Old hotel stirs memories

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 6, 2005

GATESVILLE – The old &uot;Gatesville Hotel&uot; is a structure of blocks made right there on the site where the three-story building has stood for more than a century. The blocks were created from the pure white sand that filled the area behind the building, and they have stood the test of time. Recently, the old hotel was refurbished and it’s a place filled with people once again after a long vacancy.

John Lang and Hugh Jones are the two men responsible for reclamation, having become acquainted through the sale of the house.

&uot;John Boone was the previous owner and I bought the mortgage for $54,000 from him to have it restored,&uot; said Jones. &uot;I spent another $200,000 to have it restored.&uot;

Jones learned about Lang’s involvement in local real estate and also gave a glowing recommendation for Lang, who did his homework and discovered that the building was constructed in 1903.

&uot;We did everything on a handshake and a gentlemen’s agreement,&uot; said Lang. &uot;Mr. Jones oversaw all the finishing and construction and has several tenants in it now. It has a penthouse and two apartments on the first and second floor. We are still interested in getting as much history as we can on the old place, though, so if anyone has information they can contact Lang, a Gates resident.

According to Lang, the inside of the old structure was gutted and now boasts new electrical, plumbing, new walls and all new appliance hook-ups. As Jones said, the building took $200,000 in renovations and both men said it is now as beautiful as ever.

&uot;I bought the building to save it but also, it’s a good retirement investment,&uot; said Lang. &uot;I don’t believe that with all the great changes – it should always be easy to rent the apartments.

Lang comes from one of Gates County’s original families, having grown up in the ante-bellum home on Route 158 East. That stately structure, fully everything an old Southern mansion should be, burned in 1985, the flames taking with it five generations of history.

It was his great interest in history that prompted Lang’s interest in the old hotel. He even recalls the excellence of the water on the property.

&uot;There was an artesian well there and I used to stop and get the water-it was always cold-whenever we went to Gatesville,&uot; said Lang. &uot;I remember the horses hitched to buggies that used to come to the well for water trough. That’s my most vivid memory of the hotel, but Bill and Dot Johnson lived there and they have a lot of memories. I also have lots of memories of Mr. Johnson, our Boy Scout Leader back then. He helped me make Eagle Scout.&uot;

Two of Gatesville’s most well known people, William &uot;Bill&uot; Johnson and his bride, Dorothy &uot;Dot&uot; Johnson, actually owned the hotel and both have fond and unforgettable memories of their years there.

&uot;Moving to the Gatesville Hotel building, it was once the Elliott Hotel, was quite a challenge because it had fallen into such disrepair,&uot; said Dot. &uot;In 1957, Bill and I decided the structure was worth saving even though it had been closed for a long time. The original steam heat had deteriorated because of rusty pipes and radiators, and having to remove all those radiators and pipes from that three-story building was a serious challenge.&uot;

The couple went to work on the heating system, replacing the antiquated radiators with gas lines and a modern furnace. The next item on their agenda was the overgrowth of trees and bushes that surrounded the old hotel. The out buildings were also in desperate need of demolition.

&uot;The building that once served as a servant’s building and another large structure with a brick cellar also had to be removed and we had to carry all those bricks out,&uot; said Dot. &uot;We also had to take out the underground gasoline tanks and aboveground tanks, the type with the hand pumps. Then, we had to get the hotel rewired and changed for electric service. It seemed the work would never end.&uot;

But finally, Bill said, they got the old structure in shape and it was opened for business once again.

&uot;The building was originally built by Charlie Edwards, the father of Eula Medlin, who ran the place for years,&uot; said Bill. &uot;He constructed the hotel with stones he made in the back yard.&uot;

Dot added that behind the old hotel is some of the most beautiful, white sand ever to be found anywhere. In fact, the brick home she and Bill live in on Court Street is filled with that sand.

&uot;I hauled it over here and used it for the mortar for my bricks,&uot; said Bill

Meanwhile, Edwards and his wife, Mattie, ran the hotel until they died and left it to daughter, Eula. The Johnsons said she ran the place until her health went bad and she sold it to them.

&uot;We tried to bring it back to life and we were able to salvage most of the old furniture left there,&uot; said Bill. &uot;We began renting out rooms in 1957, with the rates at $1 per night per guest.&uot;

Dot added that it was common for the place to be filled with people, especially in the fall when peanuts were being harvested.

&uot;We always had a full house in October when the peanut inspectors came,&uot; said Dot. &uot;We had so many some of them had to double up in the rooms. They didn’t mind, though, because back then everyone respected each other and people believed in sharing and getting along.&uot;

Even though the hotel had no electric dryer for laundry, Dot said the washer was on a perpetual spin with everyone trying to get the laundry done.

&uot;There were eight rooms and two baths on the first floor, which we used for our family,&uot; said Dot. &uot;The second floor had 10 rooms and two baths, but each room had a lavatory. The third floor had six rooms which we did over.&uot;

People came from near and far to stay at the &uot;famous&uot; Gatesville Hotel. Dot said they were always courteous and there was never any trouble with guests.

&uot;They treated me with the greatest of respect,&uot; she added. &uot;There was never a lock on any door; not even the big double door out front that faces the street. Everyone was much safer back then.&uot;

The one thing about the hotel that many people from the county remember is the great sycamore tree out front and the artesian well that never seemed to run out of water.

&uot;People would come from other places to get water from the well because it was so sweet and clean tasting,&uot; said Dot. &uot;All the town’s children loved to play in the hotel yard. The children felt safe because they knew we all looked after them.&uot;

Dot also recalled that Gatesville was a town filled with little stores and shops back then.

&uot;People sat out front of the stores, visiting, telling jokes, laughing and enjoying each other’s company,&uot; she added.

The Johnsons operated the old hotel until it grew to be too demanding upon them and in 1967, William and Betty Baines sold them one acre of land on Court Street; the place where they live today. Dot and Bill sold the hotel in 1968.

&uot;We were so fortunate and we truly appreciated our new, small home,&uot; said Dot. &uot;We enjoyed the people at the hotel and loved listening to the stories of their lives, but the place just became too much for us to carry on.

We are both so pleased that John Lang has refurbished it and brought it back to life. He appreciates the old place.&uot;

Perry Harrell, now of Suffolk, didn’t live at the hotel, but he has vivid memories of beautiful downtown Gatesville. Born in Nansemond County, Va., he grew up in Gates County, the son of Nansemond County native, Walter Scott Harrell and Virginia Lee Perry Harrell, formerly of Edenton.

He recalls there being a &uot;string of store buildings&uot; where Family Foods of Gatesville now stands, and another structure that was originally build for a &uot;Model T- or Model-A&uot; Ford dealership; he can’t remember which model in particular, he said. He also recalls that the cars were driven up a ramp to the second story where they were on display for sale.

Even with Harrell’s keen memories of old Gatesville, he said he’s not sure if he ever knew the real name of the old hotel.

&uot;I can’t even remember what the exact name was because we just called it The Hotel,&uot; said Harrell. &uot;Back then, it was run by a Mrs. Medlin.

The old hotel still stands as stately and maybe more proudly than ever with the renovations and care it received at the hands of the two men intent on saving the structure once again.