The Askew women at the Commercial Hotel

2012-11-12-wadena-055The Commercial Hotel (on the National Register of Historic Places, now repurposed as the Commercial Apartments), is a three-story Queen Anne Style, late Victorian brick building on South Jefferson St. in Wadena, Minnesota, that served as an anchor for the Askew family, especially the women of the Askew family, for decades. I’m still trying to understand this aspect of the Askew family, so this post will serve as a place to gather my notes and sources about the Askews at the Commercial Hotel. I have a lot to learn about this subject, so please do leave comments if you can further illuminate the subject.

In the Spring of 1901, Joseph Askew and his wife Jane leased a three-story brick hotel called the Wadena Hotel. They soon renamed the hotel the Commercial Hotel, as their target customers were travelling salesmen who came by train and needed a place to eat, sleep, and display their goods. After a time, Joseph purchased the Hotel for an estimated $10,000 (the equivalent of about $275,000 in today’s dollars).

The Commercial Hotel in its current incarnation as the Commercial Apartments

The Commercial Hotel in its current incarnation as the Commercial Apartments

Joseph Askew and his wife and their children managed and later owned the Commercial Hotel in Wadena, MN, for much of the first decade of the 1900s. By 1908, Joseph decided to sell the hotel and move his family to North Dakota to farm. In the meantime, the hotel was leased to Frank Lynch in 1908, then to J. A. Schreiner in 1909, and in 1910 the hotel was leased (or possibly purchased) by the Askew’s youngest daughter, Jennie, and her husband, Albert Barker.

After Joseph’s death September 21, 1911, Jane made the decision to sell the farm, move back to Wadena, and buy back the Commercial Hotel. Jane’s son Wilfred contributed $5,000 he had from selling off his mining interest in Colorado, and this, combined with other family money was enough to buy back the Commercial Hotel. Possibly in recognition of the fact that the hotel was bought back and then operated cooperatively by the members of the Askew family, in 1912, Jane Askew formed the Askew Realty Company and distributed shares of the company among the members of the family.
Askew stock certificate, 1 front Askew stock certificate, 2 backLong after Jane’s death in 1914, the Commercial Hotel served served as a shared home for many of the Askew daughters, keeping the family bonds strong. As can be seen from the 1920 census return (below; the top half of the page lists the residents of the Commercial Hotel), the Askew women and their families made the Commercial Hotel their home as well as their livelihood.
The Askews enumerated at the Commercial Hotel on the 1920 census:

  • Edward and Fannie (Askew) Young were living in the hotel with their 9-year-old stepson Joseph and their 5-year-old twins Jack and Jean.
  • Jennie (Askew) Harrison, recently widowed after the 1919 death of her second husband Charles, was living in the hotel with her 12-year-old son Charles, and someone who was possibly her mother-in-law, 69-year-old Mary Harrison.
  • Belle (Askew) Spencer, a widow of more than 10 years after the death of her husband Jim, lived in the hotel with her 21-year-old daughter Jennie.
  • Harold and Allie (Askew) Mason were living in the hotel.
  • William and Edith (Askew) King were living in the hotel with their 16-year-old daughter Florence and their 12-year-old son Robert.

Only two Askew daughters were missing from the Commercial Hotel in 1920: Annie and Etta. Annie and her husband Billie were busy running their own hotel, the Askew’s first hotel—the Arlington Hotel in nearby Menahga. Etta and her husband Charles Wilkins were farming in Cass County, ND.

By 1930, the impact of the automobile on the hotel trade was being felt (or perhaps the census taker came by during an ebb in business). The 1930 census lists only 12 people in the Commercial Hotel, 6 of which were Askew family members, and 4 were non-Askew maids/waitresses, leaving only 2 travelling salesman as paying guests.
1930UnitedStatesFederalCensusForCommercialHotelThe Askews enumerated at the Commercial Hotel on the 1930 census:

  • Henrietta (Askew) Wilkins
  • ? Lucy Harrison (a possible relation of Jennie Askew Harrison’s husband), a widow
  • Charles Harrison (Jennie Askew Harrison’s son)
  • ? Ella Spencer (a possible relation of Isabella Askew Spencer’s husband), a widow
  • Harold and Jennie (Spencer) Harvey

Jennie Harrison is conspicuously absent.

The 1940 census shows the Askew clan still running and living at the Commercial Hotel.

