Constructed in 1904-1905, Hotel Winneshiek is the fourth lodging establishment to welcome guests on this land site. It began with William Day (1791-1860) and his family, early settlers who upgraded their spring-side camping arrangements and constructed a more permanent abode. Inspired by the logging project of a neighboring settler, the Day’s started chopping trees to build a simple home for their large family. Before long more travelers arrived who were in need of lodging, prompting the Day’s to seize an opportunity. In 1855 they added a second story to their log structure and opened “The Winneshiek Inn.”
In 1869 the railroad reached Decorah, connecting the once remote town to the region and beyond. By 1877 Decorah had grown into a bustling town, signifying prosperity that has been partly attributed to the farming and entrepreneurial efforts of milling industry builders (initiated by pioneers like William Painter and John Sutton Morse) who, thanks to abundant water recources, processed grain, stone and lumber. During this period The Winneshiek Inn was torn down, supplanted by the larger “Winneshiek House.” Growth continued, until finally, a group of seventy-four local individuals and firms joined forces and raised the capital required to realize their vision for an even larger and more refined hotel. In less than 24 hours they had raised $32,500.
The Chicago architectural form of Turnock & Ohrenstein were then contracted to design the beautiful Beau-Arts-style building that exists today with its elegant terrazzo floors, marble walls, cherry woodwork and grand staircase. Opening ceremonies for the grand new hotel were held on April 27, 1905.
Guests entered through tall mahogany doors set between towering limestone pillars that still flank the entry like sentinels. Passing through a vestibule and a twenty-two foot long corridor, visitors were led into the octagonal-shaped rotunda with overhead three-storied atrium, known as The Office. It was here that the front check-in desk was located along with a writing room, toilet room, sample rooms, baggage room, cigar counter and passage to the ladies’ entrance. Also located on the first floor were the dining room, billiard room, a barbershop, and The Buffet (a bar).
The hotel originally had 51 guest rooms, located on the second and third floors, some with attached baths and terrazzo floors. The third floor also included servants’ quarters and a private stairway and bathroom.
Purchased in the 1930s by the Boss Hotel chain, the turn-of-the-century ambiance was updated in an unfortunate remodeling effort that included covering up the stately atrium and octagonal lobby.
Prior to the 1939 visit by Norway’s Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Märtha, three rooms and two bathrooms were redecorated to accommodate their stay. The center room of the 3-room suite was remodeled as a living room. Additional rooms were prepared for Secret Service personnel.
In the mid-1970’s Theola Haugen and her husband purchased the building for use as apartments. They lived in their own apartment in the building they owned adjacent to the hotel. In 1997 the Haugens sold the hotel and the adjacent building to Decorah native Helen Basler, a philanthropist from Chicago who had strong ties and a love for the Decorah community. Mrs. Basler began the demolition of the hotel interior in early 1998, with rehabilitation work following immediately.
The restored Hotel Winneshiek opened its doors on April 13, 2000, looking much the same as it did on its opening date in 1905. Attention to detail and a commitment to preserving the historical integrity of the property were the standards guiding Basler as she provided her vision and oversight throughout the project. On April 27, 2000, prominent community members attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the hotel’s lobby. The ceremony was held exactly ninety-five years to the day after the hotel’s original opening. Attendees recognized Basler for her generous gift of restoration that began the revitalization of downtown Decorah.
The Steyer Opera House
In the mid-1880’s Joseph B. Steyer immigrated from Luxemburg to Decorah and worked as a stone cutter. He built the structure (The Steyer Opera House) that now adjoins Hotel Winneshiek on the west side. The building was completed in December of 1870 and was originally meant to house commercial establishments on the first floor, offices and apartments on the second floor and a splendid hall on the third floor. The total cost to construct the building was $53,000.
The Opera House was used for performances, community gatherings and political rallies. In later years it functioned as a four-lane bowling alley, a wrestling arena, a basketball court, a roller skating arena, a dance hall, a stage for plays and other events. Eventually the space fell into disrepair and sat abandoned until 1997 when Helen Basler purchased the property and began a two-year project to restore the building to its original grandeur. Like Joseph Steyer, Helen Basler was a visionary whose mission involved providing the community with an elegant venue for cultural enrichment and social gathering.
