Making  Meeker  hotel’s history  hospitable

Self-proclaimed ‘history geek’ takes over management of Meeker Hotel

Cindy Cunningham, the new manager at the historic Meeker Hotel, had a hunch the position would be a good fit, even before her first day on the job.
Turns out she was right.
Cunningham was familiar with Meeker, because one of her sisters, Mary, as well as her mom, Marilyn, both live here and she had visited them many times over the years. And, even though she has never managed a hotel before, she had a good feeling about this opportunity.
After a little more than two months on the job — she moved here at the end of July — she is even more convinced this was the right place for her.
“It was always a dream of mine to operate a bed and breakfast,” said Cunningham, who moved here from the east coast. “I just imagined it would be on the coast of Maine.”
Instead, here she is on the western slope of Colorado. And she couldn’t be happier.
“My friends call me a history geek, and this hotel is so full of it,” Cunningham said of the 122-year-old hotel. “I really didn’t have to think twice (about taking the job). I’m proud to be here.”
And the Ritchies, James and Kim, owners of the hotel, are glad to have Cunningham running things.
“Cindy and the Meeker Hotel make an excellent combination as she infuses the unique historical setting with her own gracious hospitality,” Kim Ritchie said. “She does an excellent job of sharing its history, and I am so happy to have someone who loves the Meeker Hotel’s quirks and stories and is so good at sharing them.”
Cunningham and the Ritchies hit it off from the start.
Cunningham was in town visiting family during Range Call, when her sister, who is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, and is friends with Kim Ritchie, told her about the job at the hotel.
“Kim had been talking with Mary about the need for a new manager and Mary said, ‘You should talk to my sister,’” Cunningham said. “It all happened very fast.”
During that visit to Meeker last July, Cunningham met with Kim Ritchie.
“We talked a couple of times and that was that,” Cunningham said. “We found our philosophies and our ideas for the hotel are very similar. She and I really clicked.”
Next thing she knew, Cunningham was in the process of moving here.
“I haven’t even sold my home yet,” said Cunningham, who was living in New Hampshire. “I drove home, packed my belongings in my Jeep and drove back.”
Cunningham’s two children, a son, 23, and a daughter, 21, are still back east.
“They like visiting here,” Cunningham said. “But they both love Boston. They love the big city. They love the Red Sox and the Celtics.”
Cunningham, though, felt at home in northwest Colorado from the start.
“I’ve been visiting here for probably 20 years,” said Cunningham, who lives in a room at the hotel. “My sister Mary tried to talk me into moving here. My mother moved here about six years ago. It had always been a possibility. I even looked at homes (in Meeker) at one point.”
Cindy and Mary Cunningham are the youngest of seven children.
“We have always been very close,” Cindy Cunningham said. “So, the chance to finally live in the same community, plus my mom is here, it was a perfect fit.”
Besides raising her own children, Cunningham had either been self-employed or worked in management positions, so she had experience overseeing a business. Plus, she has an appreciation for historic buildings, which is what attracted her to the job at the Meeker Hotel in the first place.
“I knew the basics (of the hotel’s history),” Cunningham said. “The more I’ve learned, and I’ve learned an awful lot, the more I’ve become enamored with the place.
“You have to have an appreciation for an old building,” she added. “You have to love its quirks. It has leaks and creaks, but that adds to the charm of it.”
The Meeker Hotel is listed on the National Historic Register, Cunningham said, adding the hotel and its history are important to the community.
“I think people here really love this place and are proud of it,” she said. “I think the community feels a sense of ownership.”
The hotel, located in the heart of downtown on Main Street, is best known as the place where Theodore Roosevelt stayed in 1901 during a visit to Rio Blanco County. There’s a room at the hotel, called the Roosevelt Suite, where the famous outdoorsman and 26th president is believed to have stayed. The room, with its many photos of Roosevelt on the walls, is especially popular with hunters and history buffs alike.
“He visited this area quite a bit,” Cunningham said of Roosevelt, who was vice president-elect when he was a guest at the hotel.
The actor Gary Cooper also stayed at the Meeker Hotel, and there is a room named for him.
“He stayed (at the hotel) when he was filming westerns out here,” Cunningham said.
Other famous guests who have reportedly stayed at the hotel, Cunningham said, include Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd president and Theodore’s cousin; the outlaw Billy the Kid, who stayed at the hotel under the name William Bonney; and current Vice President Dick Cheney.
Adding to the hotel’s persona is its reputation for being haunted, Cunningham said.
“It definitely has a history for being haunted,” Cunningham said. “We’ve had a couple of guests get spooked, but it makes for a great story when they go home. They (the hotel ghosts) just want to make people know they’re here.”
At first, Cunningham dismissed the ghost stories. Now, she’s a believer.
“I sort of laughed the stories off,” she said. “But, let’s just say, they made their presence known. I no longer make fun of the hotel ghosts.”
As evidence of the hotel ghosts, Cunningham said there have been reports of TVs turning on by themselves, or doors opening on their own.
“Kim and I like to think it’s the Ball family just watching out for their hotel,” Cunningham said.
R.S. Ball, whose name appears on the front of the building, was the long-time owner of the hotel and oversaw construction of the brick structure that is the central portion of the hotel. He took over the business from his half-sister, Sarah (she went by Susan) Wright, after she died in 1893.
Wright, a pioneer woman from South Carolina, bought the original adobe structure, which had been an army barracks, for $1,500 in 1884, Cunningham said, and turned it into a saloon with guest rooms in the back.
“She bought the building in ‘84, but, for some reason, most accounts have her opening in ‘86,” Cunningham said. “I think there may be some uncertainty there. Anyway, the hotel celebrated its 120th anniversary in 2006.”
Wright died in 1893. She willed the business to her brother, who had 200,000 bricks shipped in to construct a two-story hotel in 1896 on the same site as his sister’s saloon.
“I think it was her brother’s idea all along to class the place up,” Cunningham said.
In 1904, Ball added the east and west wings to the hotel, which has 24 guest rooms. The Ball family operated the hotel until 1923, when it was sold to Clarence and Lucille Mathis. The Ritchies have owned the hotel for more than 10 years, Cunningham said.
The stone building east of the hotel houses the Meeker Cafe, which the Ritchies lease to Paul Nold.
Cunningham said she and Kim Ritchie work well together.
“We’re definitely working together as a team,” Cunningham said. “We have a similar vision for the hotel. She’s been extremely encouraging. She told me I’m doing her dream job, but she has three young children. I think it’s fortunate we found each other.”
Even though Cunningham has only been on the job for a short time, she has lots of ideas for the business.
“It has so much potential,” she said. “But all of it, of course, will take time.”
Kim Ritchie thinks people will like the changes she and Cunningham are making.
“She truly enjoys her guests and everyone else who just drops by to see the lobby, so if its been awhile since you dropped by, I encourage you to take a look and introduce yourself to the new manager,” Ritchie said.
From the cozy lobby area to the museum-quality trophy racks hanging on the walls, Cunningham wants to build on the hotel’s appeal to hunters and tourists alike.
“We want people to come to Meeker to stay at the Meeker Hotel,” she said. “They feel at home here. They like to sit and chat in the lobby and look at the trophies. More than a place to stay, that’s our motto, and that’s the atmosphere we’re trying to build on.”
Cunningham’s role, as she sees it, is to be a caretaker of the historic hotel.
“This is a place that needs a lot of care,” she said. “It is owned by an individual, but it really belongs to the community. I’m a steward, that’s how I feel about my job.”
It sounds like a good fit.