The Museum’s blogs throughout the summer of 2020 looked back to when High Point was incorporated in 1859. This summer, many of our posts will return to those early years with some new blogs about old subjects. Today’s features the guest register from the old Barbee Hotel.
For June’s International Archives Day, I thought it would be fun to feature one of our prized possessions at the Heritage Research Center in the High Point Public Library: the Barbee Hotel Register, 1865-1874.
Not only does it feature the varied signatures of its guests, but also the curious notations they have made in the margins of the register, such as the one depicted above. Since the Barbee Hotel predates the Gideon Bible (1908), one had to thump a Biblical quote wherever one could as with this verse from Psalm 81. We’ll let that serve as our introduction—for as you’ll see in further excerpts from this colorful register, perhaps a few of the guests could have used a bit of scripture if only to null the frayed nerves of our road-weary travelers… Hear, Oh my people…
The Barbee Hotel was first built by Jeremiah Piggott in 1851 and was called the Piggott Hotel. He sold it in 1858 to the siblings W.G., Clara and Penney Barbee. The hotel was handily located on West High Street in High Point “within twenty paces of the Depot,” as it was frequently advertised. There was daily transportation between the hotel and Salem, so it goes without saying that many of the registered guests were from Salem…
Signature of the Salem Brass Band with illustration
…but they came from everywhere: from New York to Atlanta, from Texas to… um… Hungary???
No matter the language, it's certainly Greek to me!
With a surname like Etheridge, it is more likely Carl was from Warsaw, Indiana.
“The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks..." Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.
In 1967, Minnie Pickett Harrell wrote that the Barbee hotel was a special center. “People came from miles around to attend the social and conversation hour. This was a highlight which no one of prominence could afford to miss.” (The High Point Enterprise, May 26, 1967). No matter from how far and wide people came, there were still those who had a hard time finding their way from Jamestown, N.C., as this entry attests (“Lost on or about Jamestown”):
Some historians speculate that it was soldiers who first nicknamed coffee after “mud,” having to use whatever water source was available (puddle or swamp), not to mention what may have been substituted for coffee grounds.
Beneath the “lost notice,” are scrawled a few fairly loud complaints about the lack of coffee and good writing instruments. No doubt had Yelp been around in the 19th Century, the hotel would not have faired as well as it did, at least not on this particular day. Of course, the complaints weren’t strictly limited to the hotel. An errant clerk might return to the desk and find posted in his register a political lament like the one left by Frederick Phillip Stieff of Baltimore, Maryland:
“Good-by [sic] 1868. You have brought forth a swarm, or an accidental spawn
of politicians who promise no good to this country – Again I say goodby go and
take with you the political sewer that you have thrown to the surface – we will
welcome 1869 with but little hope that we will be able to repair the political
damage that you have done.”
The 1868 presidential election was the first election after the Civil War whereby Ulysses S. Grant defeated Horatio Seymour. In this era of Reconstruction, as now, the hot issue of the day was civil rights. Frederick P. Steiff (1841-1918) was a piano manufacturer from Baltimore who no doubt hoped to find both business and comradery, united by a more conservative Democratic party.
The year 1869 brought further undesirable guests to the hotel, as this marginal note attests:
Of course, not all the signatures were quite so divisive. The occasion of a circus coming to town brought the register one of its most ornate signatures thanks to E.G. Grady’s American Circus, “one of the greatest humbugs of the age,” touts the undersigned.
The circus performers are of course borrowing the term “humbug” from the most famous showman of them all, P.T. Barnum. It was Barnum who made pains to distinguish between a humbug and an outright swindler, justifying illusion over reality by claiming that if people felt entertained, then they were not swindled. By the time the Grady’s Circus checked into the hotel, a humbug seemed to be even something to boast about—in a backhanded way, of course.
Then again not all circus troops were equal. Thayer’s Circus seemed to have a hard time of it in High Point and made a hasty retreat, which then inspired many to express their hard feelings in the hotel register:
“Dr. Thayer’s Circus has busted and gone to Raleigh for the purpose of benefiting Tim Lee. Tim Lee is nothing but a scalawag and a thief. (Signed: One who knows him.)”
“Busted and gone to Hell by George"
Let it be a lesson to all future Humbugs that what happens at the Barbee Hotel, does not stay at the Barbee Hotel:
Wilmington Morning Star, November 17th 1870.
Further editorial comments were scrawled into the margins about other unsuspecting guests:
Clearly it was not only the guests who were subject to marginal criticism:
"Slow are you sirs!"
Perhaps if the staff at the Barbee Hotel moved a bit faster they could have saved themselves from such editorial comments.
Someone—it is uncertain whether an employee or hotel guest—clearly didn’t fall for any humbug at the hotel and felt inclined to scrawl in a large font across the entire register page the worst epithet I’ve ever seen in any business register:
However, the script remains a perfect example of the antiquated long “S” which often appears in older documents, especially where there is the occasion of the double “S” side-by-side. It is and often mistaken for a cursive “f” as shown in the epithet above.
Whether or not the reputation of the hotel had fallen by the time this register was completed in 1874, it was soon sold to George Leach in 1880. The hotel reincarnated then as the Bellevue Hotel. Apparently, large hunting lodges from Jamestown to Trinity brought in many extravagant guests. However, the most notable incarnation of the hotel occurred much earlier during the Civil War when it served as a wayside hospital, of which the Heritage Research Center also holds the original registers, complete with soldiers’ names and treatments. These hospital records have since been abstracted and published in the Guilford County Genealogical Society Journals.
Just as any visitor to High Point may have found sources of unknown delight in our town, archives always hold untold treasures that are just waiting to be discovered. Archival records hidden away in museums and libraries always prove to be fascinating fodder for the historically jaded researcher. You just need to learn to read between the lines, so to speak. It was from the same general time period as this hotel register that Mr. Tulliver uttered the famous line from George Elliott’s Mill on the Floss (1860): Don’t judge a book by its cover. A reader never knows what gems may be found in its pages, pressed into historical context like a wild tiger lily tamed and dried between the heavy dark covers of a family Bible. It is both a privilege and a pleasure to work and protect such treasures in the Heritage Research Center.
Learn more about International Archives Day and Week and the Society of American Archivists:
Contributed by Stephen Rantz, Research Associate in the Heritage Research Center at the High Point Public Library.