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ALLIGATOR HOTEL - This photo was taken in 1902 shortly after the hotel was completed.
The large porch which enclosed the building had not yet been added.  The hotel was located about 
a half block from the Louisville and Nashville Railroad depot in Dahlgren, Illinois.  Assembled
in the front are members of the Goin and Hart families who had just come from church and 
were invited to Sunday dinner at the hotel.

From Centralia (Ill.) Sentinel – Sunday, January 27, 1985

The Alligator: Dahlgren’s Grand Hotel

By Judith Joy

New York has its Waldorf, London its Ritz and Savoy; but in Dahlgren the Alligator Hotel was the place to stay.  In the early part of the century, when railroad passenger service flourished, every small town of any size had a hotel of some fort; but the Alligator was the only one with a pool of real, live gators in the front yard.

Every spring hotel proprietor, Charley Goin, would send off to Jacksonville, Fla. for a fresh supply of alligators.  In the front of the hotel, carefully fenced from in from the public, he built an ornamental fountain and pool in which the gators were kept.  “The biggest one we ever had was more than six feet,” says Lucille Garrison of Mt. Vernon, whose parents owned the hotel.

Mrs. Garrison, who is 82, recalls that each fall her father brought the alligators into the hotel for the winter.  The alligators were kept out of sight in a storage area under the stairway that led to the second floor.  The alligators became torpid during the cold weather and two or three times each winter Goin would bring them out and place them in front of the stove to try to revive them.

“It was so cold and he could never wake them up,” says Mrs. Garrison.  “He’d think they come out of it, but they never did, they’d die, and he’d have to get new alligators each year.”

The alligators were fed with pieces of meat placed on sticks, so that no one had to get too close.  “One time recalls Mrs. Garrison, “the alligators escaped from the pen and dad told us not tell anyone because people would be scared to death all over town.”  Two of the escapees were found in the pond where baptisms were held, but the others remained at large.

The Alligator Hotel was built in 1908 and was the pride of Dahlgren.  It replaced an earlier frame building which Goin had moved to an adjoining site.  The foundation of the new hotel was built of sandstone, which was quarried about three miles from town and hauled to the site by a team of mules, which Goin hired for the occasion.  The hotel had three stories, but the upper floor was never finished.  On the first floor was the office, a kitchen, dining room, a parlor and a big sample room which ran the entire length of the building.

When the drummers or traveling salesmen came to town they would spread their samples on the table and the proprietors of the country stores would come into Dahlgren to select yard goods, clothing, tools and all the sundries they needed to stock their general stores.  In later years, when the road got better and salesmen called on their customers, the big room was used to store caskets.  Charley Goin and his brother-in-law, Wesley Hart, were partners in an undertaking business and would make house calls to lay out the dead.  Since they didn’t do embalming, the undertaker would have to come from McLeansboro if the family wanted the deceased embalmed.  When Goin’s 10-year-old daughter (son?), John Owen, died in the flue epidemic, he gave up the undertaking business completely.  “He just couldn’t do it anymore,” says Mrs. Garrison.

There were twelve bedrooms the second floor, one bathroom and a separate toilet for the men and another for the ladies.  In addition, each of the rooms had a pitcher and washbowl, plus a chamber pot.  The family also lived on the second floor, sharing the sanitary facilities with the guests.

The traveling men were the hotel’s main clients, and since there were no paved roads they all used the L&N Railroad.  Rail was the main means of travel in those days and there were five passenger trains daily that came through Dahlgren.  The trains were met by a drayman who was unkindly referred to as “Dummy” by everyone because he was a deaf mute.  Dummy also suffered from Goitre, then a common affliction; but he did his job faithfully and was known to every drummer who stopped at Dahlgren.

In the hotel’s basement was the laundry, where all the sheets were ironed by hand, the water system, furnace and a creamery, which was operated as a sideline business by Mrs. Garrison’s uncle.  The local farmers would bring in their cream which was tested for its butterfat content by Mrs. Garrison who, although scarcely in her teens, had passed the examination to be a licensed cream tester.

The task of preparing meals for the guest was handled by the family and two hired girls.  The Alligator Hotel prided itself on the abundance of its food.  “Dad always checked on the number of dishes that were to be served,” says Mrs. Garrison.  “If there weren’t at least ten, we would have to open a can of corn or something to fill up another dish.”  The food was prepared on a big Majestic coal range that held a huge reservoir of hot water.  In the summer, an oil stove was used because it made less heat in the kitchen.  Since there was no electricity, kerosene lamps provided the light.

No liquor was ever served on the premises.  Mr. Goin being a strict teetotaler.  In fact, anyone coming to the door smelling of spirits was asked to find other lodgings.  Rooms at the Alligator coast about $1 per night with meals extra.  In the dining room there were three big tables—one for the family, one for the traveling men and another for the local people.

Fay Wham of Centralia, who grew up in Dahlgren, recalls that it was a rare treat to eat at the hotel.  “They had wonderful food—and things like bananas.  We had home-canned peaches at home, but at the Alligator they had fresh fruit in the winter.”

Mrs. Wham also recalls the time the grocery store next to the hotel caught fire and the local fire brigade answered the alarm.  Fearing that the flames would spread to the hotel, Mrs. Goin pleaded with the crowd of onlookers to pray that the Alligator might be spared.  “Pray, fudge, we’d better fight fire,” retorted William Sneed, Faye’s father, who had come to assist in extinguishing the blaze.  Fortunately, Rachel Going’s prayers were answered and the Alligator was saved.

Charley and Rachel Goin continued to operate the Alligator until 1920 when they sold the hotel and moved to Mt. Vernon.  “It was never the same after the Goins left or after they paved the road,” says Faye Wham.  After years of muddy roads that were impassable in wet weather, the first paved roads in the country were a real delight.  Mrs. Wham recalls that she and her family would drive over to the new road that ran between Mt. Vernon and Wayne City just for the sheer pleasure of riding back and forth on the paved strip.

The hard roads and the growing number of automobiles meant the end of small hotels like the Alligator.  Traveling men could now drive from town to town and did not bother to spend the night at a hotel near the depot.

The livery stables went out of business and the car dealerships began to flourish.  One of these was owned by Charley Goin’s brother, who was known as W. O. “Bill” Goin, or Uncle Omer to his family.  Bill Goin began his career in Bluford selling eggs, caskets and fresh produce which he purchased locally from farmers.  He and his partner, Everett DeWiit, opened a Ford agency in Farina and in the 1920s came to Centralia.  Many will recall that Goin lived in the big white mansion on Pleasant Street that later became the Hudelson Baptist Children’s Home.  Their auto agency was located on the 100 block of S. Poplar.  Around 1934, Goin and DeWitt (who was married to Faye Wham’s sister, Ava) both moved from Centralia to Jacksonville, Ill. and gave up the Centralia agency.

The Alligator Hotel has been gone for many years—a victim of paved roads and progress.  But in the minds of those who remember it, the Alligator is grander than ever.  Once can almost see the sweeping verandah with its swing and wicker furniture, the drummers’ samples spread out on the long oak tables, and most of all the alligators that gave the hotel its name and for many years were Dahlgren’s chief claim to fame.

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