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Charles Mead

Proprietor of the Exchange Hotel in De Smet, Dakota Territory, June 1880 to October 1882.

Messrs. Laird, Norton & Chollar recently sold a large bill of lumber for an addition to the hotel of C.W. Mead, at De Smet, D.T. Mr. Mead will have a fine and commodious hotel, with the addition he is making to his former very good building. — The Redwood Gazette, September 16, 1880

Charles W. Mead was born February 15, 1847, in Wisconsin, the son of Mary and John Mead. Little is known about his early life. At the time of the railroad being extended west from Tracy, Minnesota, into Dakota Territory in 1879, he was living in Underwood Township (Redwood County, Minnesota), west of Redwood Falls. He partnerned with Storrs Byington to run a tri-weekly stagecoach from the end of the Dakota Central Railroad. Once De Smet was settled, they planned to have teams available to take prospective homesteaders to find claims to file on.

In April 1880, Mead and Byington shipped a load of lumber to Volga, Dakota Territory, to be hauled to De Smet. Byington contracted to buy Lot 21, Block 1 in De Smet, and a rough hotel was constructed on the site almost immediately. It was not much more than a large shack, and stood on the northern-most lot on the west side of Main Street, and Mr. Mead did a brisk business. He purchased the next lot south the following month, and built an addition onto his original hotel.

The Exchange Hotel. Although Laura Ingalls Wilder called it “Mead’s Hotel” in The Long Winter, it was known as the Exchange Hotel, except perhaps informally by the locals. Photo shows the hotel in the early 1900s; it is the large, two-story building at far right.

Following the October blizzard, Mr. Mead returned to Minnesota to marry Ida Mead of Clifton; they were married November 20 in Underwood Township in Redwood County. The couple then went to De Smet, where they spent the Hard Winter running the hotel; Mr. Mead also served as town constable. Early settler Romanzo Bunn recalled sleeping “three in an alleged bed” at the hotel that winter. Delos Perry (father of Laura’s student in the Perry School, Clyde Perry) later wrote that he had brought in supplies and divided his pork, flour, and butter with Mr. Mead, hauling it to the hotel via snowshoe and hand sled, taking his very last two hams to the hotel on April 10th. Almanzo Wilder’s cousin, Charles Lamson, set up a commercial coffee grinder in the Exchange Hotel parlor and ground seed wheat for the townsmen, the wheat coming from Amos Whiting’s carload of seed brought in before the Hard Winter. It, too, was hauled into town by handsled, according to the family, a bushel at a time. Charles Lamson recalled grinding 50 bushels that winter. A train finally brought supplies in May.

The hotel was the social center during the Hard Winter, and although it doesn’t seem as if the Ingalls family participated in any of the entertainments going on there, early settler Neva Whaley Harding, then a young girl, recalled a Christmas dance at the hotel. The existing Hard Winter newspaper fragment (Kingsbury County News dated February 21, 1881) advertised an upcoming “hop” at the Exchange Hotel.

Howland House. The Meads moved back to Minnesota in the summer of 1882, selling the hotel and property to J.E. Smith, who, in 1885, added a two-story 22 x 26 foot addition to the original hotel. Smith took J.E. Howland as partner, and although the hotel remained the Exchange for a while, the name was changed to “Howland House” in 1885 when Howland bought James Smith’s interest in the business and took C.L. Usher as partner to run the business. The navigation button to this page shows one of the few photographs of the hotel with “Exchange Hotel” signage. An advertisement in an 1887 De Smet Leader reads:

Hotels: This feature, so necessary to the business circles of all towns, is unusually well supplied in De Smet, and as first and foremost on the list, we refer to the Howland House, C.L. Usher, proprietor. The Howland is conveniently located to both business houses and depot, and under mine host Usher’s management, has gained a reputation of more than local importance. The house is neatly furnished throughout and the bill of fare is unexcelled in quality and variety, but the hotels of metropolitan cities. Mr. Usher and his lady are experienced caterers, and spare no pains or expense where the comfort of guests is concerned. the Howland is decidedly one of the best kept hotels in southern Dakota.

The Grand Hotel. Charles Ely, mentioned as the lumberman in The Long Winter, rented Howland House shortly after the above advertisement ran, and Mr. Usher purchased property on which to build another hotel, The Syndicate. In 1888, Ely was hired by Mr. Usher to run his hotel as well as The Howland. Ely oversaw renovations and the sale of earlier furnishings, including its 16 bedsteads, mattresses, springs, 16 German plate mirrors, hand lamps, 12 chairs, 2 rocking chairs, one sewing chair, an office chair, and a perforated seat, strongly suggesting that sixteen beds made up the Exchange Hotel in earlier years. The name was changed to the Grand Hotel, then renovated into the New Grand Hotel in 1909. In De Smet today, the grocery store parking lot at the north end of Calumet is the former site of the hotel building.

Ida and Charles Mead had five children born in Minnesota: Bessie (1881), twins Earl and Ernest (1884), John (1888) and Charles (1897). Charles was sheriff of Redwood Falls from 1887 to 1893 and from 1895 to 1897. After a brief period of time spent in San Diego (perhaps because his old partner Storrs Byington had relocated there), the Meads moved to Twin Falls, Idaho, around 1910, where Charles died November 3, 1938. Ida Mead died November 5, 1944, in Twin Falls.


Charles Mead (TLW 11)
     Mead’s Hotel (TLW 9)