There is a century-old hotel on the main street in a Maryland mountain college town called Frostburg. And once it was grand. I don’t want to tell you too much. I want you to walk down the creaky staircase into the basement and see for yourself. But you are not near Frostburg, so the story begins.
We stopped into Fallinger’s Hotel Gunter by accident. On a cross-country road trip, Frostburg, a college town tucked into the Allegany Mountains, seemed an auspicious place to stop for lunch. While walking off the sea legs that come with cross-country driving, we encountered the little hotel tucked between stores along Main Street in downtown. I anticipated a lobby with faded glory which I hoped would inspire a story. The desk clerk with a Caribbean accent greeted us while eating lunch from a styrofoam box on a velvety chair in the lobby. I told her I liked old hotels. There is a museum downstairs we may be interested in, she said. And the adventure began.
The groaning stairs delivered us to the basement floored in miniature black and white tiles, the kind we had in our middle school bathrooms before the building, victim of half-hearted renovation attempts, was rightfully razed. We walked past a couple empty display cases, likely removed from 1950’s jewelry stores, into a basement bathroom, where we discovered a jail cell. In the bathroom. In the hotel. In the olden days, the hotel was a stopping point as prisoners were transferred along the “Old Train Road,” and prisoners spent the night under the same roof as their wardens, albeit in less palatial surroundings. Now, the jail still remained as part of Frostburg’s history. But what on earth was a life-sized, paint-chipping plastic lion doing in the cell with the prisoners? Even if these walls could tell stories, they probably couldn’t explain the lion. A cock-fighting arena was once down here also. And a speakeasy. But I digress.
Fast forward. Really nice exhibit of a mid-twentieth century kitchen, with old stoves and cooking utensils, a frozen in time reminder of Suzie Homemaker. A walk through a mysterious door (exhibits continue) into a dark passageway with stories of Frostburg’s military veterans. Army uniforms, yellow clippings of heroic times, sad times, and times gone by. Photos and tales of Allegany County history.
And then I turned the corner.
I was not prepared. An entire glass-fronted room packed with stuffed animals. What kind of stuffed animals? Like a natural history museum? Like a toy store? Yes and yes. Taxidermied deer head on the wall? Check. Teddy bear? Check. A small sunglass-wearing stuffed gorilla toy probably won at the county fair by a teenage boy for his teenage girlfriend? Check. A fox carrying a dead squirrel in its mouth? Check. A large toy stuffed deer, like the kind you get out at the holidays to decorate your old-timey bar, wearing a plaid kilt and hat? Check. A creepy beaver with half of his face falling off (due to a fight with another stuffed animal or poor taxidermy, we will never know)? Check.
We were not ready for the shock and awe this exhibit provided. This, we decided, was worth a visit to Frostburg.
The museum continued. A replica coal mine, complete with coal trolley. A display of historic bottles, like Coca-Cola, milk, and cream. Another pseudo-kitchen behind glass with an assortment of salt- and pepper-shakers. All quite normal and small town. But they needed one more weird exhibit: in an outdoor subterranean garden, behind glass like animals in a zoo, lived a colony of garden gnomes. They had a pond and a plastic flamingo pet in this rocky landscape. I am not certain if the gnomes were captive or had chosen the Fallinger’s Hotel Gunter. There was nobody in the basement to ask.
We left through the back door and stopped to buy a Frostburg State Bobcats t-shirt at a store down the block. A middle-aged couple was asking the clerk what there was to do in Frostburg. Excitedly, I interrupted that the hotel museum was a must see, but I couldn’t tell them why. They eyed me suspiciously, for I was far too excited about a basement museum. I insisted they go, and I hope they did.
One day I shall stay in the Fallinger’s Hotel Gunter (for if we don’t stay in old hotels in small towns, they will no longer be there), and I shall walk downstairs in the wee hours, when scary things are scarier, when the stairs will be creakier, to experience the hotel’s museum in the dark, perhaps by flashlight. Maybe I shall take a friend there and treat them to this rare nocturnal surprise. Whether they will still be my friend afterward, one can never tell.
http://www.failingershotelgunter.com – 11 West Main Street – Frostburg, Maryland