Kathleen Holt would like to say that she skateboarded in front of the 1886 hotel, as she was growing up in Cimarron, Kansas, some 50 years ago, and dreamed of owning the precious place where, as she puts it, “cowboys went to get the heck out of Dodge.”
Oh, she did skateboard in front of this Santa Fe Trail hotel that gave comfort to gunfighters Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp and Luke Short, but the tree roots that grew through the sidewalk irritated her.
No, she came to this hotel “kicking and screaming” as a young bride in 1977 when her husband said they were buying the joint that had fallen into disrepair.
“In the first weeks, I got used to the Regulator Clock that kept ticking and the creeks in the wood, and it captivated me,” she says. “You cannot be in this building and not have a sense of another day.”
During the day, the couple operated a restaurant on the first floor, then spent their nights renovating. When they divorced in 1982, Holt converted the second floor to the home she has known ever since. There, she raised two children, 10 foster children and 17 exchange students.
Holt, who still works part-time at the Kansas Public Radio station she helped found in 1980, says she started from square one and learned everything she could about historical restoration.
“I wrote the nomination to get the Cimarron Hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982,” she says, “and that was just the start. I was one of the original board members of the Kansas Preservation Alliance. I was president of the State Historical Society. I helped raise $12.8 million to save the Dodge [City] depot. But I’m also a single parent, a working woman, with no family wealth, and I showed that preservation can be an every person’s thing.”
She redid the hotel’s plumbing and repaired the balcony deck, in 1990, and fixed the foundation and wiring, in 2003. She’s still working on the mansard roof. “This is a 9,600-square-foot building, and I will never finish renovating,” she says.
Just a day’s ride from Dodge City, Cimarron was the “getaway” place for those escaping the famous Kansas hotbed. “I have the hotel’s original registration ledger. Some of these guys were practical jokers. So Luke Short signs in at one point as Short Luke from Shortwood, and another time as Luke Shortwood from Short.”
He signed the ledger in 1887, four years after Dodge City’s bloodless “Saloon War” when Short, the part owner of the Long Branch Saloon, was driven out of Dodge. Holt thinks Short signed the silly names in the Cimarron Hotel’s ledger to “thumb his nose at Kansas.”
Holt continues to renovate and would consider selling the hotel, but only if it will be preserved. “If someone offered me a million dollars for the hotel and said they were going to tear it down, I’d say ‘go away,’” she says. “This hotel is worth preserving, and it’s one of the few places from the old Dodge City days left.”
Jana Bommersbach has been Arizona’s Journalist of the Year and has won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She also cowrote and appeared on the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and is the author of two nationally-acclaimed true crime books and a children’s book.