Hotel revival

Late innkeeper’s family hopes to rejuvenate landmark, community

Eric and Desi Hilgeman, with 3-month-old son Ethan, envision the Stirling City Hotel returning to its origins as a community hall.

Eric and Desi Hilgeman, with 3-month-old son Ethan, envision the Stirling City Hotel returning to its origins as a community hall.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Auction info:
Bidding runs Saturday through Tuesday (Aug. 4-7); visit for full details.

Eric Hilgeman grew up in Durham, but in many respects, he’s the pride of Stirling City.

His aunt Charlotte bought the historic Stirling City Hotel in 1986, when he was a boy. Nearly every weekend, he’d head up the Ridge with his father—Charlotte’s brother, Carl—to bring supplies or help work on the building. Shortly after, his grandmother moved a block away; the neighborhood became a hub for family functions.

Charlotte Ann Hilgeman became a local institution. She transformed the hotel into a successful bed and breakfast, which also offered a $10 all-you-can-eat omelet brunch, with Eric’s cousins as chefs. After a decade, the lodging business declined; she turned the place into a corner store that remains open—the only commercial business in this Upper Ridge community.

“It’s a special place, for sure,” Eric told the CN&R, seated in the great room, by the bar. “It’s a very unique building; it’s a unique town, with the Feather River just down the ridge.

“There’s always good memories here, I should say.”

In October 2016, Charlotte died at age 73. She left no will, so the hotel went to Carl, as her surviving sibling.

The hotel and its contents.

Charlotte was a collector—“that’s a polite way of saying it,” Eric noted. Like her mother, sister and brother, she accumulated belongings large and small. Eric’s father told him they were raised poor and “you’d rather have something and not need it than need something and not have it.”

Most of the hotel grew inaccessible: “The last 20 years, it was a glorified storage unit,” Eric said. “It was American Pickers meets Hoarders meets Tetris.” He and his wife, Desi, spent over a year sorting through the piles.

Selling items at auction (see infobox) will complete the probate process. The sale also will kick-start Eric and Desi’s dream of returning the hotel to its roots, a plan he says his father supports.

Built in 1904 by the Diamond Match Co., in a boomtown for lumber workers, the Stirling City Hotel originally served as a dance hall and community center. That’s the vision the Hilgemans have for its restoration. They see great potential in a community hall with a stage for concerts and a kitchen to cater events, plus loft beds in the six guest rooms for occasional overnight visitors.

Proceeds from the auction, and a benefit concert at the hotel Sept. 14, will fund renovations.

Butte County Supervisor Doug Teeter, whose district includes Stirling City, appreciates the effort. He’s come to the Upper Ridge since growing up in Paradise and attended a Halloween event Eric and Desi hosted last fall.

“I think it’d be great if it was put back to its former glory and was a unique place people could go and stay at,” Teeter said by phone. “That hotel could be a real nice gem to bring folks up, get out of the heat—otherwise you’ve got to go all the way to Butte Meadows for those kind of amenities.”

A tour of the hotel reveals both promise and problems. Much of the exterior and—finally revealed—interior look their age. Eric cites painting and roof repair as primary tasks. They’ll phase other projects, such as installing a large commercial kitchen, over time as funding permits.

“We could spend as much money as we could get, really,” he said. “Half-million dollars I could sink into this building real quick.

“We’re trying to do everything on a shoestring budget, and as much of the stuff we can do ourselves, we try.”

Carl gave them the chance after Eric showed a passion for the place while his siblings and cousins didn’t. He’d recently returned after 10 years in Oregon, where he met Desi. There they both worked as golf caddies; the toll on their backs prompted them to make a change, so they moved to Durham.

Six months after losing Charlotte, Eric cleared enough from the hotel to live there. Desi came three months later—last June. Now they have a family, with 3-month-old son Ethan.

“All in all, we just want this to be a place where people can come and enjoy themselves,” Desi said. “Be a place to go.”

Stirling City offers few places to gather. The Stirling City Historical Society has a mus-eum open weekend afternoons. Brakebill School occasionally holds events but otherwise remains closed. Merlo Park, a popular venue for outdoor weddings, is open Thursdays through Sundays.

The Hilgemans see a chance to cater to couples wed in the park by providing changing rooms and food. They hope to draw others with two concerts a month; anyone who doesn’t feel up to driving home could spend the night in their lodgings.

“Charlotte wanted this to be somewhat of an artists’ retreat,” Desi said. “To have musicians come in, people exploring the woods and us entertaining, it kind of fulfills what she wanted to do.”