Sunday, 8 May 2011

Grenfell: Hoax at the Granite Hotel

Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States (1901-1909). Image source
Robert Copeland

In 1887, Robert A. Copeland and W. H. Fleming bought the hotel in Grenfell with a down payment of two yoke of oxen. Eighteen years later in 1905, David Black bought the Granite Hotel from Copeland with a satchel containing $38,000 in cash. 

Perhaps the value had grown due to the local myth that U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt had spent a night at the Granite Hotel on December 14, 1901. A page on the hotel’s register bore the ‘signatures’ of ‘Theo Roosevelt’ and his travelling companions, James J. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway; U. S. Grant Jr., son of the Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant; and J. A. Garfield Jr., son of President Garfield.  Roosevelt had just been sworn in as President in September of that year. He delivered his State of the Union address on December 3rd, two weeks before he is alleged to have stayed at the hotel in Grenfell, Saskatchewan. On December 16th -- two days later -- he delivered a message to Congress.

The Granite Hotel, c. 1905
For years, Grenfell boasted that this famous name graced the register of the Granite Hotel. One man even claimed to have carried President Roosevelt’s luggage from the station to the hotel. It was a period of railway promotion, so it was thought that there was an attempt to secure American capital for the building of new railway lines in Canada. Surveys were being made in the vicinity of Grenfell, and it was suggested that perhaps Roosevelt and his friends were sufficiently interested to come and investigate the possibilities for themselves.

Grenfell’s tale of this brush with greatness was perpetuated for another 59 years until, in 1960, a former Grenfell resident touched off a chain of events that finally revealed the hoax. Lionel E. Curran was the “doubting Thomas.” He sent a copy of the register to the Library of Congress in Washington DC to have the signatures of Roosevelt and his companions compared to the real ones. The library found that all but that of James J. Hill were fake signatures. Mr. Curran notified the Grenfell Sun of his findings, and his letter was published on the newspaper’s front page. The Regina Leader-Post picked up the story, and ran a photo of the controversial register page on its front page on February 1, 1960.

Hon. C. C. Williams, 1963. Image source
The next morning, Saskatchewan’s Minister of Labour, Hon. C. C. Williams,* contacted the Leader-Post, providing a clue to the origins of the hoax. “The signature of ‘Theo Roosevelt’ is in fact,” said Williams, “the identical handwriting of my late father who was a station agent in a small town near Grenfell at that time.” Williams said he had received a copy of the register page four years before and, not wishing to spoil the story, had said nothing. “I think the real explanation was a hockey game or curling tournament at Grenfell that Saturday night which attracted people from surrounding towns” Williams told the newspaper. “Six or seven ‘Morse boys’ [telegraph operators] got together and had some fun with the register.”

In 1980, the Grenfell local history book concluded its account of the Roosevelt myth by saying: “What better place to relax than in an up-to-date and friendly hotel in a beautiful little town like Grenfell. All we can say is that if he didn’t come it was his loss.”

The Granite Hotel in Grenfell,  2010. Image source
*Charles C. Williams born in Moosomin in 1896 and went to school in Wapella. He was the Minister of Labour in CCF government from in 1944 to 1964 – the longest any Saskatchewan Minister has served in one portfolio. Williams retired from politics in 1964 and died in 1975.

© Joan Champ 2011

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  1. Interesting story. I'm interested in how you discovered it.


  2. I found the story in the local history book, Grit and Growth; The Story of Grenfell (1980). The Saskatchewan News Index pointed me to the newspaper stories which gave me more information.

  3. My grandparents along with my mother and siblings spent a night in this hotel on August 17, 1927. They were moving from Nebraska to Bruno, SK. Is this the same motel that was there in 1927? Steve Gibson

    1. There was another hotel in Grenfell called the Kings Hotel which burned down in 1927. I don't have the exact date of the fire. It was a 3-storey brick hotel.