I AM ALONE IN THE OLD HOTEL, THE ONLY GUEST. The innkeepers are out for dinner. My room has no phone, no television, and no radio. I am vibrating from my long drive, and my eyes are too tired to read, so I take a hot bath in the claw-footed tub beneath the chipper gaze of a framed Shirley Temple paper doll. I put on my practical pajamas and lie down on the many-pillowed bed, struggling to keep my nose above the ruffles. I admire the twelve-inch baseboards and the twelve-foot-high walls for a spell. I study the doodads covering every horizontal surface—a hairbrush-and-mirror vanity set, a teddy bear, a tray bearing a couple of wineglasses and a dainty porcelain plate (even though eating and drinking are not allowed in the rooms). I don’t feel as if I belong here. Then an antique nightgown hanging on the wall catches my eye. It looks so inviting, so delicate and appropriate. I wonder if I should slip it on. Is it allowed? It is on a clothes hanger, after all; it’s not like it’s nailed to the wall. I gently take it down and wiggle into it. Carefully, I lie down again and await some sort of epiphany. I am no longer a tourist; I am a traveler.
And here’s my epiphany: A successful adventure at a historic hotel in small-town Texas requires total immersion. You need to drown in the experience. Ideally, you should arrive in town on horseback or by rail, decked out in period costume, holding a scented handkerchief to your nose. At the very least, you should pop in a Bob Wills CD on the way to Turkey, his hometown, and listen to a Larry McMurtry audiotape en route to Archer City (I recommend Horseman, Pass By). You should haunt the harbor in Palacios and try to score some shrimp. You should wear boots, maybe even chaps, at the Gage in Marathon. Above all, you should slow waaay down.
The things you shouldn’t do? You shouldn’t expect luxury, but be grateful when you find it: Thick towels, free shampoo, and direct-dial phones are scarce. You shouldn’t go for nightlife or haute cuisine, although there’s always a chance that you might stumble onto some local festival or a great restaurant along the way. You shouldn’t forget your reading glasses, since it’s a good bet you’ll be without television, or a pair of earplugs, the best defense against rattling pipes, thin walls, and passing locomotives. And at most of these places, you shouldn’t count on the “continental breakfast”—which must be French for “rubber muffin and weak coffee”—for your morning nutrition.
This is a story about “historic hotels,” so to be included a place had to be, first, a hotel, not a restored historic home recently converted to a bed-and-breakfast. And second, it had to be historic. Although Europeans, Central Americans, and even New Englanders might snort at my criterion, I figure that any hotel built before 1939 should qualify. Let’s face it: In light of Texas’ short hotel timeline, the inns surviving from the mid-1800’s are beyond historic; they’re positively antediluvian.
Only a couple of the following ten hotels have been in continuous operation all their lives. Most were snatched from the jaws of decay by civic groups or passionate individuals. Some soar off the funky chart, a few are temples to understated style, and a couple are over-the-top studies in ruffles and flounces. And while spending a night at these unique hotels wasn’t really like stepping back in time—what with electric coffeepots, flush toilets, hot water, air conditioning, and the ever-present option of automotive escape—it sure was fun trying to turn back the clock.
Hotel Turkey, Turkey
I’M NOT SURE IF ONE HUNDRED MILES northeast of Lubbock and one hundred miles southeast of Amarillo qualifies as the middle of nowhere, but it’s as close as you’ll come without intergalactic travel. Here in the tiny burg of Turkey, you’ll find confirmation of the theory that nature abhors a vacuum: the memorabilia-packed Hotel Turkey. Built in 1927 at a cost of $50,000, the Turkey—which has never closed its doors to guests since it opened—was bought in 1988 by Jane and Scott Johnson, who undertook its restoration. After seven years, the industry standard for hotelier burnout, the couple sold the hotel to a cousin, Gary Johnson, and his wife, Suzie. Just three years into the hospitality business themselves, the Johnsons are still eager to please guests, even rising at six-thirty in the morning to make sweet-potato pancakes for their lone guest, me.
Sensory deprivation isn’t an option at this hotel. Music fills the lobby. Books are everywhere. Treasures abound: a grandfather clock, Edwardian settees, crocheted gloves and doilies, wire-rim spectacles, old photographs, crucifixes. So much stuff, in fact, that when I checked into