About Utah: Widow selling hubby's labor of love

Published: Friday, April 8 2011 12:33 a.m. MDT

The George Hotel, built in 1867, was given an makeover by Joe and Donna Vande Merwe.

family photo

KANOSH, Millard County — Some guys want race cars, some want yachts, some want, gulp, mistresses.

Joe wanted an old house.

Well, fine, said Joe's wife, Donna. She could live with that.

Thus begins a love story with a sad but happy ending.

It began one fine spring day nine years ago, in 2002, when Joe and Donna Vande Merwe, a young couple in their 70s, were driving north on the I-15 freeway, returning to their home in North Salt Lake from their new second home in St. George.

Life was good. They were in no hurry. Joe liked to take the byways and check out little Mormon towns in the hinterlands. About halfway to Salt Lake, he steered off the freeway and aimed the car for Kanosh, a central-Utah farming village of about 500 people that was settled by Mormon pioneers in 1867 and named for the local Indian chief.

Smack in the middle of town, at the intersection of Center and Main, stood a two-story home built back when Chief K'Nosh was still alive. Like a fading film star, the structure spoke of a magnificent past but a shaky present. Joe and Donna walked inside. The rafters were full of bat dung. The roof was about to collapse.

Joe's whole life was construction. His father owned a construction business in his native Holland. When the family immigrated to the United States after World War II, Joe, a 17-year-old teenager, took over where his dad left off. Building stuff was what he did.

"I've got to have this house," he said to Donna.

He learned that a family named Watts owned the house. That it was built in 1887 as a private residence for James Gardner, Kanosh's first mayor. And that in 1901 it was bought by a man named William George who turned it into the George Hotel. It remained a hotel for many years and was owned by the George family until the Watts family bought it.

The Watts were not interested in selling. The place had sentimental value. Joe persisted. He was sentimental about it, too; he wanted to restore it to its original glory. Finally they agreed on a price.

For the next eight years Joe and Donna traveled the 200-plus miles to Kanosh, every other week or so, and spent the middle of the week working on their new old house. At first they stayed in the town's lone motel or in Fillmore 20 miles away. Eventually, after finally installing indoor plumbing, they checked into the hotel.

By 2005 their petition to have the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places was approved. The old George Hotel is an official Utah Historic Site with the plaque to prove it.

To Joe, Kanosh was nirvana. He had worked hard all his life — after "retiring" from his construction career he and Donna had spent five years in Africa as LDS missionaries, the first two in South Africa until 1995 and then, just as they were ready to come home to the grandkids, they were called to another three years presiding over the mission in Nigeria. When they came back to Utah, Joe was called as a bishop in North Salt Lake.

But this wasn't work. This was Joe's idea of fun.

"He loved to fix things and he loved to help people," Donna says. "If somebody said 'how do I fix this door?' the next thing they knew he'd come over and fix it."

With Donna, it wasn't exactly love.

"It was really dirty work, and hard work," she says. "He said what would you rather be doing? I'd say almost anything."

So why did she go along with it?

"I loved my husband and I loved to see him happy and this is what made him happy," she says.

The house was finished in December 2009. Joe and Donna held an open house and hundreds of locals walked through the renovated hotel, astonished at the extreme makeover.

The next month, in January 2010, Joe was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. He died 10 months later, in November, at the age of 81.

"He was so strong and healthy and robust but it took him down fast," says Donna. "But he didn't have any pain; that was the big blessing of the brain tumor."

Suddenly, Donna was left without her husband and with the old George Hotel.

She describes a scene shortly before he died when Joe gathered their five children around him in bed to talk about his estate.

"He said, 'When I'm gone who wants St. George?' Everybody's hand went up," she says. "Then he said, 'Who wants Kanosh?' Nobody's hand went up. They all went, 'Don't look at me, I don't want it.'"

"He would never sell it if he was here," she says. "But he's not here."

Now that it's springtime, she says she's going to put a for-sale sign on the bulletin board at the Kanosh Mercantile across the street.

"It would make a great bed and breakfast during the hunting season," she says.

Donna never loved the building; just the guy who loved it.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. EMAIL: benson@desnews.com.

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