1940UnitedStatesFederalCensusForCommercialHotel1 1940UnitedStatesFederalCensusForCommercialHotel2

The Askews enumerated at the Commercial Hotel on the 1940 census:

  • Fannie Young and her daughter Jean
  • Belle Spencer
  • Henrietta Wilkins
  • Harold and Allie Mason
  • Jennie Harrison
  • ? Hannal Mason (a possible relation of Harold Mason; a widower, perhaps Harold’s brother?)
  • John and Mary Young and their daughter Mary Yvonne Young, returned from Beverly Hills, California
  • Harry and Jennie (Spencer) Harvey

They also had 14 guests recorded as staying in the Hotel at the time of the 1940 census, including a 75-year-old widow named Katherine Murphy who is marked as being a guest, but is recorded as having lived in the same place (the Commercial Hotel) in 1935. Perhaps this is the mysterious “Mother Murphy” I’ve heard about in relation to the Commercial Hotel? Below is a photo of “Mother Murphy” and Fannie (Askew) Young:

2012-11-14-wadena-053 2012-11-14-wadena-054

An article on the history of the Commercial Hotel that was published in the Wadena Pioneer Journal on July 23, 1964 (reproduced from a poor-quality, incomplete photocopy below) described what the Commercial Hotel was like under the Askew women:

7 Askew Sisters Made Commercial Hotel PopularSeven daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Askew collaborated to make the Commercial Hotel a hospitable home for the weary traveller and its piping hot steaks became a byword particularly with the traveling salesmen who swarmed over the state in their pursuit of making a livlihood. Trains were practically their only mode of travel, train schedules, more often than not, made connections that entailed rather long layovers. Wadena as the hub with its Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads thus became a focal point of transfers and the layovers thus put the hotels in a position to reap the financial whirlwind.

The dominating spirit of their mother decreed hard work and her dictum that nothing but the best be served was quickly assimilated by the daughters and their record of performance was little short of miraculous in the annals of hotel history. Service included a spirit of good fellowship and the lonely traveller was quickly made to feel at home.

The Askew sisters worked as a unit, imbued with the spirit of one for all and all for one, a spirit which was to engulf the entire Askew tribe including relatives. The hotel became, in a sense, a home for them all, now still the home of Jennie Harvey, daughter of Belle Askew, and one of three survivors of the original family residing here. She has for some time managed the Commercial but is not in the best of health. Bob King and John Askew are still here.

Social activities of the sisters was considerably limited by their close attention to their duties at the hotel but they were staunch affiliates of the Episcopal church even though their attendance and participation in its activities were largely represented by Harold and Alice Mason, the former for many years acting as head of the clan and hotel manager. Lurking underneath a somewhat stern approach to the duties of daily life was a charitable side of the Askew characters, unheralded for the most part, in which they contributed liberally to the community well being when their judgment suggested the cause worthy.

To close, here are a few photos of the Askew women posing next to the Commercial Hotel:2012-11-12-wadena-055 2012-11-12-wadena-056

1950 ?- Askews posing next to Commercial Hotel (1) 2012-11-12-wadena-050 (1)

2012-11-12-wadena-057 2012-11-12-wadena-058

Please leave comments below if you have any more information about the Askews’ relationship with the Commercial Hotel.

10 thoughts on “The Askew women at the Commercial Hotel

  1. Oh my, I’m moved to tears to discover my ggg gradpa Joseph’s story. I thank you for the detailed and very living account. My motivation in this, was to discover more on Josephs political stances which are in the light of our modern politics, for me are very interesting. It seems to me from other accounts that he wished to become elected on a platform that give more to the common people. Please respond asap my thanks to your lovely documentary I’m astounded that we could even be found!

    • Well, hello second cousin once removed! If you haven’t discovered it yet, you can find all of my blog posts on Col. Joseph Askew by clicking here:
      I haven’t written very much about Joseph’s politics yet, but he was a progressive, people’s candidate for sure. He considered himself a Populist, and ran for state office with the Alliance Party in 1890.
      I’ve set aside his line this year to dig into my Mayflower line in preparation for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower in 2020, but hope to return to the Askew line soon.

      • Oh my, I’m moved to tears to discover my ggg gradpa Joseph’s story. I thank you for the detailed and very living account. My motivation in this, was to discover more on Josephs political stances which are in the light of our modern politics, for me are very interesting. It seems to me from other accounts that he wished to become elected on a platform that give more to the common people. Please respond asap my thanks to your lovely documentary I’m astounded that we could even be found! Wow 2nd cousin, once removed hi! What I’ve discovered so far is that we descended from builders from Cumbria NW England, that Askew is a toponym for Oak forest in old Norse, that we’re descended from Nordic origins, GGGGJoseph was a bridge and roads maybe mine builder. Would love to know more of the Eilbecks, maybe millers ? GGG Joseph was recruited for N Pacific RR which 1 yr after his installation in Minnesota went bankrupt. He cleared land and eventually founded Wadena so to speak. I remember G Pa Manfred – Wilfred talking about his dad as a railroad man who was one of five men who specialised in the welding and maintenance of steam locomotives. He recounted that he saw his Dad Wilfred fix a penny on the wall, and taking ten steps back drew from the hip drilling the coin. Much more to share, Love David

