As of this year, Hotel Crandon in downtown Crandon will have been standing for 85 years. Started during the Prohibition, this historic monument has many stories to tell, and Mark Gatton, current owner, is a vessel for those stories.
“The more I work on the building, the more I learn about the building,” Gatton said. “Some of the odd things I even find—up in a rafter somewhere, or what have you—it makes me start questioning things. And I find out that it really has a remarkable history.”
Gatton is the fourth owner of the Hotel, which today isn’t a hotel at all, functioning instead as a bar and restaurant, but keeping the historic name. He bought the place six years ago from Jim McMillan, nephew of the Hotel’s original founder.
In that time he’s made it his goal to not only continue running the successful business, but also to renovate parts of the building to its former glory.
“Actually it’s a beautiful place—coffered ceilings, the floors in here are terrazzo, and they were covered over instead of spending the time and the money to have them reground and polished, so I’d like to eventually restore all of those things,” Gatton said. “
An example of his dedication to restoring the building is the giant marquee out front, that lit up for the first time in forty years once he got his hands on it.
“The first thing I did, and actually kind of what got me interested in restoring the building,” Gatton said. “That big marquee hadn’t been used in forty years. Hadn’t been lit up, in fact most living people around here couldn’t remember it, ever seeing it lit up.”
The marquee, which Gatton restored on his own,is believed to have been orginally crafted here in Rhinelander, at Cleveland Signs, by current owner Bill Cleveland’s grandfather, of the same name.
“I first realized how much interest there was locally to have the building restored when I first brought that big marquee out front,” Gatton said.
He has also begun his restoration project by fixing up the basement, which until under his ownership had been nearly inaccessible.
“Way on the north end of the building you could at one time drive a car into the basement,” Gatton said. “Rumor has it that they would park there to get the cars loaded with booze [during Prohibition], and out of sight for a while… the old entrance to the basement, for instance, was all collapsed and boarded over—I think the first fall I owned it, the first couple months we had that rebuilt.”
Local legends are plentiful regarding the old structure as one of the most prominent speak-easies in the area.
“You never know how many of these stories are true,” Gatton said, but “he definitely made his money as a rum-runner. He didn’t brew booze but he sold it, shipped it down to Chicago and the big cities.”
“This place, back in 1930, cost $75,000 to build and outfit,” Gatton said. “And you think about that—I can’t imagine how much that would be today, but it would probably be in excess of a million dollars—this was during the Depression! Where did they get that kind of money, you know?”
Gatton has dozens of stories, from the drunken Polish immigrant people called Jon Skeezicks (Skeezicks was a cartoon from the twenties that came to be slang for a rascal or rogue) who lived in the basement and worked keeping the coal-fire boiler and water heater operational. Or there’s Doc Donovan, who was in fact not a doctor, but a card dealer who ran poker games out of a back room—he took a chip from every pot to make his living.
“Those kind of historical things I find very interesting. And a lot of things have happened in this building or around this building through the years,” Gatton said.
One of his favorite stories actually comes from next door, from a part of the building that now houses an insurance company, but back in the day was a barber-shop.
“I talked to the grandson of the barber,” Gatton said. “His grandfather told him one time that this rodester came up and these gentlemen got out. They were dressed in nice suits and hats… but they were real furtive, they were real kind of nervous-looking. And one of them wanted a shave and a haircut, and he got that, and then they got in their car and drove off. A little while later, a week or so later, he saw a picture of John Dillinger in the newspaper, and that’s who he had just shaved and cut the hair of.”
Hotel Crandon celebrates its anniversary Feb. 21, opening their doors with an authentic 1930s dinner menu, historic displays and tours of the building, with the help of the Crandon High School drama club. The actors will be dressed in outfits from the ‘30s, and will portray characters from the era. The event will also act as a benefit for the Crandon Public Library.
Gatton hopes to complete his restoration projects within the next five years, but the Hotel will continue to open its doors as a restaurant, cafe and bar.
“It’s been operational since 1930. As far as I know it’s never been closed… it’s very usable now, we serve an awful lot of people,” Gatton said. “We’ve put in a lot of money and a lot of effort into it. But I’d hoped to, within the next year, see the dining room restored to the full ceiling and the bar.”
“I kind of got the restoration fever if you will and I like old equipment and old buildings,” Gatton said. “It’s up to me to kind of restore it as I can go. But it’s a very vibrant building, a lot of things happened here, even to this day… we serve hundreds of people every day—a lot of events occur here, and always have. Some things never change, and that’s a long history.”