‘Entertainment impossible to find elsewhere’
In 1993, Virginia Doyle Holmberg published a small booklet titled "Yesterday's Child." It was dedicated to her daughter, Polly, and it was written to tell of her life growing up in the Colonial Hotel in Detroit Lakes during the "Roaring Twenties....
In 1993, Virginia Doyle Holmberg published a small booklet titled “Yesterday’s Child.”
It was dedicated to her daughter, Polly, and it was written to tell of her life growing up in the Colonial Hotel in Detroit Lakes during the “Roaring Twenties.” The hotel was located where eastbound Highway 10 is today, right by the railroad tracks. It was the Phoenix Hotel when it was built in 1890, and then changed to the Colonial Hotel when Holmberg lived there in 1921.
The following are random excerpts from “Yesterday’s Child.” The Becker County Historical Society has the booklet on file for anyone interested in reading more.
The year was 1921. The horrors and heartaches of World War I were gradually fading into the background, and Americans all across the land were beginning to turn their faces once more to the sun.
For reasons best known to himself, perhaps, my father decided to sell out his taxi business in Fargo, North Dakota, and take a whirl at the hotel business in the little resort town of Detroit, Minnesota, some fifty miles away.
I never did know exactly what my mother’s feelings were regarding this move. I only know my little ten-year-old world burst into a veritable flame of excitement and anticipation.
Holmberg’s father moved to Detroit (now Detroit Lakes) to take over the business, and Holmberg, her sisters and her mother moved at the end of the school year.
Of our arrival at the little hotel named the Colonial, one memory stands out: we were greeted enthusiastically by the clerk and several traveling men who happened to be in the lobby at the moment. Upon learning we had covered fifty miles in two hours flat, a stir of excitement ran through the group, and several of the men expressed amazed admiration for my father’s prowess at the wheel.
That summer, Holmberg learned all about tourists - a breed apart, as she described them.
From all directions they came - from Minneapolis, Winnipeg and even Chicago - and the puzzling part of it all, to me, was their garb. A drab army they were - the men wearing, almost to a man, khaki-colored dusters; caps, and dark goggles, and the women’s auxiliary to this club putting the lie to what must surely have been an adventurous spirit, by their matching uniforms of khaki ‘middies,’ knickers, knee-high socks, and sturdy oxfords - or sometimes even knee-high hiking boots completing the monotonous ensemble.
Yes, from all directions they came, but in manner of dress, they differed no more than a yardful (sic) of sparrows.
Holmberg said that many times over the next few years she heard her mother’s friends “cluck” sympathetically that a hotel was no place for three girls to grow up. Holmberg though didn’t wait around for her mother’s response because she decided it was ignorance on their part to even think that the hotel was a less than ideal place for the sisters. Instead, she said she felt bad for friends that had to “live out their lives in the humdrum confines of a mere house.”
That little hotel, with its various employees - individualists, all - provided me with a variety of interests and entertainment impossible to find elsewhere.
During her first summer at the hotel, Holmberg talks about all the sights she took in, the bakery (located at the rear of the hotel), the laundry room at the hotel and all the people she made friends with along the way.
Of all the many departments in that busy little hotel, no other area saw so many changes in personnel! I refer, of course, to the dining room and coffee shop. It seemed I no sooner became acquainted with one of those “flappers of the flapjacks” and she turned up missing, for one reason or another.
I regret to say I feel sure a lot of this was a direct result of my father’s almost ungovernable Irish temper. His patience with these young and often careless girls was limited to the point where many received their walking papers after a very short career there.
That fall, Holmberg and her sisters attended school, and that winter prepared for Christmas. The family went through several pets along the way, trying to raise the perfect pup in a hotel, but unfortunately, they kept meeting their demise too soon.
She also tells a story of a green olive eating contest she had with her sister, Kathleen.
The upshot of this little battle was this: Kathleen downed twenty, and I managed to top her eating twenty-one, so was unanimously voted the winner.
But that night my gluttony proved my undoing. I became violently sick, and even by morning, was far too weak and miserable to go out to O’Leary’s cottage for the day. Mother, bless her heart, took pity and stayed home with me, but of course Dorothy and Kathleen set merrily off for the day, returning in early evening to report a wonderful time, naturally.
At the age of 12, Holmberg’s father took her to her first dance, a Christmas affair at the Graystone Hotel.
I can remember feeling wonderfully grown-up, whirling merrily around that dance floor with my father.
From there, she was hooked.
The dance pavilion was at the end of Washington Avenue, the main street of Detroit, and was situated right on Detroit Lake. To my mind, that pavilion was nothing short of perfect! It was the era of the big bands, and while no nationally-known bands appeared in our little Midwest town, of course, every orchestra playing there each summer consisted of two to twelve musicians and – wonder of wonders! - they invariably stayed at our hotel.
Honesty compels me to state the reason for this was no doubt the fact they couldn’t afford the rates at the Graystone, and probably wouldn’t have been welcome there if they could.
No matter. It was our good fortune, and it was a thrill almost beyond recounting to become even superficially acquainted with those talented young musicians. I, of course, managed to get a “crush” on one of them - usually the saxophone player, and would all but melt into a greasy spot should he so much as smile at me.
She writes more about dancing the Charleston with friends and at parties and about growing into womanhood during the roaring ’20s, which she described as a “truly exciting and wonderful time.”
Undoubtedly, one of the first real breakthroughs for women has been brought about sometime earlier by Irene Castle, the female member of the Vern and Irene Castle dance team, which had taken the country by storm with their new-style dancing featuring the Charleston, Black-Bottom and other heretofore unheard of tunes. It was indeed she who startled the nation by bobbing her hair, thus creating a sudden, exciting vogue in hairstyling across the nation.
Inevitably, of course, the fad finally reached even our little town in the Midwest, and my two sisters, both in their teens, started pestering our parents for permission to cut off those tiresome old braids.
I wasn’t personally involved in all the fuss. However, ever eager to be even a small part of whatever excitement might be going on, I followed this little controversy carefully, cheering enthusiastically when Kathleen finally won out over all dad’s protests, and hers was the first braid to hit the barbershop floor. Dorothy’s soon followed.
This ushered in the time of the flapper and the sheik. Skirts became shorter, more make-up brightened faces and high-buckled overshoes were left “provocatively flapping open.”
Her junior year of high school, Holmberg and Jack Benshoof were chosen as the leads in the school play “It Happened in June.”
On May 21, 1927, buzz around the nation was Charles Lindbergh and his Spirit of St. Louis flight to Paris.
Sometime later, Lindy was being honored with a testimonial parade in Fargo, an event my father felt should not be missed. So the whole family boarded the train in happy anticipation of this spectacular event. Needless to say, it WAS a thrill, what with thousands of excited spectators pushing their way to the front, the better to see a smiling Lindy, seated atop the back seat of a big touring car, waving to the excited crowd.
In September at the start of her senior year, Holmberg’s father sold the hotel, but they rented an apartment for the year so she could finish up school with her friends. They then returned to Fargo.
But squarely in the center of my large and flourishing garden of cherished memories bloom those rare and carefully-tended plants - the six unforgettable years growing up in that dear little hotel, squarely in the midst of the exciting and challenging decade that came to be known as the “Roaring Twenties.”
Oh please - may those fragrant, vibrantly nostalgic blossoms never fade!