The Hotel Where It All Began

On the evening of September 14, 1898, the Boscobel Central House Hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin was packed. The air was thick with tobacco smoke and the noise from the crowd in the bar was spilling over into the lobby where guests were playing poker.

A traveling salesman, named John H. Nicholson, walked into the hotel at about 9 pm that evening. The hotel clerk working the front desk had checked Mr. Nicholson into the hotel as a guest on many occasions before. But on this night, he had to inform Mr. Nicholson that due to a convention in town, there was only one bed left in the hotel. That bed was in Room 19, which had two beds. The other bed in the room had already been booked by another traveling salesman, Mr. Samuel E. Hill.

Mr. Nicholson looked around the lobby and saw a drunk lying on the floor and another man passed out in the corner. He was relieved to discover that Mr. Hill was the clean-looking man who was writing up his sales orders for the day.

The two men were introduced and Mr. Hill agreed to allow Mr. Nicholson to spend the night in the spare bed. At that time, such a courteous gesture was fairly common in hotels. It just so happened that Mr. Hill’s room was one of only a few rooms in the hotel that had an extra bed.

So Mr. Nicholson proceeded upstairs to the guest room while Mr. Hill remained in the lobby. Inside the guest room, Nicholson worked on his sales correspondence. Some time later, Mr. Hill returned to the room and quickly fell asleep in his bed. When Nicholson finished working, he reached over and picked up his personal Bible and began to read. At that point, Mr. Hill awoke.

Concerned that the light might be disturbing Hill, Nicholson said, “Mr. Hill, will you pardon me if I keep the light on just a little longer, because I always make it a practice to read from the Word of God and have a little chat with Him before I retire?”

Twenty years earlier, at his dying mother’s request, Nicholson promised her that he would read his Bible and pray daily. He had been a Christian since the age of 13. Mr. Hill jumped up in bed and said, “Come, read to me, I’m a Christian, too.”

Nicholson read from the 15th chapter of John, verses 1-16. The two men prayed together and then talked until 2 am. During this conversation, these two new friends began talking about the need for an association of traveling Christian businessmen. Perhaps this idea was inspired as much by the unruly scene in the hotel lobby as it was by their devotional Scripture reading. After all, the two gentlemen may have felt as if they were the only two men for miles around who were “shining as lights” that night as they held fast to the word of life.

Regardless of what inspired their idea for forming an association, the idea for such a group of traveling Christian businessmen would bring them together for future meetings.

After more meetings between Nicholson and Hill, as well as another Christian businessman named William Knights, the three men met on July 1 of 1899 and created a formal organization that would become The Gideons International.

Today, Boscobel has a population of about 2,500. And according to the town’s chamber of commerce president, Tom Richter, the hotel’s history with the founders of The Gideons International is the first story they share with tourists.

“This town is very proud of that fact,” says Richter. “I don’t think a person has to be a Gideon to care about that—you just have to be a human being. Just send ‘em up here and this community will take them by the hand and show them around. We have very friendly people who will go out of their way to make people feel happy and welcome.”

If you plan to visit, you can contact the hotel to arrange an appointment for a tour of the Gideon room, which is furnished in décor appropriate to its history. A commemorative plaque that Gideons presented to the hotel in 1929 hangs in the room as well.

The hotel was purchased in 2009 by Charles Griesel and his wife, Dr. Jean. It was actually Mr. Griesel’s great, great uncle who built the hotel back in the 1800s.

“The Gideon room is still available for tours by appointment,” says the owners’ son, Jim. “We’ve had a fair number of Gideons come through.” The restaurant is still open part-time, however the hotel is currently undergoing renovations and is not available for overnight accommodations.

According to Jim, the room also accommodated two more historic guests many years later. In 1960, then-Senator John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, actually stayed in the Gideon room while campaigning in Wisconsin for the presidency. “He could have stayed in any room he wanted, and that was the room he wanted,” says Jim.

It has been a little over one hundred years since Hill and Nicholson first met in that hotel. And today The Gideons International has grown to over 300,000 members in over 195 countries. Each week more than 1.5 million Scriptures are placed throughout the world through The Gideons International. It is anticipated that the two-billionth Scripture will be placed in 2015.

As for that historic hotel in Boscobel, it is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. To contact the hotel for tours, you may call them at 608-375-4714.

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