Welcome to Rosalea's Hotel in Harper, Kansas, Where the Goings-On Are Lively but the Natives Unfriendly
10/01/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
Rosalea Hostetler wasn't surprised when she woke up one morning last year and discovered that the big plate-glass picture windows in the front of her hotel had been broken by vandals. During the 16 years she has owned Rosalea's, the only hotel in Harper, Kans. (pop. 1,825), some townspeople have destroyed her signs, thrown water balloons at her on Halloween and generally harassed her. In the past she has retaliated by painting "——HARPER" on the roof of the flaming-red building in large letters. This time, however, she just covered the cracks with bright yellow tape—and left it that way with an accompanying sign: "Look—Scenic Local Vandalism." As the citizens of Harper know, Rosalea has an affinity for the unusual gesture. "I'd be better off if I didn't get my adrenaline going," laughs the 47-year-old proprietor and sole employee of the seven-room establishment. "The townspeople simply do not understand me. That hotel is my soul."
According to America's Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns, the summer-season (May 1 to Oct. 31) establishment "must be America's most eccentric hotel." Although rooms rent for $15 to $27 a night, there is no telephone, the doorbell doesn't work, and Rosalea keeps a baseball bat inside the front door to discourage unwanted visitors. Incense burns on a table in the lobby, which is decorated in a green shag carpet and tinfoil wallpaper.
Two of the bedrooms are equipped with water beds and have their own theme. In Mom's Apple Pie Room, small dolls peer from the bed's canopy and towels hang from the arms of a plastic doll suspended by her feet. A trunk filled with lingerie and wigs bears an inviting sign: "Fulfill your fantasies in the privacy of your own room." Down the hall from the Jesus Bathroom is the Lily Tomlin Shrine Room. Inside, on a sandbox altar, candles illuminate fans bearing photos of the comedienne in her various roles. The basket of stuffed animals was sent by Tomlin herself, who might have created a character like Rosalea.
The novel amenities aren't all in the rooms, however. Over the years, Rosalea has held impromptu caviar and champagne parties in the hayloft and midnight watermelon fetes in a nearby cemetery.
Providing "an oasis in the Bible Belt," as she puts it, is an unprofitable business. In 1983 she lost $7,000, and this year she catered to only 100 guests. In the past Rosalea—who's single again after her third divorce—actively solicited the trade of hippies, feminists and gays, which prompted local parents to warn their children to stay away. In fact, the town's reactions range from quite hostile to quietly hospitable. Harper County Sheriff John Catherwood first visited the spot as a teenager because "I wanted to see a hippie," and he found the place to be a refreshing "taste of the outside world."
Hard as it is for Harper residents to accept, Rosalea's individualistic streak was born and bred in their own town. The daughter of a local Mennonite farmer, she graduated from Kansas University before leaving for the bohemian art world of New York's East Village, where she created weavings. (She finally stopped selling them as "a protest against public indifference.") After returning to Harper for her parents' 50th anniversary in 1968, she paid $1,500 for the 101-year-old Patterson House Hotel, which had catered to transient harvest and oil workers.
Last year Rosalea expanded by opening the Tourist Trap, a snack shop across the street from her hotel. It has proved more popular than the inn. After their Friday morning aerobics class, the Victory-in-Jesus fellowship ladies stop by to sample an unfamiliar delicacy: bagels, which are sometimes topped with plastic flies. Among the knickknacks for sale is a popular bumper sticker that seems somehow to sum up Rosalea's philosophy. It reads: "I got zapped at Rosalea's Tourist Trap."