the pumping equipment at the wellhead. In the process of replacing the pumps, the old well house, built years before, was torn dawn.

Huntley took advantage of the gubernatorial campaign of 1938 to promote the mineral water. Gov. Frank Murphy was running for reelection against former-Governor Frank Fitzgerald. On a campaign swing through central Michigan in October, Murphy addressed a crowd of several hundred persons from the verandah of the Park. He was two hours late arriving from West Branch, and the crowd was entertained by a "sound machine" which played lively music on the porch. The next week Fitzgerald arrived in St. Louis at Huntley's behest to "rededicate" the mineral spring. This ceremony consisted chiefly of the two posing for newspaper photographs, allowing both men to reap the benefits of the publicity. It gave Huntley an opportunity to stress that the mineral water had been used at the state capitol for a quarter of a century.

Huntley and his wife Winnie lived at the Hotel at first. Their Eastern accents seemed somewhat affected to local citizens, and even of greater interest was Winnie's appearance on the hotel stairs with her pack of leashed dogs which she kept in her room. Though the Huntleys were the objects of conversations, and Huntley seemed to be an opportunist, it must be said he was a man of his word. Wishing to build a house on a hill north of the Mill Street Bridge, he persuaded the local lumber company to furnish the materials, though most people thought he did not have the resources to pay for them. In the end, though, the lumber company received its money.

The campaign of 1938 was of special interest to Jim Sumner, Sr. A devout Democrat in a Republican stronghold, he was disappointed when Murphy lost to Republican Fitzgerald. The national Democratic upswing in the 30's had little effect on St. Louis, but Sumner had the pleasure of being elected mayor, defeating the conservative Republican incumbent Carl Harrington, scion of one of the town's first families. In fact, Sumner's personality and abilities enabled him to complete five terms as mayor. He was a promoter of the Democratic party on a county-wide basis, too. Young Jim, hoping to plan some social activities for the weekend, instead would find himself behind the wheel of his father's 1932 V-16 Cadillac driving his dad to yet another political meeting.

By 1941 Jim Sumner had decided it was time to retire. Although he had been responsible for many major improvements to the building, he lacked the capital to maintain the Park in top-notch condition. It was showing its age and signs of neglect when he put it up for sale and it was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. William Kesl.

On Saturday evening, May 31, 1941, about fifty people from the Rotary and Lions clubs, the business community, and city officialdom surprised the Sumners with a party at the hotel. As the Leader explained, "True friendship was displayed and politics forgotten." The couple was wished well and presented with a table-lamp. Mrs. Sumner was given a bouquet of carnations; a large vase of roses came from florist Milt Townsend, and sweet peas were provided by the Paul Crandall's.

Finally, an autograph book made the rounds. Early the following Monday, the Sumners left for Ann Arbor, Sumner's hometown. The Kesls took possession of the hotel on Sunday, June 1, 1941, and a new and exciting era in the life of the hotel began.

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THE HESSES



The new owners were not novices in hotel-keeping. Bill Kesl was a graduate of the hotel training program at Michigan State College. He had managed the Hotel Chippewa in Manistee and the Michigan Union Cafeteria in Ann Arbor. Also, he had worked at the Palmer House in Chicago, and most recently he had been executive assistant manager of the Hotel in Toledo.
What brought the Kesls to St. Louis? Mrs. Kesl was the former Mary Hess, daughter of Walter and Goldie Hess of St. Louis, who were the owners of perhaps the largest duck hatchery in the world. They had made it possible for the Kesls to purchase the famous Park Hotel.

The new owners had many plans for the hotel and immediately began a program of renovation and remodeling. As Walt Hess recalled later, "The hotel had been running down for a long time." Much work faced the family.

The first room to be completed was the Travertine Coffee Shop, located on the north side of the building in what had been a private dining room. Described as one of the most modern eating places in central Michigan, the shop was decorated with an artificial travertine stone finish and natural wood veneer. It opened August 1, 1941.

Up-to-date kitchen facilities were vital to the hotel, and a small, well-equipped kitchen was installed behind the coffee shop. The Kesls brought to the dining room Chef Constantine Nichols, a five-year veteran of the kitchen staff in the University Union at Ann Arbor with previous experience in Detroit and Chicago hotels and restaurants.

