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Staying at the Magnolia Hotel was a real circus (July 2013)

Staying at the Magnolia Hotel was a real circus (July 2013)

Van Craddock HeadshotStaying at the Magnolia Hotel was a real circus
- By Van Craddock

You never knew who might be staying at Longview's old Magnolia Hotel. One week it could be politicians and drummers; another week it might be an alligator or a circus elephant. Three generations of the same family operated the popular Gregg County hotel from the 1870s until it closed in 1934. The 50-room business sat on the south side of Cotton Street where Longview's central fire station and former city hall are situated.

In the late 1870s Elisabeth Peck, a recent widow, purchased the Spencer Hotel. She planted two Magnolia trees in the front yard and renamed the hotel the Magnolia. She soon married George Tabler, who became a Longview city marshal and tragically was gunned down in September 1886.

Mrs. Tabler suffered yet another tragedy when a daughter, Ruth, drowned. Located near the Texas and Pacific's downtown Longview depot, the Magnolia attracted plenty of boarders from the day it opened. The hotel's dining room featured delicious food served on tables with white linen cloths. The frame hotel, which operated its own laundry, later added a brick building and a livery stable.

The Magnolia had its share of competing hotels, notable the downtown Palace Hotel and the fancy Mobberly Hotel at Longview Junction just east of town. However, many traveling salesmen were regular customers at the Magnolia for 30 or 40 years.

Elizabeth Peck Tabler's daughter, Sharlie Peck, born in 1873, was a free spirit with a love for animals. She had a large buck deer that lived on the hotel grounds as well as an alligator. The story is told that little Sharlie occasionally would place a leash on the gator and take it on strolls down Cotton Street to the amazement of passersby.

Then there was the time a circus came to town and the performers stayed at the Magnolia. The circus was having financial woes and Mrs. Tabler feared she wouldn't get paid. She obtained a lien against the circus and forced the owner to leave some of his animals, including an elephant, tigers and lions.

Eventually, the owner paid his debt but not before Mrs. Tabler had paid a small fortune keeping the circus fed in hay and meat. Mrs. Tabler managed the Magnolia until 1918, when Sharlie and her husband, J.W. Dalston, took control. Dalston, who married Sharlie in 1899, was a game warden who later served on the Longview City Commission and Longview ISD school board.

In 1929 one of the Dalstons' sons, J.W. Jr., assumed management of the Magnolia, which became a beehive of activity when the East Texas oil boom began in 1931. Three years later he sold the property to make way for a new city hall and fire station.

A 1934 Longview Daily News article lamented the loss of the Magnolia: "Many old timers have remarked recently about the hospitality of the hotel and of the fine meals served by Mrs. Tabler in the old days."

That same article quoted Dalston: "Now is the time for the businessmen of Longview to get together and build a modern hotel in keeping with the needs of the city." Conrad Hilton felt the same way. In 1935 he bought the downtown Gregg Hotel, doubled its size and renamed it the Longview Hilton.

Buoyed by his success in Longview, Hilton began acquiring other hotels and eventually boasted the largest hotel empire in America.