Four sisters recount time growing up in Eola hotel

Published 12:53 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

NATCHEZ — Many families have spent one night in the Natchez Eola Hotel. Some families may have even spent a week in the historic landmark.

But for one set of sisters the hotel wasn’t just a temporary resting place, it was home.

Pam Smith, Patricia Clark, Debbie Bonner and Lynn Britt all lived in and were raised in the Eola.

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The sisters are the daughters of Clarence Jr. and HenryeLea Eyrich, longtime operators of the hotel.

The sisters’ grandfather, Clarence Eyrich Sr., was the hotel owner.

“We all came home from the hospital to the Eola,” said Clark, a Natchez resident. “We never lived anywhere else until we moved off to college.”

The oldest sister, Smith, was born in 1947 and the Eyrich family owned the Eola until it closed in November of 1974.

From birth until high school graduation, the sisters called Rooms 309 through 312 home. The three-bedroom apartment wasn’t like a traditional apartment, the sisters said. Instead it was more like four connected hotel rooms with a couple of extra walls to form a living area, three bedrooms and three bathrooms

Britt of Natchez said because of the unique living arrangements, privacy was hard to come by. Each sister shared a room with another sister and passing through the apartment often meant walking through someone else’s bedroom.

As the sisters got older, Britt said, they were able to move down the hall a bit to rooms 303 and 304.

“It was more for the sanity of my parents, I believe,” Britt said.

The sisters had telephones in their bedrooms, but since they were hotel phones, they too didn’t offer much privacy, Clark said.

“All my mother had to do was go downstairs to the switchboard and she could listen to everything we were saying without us ever knowing,” Clark said.

But while the space might have been cramped and unorthodox, none of the Eyrich girls would have traded the experience at all.

“We thought we were living in the lap of luxury,” Clark said.

Living in the hotel had a list of perks that included access to hotel food, access to the old hotel bakery, endless fun on the rooftop and rides up and down the hotel elevator.

“The elevator that is there now, is the same one that was in the hotel when we were growing up there,” said Bonner, now living in Spanish Fort, Ala. “It has since been automated, but you used to have to have an operator. Sometimes we could convince the operator to let us drive, though our landings weren’t quite as smooth as his were.”

When the sisters weren’t smooth talking their way into rides on the elevator, they were exploring downtown and playing on the Eola property.

Smith, now living in Blaine, Wash., said since the hotel did not have a yard, she and her sisters would walk to the city park, now Memorial Park, to play and explore the streets of downtown Natchez.

“Downtown was our playground,” she said. “The old post office, it had steps that led down below the building. Those were fun to hide on.

“I think everyone downtown knew us, because we were always around.”

The sisters all learned to ride tricycles on the rooftop of the Eola and later used the roof to do some weather watching.

“I remember being up there on windy days and just hoping that my sisters wouldn’t fly off,” Bonner said.

While living in the hotel, the sisters ate each of their meals in the hotel dining room, getting to pick from the menu each night.

They also ate fresh breads from the bakery that was once housed in the hotel and sampled ice cream from the coffee shop that was located on the bottom floor of the hotel. And Sunday lunch was always from the buffet — which was both good and bad depending on the Sunday.

“Whenever there was liver on the buffet, we had to eat liver,” Clark said as she shared a grimace with her sisters. “I’d chew it up and spit it in my napkin.”

None of the sisters enjoyed the liver and onions, but they all enjoyed the stuffed lobster tails their father would prepare.

“He eventually had to take them off of the buffet because the only people eating them were his daughters and sons-in-laws,” Clark said.

Living in the hotel and constantly being among the guests meant the sisters had to always be on their best behavior — or at least not get caught being mischievous.

Britt said since all of their meals were served in the dining room, the sisters never had the option of going to breakfast in their pajamas or goofing off during the meal.

“We were always dressed up in dresses and the lacy socks,” Britt said. “Momma starched everything. We were on show when we were in the hotel.”

Growing up in that environment was good, but leaving it had its downsides. Since the apartment did not have a full kitchen and all meals came from the hotel kitchen, the sisters never really learned how to cook.

“I don’t think any of us knew how to cook when we got married because we just went to the kitchen and everything was there,” Smith said. “We had no idea.”

The sisters said growing up in the hotel was the only life they knew and often they wondered what it would be like to grow up in a house with a yard.

“We thought going over to friends’ houses was the most wonderful thing because they had a yard,” Bonner said. “And even though we always had delicious food, eating at a friend’s house was a treat.

“But, you know what, our friends always thought coming to the Eola was the best thing.”

Since holidays were also spent at the Eola, Clark said the first Chrsitmas after the Eola closed was emotional for her.

“When we drove by and saw it closed up, I just boo hooed,” Clark said. “I think my husband thought I was crazy, but that was where all of my Christmas memories were.”

The Eyrichs remained in the hotel for a few years after it closed in 1974 while Clarence Jr. worked as the manager of the former Ramada Inn. The Eola reopened in 1978 under new ownership, after an extensive renovation.

The Eola was recently put up for auction though the bid has not been accepted or rejected yet.

“I guess our only hope for the Eola and whoever buys it, is that they love it like we did,” Smith said. “That was our home. It was the only home we knew.”