In 2009, The Steyer Opera House, conference center and adjoining Hotel Winneshiek were purchased by Rebound Enterprises, Inc., an investment company that provides strategic advisory services to clients in the real estate, manufacturing, banking and hospitality industries.
Decorah Archeological History:
Northeastern Iowa and Winneshiek County are dotted with early archeological sites. Archeological excavations in 1994 below Palisades Park in Decorah yielded artifacts that suggest two distinct periods of human occupation: one dates from around 500 AD and the second from about 1200 AD.
Late Woodland and Oneota cultures of these early Decorah groups were complex societies with sedentary villages based on agriculture, fishing and hunting. In the latter case, deer and elk were especially important. The 1994 diggings in the river valley near Twin Bridges give some indication of the relatively small, but sophisticated, early settlements.
In the years after the European conquest and before the settlement of the state of Iowa, the major groups in this region were the Winnebago, Sauk (Sac) and Fox, and Oneota. The last major contingent of these people, the Winnebagos, were removed from northeastern Iowa by treaty arrangements with the U.S. Government in the years 1846-48.
Judge Eliphalet Price of Clayton County is said to have been the person who first suggested the name Decorah for the settlement. Chief Waukon Decorah (ca1775-1868), whose name is associated with two northeast Iowa cities, was a fourth generation descendant of Sabrevoir DeCarre, a French soldier-fur trader who died in Ste. Foye, Canada in 1750, and Glory of the Morning, daughter of a prominent Indian chieftain. He was one of several offspring to bear the name Decorah, an Americanization of DeCarre, which evolved through such forms as DeCarrie, DeKauray, D-cari, DeCori, DeCora, DeCorta, and DeKorah.
Further Reading: William Winneshiek http://tombenjey.com/tag/william-winneshiek/
By the time the 1850 county census was taken, there were 500 individuals in 100 households with foreign-born represented by Upper Canadians, Norwegians, Rhinelanders and Irish. Decorah was named as the county seat in a disputed election in 1851. Decorah grew rapidly with an estimated one hundred people living there in 1854. The first plat of the Original Decorah was made in 1856. Construction of the first county courthouse began in 1857. Decorah was legally organized in April 1857, but was not incorporated as a city until 1871. West Decorah, or the settlement “on the other side of the river,” was incorporated in 1878, and legally recognized by a legislative act in 1894. The two settlements, Decorah and West Decorah, merged into a single unit in 1902.
The “English Colony” of the late 19th century began arriving in 1867. For the most part, the men of this group were the younger sons of English gentlefolk, or would-be gentry, seeking their fortune among the riches of Iowa’s natural resources. They were undoubtedly a stimulus to the city’s business and industrial life. But a combination of unrealistic expectations, the hardships of life in Winneshiek County at the time and the collapse of the wheat market in the 1870’s caused most of these settlers to move elsewhere or to return home.
The Irish were a successful minority. Unlike the Norwegians, whose standards were often cultivated by an intellectual elite, or the English Colony’s would-be gentry, the Irish were industrious, hardworking laborers who made good as farmers in Decorah and Bluffton Township northwest of the city and in business and professional occupations as they chose. Unlike the two other groups, they tended to be members of a Catholic church rather than Protestant.
In the 19th century, Decorah lived off its rich natural resources. Water provided power to run its mills, and the mills processed grain, lumber and stone from the surrounding countryside. The earliest mills were either grain (grist or flour) mills or saw mills for lumber. Stone quarries yielded construction materials such as the so-called “Decorah Marble”, and eventually attempts were made at manufacturing other things, such as chairs, cloth and beverages.
Commerce and industry got a major boost in 1869 when the railroad reached Decorah. Rail lines carrying passengers and freight served the city for a century. For the remainder of the 19th century, the railroads were Decorah’s lifeline to the rest of the world. Only horses, wagons and the stagecoach offered any real alternative for moving passengers and commercial goods in and out of the city. With the coming of the new century, however, things changed. Automobiles, trucks and eventually airplanes broke the railroad’s monopoly-like grasp of transportation. Railroad service was officially discontinued February 1979.