Iowa is home to some unique hotels and inns. It is not well known, but the Mason House Inn might top the list as one of the oldest continually operating inns in the United States. Defining the oldest continually operating inn is difficult as many inns have been re-purposed over the years. Mason House Inn is no exception, having been used as a war hospital during the Civil War. But that can’t be held against it can it? It was only serving its country, after all. After some quick research it is clear that Mason House Inn has a solid claim to the title, or at least a claim to a “top ten” list. First, it was purpose-built as an inn in 1846 (beating other claimants such as the DeSoto House in Galena, Illinois by seven years and the Savoy Hotel in Kansas City, another frequently touted “oldest” hotel, by forty-two years). Second, although some rooms may have been used as offices by doctors and dentists over the years, the place is built to serve as an inn. Except for some brief periods where it was undergoing renovations or recovering from the floods that surge down the Des Moines river every few decades, it has been in business handling guests.
The Mason House Inn, first named the Ashland House, was originally built by Mormon craftsmen heading west from Nauvoo, Illinois to serve Mormons, steamboat passengers, and other travelers heading up the Des Moines River to parts west. In 1857 the name was changed to Phoenix Hotel and after staying in the Mason family for 99 years became known as the Mason House Inn. During most of that time period, the Inn had a bar in the southwest front room. The story is that no drapes were installed in the bar so that it would be easy for wives to see if their men were at the bar. The room reportedly served as a bar for nearly 100 years. The furnishings were all sold off about a decade ago when one of the more recent owners, a local minister, took possession. There is a surviving photo from what appears to be the early ’50s when the bar room was still fitted out in its original furnishings.
The Inn is now operated as a Bed and Breakfast with nine rooms. Interestingly, modern indoor plumbing was not installed until the late 1990s. For more than one hundred years of its existence guests had to use a privy in the back yard. Each room now has its own private bath. In addition, the Inn has a fairly large dining hall suitable for gatherings. To the right of the entrance is the original parlor room, furnished with period antiques.
During our stay we found that the room was extremely comfortable with a very nice Tempur-Pedic bed. The breakfasts were adequate, but given the distinct lack of any restaurants for miles, very welcome. Guest rooms and common areas are furnished with antiques.
In addition to the original Inn, there is an adjoining general store with several suites. A very cute converted 1952 railroad caboose is also on the grounds and this can be rented as well. It is the only room that has TV. The general store is built from wood from the 1858 Bonaparte Railroad Station from down the road.
Another very unique feature of the Inn is that it is described as haunted by numerous ghostly beings and is frequently visited by ghost hunters. There is a great deal of literature available at the Inn outlining the ghost hunting activities and the owners will eagerly explain their brushes with the supernatural. Type in “ghost” and “Mason House Inn” on YouTube and you will see a number of interviews and ghost hunts for your viewing pleasure. I can’t say that I saw any evidence of the supernatural whilst I visited the Inn, but I get the impression that those who believe in such things will be rewarded with visitations from the dead.
Whether you want to commune with the spirits or just enjoy a slice of real history, I highly recommend the Mason House Inn. TV and movies have distorted the historical record. A lot of things happened between the American Revolution and the Civil War — ninety year span of time. When the Mason House Inn was built in 1846, the frontier was at its front doorstep. Des Moines was nothing more than an army fort (a collection of log cabins and lacking any fortified walls) and a trading post, known as Agency House. Just a few months earlier, on October 11th, 1845, a gunshot fired from that trading post marked the expiration of a treaty that allowed the Sac and Fox tribes to remain in possession of their lands in Iowa. The tribes were banished to Kansas and a flood of settlers headed to Iowa to take possession. A few months later Iowa became a state. Everything west of the Missouri River remained unsettled or disputed territory. Steamboats began paddling up the Des Moines river (there were no railroads in Iowa back then) to discharge boatloads of settlers eager to find and settle inexpensive land. Many of those early settlers, and Mormons headed to the west, stayed at the new Mason House Inn.
Mason House Inn
21982 Hawk Drive
Bentonsport, Iowa 52565-8260