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  Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical

A Pioneer Hotel

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
In turn-of-the-century East Texas, the hotel business was considerably different than what we enjoy today.

First, if you could find one, you were fortunate.

Second, you were likely to share a room with a complete stranger.

At Newton, near the Texas-Louisiana border, local historians recently finished a project providing an authentic look at early hotels operating in the pineywoods some 90 years ago.

Between 1909 and 1954, the Powell Hotel did business on the east side of the Newton County courthouse square, serving as a stop for travelers passing through Newton and a home for some local residents.

Walking through the restored hotel is like stepping back into the past.

A downstairs parlor contains some of the original furniture used by the Powell family and exhibits throughout the lower floor are similar to furnishings in use decades ago.

But the upstairs area, where lodgers spent their nights, is the most fascinating area. The rooms contain original iron bedsteads, mattresses, and coverings. Bare light bulbs dangle from the end of long wires hanging from the high ceilings.

While the first floor of the hotel was refurbished as a part of the restoration project, the second floor was left much as it was when the hotel was in business. Even the imprints of people who once slept in the beds remain in place.

The hotel's history is just as interesting as its appearance.

It was originally built in 1889 as the W.H. Ford Male and Female Academy on the present site of Newton's elementary school. Townspeople who chartered the school wanted to name it for timberman George Adams, but he asked that the school be named for his friend W.H. Ford, a district judge. The school was built by W.P. Cook with select heart pine milled by William Davis' sawmill. Painted gray, it had a bell tower and two stairways, one for boys and another for girls.

The academy served Newton until 1908 when the school's shareholders decided it was inadequate to serve the community's children and merged the academy with the local school district.

The academy's building was sold to Pate Simmons, who moved it to the courthouse square for use as a hotel. In the process he removed the bell tower.

In less than a year, Simmons sold the structure to J.R. West. Mr. and Mrs. J.D. Powell bought the business in 1914.

Even when the hotel ceased operations, one of the Powell daughters continued to live alone in the building until her death.

While the W.H. Ford Academy/Powell Hotel doesn't rent rooms today, it offers the next best thing. Each Tuesday at noon, you can sit down in the hotel's old dining room and enjoy a generous meal of homemade soup and cornbread, along with a helping of hotel history.


All Things Historical June 17-23, 2001Column
Published by permission.
(Bob Bowman is a former president of the East Texas Historical Association and the author of 24 books on East Texas history and folklore.)

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