Surprising origins: a Story Safari in Kansas

I thought I was going on a business trip, not a story safari—but the hotel I checked into had surprising origins.

The surprising origins of the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence, Kansas
Undated photo from The Eldridge Hotel website

Turns out the wood paneling in the lobby isn’t all that’s lovely about the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence, Kansas. And if I’d been visiting here in my capacity as a speechwriter, I definitely would have told the story of its surprising origins.

The hotel’s first guests, over 160 years ago, were abolitionists coming to settle in the Kansas Territory. Kansas wanted to enter the Union as a Free State; the more like-minded citizens it could import, the better.

Even in those long-ago days before Twitter, branding was everything: The owner, Colonel Eldridge, named his new establishment the Free State Hotel.

Only a year after opening, the Free State had some unwelcome visitors. In 1856, five years before the start of the Civil War, pro-slavery marauders burned it to the ground. Of course, the determined Eldridge rebuilt it—bigger and better than ever. Literally: He vowed to add another floor to the building each time the someone tried to destroy it.

Just seven years later, Confederate troops burned down not just the hotel but much of the town as well. They also killed 150 people—which had to be a significant percentage of the population.

Eldridge rebuilt yet again. But (perhaps with an eye to his insurance rates) he renamed the property. The Eldridge Hotel was born.

Surprising origins make great metaphors

Now, some people may read that story and see an interesting piece of history.

I read that story and see a rich metaphor that resonates deeply with our current times. Colonel Eldridge and the good people of Lawrence, Kansas, held strong convictions. And they stood by those convictions, despite hardship and great personal loss.

So it’s a story about courage. Holding firm in the face of even violent opposition. That’s not such an easy thing to do. How many times have you bought the candy at the grocery story checkout just to shut your kid up for five minutes? Hey—I’m not judging. In fact, if I’m standing in line behind you and your kid is annoying enough, I’ll even front you the $2 for the extra large candy bar.

My point is, we all cave in under far less pressure than the citizens of Lawrence felt. How much fortitude and conviction does it take to do the right thing when you’ve got a gun pointed at you?

You could segue this story into a discussion about ethics. Because what is “ethics” but doing the right thing, holding onto your personal beliefs? Even if they cost you your client, your job…or your hotel.

On a more literal plane, you could talk about Abolitionists as the #BlackLivesMatters allies of the 19th century. (And yes, I know the Abolitionist movement contained racists of its own. Stories are all more complex than we can articulate in a speech or a blog post.)

But today’s world needs to hear more white voices standing up for the people of color in our communities. Silence implicates us all. As AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said in a remarkable speech recently,

“Tolerance” is for cowards.

Thanks to the historic Eldridge Hotel for this inspiration. And a fine night’s sleep, too.

One thought on “Surprising origins: a Story Safari in Kansas

  1. Marie

    Elaine, hi. I taught at the University of Kansas for eight years under an inspired dean. After he left, many of us were either fired or forced out for teaching courses on gender or post-colonial studies. Sure this was way back in the late 90s, but the Board of Regents has made little any real progress. At the same time, Stephenson is heroic and no one that hears it sits down again comfortably, where we were five minutes before he stared talking. Thank you so much for bring this remarkable speech to my attention.

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