It's taken patience and what Kempton Hotel owner Russ Schwartz refers to as just plain stubbornness to keep this 1926 neon sign in its original condition. After finding a business in Billings that still works on neon lighting, six of the broken letters on the front sign have been repaired. It's one of the many remodeling projects the hotel has undergone in recent years.
By Kay Braddock
From the sounds of clinking china to the faint ghostly images of a woman in a white dress, stories of the paranormal occurring at the Kempton Hotel have been around almost as long as the century-old building.
“I’ve been hearing about it my whole life,” owner Russ Schwartz shared. “My mother talks about it. My grandmother talked about it. I know that there’s stories after stories, so we started collecting some of them.”
Schwartz, who first purchased the two-story hotel nearly 20 years ago, has a long family history connected to the building. As a teenager his grandmother, Lydia Hess cleaned in the hotel for several years. During that time she heard of stories relating to young children, who had died in the hotel, leaving a ghostly legacy as pranksters teasing guests and employees.
Similar phantom tales have continued through present day.
A favorite story Schwartz likes to share happened two years ago during hunting season when the hotel was full. As a jubilant group of hunters and other guests sat in the packed lobby one evening, the conversation turned to ghosts.
“ ‘I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in any of that crap,’” Schwartz recalled one burly hunter stating.
The following morning that same hunter came downstairs with a story of his own to tell.
“Well, I don’t know if I believe in ghosts or not,’” Schwartz recalled the hunter beginning. “ ‘But something woke me up last night. Something grabbed my toe.’ And he woke up and there was nothing there,” Schwartz added.
Other stories have included sounds of moving furniture and curiously misplaced items.
It’s stories like these that have led to a section featuring Terry’s Kempton Hotel in a new book, “More Haunted Montana,” by Karen Stevens. Stevens, a Montana author who visits each site included in her book, retells some of the stories of each haunted place, along with her own experiences while visiting.
Stevens visited the Kempton Hotel over a year ago, staying twice.
Schwartz is quick to point out any paranormal occurrences at the Kempton Hotel have been benevolent in nature.
“Nobody has had any fear,” Schwartz said. “Confused and startled, but never scared.”
He points to the book’s section title featuring the hotel to emphasize his line of reasoning. It reads, “Where all the ghosts are friendly”.
“And whether or not any of it’s true, it’s been good for marketing,” Schwartz added with a smile.
Drawing visitors to Terry
Promoting the hotel and the uniqueness of area attractions is something Schwartz says he is intent on increasing.
“I want to be selfish with the community,” Schwartz said. “If people stay here, they’re going to buy gas, they’re going to go to Netzer’s (Hardware.)”
His increased advertising efforts have included a Facebook account and Internet promotions, including one featured on the Prairie County Chamber of Commerce Web site www.visitterrymontana.com.
“Your efforts have got to be to get them here. Then you’ve got to make them happy while they’re here.” Schwartz said.
As residents of Alaska, Schwartz and his wife Linda, share their duties of managing the hotel with four other people. Up until about two years ago, Schwartz’s mom, Frances, managed the hotel. When Frances suffered several strokes, Russ and Linda stepped up their on-site visits to the hotel.
With 26 separate rentals the average occupancy rate has been about 57 percent in the past two years. Schwartz estimates the rate requires at least 60 percent before the business venture can reach a profit making level. Peak times of year for the hotel include Miles City’s Bucking Horse Sale, Terry Roping Club’s Fourth of July Rodeo, Terry Yippee weekend and hunting season. Generally peak times mean full occupancy.
“For whatever reason, we get a pretty loyal group of agate hunters,” Schwartz added.
Keeping rooms clean, replacing old beds, offering bottled water and coffee pots in each room have helped increase the hotel’s occupancy rate in the past two years.
“Under Linda’s hard nose business sense she has increased our volume by 74 percent,” Schwartz said, indicating the two-year tracking period.
Hotel’s history emphasized
But Schwartz points to a commonly overlooked fact that he says sets the Kempton Hotel in a class all its own. His research, along with the research of others, indicates the Kempton Hotel is the longest continuously operating hotel in the state. That fact alone, Schwartz said, is worthy of promotion.
Although the general assumption has held that the hotel was completed in 1913 or 1914, Schwartz points to architectural features and two photographs that clearly point to an earlier construction date. A 1905 photograph hanging in the hotel’s main floor lobby depicts a completed Kempton Hotel in its original state, including today’s west end of the hotel. A 1912 photograph shows the hotel in its remodeled state, with the completion of the east end expansion and the addition of the lobby.
Because the Kempton Hotel is older than Prairie County, which was formed in 1915, finding historical data on the hotel has been a challenge, Schwartz said.
The Kempton Hotel has been credited locally to have been built by Berney and Martha Kempton. Schwartz believes others, including Berney’s brother Earl and likely investors from Miles City, were involved in the hotel’s construction.
The hotel featured 42 rooms. Each room had a sink, something “unheard of” at the time, Schwartz said. A main floor fine dining restaurant was also included in the building. The restaurant is believed to have closed in 1947.
“I want to keep it to the original intent,” Schwartz said of his current refurbishing efforts.
Living up to that goal has required stubbornness on his part, especially when it came to restoring the building’s neon sign. Finding someone who had the parts and knowledge to repair neon lighting took patience.
Eventually the six broken lights on the building’s front sign were fixed.
Recent improvements have included upgrading the electrical, mechanical and water systems, along with structural repairs and painting projects. With 114 gallons of paint already purchased, Schwartz intends on repainting the outside of the building.
Maintaining the historical accuracy and elegance of the building is at the heart of the remodeling project. It’s something Schwartz hopes will accentuate the hotel’s welcoming ambiance.
“People come here and they get relaxed,” Schwartz said. “There’s a feeling here. If you stay here a couple of days you can just watch it.”
Published Oct. 20, 2010