The Thompson and Marchant families go back a long way in my home town of Greer, SC. One of my mother’s granddads, William Thompson, was the first Ford Motor dealer in South Carolina; the other, Dr. Marchant, was a horse-and-buggy doctor and also owned the only drugstore in town. So, when Gertrude Thompson married Robert Lee Marchant, it was a merger of two of the more prominent families in town.
Gertrude was widowed at an early age, and ended up raising my mother, Miriam, and my Uncle Bob mostly on her own. My earliest memories of her was when she was the bookkeeper at one of the cotton mill company stores. Mill employees could charge their groceries and have the money taken out of their wages.
I later learned she took a correspondence course to become a Hotel Executive Housekeeper. I knew she worked in a hotel, but until I started visiting her, I did not understand what an Executive Housekeeper in a hotel really did. Gertrude worked at the Cleveland Hotel in Spartanburg, SC. It was owned by Mason Alexander, who also owned The Poinsettia Hotel in Greenville, SC, known as “The Waldorf of the South.” He was a successful hotelier, known for his attention to detail, but a hard and demanding man.
In those days, long before chain-owned cookie-cutter motels, every southern town of any size had a good downtown hotel with a good kitchen and dining room–often the best restaurant in town. Those were also the days of the “traveling salesman.” They usually spent only one night, then off to the next town. Many days, the entire house–all 104 rooms–would turn over, meaning every room would be a “check-out,” cleaned and followed by a “check-in” only a few hours later. Managing the housekeeping was important and by no means an easy job.
I loved visiting Gertrude and am sure those visits were when I first fell in love with the hotel business—a love I have never been able to shake. At the early age of 10, I got my first glimpse of how a fine hotel was managed and the meaning of hospitality. The Doorman and Bellhops all wore red military-style uniforms, with brass buttons and big belts. The Doorman welcomed all, many of whom were returning guests. A bellhop was summoned for the luggage and to show the guest to their room. Guests were always addressed by their last name, not only at check-in, but if they called for room service, or when they were seated in the dining room. There were white-gloved elevator operators who said, “Floor please,” “Going up,” “Going down,” “Yes, sir or ma’am,” and “Thank you.”
Gertrude lived in the hotel, which was customary at that time, as part of her compensation. She had daily maid service and took her meals in the dining room as any guest would. The Cleveland dining room was a white-tableclothed fine-service high-ceilinged ornate room.
Something that impressed me the most and I have never seen anywhere else, was when a guest received change at the front desk and in the dining room, bills were
always new, and coins had been burnished to look shiny new. This was before credit cards, so everyone paid by cash or check. The merchants in town always knew that their customers had stayed the night at The Cleveland when they were paid with shiny coins or new bills.
The hotel had its own laundry which supplied freshly pressed bed linens and fluffy towels daily. The laundry, housekeeping linen room and Gertrude’s office were in the basement. I can tell you it was like sitting in an oven in July. I find it hard to remember when there was no air conditioning and how hot summers were. People worked day-in and day-out in the heat–then went home to houses just as hot.
Gertrude supervised the maids, which was what housekeepers were called in those days. They were dressed in starched white uniforms and white shoes, and were paid 50 cents an hour with no overtime pay. No matter the number of hours worked, they stayed until the job was done.
Every Saturday Mr. Alexander would arrive in his chauffeur-driven black Cadillac for an inspection. After checking the lobby, front desk, dining room and kitchen, Mr. Alexander, with Gertrude following along, would pick rooms on each floor to inspect at random. There were two maids per floor, and, if they passed inspection, which was rare, the maids each got a shiny silver dollar.
Both of my grandmothers were strong women; however, they were totally different. I benefitted from both.
Ethel, my dad’s mother, taught me and my cousins, how to play together, how to amuse ourselves and appreciate simple things, create our own fun, face the challenge of climbing a tree and use our imagination. Gertrude lived a different life and opened my eyes to those differences.
Ethel walked with us down to the railroad tracks to watch the streamliner train roar by and wonder where the people in the windows came from and where they were going. Gertrude took me on that train to visit her sister in Baltimore–the first time I ever left South Carolina.
My friends and cousins could climb a maple tree, but most had not even seen an elevator. I knew how to say “Fourth floor please” to the white-gloved elevator operator.
Ethel enjoyed walking with me in the woods or just down the street. Gertrude preferred the stability of concrete, elevators, hotel staff and the prestige of her job. She did not wash dishes or even make her own bed. She wore makeup, painted her nails, and had her hair done.
I loved eating home-cooked vegetables at Ethel’s back porch table. I also learned to enjoy meals in a white tableclothed dining room, and how to order from a menu and use the right fork. I look back fondly on both experiences.
I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite–loved them both, and wish I had had more time with each one.
Bless their hearts.
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