Saving a Building and Providing a Service


June 21, 2023

For years, long-time Harlem residents Rhonda and Dean Baker drove by the old McGuire's Motel and watched it deteriorate. Rhonda recalls working for McGuires in her early teaching days, "In 1985 after school, I'd come work the desk while I corrected papers." However, the building stood empty and unmaintained for twenty years.

"It was either ignore it or do something about it," Rhonda stated. So, in 2021, she and her husband bought the land and facility at 42445 US HWY 2. The building's roof had blown off, so that was the first item on the repair list. The second test would determine the building's future. The Bakers decided that if the plumbing was functional, the facility would be a motel; if not, they would turn the structure into storage units.

On May 15, the Moonlight Motel officially opened after a lengthy renovation and restoration process. The couple initially hired Cruz Lopez, a contractor they had used in the past, and he began working in the fall of 2021. All of the ceilings were redone and the carpet laid. Much of the painting was performed by Rhonda and Dean themselves, and various odd jobs were completed by other family members.

"Cruz was so patient with me whenever I would find an idea I liked on Pinterest and ask if we could do something similar. 'Yes, Missy, we can do that,' he would say, and things just evolved from there," Rhonda reported. With her vision and Gomez's carpentry talent, a china hutch was cut and fashioned into the coffee bar in the motel office area. Entertainment centers were painted to resemble marble tops and now serve as compartments to hold in-room microwaves and refrigerators.

Early in the project, Rhonda, who taught kindergarten for several years in Harlem, decided the rooms would each be themed. "I might find a lamp or an interesting piece of wall décor at a rummage or garage sale and determine that a room could be designed around that piece," she said.

The grandchildren supplied ideas, as well, so each of the fourteen rooms at the motel has a unique theme. Some of the themes include hunting, patriotic, coastal, and Country Farmhouse. Another room, the Automotive Room is actually in memory of Gomez and features vintage car parts repurposed as wall decorations. Throughout the motel rooms, multiple pieces emerge that have been crafted or repurposed. For instance, an old oak headboard serves as the check-in countertop in the motel office. Similarly, the Western Room showcases a lamp whose shade is a straw hat and its stem a cowboy boot.

Rhonda explained, "We even have a French Cottage Room, which isn't really a French Cottage, but it's decorated like one in grays, purple, and lavender."

In fact, every room has a story behind its vintage or crafty decorations.

Even the naming of the motel has a story behind it. Rhonda described the family's struggle to come up with something that was fitting without being tacky. "We considered Baker Street Motel until we learned that the street the motel is on is actually called South Side Street on old maps, which is confusing since we're on the north side of Highway 2. So, that was out. Several of our other ideas could have been misinterpreted, so they were also rejected. Finally, we decided on Moonlight Motel since we had always referred to our farm as Moonlight Farm. Because both Dean and I had additional jobs when we first bought the farm, we would be harvesting or haying after regular hours, working in the moonlight."

Today, the sign out front reads, Moonlight Motel: Rest. Relax. Rejuvenate.

Last October about midway in the project, Lopez passed away unexpectedly, leaving the project incomplete. "Only six rooms were done at that point, and Dean and I are not carpenters, so we had a dilemma," Rhonda said. "We are grateful that Kevin Fetter was able to come in and finish the construction work. We still have some rooms to complete and some exterior painting to do; it's a work in progress, but it'll all get done."

When asked what aspect of owning a business most surprised her, Rhonda replied, "Getting to know the ins and outs of the hospitality business was the biggest challenge. We often have to explain to people that even though there is no sales tax in Montana, there is a bed tax. Otherwise, the laundry is just like home, and working with people here is not that much different from the various personalities I had to deal with while serving as superintendent of Harlem Schools. The cleaning is a chore, but we have good help."

Although challenges exist, there are plenty of rewards, according to Rhonda. "Seeing people's pleasure about the themed rooms and about not having to travel so far for lodging have been the biggest reward so far. We've been fairly busy, and we're all booked up for the powwow next month."

After being asked in what direction she and her husband plan to take the business, Rhonda replied: "We're not young any more, and owning a business takes a lot of work. We're glad we saved the building and are able to provide a service for the community, but the motel is always for sale."

On the topic of business ownership, Rhonda further shares this advice: "You have to be a people pleaser as well as to remember that everyone has a different perspective. Where one person sees a problem, another might see a solution. Life is all about seeing from multiple perspectives. I applied this belief for many years while working in education, and there is so much carry-over in public relations."

When the Bakers aren't busy running the Moonlight Motel, they enjoy spending time with their grandchildren. Their son Jon recently fashioned bumper boats by building a platform on inner tubes and attaching a trolling motor.

"Whether we are rocking on a porch swing, playing card or board games, or navigating the water with our bumper boats, we sure enjoy our grandkids," Rhonda concluded.

Anyone interested in renting a room can call the Moonlight Motel's reservation desk at 406-354-4848.


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