surrounded by so many 200-foot tall wind turbines that it has become
the wind power capital of the nation, Sweetwater
used to have a more traditional skyscraper – the seven-story Bluebonnet
Back when U.S. Highway 80 ran through the heart of town, a 1937-vintage
postcard labeled “Broadway of America, Sweetwater, Texas,” shows the
hotel dominating the view. The Bluebonnet was as familiar to Sweetwater
residents as the University of Texas tower is to Austinites or the
flying red horse atop the Magnolia
Building in Dallas used
to be for folks in Big D.
For years the 120-room Bluebonnet enjoyed a reputation as a favorite
stopping place for West Texas
travelers. For someone in Dallas
heading to the oil fields, the hotel made a logical overnight stopping
place. Ditto for someone driving from Austin
Postcard courtesy www.rootsweb.com/ %7Etxpstcrd/
A. Allen, a Lampasas
native who came to Sweetwater
in 1921 and opened a car dealership, built the hotel in 1927. At the
time, America still reveled in the pre-Depression prosperity and wild
speculation of the 1920s.
Even during the Depression, the Bluebonnet held its own, mainly because
in those days a hotel was simply where you spent the night. The newfangled
tourist courts, later known as motels, had a slightly seedy image.
Outlaws like Bonnie
and Clyde stayed in tourist courts. Respectable people spent the
night in hotels.
had been a railroad
crossroads before automobile travel became common, and the Bluebonnet
had accommodated many a railroad man over the years. Not to mention
people connected with the oil industry, cattlemen – anyone needing
a room for the night.
Beyond its role as a hostelry, the Bluebonnet reigned as the social
center of Sweetwater
and its trade area. The civic clubs met there each week, high schools
and colleges held their sports banquets there, conventions used the
hotel’s meeting rooms.
During the economic boom that came with World
War II, which for Sweetwater
began with the opening of Avenger
Field, the hotel enjoyed a flourishing business.
The Bluebonnet also saw some shady dealings. Not long after the Army
opened the new air
base, the federal government brought conspiracy charges against
two men for allegedly taking kickbacks during construction of the
flying field. Testimony revealed that delivery of the illicit money
– more than $6,000 when that was enough to buy a nice house – took
place in a room at the Bluebonnet.
Starting in early 1943, the field began training women pilots. Most
of them arrived by train and walked to the nearby Bluebonnet, where
they spent their first night before reporting for duty at Avenger.
Deanie Bishop Parish alighted from a passenger car at the Sweetwater
depot from her native Avon Park, Fla. As soon as she got her luggage,
she got a room at the Bluebonnet.
"Several girls were there,” Mrs. Parish recalled when interviewed
by Dallas writer Bryan Woolley
in 2005. “They told us there would be transportation the next day
to take us out to [the field.] We were dressed in our finest dresses
and our hats and our white gloves. We walked outside, and there stood
three cattle trucks.”
In 1944, a year before his death at 66, Allen sold the Bluebonnet
to a firm in Fort Worth.
Another oil boom after the war kept its rooms mostly full, but in
1947 the hotel changed hands again.
As the stigma surrounding motels began to wane, and with the rise
of automobile travel and the decline of train travel, high-rise hotels
in city centers, particularly in smaller communities, began to lose
business. In early 1960, California rancher-investor L.M. Mathisen
bought the Sweetwater hotel and renamed it in his honor. But by the
end of the year the hotel was in receivership and eventually acquired
a new owner.
everything, the hotel – back with its original name -- remained open
until the summer of 1967, its 40th year of operation. On Aug. 17 that
year, a Thursday afternoon, black smoke began to pour from the top
of the Nolan County landmark.
Sweetwater firemen managed to save the building from complete destruction,
but the top floor, a once-ornate ball room, had been gutted. The rest
of the old hotel had sustained heavy smoke and water damage.
Some 30 guests had been registered that day, most of them oil company
workers out in the field when the fire broke out. No one suffered
Though the Bluebonnet had wilted, it lasted another three years, standing
empty in the heart of town. Thick dust covered the inside despite
boarded lower windows and the frayed green awning above the sidewalks
running on two sides of the hotel blew gently in the frequent wind.
Civic leaders hoped someone would buy the property and restore the
Bluebonnet, but it never happened. By then, Interstate 20 had replaced
Highway 80 and traversed well to the south of downtown, with plenty
of new motels to accommodate travelers. Eventually, in lieu of unpaid
taxes, the City of Sweetwater
took ownership of the hotel.
In 1970, the First National Bank of Sweetwater
purchased the Bluebonnet and adjacent property and had the hotel razed.
Using part of the area for a new parking lot, the bank built a new
facility on the rest of the property two years after tearing down
Today, the Bluebonnet survives only in the memory of Sweetwater
old-timers and on the once ubiquitous post cards sold in the hotel’s
© Mike Cox
8, 2009 column
With A Past
by Mike Cox - Order Here