A Place to Stay: The Main Street Hotel

Hundreds of towns were sprinkled across Iowa in the late 1800s and early 1900s. What if a visitor took a stroll down the main street of one of the towns? The visitor would most likely find a livery, general store, millinery, pharmacy and opera house. Those were typical businesses found in any Iowa town. And most towns, large or small, had at least one hotel.

A Variety of Guests

The hotel was a place where people who came to town on business would stay. It was a public meeting place. Out-of-town travelers—theatrical groups, visiting baseball teams, and salespeople—shared jokes and stories of their travels with townspeople. In the summer they sat comfortably on the long hotel porch and in winter they gathered at a wood-burning stove in the large dining room. Sometimes a local or visiting musician might entertain at the piano. The traveling salespeople, who did business directly from the hotel, would set out their trunks of goods for the local storekeepers to look over, and afterward they would play cards.

What You Got for Your Money

Hotel rooms were furnished with a bed, chairs, water pitcher and basin, and a chamber pot. The newer hotels had running water in the rooms, but in most small towns, water was pumped from a well by hand and then heated for washing. An overnight stay was about 50 cents. Meals also cost about 50 cents each. The townspeople could get a Sunday dinner for 25 cents because business was slow on weekends.

The hotel was a very important part of small town life in Iowa. It not only provided shelter and meals for the traveler, but was also a place for local residents and farm families to gather. Today some of the buildings that served as hotels in the late 1800s and early 1900s are still standing. Some have been restored and serve as businesses once again.


  • Nena Smiddy, “The General Store,” The Goldfinch 3, no. 3 (February 1982): 5


Why did people who lived in the community value a hotel?

Media Artifacts

Investigation Tip:
What was important to people at this time in our history? What clues do you find in the article that tell what was valued? Has this changed over time?