The Kesls intended to name the establishment the "St. Louis Sanitarium and Hotel." The lobby, kitchen, and bath department all were slated for renovation. The bath area was a mess, the floor still consisting of stones set in soil. New cement floors were poured, and a husband and wife team experienced in Swedish massage was hired hired to head the department.

Ray and Ardis Kniffen of Clare had operated the Ardray Health Baths in Mt. Pleasant. Both were graduates of Central State Teacher's College (CMU ), and Ray had been graduated from the Chicago College of Swedish Massage. Jim Stafford, Grace Updegraff, and Nora Schultz were to continue with the bath department, and Mary Kesl, a registered nurse, was to assist as well. This new emphasis on the mineral baths was only part of Bill Kesl's program to re-establish the hotel's reputation.
Kesl recognized that the extensive exterior woodwork needed repair and repainting. The long porch possibly would need rebuilding, too. He also planned redecoration of the rooms on the second and third floors. In addition to opening the coffee shop, Kesl was able to renovate the lobby and hallway. Then his plans were interrupted.

The outbreak of World War II demanded service of many young American men, and Bill Kesl joined the army. Eventually he and Mary ended up in Norfolk, Virginia, where they remained for the duration of the war.

Left without an experienced hotel man, Walt Hess bought the hotel outright for approximately $20,000 in March, 1942, and his son Grant took over the management. Said Walt in an interview two years later, "... at that time my son ''G.W." took the place over as manager. Since then we have been continuing our rehabilitation plans. Of course the war caught up with us and has made it difficult and has slowed us down a bit, but we are still progressing."

The war did, indeed, slow them down, recalls Grant's wife Vesta. Even obtaining suitable fabric for dining room draperies became a challenge. Putting the dining room in shape was even a greater challenge. The floors were sanded and waxed, the walls were painted, and the new draperies were hung. Walt Hess purchased some dining room furniture from a hotel in Cleveland, Ohio. He installed new ceiling lights, and he had the big kitchen cleaned up. Now the dining room, freshly furnished and redecorated was opened for business.

At this time Chef Constantine Nichols decided to return to Ann Arbor. Replacing him were two local ladies, Mary Wolford and Hazel Griffith, who had worked in the kitchen for the Sumners. Mrs. Venie Bickel, Goldie Hess's sister, had been working as pastry cook, and she remained for a while before returning home to Pennsylvania. The dining room emphasized good home-style cooking.

Soon after Nichols left for Ann Arbor, the Kniffens returned to Clare. The expected upswing in the bath department had not occurred. Perhaps ten baths were being given each week, and Jim Stafford, Grace Updegraff, and Nora Schultz administered these.

The redecorating of rooms continued. An article in Hotel Monthly reported, "The new rooms are delightful. They are colorful, comfortably furnished, modern and attractive. The old rooms are what one might expect in a property that is 75 years old."
The extensive renovation began to pay off. Patronage of the dining room increased greatly, and guests sometimes filled the hotel, requiring management to scramble to accommodate the overflow. In addition, the war-generated prosperity touched the Park as more salesmen and state and federal employees were on the road.

One person who had worked at the hotel in several positions since 1927 was the late Bill Keon. He began working for Jim Stafford as a bell-hop and eventually became an assistant manager of the hotel. He took time out to enter the war effort, but he recalled the hotel in the forties as a center of activity in St. Louis.

Service clubs such as the Lions and Rotary continued to hold their regular meetings there. Some organizations held conventions at the Park. Add to this a variety of local school functions, Alma College celebrations, fraternity dances, wedding receptions, private parties, and staff meetings of local companies. This spate of meetings brought prosperity to the Park, and it kept both staff and facilities busy.

The founding of the Michigan Chemical Company by Walter and Donald Wilkinson in 1935 had also brought new prosperity to St. Louis. MCC manufactured various products using the brine that originally had prompted the discovery of the magnetic mineral spring in 1869. The Park Hotel housed visiting stockholders and officers of the company. Here, too, met the Foremen's Clean-living Club, a fun-loving group of Chemical Company supervisory personnel who sometimes brought their own beverages and enjoyed boisterous times.

