Barring a long-overdue notification from the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, great fortune is destined to pass me by. Our lot in life is to stand aside, keep the mortgage payments current and enviously admire history’s great entrepreneurs like the Rockefellers, the DuPonts, the Hearsts and the Carnegies. And, of course, legendary hotel-empire builder Conrad Hilton.
It was the latter’s remarkable success story that recently drew me to the edge of the small Texas town of Cisco (population 3,899) — just a couple hours’ drive southwest of Dallas — for a look at the Mobley Hotel, which has stubbornly survived since it was built in 1916. The boxlike, two-story, red-brick structure’s first purpose was to accommodate weary laborers during the region’s historic oil-boom days.
Hardly an architectural wonder, once called “part flophouse, part gold mine,” it is where Hilton began his remarkable career. The old Mobley, with its 31 cracker-box rooms and a small dining area, was the first hotel he owned, launching what would grow into a glitzy international chain.
The dynasty was not so much planned as the result of a fortuitous turn of events.
As the story is told by local historians and Hilton himself in his Be My Guest autobiography, the 31-year-old New Mexico native had traveled to Cisco in 1919 with plans to buy the town’s bank. Upon his arrival, the owner upped the previously agreed-upon asking price. Hilton balked, said no thanks and angrily went in search of a night’s lodging before catching a train back home.
He couldn’t even get in the front door of the nearby hotel. Exhausted oil-field workers were renting rooms in eight-hour shifts. Some even slept heads down on the dining-room table or in the chairs in the small lobby.
Fascinated by what he saw, Hilton sought out proprietor Henry L. Mobley and learned he had grown weary of running the hotel and wanted to seek greater fortune in the oil business. Conrad offered him a reported $40,000 — just over half of what he’d planned to spend on the bank — and suddenly became a hotel owner. For the next four years, he resided in Cisco, learning the innkeeping trade and soon began to envision a chain of hotels that ultimately would spread to Dallas, New York, Los Angeles and then internationally. In time, the Hilton name became the gold standard of the industry.
It was, however, not so much the resounding success Hilton would enjoy in his colorful lifetime that fascinated me. Rather, it was the artifact of his beginning.
Today, the 97-year-old Mobley Hotel stands proudly at the end of what is now Conrad Hilton Avenue, refurbished, spit-polished and serving as a museum, community center and office of the local Chamber of Commerce. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But not before it suffered through woefully hard times. In the years after the demise of the oil boom and Hilton’s departure to bigger and better things, it was sold and resold, serving briefly as a boarding house, a retirement home and even the winter residence of an Alaskan gold miner. In time, however, it fell vacant and unwanted, a weed-guarded eyesore.
Coming to the rescue was a generous grant from the California-based Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which joined with Cisco’s history-minded city fathers to begin rehabilitating the building into a lasting monument to the hotel-business legend. With proper small-town pomp and circumstance, it reopened in 1986.
Sitting in his office, where the old hotel’s dining room was once located, museum curator John Waggoner dispatches encyclopedic knowledge of Cisco’s bygone days. He can recite the history of the old hotel, down to some of the famous people, like band leader Lawrence Welk, who launched his career in Cisco.
And, Waggoner says, visitors from throughout the U.S. and 20 foreign countries have stopped in. Among them, Hilton’s son Eric, grandsons Conrad III and Steve and, most recently, granddaughter Linda, who is now director of culture and values for Hilton Worldwide.
And how did they react upon seeing the birthplace of the family patriarch’s dream? “After Linda toured the museum,” recalls Waggoner, “she sought me out and gave me a big hug.”
It was enough said.