Historical society receives grant to restore part of Cottage Court motel into welcome center
Close to the shores of Grand Lake, the Cottage Court museum invites visitors to learn what life as a tourist was like in the early 1900s. The museum was once a motel — the Smith-Eslick Cottage Court. The museum preserves Grand Lake’s history, including how automobile tourism shaped the town’s growth.
On Dec. 1, the Grand Lake Area Historical Society, an all-volunteer organization which operates Cottage Court, recently received a $196,505 grant from History Colorado’s State Historical Fund to help restore the Eslick store and office, which was part of the original motel.
“Thank you, History Colorado! This is a wonderful gift,” said Elin Capps, secretary of the Historical Society.
The store and office will be transformed into a future welcome center. The center is planned to be the centerpiece of the Cottage Camp Historical Site, a community space which is expected to start construction in spring 2023.
Capps serves as chair of the Cottage Camp Planning Committee. She’s also a docent for the museum, guiding visitors through Grand Lake’s history and its connection to automotive tourism.
“This grant will make it possible for us to begin construction of a permanent foundation and exterior restoration of the Eslick Store and Office,” said Capps. “The Historical Society has taken on the work of bringing this iconic building back to life and reusing it as it was intended, as a visitor welcome center, tour guide base so stories can be shared, and gift shop. With a public restroom!”
She added that the grant is bolstered by donations from individuals, as well as from The Grand Foundation, Town of Grand Lake and Grand County government. These funds altogether should provide enough for the store and office to be restored to its “former charm,” she said.
History of Cottage Court and Eslick Store and Office
Around 1915, the Smith-Eslick family built Cottage Court, which currently has the distinction of being the oldest original motel structure in the U.S. The Court was named after three generations of the same family who owned and operated it, welcoming visitors and making sure their stay was comfortable. The Cottage Court originally had carports which were geared to a new type of traveler in those days — the auto-tourist.
Vehicles revolutionized how people traveled in the early 1900s. Previously, traveling required literal horsepower, on coaches or in the saddle, or a train ticket. Now, traveling was as easy as hopping into a personal vehicle. In those days, many were called to Grand Lake. The town’s natural beauty and seclusion made it a perfect getaway.
Auto tourists drove from crowded cities, through awe-inspiring Rocky Mountains, to the peaceful shores of Grand Lake. According to the Historical Society’s website, Cottage Court (with the surrounding Cottage Camp) was the first local business to cater to auto tourists, with carports providing protection for their cars.
“At a time when automobiles had fragile roofs, or none at all, a covered carport was a remarkable innovation,” said Capps.
Due to its unique offerings and Rocky Mountain Rustic style architecture, Cottage Court is written into the National Register of Historic Places and the Colorado Register of Historic Places. In 1933, Loren Eslick added the store and office as a mercantile to provide groceries for guests and residents, as well as a visitor check-in. The store featured large bay windows to attract passing tourists.
“Loren intended for his building to be a community gathering place in the winter, as well for telling stories around the potbelly stove,” Capps said.
Eslick died a year after the store was built. His family moved the building across the street in 1957, placing it on unstable foundation, causing it to deteriorate. The bay windows are now weathered and boarded up – but not for long, thanks to History Colorado’s grant.
The future of Cottage Camp
The Historical Society saved Cottage Court from demolition in 2009, moving the buildings to their current location on a plot of land on Vine Street. Thanks to this new acreage, the Cottage Camp site can now accommodate more visitors.
“It will be like coming to a state park, with welcoming tour guides,” Capps said. “It will also be accessible to the public during events at the community events area (that) we’ll add as the last major piece of the historical site. We’re planning benches, picnic tables, sheltered and surrounding a fire pit.”
The Historical Society plans also to build educational signage and a small stage at Cottage Camp.
“We’ll be able to tell stories to kids who are coming down the tubing hill and have historical programming of all kinds in summer,” Capps said.
The Eslick Store will also serve as a sheltered base for museum tour guides, as well as the general public, since there is no indoor community space on Grand Lake’s west side.
Capps explained that tour guides are dedicated to providing the best experience for visitors, but are currently limited, since they operate out of one of Cottage Court’s carports, rather than indoors.
When it is completed, visitors and locals will be able to gather around picnic tables and fire pits as tour guides put on shows, or venture into the Eslick Store welcome center to buy gifts.
“It’s going to be exciting, and the Eslick Store is essential,” Capps said. “Our Eslick Store team, our members and supporters, have worked so hard to make this happen, and this grant helps enormously.”
To receive more information about the Cottage Camp project, and to follow its progress, visit SmithEslick.com.
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