In spite of their new vocation as hotel-men, Walt and Grant Hess were still primarily concerned with their vast duck hatchery, whose St. Louis and Hemlock plants hatched 600,000 fowl a year. In fact, the hotel was devouring too much time and money. When the opportunity presented itself in the mid-'40's they sold the facility.

The buyers were Mr. and Mrs. Charles Durell of Washington, D.C., who wanted to get out of the city and into a rural setting. Hotel-keeping seemed to be the answer for them. Mrs. Durell was friendly, but her husband did not make friends easily, and within a year they concluded that hotel-keeping was not to their liking, and the Park reverted to the Hesses.
As might be expected, duckling dinners were added to the standard fare at the Park. In 1943 the hotel was using perhaps 50 ducklings a week. The duckling dinner was described by the Hotel Monthly writer as "...one of the best home-cooked meals we have had in a long while." It cost $1.25. Probably Walt and Grant Hess did not realize it at this time, but the duckling dinner was to become the hallmark of the Park Hotel for the rest of its years.

In an effort to sell ducklings to a wider market, Grant invited to St. Louis the president and vice-president of the National Tea Company, a well-known national grocery store chain. In an attempt to impress these executives, he had newly-hired chef Vic Manzullo prepare duckling dinners. Manzullo, had come to the Park from his position as head of food services at Alma College, and he was an imaginative and talented cook.

The duckling dinners, with his special touch, were rated very highly by the two executives. In fact, the meals were so well-received that the Hesses soon found themselves with a contract to supply this large chain of stores with thousands of ducklings each year. Michigolden Ducklings, quick-frozen in cellophane, left St. Louis by the truckloads bound for a far-flung market.

A variety of people ranging from the famous to the unknown had staved at the Park Hotel. In the 40's no more famous personage appeared at the Park than former heavyweight world boxing champion Gene Tunney. A recently-elected director of the Michigan Chemical Company, Tunney arrived with company president Col. Colburn Davis. Although Davis was a wealthy capitalist who was doing much for St. Louis, it was, of course, Tunney who drew the crowds.
During this 1946 visit Tunney was entertained by members of the Lions and Rotary clubs and their ladies at a 6:30 dinner at the Park. City Manager Frank Housel, the town's resident "character," served as toastmaster. Tunney made some remarks, but they were overshowed by his mere presence. He returned to St. Louis for other directors' meetings. At one visit, he presented an assembly at St. Louis High School.

Name bands that came to play at the Bass Lake Pavilion stayed at the Park. Mrs. Frank Knox, widow of the former Secretary of the Navy, and her chauffeur stayed at the Park when she came to Alma for the dedication of the Reid-Knox Building at Alma College. Waitresses remembered her as a "nice little woman." Richard Arlen, the actor, and his writer Frank Gruber took up residence at the Park while in the area campaigning for the election of Dwight Eisenhower as President. Governor G. Mennen Williams arrived at the Park from time to time and could call the waitresses by name after one or two visits.

Nevertheless, the main drawing card at the Park was not famous clientele; it was the duckling dinner which was establishing a state-wide reputation for the hotel's dining room. Many local people visited the dining room for Sunday dinner, but countless out-of-town folks designed vacations and Sunday afternoon drives to include a stop at the Park for a delicious duckling dinner.
Vic Manzullo prepared the ducklings using a special technique that imparted to them a special flavor. He steamed them until the fat came off. Then he took the cover off and let the ducklings brown. Most male patrons devoured a half duckling; ladies often requested one-quarter of the fowl. The meat was complemented with dressing, potatoes and gravy, a vegetable, fruit salad, and garnish. This was the dinner that for a decade and a half drew thousands to St. Louis.

If it appeared that Walt Hess was the guiding light behind both hatchery and hotel, many St. Louis people knew that behind him stood o person who may have been the one most responsible for the success of both enterprises. That person was Goldie Hess, his wife. Her life was filled with activity—as she wished. She was a live-wire, an ambitious, level-headed woman who saw that things got done. She was on active lodge woman, prominent in the Eastern Star, and extremely involved in that organization's programs. Her death from cancer in 1949 was a serious blow to Walt and perhaps to the future of the Park.
Also valuable to the Hess business interests was Roy Bortles, bookkeeper for both the hatchery and hotel. He served the Hesses for 20 years, operating out of his office in the hotel.

