Pensaukee’s Hotel Tycoons

Posted on: July 27th, 2014 by

Pensaukee’s Hotel Tycoons


By Peter Stark and Monette Bebow-Reinhard

     In the history of Pensaukee, one name stands out: Freeland B. Gardner.  Even though John P. Arndt began Wisconsin’s commercial lumbering there in 1827, it was Gardner who was instrumental in transforming Pensaukee into a company town beginning in the 1850s.  Like most other 19th century communities along the west side of Green Bay, Pensaukee’s economy was closely tied to the production of lumber.  But the town, described in a newspaper article of the period as being “destined for greatness”, had a secondary importance due to its location mid-way between Navarino (modern city of Green Bay) and Marinette/Menominee.  It became a stopover for people traveling by boat or trail along Green Bay’s west shore.  Early sawmills and their associated dwellings served as lodging places long before hotels, inns, and boarding houses were built. Capitalizing on this lodging tradition, Gardner decided to build the most lavish hotel north of Milwaukee near his team mill along the Pensaukee River.

     You won’t find the name of Edgar A. Taylor mentioned in the popular histories of Pensaukee.  Overshadowed by his wealthy and influential contemporary, Taylor also played a very important role in Pensaukee’s development.  Arriving in the early 1850s he settled on the western edge of town and appears initially to have worked as a farmer employee of Gardner’s, probably supplying product and feed to Gardner’s company store, boarding house, and lumbering operation.

     After a few years Taylor purchased a small plot of land from Gardner along the Fort Howard to Menominee road which had recently been laid out following an ancient Indian trail that bordered the western limits of Pensaukee proper.  By the late 1850s the road had been improved enough to handle wagon travel and a stage coach route was started connecting Fort Howard (Green Bay) to points north.  Every seven miles or so stage coach stops were established where horse teams were quickly changed and passengers disembarked and loaded.

     Taylor’s place became one of these and he built a small inn where people could stay and dine.  It became known as the Pensaukee House, part of which still stands today as a wooden out building of the modern farm located on the property.  The exact location of Taylor’s building is shown on a map attached to an 1864 legal document recorded in the Oconto County courthouse.

     His inn became the place to stay in Pensaukee.  A writer described in 1866 having arrived at “E. A. Taylor’s Hotel in time for a good dinner”.  But Taylor’s place was small while the regional population, and the number of travelers, was growing.  With it came increased competition in area hostelry.  In response, in 1870 Taylor borrowed $1648.53 from Gardener, a sizable sum for the time.  He proceeded to build a new hotel on his property which was scheduled to open in late 1871.

     Gardner, perhaps realizing the same business need, decided to commence his own large enterprise where Pensaukee’s boat landing is now situated.  His 45 room multi-wing brick Grand Hotel was so extravagant that it inculded amenities such as hot and cold running water, something unheard of in the area for the time.  Gardner planned to open it the following year giving Taylor’s new establishment some heavy competition.

     Always shrewd, Gardner had carefully selected the site for his luxurious structure.  In 1871 the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad had been laid through town just west of Gardner’s sawmill.  He knew passenger train travel was the wave of the future, and that it would eventually replace the stage coach.  He located his Grand Hotel kitty-corner from the Pensaukee train station.  Also near the mouth of the Pensaukee River, it would easily service boat voyagers as well.  His attractive business would appeal to the type of travelers that would bring respect to Pensaukee.

     Initially, there seemed to be room for both Taylor’s and Gardner’s hotels, each appealing to a different mode and class of traveler.  After all, the main north/south road with its stage coach route still passed Taylor’s place with no immediate threat of disappearance.  Circumstances and events, however, make their own plans.

     In the autumn of 1871 fires frequented the Pensaukee area, wiping out Holmes in Brookside, one of Gardner’s lumbering competitors.  These sporadic fires culminated in the conflagration known as the great Peshtigo Fire on October 8, 1871, the same day as the more famous Chicago Fire.  Since lands had been cleared of trees around Pensaukee proper, the town, including the Pensaukee House and Gardner’s mill, were spared that horrendous night.  After the fire, Gardner diverted materials from the building of his hotel to rebuilding efforts in areas destroyed by fire, including Chicago, delaying its opening.

     Around this same time E. A. Taylor reported that his wife had been killed in a train accident while traveling out east.  Yet, Adelia later signs a deed for the property.  Were they separated and did Edgar invent the story to cover the shame of his wife leaving him? Whatever the reason, he now faced operating his new hotel alone.  The Peshtigo Fire probably took a detrimental affect on his fledgling business, adding to his burden.

     On November 7th, 1871 by “fate or fate’s accomplice” Taylor’s recently opened Pensaukee House burned to the ground, never to be rebuilt.  Unable to make his mortgage payments to Gardner, Edgar and Adelia conveyed the property back to him in 1872.  The couple then disappear from Pensaukee, from its bright future, and from its history as well.

     Gardner reaped the rewards of his competitor’s misfortunes, intended or unintended.  He purchased his lumbering rival’s lands, and was now the sole hotel operator in Pensaukee.  In 1875 the main road that had once passed by Taylor’s place was relocated to run between Gardner’s Grand Hotel and his sawmill operation.  Gardner was in firm control of the town’s destiny.  But in a short time nature and fate would again prove to have their own agenda.

     After being open only a few years a tornado ravaged Pensaukee proper, wrecking the hotel and much of Gardner’s lumbering business.  He continued on in Pensaukee but, unable to recoup, he died in 1883 while running to the Pensaukee Depot to catch a train.

     With Gardner gone, Pensaukee’s once anticipated greatness fell–victim of the flames of competition, fire, wind, and circumstance.