The wayside tavern/hotel was so small, it was nicknamed the “Seven by Nine.” It was often so crowded that the innkeeper and his wife slept in their chairs while renting out their own bed. About six miles west of Brownsville, on the old Brownsville-to-Caledonia portion of the Territorial Road in Union Township, Houston County, it was a welcome stopover in the 1850s for weary pioneers. This log cabin, only about 12 by 14 feet, one-and-a -half stories high was so secluded, it was said the only sound was the barking of the resident dog Sneider.
Originally, a resident of the eastern states, the proprietor was Joseph Ober, ”who with his long hair and whiskers would have passed for Rip Van Winkle,” wrote area historian Percival Narveson, and “spoke with a drawl while giving a hitch to his one lone suspender (which was all that kept his pants from yielding to the force of gravity.)” His nickname “Powerful Weak” came from his frequent complaints of being tired. His wife, also a Yankee, was said to be, “straight as an arrow, entertaining, glib of tongue, full of energy and as nimble as a cricket on a hot gridle.”
The cabin had only one room with two beds, one of which could be folded up to the wall to provide more space during daytime. Nevertheless, 22 visitors were known to bed down for the night. Women slept downstairs while the men slept in the loft, accessible only by a ladder and trap door on the outside of the cabin. There were enough sheepskins for everyone to keep warm overnight.
In addition to the two beds, there was a table, cupboard, two chairs, some stools, handcrafted benches and in one corner a “stove that roared like a locomotive stalled in a snowstorm.” The table was so small that most guests sat on the benches along the walls, eating from plates on their laps. Every so often, someone might toss a few scraps to Sneider. Mrs. Ober was a superb cook and prepared plenty of food.
Samuel McIntyre, who arrived as a boy with his parents from Massachusetts in 1855 and spent a night at the hotel, later described in writing, “We arrived in La Crosse by steamboat and were ferried across the Mississippi River to Brownsville. As our destination was the Yucatan Valley south of Houston, we proceeded by wagon along the territorial road that extended in a southwesterly direction toward Caledonia and arrived at the curious edifice known as the Seven by Nine about sundown.
“Here we were met by the furious barking of a dog, the appearance of the hosteler, his wife and about a dozen guests. We told the hosteler we were tired and hungry and in need of lodging for the night. He was glad to accommodate us, and we soon found ourselves ushered into the already crowded room. In short time, Mrs. Ober who was supple as a cat, had an excellent meal for us. For the night, it was my lot to sleep near the trap door, but as I was dead tired, I slept soundly.
“The next morning, after a heavy breakfast, we were again on our way. The winding valley with no other habitation in sight appeared even more lonely and desolate than it had the night before. My last glimpse of the hosteler, his wife and the homey hotel was from a bend in the road that soon hid the place from view. While most of the events that took place on our journey from Massachusetts to Houston County have, after half a century, grown dim, to the end of my days, I will never forget the kindly Mr. and Mrs. Ober and our stay at the Seven by Nine.”
Besides being a stopover for settlers and immigrants heading into Minnesota toward Caledonia on the Territorial Road, laid out in 1854, the Seven by Nine was also a desired stopover for settlers on marketing trips to Brownsville, preferred by many to more upscale and expensive hotels in that river town. Many settlers from Spring Grove Township told of staying there overnight or merely stopping for a “quencher” during their travels. Some were said to be overly refreshed by the time they reached Brownsville after too long a stay at the hotel bar.
Narveson wrote that nothing is known about the opening of this “unique hotel” or when it went out of business. It was not mentioned in early written histories of Houston County, but it was part of oral recollections. However, about 1857, Mr. Ober moved to Preston and opened a hotel known as the Preston House. There is no mention about subsequent ownership of the Seven by Nine, so it likely ceased operation soon after Ober’s departure.
The exact location is open to speculation. The later highway between Caledonia and Brownsville did not follow the Territorial Road; therefore, surmised Narveson, “It must have stood some distance from any of the present roads, on a spot that can now can be reached only on foot. I hiked down a rocky ravine descending into what is known as Sullivan’s Valley in the northwest quarter of Section 25, Union Township. At the mouth of the ravine, right along the still discernible tracks of the old territorial road, is a depression in the ground marking the site of a building.” Narveson continued, “I believe this is where the Seven by Nine stood. The spot seems in many ways to fit McIntyre’s description. It is still wild, lonely and secluded as when he stayed there” in 1855.
It was long before such things as “No Vacancy” signs. Narveson wrote, “Without unduly stretching the imagination, I can see the bustle and excitement that ensued when a stagecoach dashed into view on this once busy thoroughfare, or the momentary consternation of the landlady when a long emigrant [immigrant] caravan rumbled up the road seeking food and shelter for the night, taxing her ingenuity to supply their needs in her little Seven by Nine.”
Source: “Percival Narveson’s Historical Sketches,” by Percival Narveson (1899-1972), published in 2002 by the Houston County Historical Society. Narveson credited, “Early History of the Yucatan Valley,” by Samuel McIntyre and the Curtis-Wedge “History of Fillmore County.”