In the early '50's Grant Hess leased the food and room business from his father. He redecorated much of the building, carpeted the dining room and put up new draperies. Murals of the duck hatchery adorned the dining room walls. Some of the older room furniture was replaced, and the trolls were recarpeted. Behind the desk was a familiar face — former city manager Frank Housel, the new hotel manager.


The Park Hotel - time exposure at nightThe Park Hotel, C. 1951.

By 1951 both the old creamery and the gristmill to the north of the hotel hod fallen into disrepair. The bridges on the property were dangerous, and the millraces were not being used to power machinery. The city requested that Francis O'Melia clean up the property or sell it. He did not want to sell it in parcels, but in April of 1951 he sold the entire property to Grant and Vesta Hess. The city then wished to sell the Hesses a strip of land adjoining the Andrews Mineral Well, a transaction completed in July 1951. The creamery and gristmill were torn down and the millraces were filled. It was announced in May, 1952, that a new municipal swimming pool was to be constructed on the sites of these buildings, the land being donated by the city and Grant Hess.

At the same time, the specter of water rights emerged from the past. The city once again was lacking sufficient water for its mains. A test well was proposed near the Mineral Well, and, recalling the litigation in the early '20's, this was cause for concern. The city negotiated with both the Andrews heirs and the Hotel. The heirs, having long since lost interest in the well, deeded the well to the city. For the last thirty years the Hotel had received mineral water from the city's pumping apparatus installed following the Supreme Court decision. At the same time, every home in St. Louis which was hooked to a city main received the very same mineral water. Continuation of this arrangement seemed pointless, and at last the Park Hotel was connected to a city main. The famed Mineral Well was capped, and the Andrews family was paid $100 for the footbridges to the wellhead, these having been sold by the city. With construction of the W. T. Morris swimming pool, the Mineral Well was obliterated.
If anything besides the famed duckling dinners came to typify the hotel— at least to local folks it was the celebrated round table in the southeast corner of the dining room. Here at noon gathered a company of men whose membership varied from day to day. Still, its makeup was somewhat predictable Walt Hess would be there, the genial, cigar-smoking host, always ready with a new story which would spread through the downtown area before the stores closed in the afternoon. Grant Hess would be there, too, and Frank Housel with his own collection of stories. Bookkeeper Roy Bortles would pull up a chair. Clarence Smazel, from the Leader might join the group, and John Giles from the Chemical Company. Lawyer Ralph Goggin and banker Vere Nunn could be counted on, and Col. Davis when he was in town would join the others for a favored lunch of duckling giblets on toast.

If a burst of laughter erupted from the table it might be because jovial Walt Hess had reminded the men that the hotel's boilers now were being fueled with the canes and crutches abandoned by the halt and lame who had been cured by the mineral water. Or a roar of laughter might have been generated by someone's even more high-powered story. The business of the round table was not only the businessman's luncheon and the conviviality of those assembled around it, but also the significant number of deals struck in that informal atmosphere. The round table and its inhabitants became legendary in St. Louis.

In the early '50's when the Gleaner Home in Alma closed, the elderly inhabitants moved to the third floor of the Park Hotel. They included around 20 widows and widowers and two or three married couples. A lady had been hired to look out for them, and generally they kept to themselves, riding the elevator to the dining room and going out for walks.

Vic Manzullo left the hotel in the mid-'50's and moved to Kalamazoo. He was followed by a succession of chefs including Bennie Mercer—whose wife Helen served as hostess—, Frank Edson and Stan Binkowski.

Jim Stafford, who customarily sat in a chair just inside the main doors of the lobby, still administered occasional baths. The bather settled in the tub which was filled with increasingly warm water. Covered with a sheet or towel, he was allowed to soak with a towel ground the neck. Then cool water was mixed in. When he left the tub, he was swathed in a warm flannel blanket, allowed to dry on a table, then given a relaxing massage.

The 50's were very good years for the hotel. Besides serving as headquarters for service clubs, it hosted an untold number of parties, dances, receptions, and other social gatherings. Its famous dining room remained open every day of the year.



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Last Updated August 22, 2006