ECHOES FROM OUR PAST: Some local myths have taken root as facts
Special to The Union
With the Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley and National Hotel in Nevada City undergoing extensive renovation projects, this is a good time to clarify some “history” associated with the hostelries.
Did Lola Montez ever stay at the National Hotel? No. Lola left here in 1855 and never returned, and the National didn’t open until 1856. Maybe she stayed at the Holbrooke? No. The hotel was constructed in 1862 — a year after Lola’s death. And if highwayman Black Bart ever stayed at either hotel, under what name did he register?
Unfortunately, some local myths have evolved into accepted facts. The Holbrooke, for example, prizes a registration book showing that former presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland were guests there April 25, 1898, along with boxers Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons. The story has been an important component of the hotel’s marketing effort for decades.
On April 23, 1898, Benjamin Harrison was at his home in Indianapolis, Indiana, and that evening attended a concert. As the performance ended, the band played The Star Spangled Banner and, according to a newspaper account, “General and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison arose in their seats and the whole audience followed … and a mighty chorus of more than 3,000 voices sang the anthem.”
On the night of April 21, 1898, Grover Cleveland was at his Princeton, New Jersey home when several students appeared outside his house during a rally supporting the military. (Four days later, war would be declared against Spain). Cleveland spoke to the students and a Philadelphia newspaper reported, “His appearance was the signal for renewed cheers.”
So, were Harrison and Cleveland in Grass Valley on April 25, 1898? No. And had they actually been here, surely there would have been a mention of some kind in the Grass Valley Morning Union or Nevada City Transcript before, on or after that date.
The popular explanation for Corbett and Fitzsimmons being together in Grass Valley that day is they were headed to Nevada for a boxing match. Although Carson City was site of the famous Corbett-Firzsimmons title bout, the fight was held March 17, 1897. On April 25, 1898, Corbett was on tour with an acting company and Fitzsimmons was at home with his wife and children in New York City.
Why, then, do Harrison, Cleveland, Corbett and Fitzsimmons appear in a Holbrooke guest register from 122 years ago? Perhaps a mischievous 19th century desk clerk orchestrated the stunt, never imagining plaques would someday be dedicated to memorialize the ruse? We don’t know who entered the names, nor why they did it, but their playful joke has been reported as a historical fact for decades.
I don’t fault the owners — past or present — for believing they bought a hotel visited by two presidents and two heavyweight boxing champions on a spring day in 1898. The old registration book surfaced long before the internet made fact-checking a simple task, so believing that the four names were authentic is understandable.
What about Wikipedia claims that in addition to Cleveland and Harrison, the Holbrooke also hosted James Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant and Herbert Hoover? Answer: Don’t rely on Wikipedia as a history resource. There’s no evidence I’m aware of affirming that either Grant or Garfield ever stepped foot in Grass Valley. Hoover did, but when he visited here in 1935 to speak at Grass Valley’s Independence Day celebration, he didn’t stay at the Holbrooke.
It would be wonderful if all bronze plaques, promotional brochures and websites were factual, but some are not. A 1965 plaque on the exterior wall of the Holbrooke, for instance, lists some famous former guests including Grant, Harrison and Cleveland. Also listed is actor Barry Gilbert. Who the heck was Barry Gilbert, you ask? I was told by one of the people who designed the plaque that the gag name represents a melding of John Barrymore and John Gilbert.
What’s most important at this point, of course, is that the National and Holbrooke are able to reopen this year. They are community treasures and economic assets with their own special histories that need no embellishment.
Or maybe Napoleon Bonaparte was on to something when he said, “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.”
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at email@example.com.
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