DAYTON — Tumbleweeds outnumber cars on the roads that lead to Dayton.
Abandoned barns slowly collapse into the earth. It could be easy to overlook the southeastern Washington town of less than 3,000, which is one reason the community has gotten behind murder.
“We were looking for something to stay busy during the slower season,” says hotel owner Shellie McLeod, who owns and runs the 15-room boutique hotel with her husband, Garry.
Murder mystery weekends are common at Eastern inns, but rarer in the Northwest, says McLeod, who contacted an innkeeper in Vermont to learn the ropes. The three murder mystery weekends held at the Weinhard since then have sold out, drawing ages from 17 to 77.
The $239 per couple package includes a wine and cheese social, four-course dinner, overnight stay and continental breakfast. The hitch is that each person portrays a person from the 1920s for the weekend and everyone has something to hide.
People are sent a packet about their character a week before the event, says Garry McLeod. “They’re advised not to tell their secrets to their spouse.”
Participants start gathering clues Saturday morning on a scavenger hunt around town to get gossip and fake money from business owners to aid them in the evening’s activities.
“People come in and they’re having a good time. They’re just in a good mood,” says Alexander Radcliffe of Alexander’s Chocolate Classics, which participates in the hunt.
People can be quite creative, Radcliffe says. One woman came into the shop, locked the door behind her and bribed the person at the counter $50 to give her friends less fake money. She bought chocolate to bribe other storekeepers with.
Radcliffe, a Seattle transplant who handcrafts chocolate in the French tradition, says 90 percent of his business is from out of town. The murder mystery weekend exposes more people to what Dayton has to offer.
Dayton residents began renovating their town’s historic buildings in the 1990s, says Shellie McLeod, who grew up here. This included public projects like the Columbia County Courthouse, the Liberty Theatre and the Dayton Depot — Washington state’s oldest surviving train station. They are among more than 100 buildings in Dayton listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Downtown businesses came next. The Weinhard Hotel was built as a saloon and lodge in 1890 by Jacob Weinhard, nephew to Henry Weinhard of the Weinhard Brewery in Portland. In the 1950s and ’60s, the building was a Safeway and a drug store. In 1994, it was refurbished as a modern hotel. As many items as possible were recycled into the new building, says Shellie McLeod, including elaborate door hinges, an original skylight, and window transoms. The hotel is decorated in Victorian style with antiques throughout. In the Weinhard Cafe, people order drinks at an antique bank teller’s counter. Each bedroom is unique. No. 10 features a pre-Civil war, four-piece bedroom set. Black and white historic photos of Dayton’s people and places grace the walls. In the fall, people gather at the rooftop garden and watch combines comb the nearby hills.
The McLeods worked at the hotel before they bought it in 2008.
“It’s our dream job,” says Garry McLeod.
One thing spurring people to visit Dayton are its restaurants. One of the oldest is Patit Creek Restaurant, long heralded as the only four-star French restaurant east of the Cascades. Elsewhere in Dayton one can find tapas, sophisticated cocktails, handcrafted ales and Japanese gyoza.
“We have fewer than 3,000 people and 13 restaurants. When I moved here in 1974, there were about 13 bars and almost no restaurants,” says Garry McLeod.
Debbie Klaudt of Lewiston played the role of cigarette girl, Cindy Butts, in a recent Weinhard murder mystery weekend with 30 other people. She says she’d always wanted to try a murder mystery event but was leery because she didn’t know how it worked.
“It was just a blast,” Klaudt says. “If you wanted to venture out and do something out of your normal comfort zone, do that.”
She’s also a fan of the town’s food and shopping.
“Everybody is so friendly. It’s such a quaint little town,” Klaudt says.
Brad McMasters caters the murder mystery four-course dinner at the Weinhard Cafe. Sometime during the evening, one of the participants will die. The police will come and outline their body on the floor. Over food and wine those who are left will mingle, blackmail and bribe each other to solve the crime.
“They don’t know what to expect so they’re always kind of surprised,” says McMasters, who is also executive director of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce.
McMasters moved to Dayton 11 years ago from Seattle. He says there is a tremendous amount of support from locals for the new business ventures.
“They’ll deal with us when we bring in the baby octopus salad; some might go right to the rib eye steak, though,” he jokes.
“Dayton has a progressive element,” he says. “We understand what it takes to survive in a changing economy. We’re no longer agrarian. We could have fallen along the wayside as many smaller Washington communities have.”
The next murder mystery weekends at the Weinhard Hotel are May 11-12 and May 25-26. Reservations must be made at least one week prior to the event by calling (509) 382-4032.