  2. Hello, my name is Phil Schiller. My father’s older sister, Mary Louise Schiller (b. 1916) married John J. “Jack” Young, son of Edward Young and Fannie Askew. I just “discovered” your 7-year old blog about the Askew sisters at the Commercial Hotel while updating my family tree, turning some attention to my Uncle Jack and his family. I want to thank you for the extensive research you’ve done. I will “mine” it for additional information, but as you well know, we genealogists have to decide to stop somewhere in our rabbit-hole pursuits.

    As a native of Wadena and nephew of the Youngs, I knew the Commercial Hotel from the 1950s on. As kids, we would often drop in there as one of our group member’s fathers worked there. It was the only hotel in Wadena. Of course, there were stories from Jack and my Aunt Mary Louise.

    The most interesting story that I can recall is that Fannie was carrying twins, John and Jean, who were born prematurely. Their birthdate was in 1915 when there was little that could be done for premature babies (as a retired Ob/Gyn, I am well aware of that!) So Fannie and Ed placed their little babies in a shoe box inside a compartment of an oven in the kitchen of the hotel to keep them warm, and they survived. I believe my aunt and uncle always had fond memories of their time at the hotel.

    Their younger daughter, Sally Jean, is still living (Yvonne, or Vonnie, died in 2014) and one of Sally’s daughters is interested in genealogy. I will pass along this site for her to review, if she has not already discovered it. Also, I may “purloin” a picture or two of Fannie (and her sisters) as I build the tree outward from Uncle Jack (who was one of my favorite uncles).

    Once again, thanks.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by and saying hi! I love that story about the preemie shoebox. You’re welcome to take copies of whatever photos you like. It looks like I’ve scanned 7 identified photos of Fannie and two duplicates of those. I’ve already posted 3 (in this post). I’ll email you copies of the other four momentarily.
      If you’re interested in Fannie’s dad, I’ve written quite a bit about him (
      All the best,


  3. Hello,
    My name is Molly Leonard and I was thrilled to come across this post. “The mysterious Mother Murphy”/ Katherine Murphy is my great- grandmother. She did indeed live at the Commercial Hotel for a number of years. Her husband, my great grandfather,Rev. E.S. Murphy was the pastor at St. Helens Church in Wadena. He passed away in 1925.
    Would be interested to know if you have any additional information about Katherine Murphy as she is a bit mysterious and I’ve reached a dead end in my genealogical search.
    I know she passed away in 1956 in Wadena.

    • Hi Molly,

      I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got at the moment. There are just two photos of her in my collection (and the second is just a halftone copy printed in the Wadena Pioneer Journal). So far I haven’t come across anything more than is included in this post.

      • Thanks so much for your response. I’ve hit a bit of a dead-end in my genealogy research. My mother, had mentioned that as a young child, she had spent a few weeks out of her summer vacations with Grandmother Murphy “at her boarding house.” She described her as kind but a bit “quirky”. Anyway, thank you again for the reply!

  4. Hello,
    My name is Molly Leonard and and am thrilled to have come across this post! My great-grandmother is the “mysterious Mother Murphy”, Katherine Murphy and she did live for a number of years at the Commercial Hotel. Her husband, Rev. E.S. Murphy was the pastor at St. Helen’s Church and he passed away in 1925. Would love to know of any stories or additional info you may have about her. Grandmother Murphy passed away in 1956 in Wadena.

  5. I was a child with 2 sisters when my family stayed at Commercial Hotel before going on to Babe’s Resort in Perham in the 1950’s. also maybe early 60’s.. My great uncle, Harry Johnson from Sweden, lived at the hotel.
    There was a woman named Jen Harvey who was his good friend there, and we called her Aunt Jen. We ate in the large dining room, loved the transom window over the hotel room door, and the step up into the bathroom, the creaky bed springs, and loved looking at glass cases with taxidermy animals in them in the hallway. The halls seemed so long. There were always men rocking in 2 old black leather chairs by the front window in the lobby. It was a treasure if a chair was empty and we could rock in it. We got to go into an adjoining shop, down a couple steps from the lobby opposite the desk , to get toys or candy.
    I don’t know how many years we went there, but they were fond memories. Harry eventually moved to a hotel (Hampshire Arms) in Minneapolis, and I don’t know what became of the person we called Aunt Jen. I assume she lived at the Commercial Hotel until she died.

Leave a Reply