Robert Preston’s portrayal of Harold Hill in “Music Man” didn’t do the image of traveling salesmen any favors. But by the movie’s release in 1962, there weren’t all that many of them plying the back roads of America.
At the turn of the last century, traveling salesmen (there were only a handful of women in the business) might better and more appropriately have been called “commercial travelers”. Whether hawking personal grooming and household tools (the “Fuller Brush Man”), spices (the “Watkins Man”), home remedies, insurance, encyclopedias, or brass instruments for the high school band, men like Harold Hill–well, not actually like Harold Hill, because he was a shyster–were a common sight in small-town business life.
Arriving by train (or interurban, in Agincourt’s case, after 1909), they had already annouced their arrival by mail to local businesses. What the weary commercial traveler required was an inexpensive bed and a room to lay out their sample cases, where retailers would inspect the goods and place an order. In Hill’s case, that order would never be fulfilled, which is one reason the United Commercial Travelers organized at Columbus, Ohio in 1888. The UCT badge was an assurance of business integrity, and the organization also provided its members with affordable insurance and a widows and orphans fund to compensate families before the social safety net of the Roosevelt years.
Even before they were identified as a “UCT Hotel”, some hostelries had already served as the most likely base of operations for this fraternity of commerce. And throughout the 90s, new hotels were purpose-built to serve this growing clientele. So when the Northwest Iowa Traction Co. incorporated in 1909, it was very likely that a UCT-oriented facility would be part of their package.
I don’t know what may have been on the South Broad Street lots the company acquired for their headquarters. That’s the interesting thing about inventing a community; you can always go back and “fix” that. But what I did envision was a multi-purpose facility to balance the risk of their investment: 1) a ticket office and waiting room for the NITC trains and the local trolley system that spun off from it; 2) a cafe (the “Bon-Ton”) to capitalize on the departing passenger or the people waiting for their arrival; 3) rental shops on valuable street frontage; and 4) a UCT hotel.
Set circa 1910, the design was likely to be influenced by recent innovations in building construction–steel or iron frames clad with brick or terracotta–and a progressive style drawn from both historical precedent and the more recent Arts & Crafts imagery of the Edwardian Age. These are those pesky elevations I’ve mentioned before. But organizationally, the building took shape in my mind in about a half hour watching CSI re-runs one night. I hope you might approve my solution, at least to this point.
By the way, on the plans, north is to the right.