Clayton, IA is a little riverside hamlet nestled in between tall bluffs and the Mississippi River in NE Iowa (see map). Years ago, Cindy and I would be bored and would take off on day trips just to go and do and see. Cindy had me drive down this one black top road one time and it turned into a steep road that wound down to the town of Clayton. She used to come to Clayton years ago with her family to eat at a place called the Litehouse, an old time supper club with pretty views of the river. During my first visit there, oh, it had to be 15 years ago, we discovered a bed and breakfast caddy-cornered from the Litehouse called The Claytonian Inn. Cindy had always wanted to stay there and earlier this summer I decided to surprise her by taking her up to Clayton for a night at The Claytonian Inn
The Claytonian Inna three-room B&B - a fourth room is available in the main house, but is rarely rented out - owned and operated by Eileen Christenson. Eileen and her husband, Don, bought the Claytonian 14 years ago from the original owner, Karen Hagen. Eileen and Don both grew up in Iowa, but were living in California. They had hoped to retire to Clayton, running the B&B and enjoying life. However, Eileen's former company went out of business, basically taking her retirement pension and medical insurance with it. Don was forced to go back to work full time to allow the couple to have insurance and he is rarely at the B&B.
The Claytonian Inn started out years ago as the Wilderness Motel. Karen Hagen, a native of nearby Garnavillo, moved back to Iowa from New York City in 1981 to teach. In 1987, she bought the motel and refurbished it over a period of a few months. She initially called it the "Cklaytonian" with the "K" in the name taken from her first name. The Cklaytonian Inn had six rooms initially, all of the rooms outfitted with antiques and theme decor. Karen was quite the hostess as she worked up a large clientele of return visitors over the years.
In 1996, the Christenson's took over and pared down the number of rooms available to rent. Karen's famous "open bar" cocktail hour (which sometimes lasted well into the evening) also went by the wayside. Some of Karen's regulars quit coming, but Eileen and Don forged new relationships with people - some who will stay with them for a week at a time.
When I made the reservations over the phone with Eileen, she told me all three theme rooms were available the evening we planned to stay. There is a "Fin and Feathers" suite that has a hunting theme to the room; the "E. Stanley Jones" suite, named after the 20th century American author and missionary and which has a 19th century nautical theme to the room; and the "Louis Liers" room, a floral accented room that Eileen calls her most romantic suite. Without looking at the pictures on-line, I told her we'd take the Louis Liers suite. But after finding the pictures on The Claytonian's web site, I thought the Louis Liers suite would be a little too effeminate for our tastes. Actually, it would have been a nice room for my grandma - if either one of them were still alive.
When we arrived at The Claytonian Inn, Eileen took us around to the three rooms to take a look. All three were small and cozy - the Fin and Feather suite had a small kitchenette inside. And all three had very small bathrooms. She said, "I think whoever designed the place originally sort of forgot to put a bathroom in each room until it was too late." The Jones suite had the largest bathroom - which, quite honestly, wasn't saying much - so we took that one.
Even though we had our options of eating at either The Litehouse or at Bill's Boat Landing - which is more of a bar that caters to boaters and motorcyclists - we decided to go to nearby Prairie du Chien for dinner. Well, Prairie du Chien is not exactly close, but it's the closest bigger town with a grocery store and a Wal Mart. However, we did have a couple drinks at The Litehouse so Cindy could remininsce about going there with her family years ago.
While it was peaceful and quiet - for the most part - at The Claytonian Inn, it's location did have two draw backs. One, it was situated - literally - next to the street. The sidewalk/sitting area in front of our room was bordered by the street that carried traffic to and from Bill's Boat Landing. The noise from the motorcycles and pick-up trucks going by was annoying at times. (Eileen said that semi's used to use that road for a number of years to get to and from the sand and gravel depot just south of Clayton - that is, until they built a road specifically for those trucks.)
And, secondly, The Claytonian Inn is less than 50 yards from the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern railroad which runs a regular schedule of trains through the town both day and night. And they don't go slow or quiet through the village. One went through about midnight, another about 4 a.m. And the wheels hitting the tracks are very loud emitting a high-pitched squeal.
But other than that, The Claytonian Inn was a great place to unwind for a day and a night. There's a little park just over the tracks that has some benches to sit on as you gaze out onto the Mississippi.
The next morning, we met up with Eileen in her dining room for a breakfast of French Toast, sausage and fruit. It was pretty good, but quite honestly we weren't expecting a gourmet breakfast from her. The dining room was filled with antiques including a Grandfather clock and refurbished chairs. The picture window looked east out onto the river.
After we finished breakfast, we sat around with Eileen - a pleasant "60's-ish" woman with a quick smile and a brassy demeanor - and chatted for well over an hour. She was telling us about Clayton and the surrounding area. "There were 55 people when we moved here in 1996. Now there's 35 full time residents. We know everyone, including the people who live elsewhere, but have vacation homes here," Eileen said.
Fall is her most busy time with business peaking about the same time the leaves change on the millions of trees that line the Mississippi. Business has been tough since the economy tanked a couple years ago. Eileen told us that she doesn't see the same people like she used to. There's a number of B&B's in the area and many of them are having a tough time. "This area of Northeast Iowa is dependent upon tourism," Eileen explained. "We're holding on the best we can, but a lot of people need to have a good summer or they may be in trouble."
We looked at pictures of The Claytonian Inn from years ago and at some of the flooding that had occurred over the years. She said the river - which is less than 100 yards from the front of the place - usually doesn't get up as far as the B&B. But she said it will get close from time to time. "We've had to sandbag a couple times," she said. "But it affects the houses to the north of us more." She showed us pictures of some of the houses north of the Litehouse restaurant where the houses were submerged in water.
I'd never stayed in a bed and breakfast before. There is just something a little weird to me staying in someone's home. But The Claytonian Inn was probably more of a small theme motel than a B&B. But in just talking with Eileen Christensen, I could tell why a lot of people enjoy her company. I didn't feel uncomfortable sitting and talking with her and I had a great sense of why people continue to come back to The Claytonian Inn for a stress reliever. We're going to go back again at some point.