Historic Mother Lode hotel under new ownership
April 16, 2017
• Long-time employees buy Hotel Leger
• “We’re kind of a hidden jewel up here”
(Photo by Jerrod Hill)
The Hotel Leger, open for guests since it started in a tent in 1851 and still the heart of the former gold rush town of Mokelumne Hill, is under new ownership.
Krissy Haderer and Debbie Rangell have bought the landmark hotel after working in it for years.
“Debbie and I both have a great love for this grand old place and this community,” says Ms. Haderer. “And this really is the community living room.”
They closed on the two-story hotel and got the keys to the front door -- as well as the hotel’s 13 guest rooms and several old jail cells in the basement on February 15. The seller is Doralee Rees, who had owned it since June 2013. Financial terms of the transaction were not made public.
“I had been helping Doralee run the place for the entire time she was here … and Debbie’s been here for 26 years,” Ms. Haderer says.
“We just thought if we can save the place where we know what’s best for it, is just the way we feel,” she says.
Mokulemne Hill’s main street now is one of little traffic – a car or pickup truck every now and again and the occasional horseback rider. It’s a far cry from when 49er George Leger decided to open a hotel in the boomtown instead of trying to find gold in the ground or the Mokulemne River. The town had several initial claims to fame: It was one of the richest gold sites in the heart of Gold Rush country – and it was one of the most lawless, once having a murder a week for 17 weeks.
The tent hotel had a grand name: Hotel de France, since Mr. Leger had emigrated from that country. It was adjacent to what was then the Calaveras County Courthouse. Over the years, the county seat moved and Mr. Leger acquired the building with its jail cells and integrated it into his hotel, which by then was built of stone. It was renamed the Hotel Leger (luh-jay) in 1874.
As nearby gold veins played out, the town’s population dropped from about 15,000 to today’s 500 or so.
Still popular in the 21st Century is the hotel’s saloon, which has a stained glass back bar that supposedly came around Cape Horn. It’s been pouring drinks and listening to drinkers since 1851.
The hotel has had a history of different owners. Ms. Rangell had worked for six in a row before becoming co-owner, Ms. Haderer says. That’s an asset. “She knows what has worked and what hasn’t in the past,” Ms. Haderer adds.
Ms. Haderer is a native of the Bay Area but she has considered the quiet town her home for years. She notes that the Bay Area has changed greatly since she was a child there. “The hustle and bustle, the pace, the impersonality of it,” she notes. “Every time I have to go down there I have less and less patience with the traffic and the rudeness.”
It’s different in Mokulemne Hill, she says. “Everybody knows everybody. You smile and wave and say ‘hi.’ And it’s safe to walk around at night and leave your car unlocked,” she says. “It’s just kind of a throw-back to the ’50s when you knew your neighbors and they were also your friends.”
There is another big difference in her eyes. She says Mokulemne Hill is a village that looks after its own, pointing to the devastating Butte Fire of 2015, which killed two people and injured another while destroying 921 structures including 549 homes and four businesses.
“It burned right up to the edge of the township proper,” she says.
“We opened our doors to the firefighters, to the FEMA workers, and PG&E people trying to get the power back on for everybody,” Ms. Haderer says. “We were housing displaced residents and I ran a donation center out of our banquet room for six weeks. We had an outpouring of donations. We were a no-questions-asked relief center where people who needed stuff came in. They didn’t have to sign papers and do all that stuff; they could just take what they needed.”
Ms Haderer has a background that at first might seem unlikely for a hotel owner. She was an action sports photographer.
“One of my sons is a professional mountain bike racer and I spent nine years as a photographer on the race circuit,” she says. Traveling to competitions took them to four continents during that time – plenty of opportunity to see how hotels are run.
One thing that the old hotel likely will have with its new owners is the best keeping of the financials. Both Ms. Haderer and Ms. Rangell have degrees in accounting.
For a hotel with 166 years of history behind it, the new owners have plans for an even better future.
“We’re kind of a hidden jewel up here. People drive past on Highway 49 and we’re a block off the highway and they don’t really know that we’re here,” Ms. Haderer says. “We’d like to see it on the map.”
To help put it on the map, the new owners are offering what they hope will be dining experiences people will talk about long after they’ve returned home. “We have an amazing chef [who is] getting a lot of attention” she says.
The hotel also hopes to appeal to those who want a taste of the old west (minus the gunslingers.) “We have beautifully appointed rooms that have period-appropriate antiques,” she says. “We do not have TVs in the rooms, or phones.”
Part of the old basement jail has been remodeled into a banquet space. “It was more of the holding cells for people who were awaiting trial – and/or hanging,” Ms. Haderer says.
There’s another thing from the 1850s that Hotel Leger has that the industry as a whole has moved away from in terms of guest room amenities. “If you want to go out on the balcony, you have to climb out the window. As a landmark, we cannot change the façade of the building,” she says. “So you get to pretend you’re a teenager again.”
The hotel does have wi-fi, however. “We’re not back in the Stone Age,” she says.
Another point in the hotel’s favor is what made Mokulemne Hill a settlement in the first place. It’s in the heart of the California Gold Rush country. And it’s close to the region’s rapidly growing wine industry with two dozen tasting rooms in the town of Murphys, about 30 minutes from the hotel.
For hotelier Krissy Haderer, the Hotel Leger is more than a business. “I came up here five years ago and haven’t left, really. It was a feeling in my heart that I belonged."