Where the elite went to eat, rain rips through rafters. Plaster melts to mush.
The lobby, once warmed by an imposing fireplace, is littered with broken booze bottles. Gone is the awesome piano; junkyard furniture has taken its place.
“It’s terrible. It’s terrible!” said Everett Anderson as he stepped over trash in the Kootenai Inn.
The 80-year-old St. Maries native has seen his town lose one landmark after another. This 1909 hotel, where he delivered milk as a kid, may be the hardest loss to swallow.
Long the social hub of a prosperous timber town, the Kootenai has been dying a lingering death. Hopes to revive it faded last week when no one made a minimum bid of $80,000 for it at a Benewah County auction.
Since 1991 the property has belonged to the county, which acquired it for unpaid taxes.
Commissioners now can accept sealed bids for the property if they choose, said county treasurer Juanita Lundt. They haven’t said what they’ll do since being disappointed by the lack of bidders.
It would take a fortune to fix up the place. Anderson, a former St. Maries mayor, figures the county would have to give the Kootenai Inn away before anyone could consider tackling the job.
Ralph Papenfuhs agrees.
Like Anderson, he has long ties to the inn. His mom was a housekeeper there. In the laundry business for 29 years, he lugged clean clothes up those three flights of stairs more times than he cares to recall.
As he toured the building with Anderson on Friday, Papenfuhs ran his hand appreciatively along the solid wooden railings. He talked about the Egyptian carpeting that softened steps in the hallways.
Papenfuhs walked into the biggest of the second-floor rooms, the one whose windows frame the hillsides beyond the St. Joe River.
“This is the room I want. This must be the presidential suite.”
Woodrow Wilson reportedly stayed at the Kootenai Inn, which got its name from the fact that St. Maries then was part of Kootenai County.
The hotel was built by the Milwaukee Road Railroad to provide lodging for its many workers. It also built a hospital, one of the historic buildings that St. Maries has lost.
Anderson recited the litany of the inn’s subsequent owners: banker E.W. Truman, H.V. South, Nels Mauritsen …
John Garry, the last on the list, tore off the oak veranda before losing the property to the bank.
By then, the building had been stripped of most fixtures and furnishings. The bank hired Papenfuhs to haul out the rest. For payment, he accepted the grand piano, which had survived the Civil War by virtue of being buried on a Southern plantation, Papenfuhs said.
He donated the piano to the local historical society.
The last business to occupy the building was a restaurant that closed in 1985, Anderson said. Until then, the dining room still was a civic gathering place.
A 1910 tourist brochure boasts of St. Maries’ three fine hotels. Anderson laments that, for special occasions, folks now must drive to Coeur d’Alene or Spokane to find an elegant meal or room.
Anderson, a longtime civic activist, and Papenfuhs, a county planning and waterways commissioner, have sat in on many discussions about ways to save the hotel. That’s part of a larger dream of bringing in tourists to bolster the sagging timber-based economy.
Some still hope for a boardwalk that would start at nearby Aqua Park, luring visitors out of their power boats and onto Main Street.
It seems unlikely that the Kootenai Inn will be around for them to visit.
Anderson and Papenfuhs talk about the place like a friend on his deathbed. It’d take a miracle to bring him back. It’ll never happen, but … “If you were going to do anything at all with that old dog,” Papenfuhs said, craning his head, “the first thing you’d have to do is replace that roof.”
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