I’ve always had a soft spot for the grand hotels of the past. This should come as no surprise since I grew up in a town that relied on tourism. The fact that it was in New York state and not in Maine is unimportant. There are more similarities than differences between Sullivan County, New York and the rural Western Maine Mountains where the fictional village of Moosetookalook is located.
In the summer, back in the day, the population of Sullivan County, in the foothills of the Catskills, more than doubled. More stores were open, including a second movie theater in Liberty, New York, my home town. All around us there were summer camps and bungalow colonies. In Ferndale, one of the villages that made up the town of Liberty, was one of the most famous hotels in the “Borsht Belt,” Grossinger’s, known locally as “the G.”
Sullivan County first became a tourist attraction in the late 1800s, when going to “the mountains” was thought to cure tuberculosis. There were mixed feelings about this among the locals. Most hotels preferred to attract healthy customers who’d come back year after year. However it started, the boom lasted until the 1970s. It’s all gone now. As air travel increased, tourists found more exotic locations for their vacations, but I grew up right at the end of the era, and from my mother’s family I heard stories about the earliest grand hotels of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire is one of the few survivors. “The Spruces” in my Liss MacCrimmon series is another.
The Spruces is owned by Joe Ruskin, patriarch of the Ruskin family. He’s in every book in the series, at least briefly, because although the novels are linked by a Scottish-American heritage theme, what I really wanted to write about when I started the series was the restoration of a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century hotel. The backstory is that Joe, as a young man, worked at the hotel and dreamed of returning it to its former glory as a luxury hotel in the old grand hotel/destination resort tradition. After making a success of his own business, Ruskin Construction, he bought the place. The work is in progress during the first two books in the series and the hotel reopens between Scone Cold Dead and A Wee Christmas Homicide and thereafter hosts various events that take place in The Corpse Wore Tartan, Scotched, and Bagpipes, Brides and Homicides.
This isn’t the first time I’ve used a grand hotel in my fiction. In Relative Strangers, one of the romance novels I wrote as Kathy Lynn Emerson back in the 1990s, I created The Sinclair House in Waycross Springs, Maine. Take a close look at the windows of the hotel shown on the cover. That’s the resident ghost peering out from the one that is lighted. If the names Sinclair and Waycross Springs sound familiar, that’s because by the time I started writing the Liss MacCrimmon series my rights had revereted to three romance titles I’d set in this fictional Maine village. The other two are Sight Unseen (the ebook edition is offered under my original title: The E-mail Order Bride) and That Special Smile. The town and several of the characters reappear in the mysteries I now write as Kaitlyn Dunnett. Waycross Springs, on my fictional roadmap of Maine, is about an hour’s drive from Moosetookalook and the home town of Gordon Tandy, Liss’s favorite state police officer.
Below is one of my primary inspirations for The Spruces. These are from postcards of the Bethel Inn in Bethel, Maine where my husband and I spent Christmas one year.
Now, of course, The Spruces isn’t just like the Bethel Inn. It is a combination of several places I’ve been to or seen pictures of. For those of you thinking that The Spruces must be The Balsams in New Hampshire . . . you’re wrong. I actually got the idea for the name from The Pines, a hotel in the Catskills. As for the architecture, floorplan and furnishings, you have only to look at the original Poland Spring House in Poland Spring, Maine and the Mount Washington.
The rationale behind renovating and reopening such a hotel came from hearing about another hotel in New Hampshire, the Mountain View House. While it was being spruced up, there were all sorts of details online about costs and materials. Great fodder for my fictional renovations. It has since opened and seems to be doing just fine. Here’s how that hotel looked in its first heyday.
For some of the wonderful interior details, my research took me to a places I have not been to in person. Below are pictures I had in my files that show, I think, features of The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, made famous by another Maine writer. You know . . . the one who lives in the spooky old house in Bangor. These shots show two of the prominent features I incorporated into my fictional The Spruces, the staircase from the lobby to the mezzanine and the check-in desk.
Next time I post, October 22, I’ll be talking about the simpler side of tourism when I was a kid, the farm/boardinghouse. Some of these places expanded and became big hotels, like the G. Others, like the one my mother’s family ran until 1957, stayed small and cozy.