Masters Store and Hotel

Posted August 30, 2018 at 4:01 pm


Masters Store.jpg

Walnut Grove lost a landmark on July 26, 2018, although its loss was likely mourned by few people. On that day, the Masters Hotel, built in 1875, was taken down because it was determined that it had reached a point of terminal disrepair and there was no practical way to restore it. It is possible that few people outside of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum recognized the history and significance of the building.

But even as that building was taken down, there is work going on to restore the second building, next to it, that was also built by William J.Masters and used as a store and meeting hall.

These buildings mean different things to different people. To the fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek, the store building is special because it is highly possible that Charles “Pa” Ingalls helped to build it[see note 1 below]. Because of that association, the store can almost be seen as “holy ground” According to Laura’s annotated autobiography, Pioneer Girl,from which the memories were taken for the Little House series, Laura spent some time working in the Masters Hotel in various roles. Laura also told how she had lived in the store at one point with young Mr.Will Masters and his wife Nancy and their baby, taking care of Nancy Masters when she had fainting spells [see note 2] But the store building has an important role even without those associations.

The Masters Store was built in 1878, a two-story building, with the lower level serving as a general store and also possibly an apartment for someone to live in the back. The upstairs, which was reached by an outdoor stairway, was used as a gathering hall. Sometimes known as the “Masonic Hall” [see note 5], or simply “Masters Hall,” there were many meetings and gatherings that took place there. Among the groups that held their meetings in the upstairs hall were the Independent Order of the Good Templars, a temperance movement of the times, and the Methodist Church congregation until they purchased land and built a building of their own.

In 1900, the Masters Store was purchased and turned into a home. In making renovations, the outside stairway was removed and an inside stairway was built, doors and windows moved or removed completely, and walls moved or added to form rooms for the home. The false front and front balcony were removed, and since it no longer looked like a store, the historical significance of the building most likely faded from the memories of many in Walnut Grove.

A number of years ago, the property on which the store stands was purchased by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum and preservation efforts were begun as money became available.

When it was determined that the hotel building was not salvageable, the Museum Board decided to concentrate on renovating and preserving the store and meeting hall.

During the renovations, there were many reminders of the age of the building. When the building was being re-roofed, workers found 2 x 4’s that were actually 2 inches by 4 inches, unlike today’s lumber measurements. They also found square, hand-crafted nails which were most likely made by a local blacksmith. While removing the interior walls they found interesting “smudges” on the wooden walls every several inches. The staff did not know what those smudges were until a portion of the wall was removed and they found scraps of what was then used as a form of

insulation. Glued to the wooden walls were pages of a newspaper, “The New York Ledger” from the 1890’s and they realized that the smudges were where the paper was glued to the walls. [See Note 3]

As the renovations on the Masters Store continue, a piece of Walnut Grove history is being saved. It will serve as a reminder, not only of a family who lived here for a few years and then moved on, but also the perseverance of the pioneers who came to this area and spent their lives building a community that still is a place we call home almost 150 years later.

Notes

1. “Mr Masters was putting up a store building, with a hall above, beside the hotel and Pa did carpenter work on that until it was finished before winter came.” [Pioneer Girl]

2. “Will and Nannie Masters had moved into rooms over the Masters’ store and Mrs Masters persuaded Ma to let me stay with Nannie, because she had falling spells and it was not safe for her to stay alone with Little Nan.-There wasn’t much work to do. The washing was done down at the hotel and Nannie and I together cooked and washed dishes made the beds swept the floors and took care of Little Nan. – But it was not pleasant, for I never knew at what moment Nannie would fall without a word or a sign and lie as if dead. Then I must loosen her clothes and sprinkle water on her face until she opened her eyes, then in a few minutes I would help her up and to a chair.” Pioneer Girl]

3. “When my work was done and Little Nan sleeping, I could curl up in a corner out of the way and read the stories in the New York Ledger.25 Great stories they were of beautiful ladies and brave, handsome men; of dwarfs and villians of jewels and secret caverns.” Pioneer Girl]

4. Wm. J and his son, Wm. A Masters were movers and shakers in the community, and appear in most of the “Who’s Who” photographs of the era, until their deaths.

5. From the Redwood Gazette: “Mr. Masters has his frame up for his block of new stores. He intends to finish off the upper story suitable for a Masonic hall.” 4-18-1878 – No mention of it ever actually becoming the Masonic Hall.

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This is the Masters Store and Hall building that was built in 1878.  It is in the process of being renovated to its original condition, after having been a private home since 1900. (Photo/Kathy Brandt).

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