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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Bluebonnet Hotel

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Now surrounded by so many 200-foot tall wind turbines that it has become the wind power capital of the nation, Sweetwater used to have a more traditional skyscraper – the seven-story Bluebonnet Hotel.

Back when U.S. Highway 80 ran through the heart of town, a 1937-vintage postcard labeled “Broadway of America, Sweetwater, Texas,” shows the hotel dominating the view. The Bluebonnet was as familiar to Sweetwater residents as the University of Texas tower is to Austinites or the flying red horse atop the Magnolia Building in Dallas used to be for folks in Big D.

For years the 120-room Bluebonnet enjoyed a reputation as a favorite stopping place for West Texas travelers. For someone in Dallas heading to the oil fields, the hotel made a logical overnight stopping place. Ditto for someone driving from Austin to Amarillo.
Bluebonnet Hotel Sweetwater TX old postcard
Bluebonnet Hotel
Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/
H. A. Allen, a Lampasas native who came to Sweetwater in 1921 and opened a car dealership, built the hotel in 1927. At the time, America still reveled in the pre-Depression prosperity and wild speculation of the 1920s.

Even during the Depression, the Bluebonnet held its own, mainly because in those days a hotel was simply where you spent the night. The newfangled tourist courts, later known as motels, had a slightly seedy image. Outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde stayed in tourist courts. Respectable people spent the night in hotels.

Sweetwater had been a railroad crossroads before automobile travel became common, and the Bluebonnet had accommodated many a railroad man over the years. Not to mention people connected with the oil industry, cattlemen – anyone needing a room for the night.

Beyond its role as a hostelry, the Bluebonnet reigned as the social center of Sweetwater and its trade area. The civic clubs met there each week, high schools and colleges held their sports banquets there, conventions used the hotel’s meeting rooms.

During the economic boom that came with World War II, which for Sweetwater began with the opening of Avenger Field, the hotel enjoyed a flourishing business.

The Bluebonnet also saw some shady dealings. Not long after the Army opened the new air base, the federal government brought conspiracy charges against two men for allegedly taking kickbacks during construction of the flying field. Testimony revealed that delivery of the illicit money – more than $6,000 when that was enough to buy a nice house – took place in a room at the Bluebonnet.

Starting in early 1943, the field began training women pilots. Most of them arrived by train and walked to the nearby Bluebonnet, where they spent their first night before reporting for duty at Avenger.

Deanie Bishop Parish alighted from a passenger car at the Sweetwater depot from her native Avon Park, Fla. As soon as she got her luggage, she got a room at the Bluebonnet.

"Several girls were there,” Mrs. Parish recalled when interviewed by Dallas writer Bryan Woolley in 2005. “They told us there would be transportation the next day to take us out to [the field.] We were dressed in our finest dresses and our hats and our white gloves. We walked outside, and there stood three cattle trucks.”

In 1944, a year before his death at 66, Allen sold the Bluebonnet to a firm in Fort Worth. Another oil boom after the war kept its rooms mostly full, but in 1947 the hotel changed hands again.

As the stigma surrounding motels began to wane, and with the rise of automobile travel and the decline of train travel, high-rise hotels in city centers, particularly in smaller communities, began to lose business. In early 1960, California rancher-investor L.M. Mathisen bought the Sweetwater hotel and renamed it in his honor. But by the end of the year the hotel was in receivership and eventually acquired a new owner.

Despite everything, the hotel – back with its original name -- remained open until the summer of 1967, its 40th year of operation. On Aug. 17 that year, a Thursday afternoon, black smoke began to pour from the top of the Nolan County landmark.

Sweetwater firemen managed to save the building from complete destruction, but the top floor, a once-ornate ball room, had been gutted. The rest of the old hotel had sustained heavy smoke and water damage.

Some 30 guests had been registered that day, most of them oil company workers out in the field when the fire broke out. No one suffered any injuries.

Though the Bluebonnet had wilted, it lasted another three years, standing empty in the heart of town. Thick dust covered the inside despite boarded lower windows and the frayed green awning above the sidewalks running on two sides of the hotel blew gently in the frequent wind.

Civic leaders hoped someone would buy the property and restore the Bluebonnet, but it never happened. By then, Interstate 20 had replaced Highway 80 and traversed well to the south of downtown, with plenty of new motels to accommodate travelers. Eventually, in lieu of unpaid taxes, the City of Sweetwater took ownership of the hotel.

In 1970, the First National Bank of Sweetwater purchased the Bluebonnet and adjacent property and had the hotel razed. Using part of the area for a new parking lot, the bank built a new facility on the rest of the property two years after tearing down the hotel.

Today, the Bluebonnet survives only in the memory of Sweetwater old-timers and on the once ubiquitous post cards sold in the hotel’s drug store.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
January 8, 2009 column
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