When Joe Salas was a young boy growing up with little money in the Philippines, he lived on the water and dreamed he would one day own a boat like the ones he watched pass his small home. It was that desire that drew him to buy Hotel Baker in St. Charles about 18 years ago.
At the age of 9, he immigrated and lived a tough life in Chicago and Glendale Heights before graduating from DePaul University. Then his dreams started coming true.
"My husband is a boater, and he loved the scene from the hotel," said his wife, Rowena, also originally from the Philippines.
The couple stayed at the hotel in 2001, and then saw it was going into foreclosure a year later.
Rowena, who has a background in nursing, said they had no hospitality experience, but decided to purchase the hotel as an investment.
"It was supposed to be a quick investment. Little did we know we would still be here all these years later," said Rowena, who is now general manager and runs the day-to-day operations of the 53-guest room hotel and restaurant.
Looking back, she said the idea of running the hotel terrified her and that she was not keen on the big decision. But she is now hooked and enjoys her unexpected career.
"It has been a wonderful journey. We never thought this would happen," Rowena said. She said the 100 employees at the property feel like family. "It has been great."
The couple from Wayne bought Hotel Baker when it was in foreclosure and had been closed for 22 months. Over the years, they have spent millions in renovating the historic property, starting with the penthouse.
While Hotel Baker is elegant, Rowena said it has a warm, inviting feeling.
"I'm not a formal person," she said. Her twin sons were in third grade when they bought the hotel. She said they would come in from baseball practice and feel comfortable at the hotel.
"We're very down to earth," she said. The boys, now 26, have worked at the business over the years and assist from time to time but are in the business world now.
They learned that from their father, who started Innovative Systems Group about 28 years ago. The IT consulting company, serving Fortune 500 companies, has 200 consultants with offices in Glen Ellyn, Chicago, Orlando, Columbus and Dallas as well as in the Philippines.
And when the couple are not growing their businesses, they are often in southwest Florida enjoying their boat.
Rowena said they spend time in Naples and on Useppa Island, a 100-acre private island club that can only be reached by boat.
The water is what attracted Joe to Hotel Baker a decade and a half ago.
It's the water and the setting that also attracts brides and grooms to the property.
"We are known for weddings," Rowena said, adding that they do about 70 a year.
The couple admit that when they bought Hotel Baker, located on the site of what was once the Haines Mill built in 1837, they did not realize the attention the historic hotel would garner.
Hotel Baker began as a dream of Edward J. Baker, a native of St. Charles, who earned the honorary title of "Colonel,' thanks to his luck in horse racing.
In 1918, at age of 50, Baker inherited nearly $20 million from his sister, Bellora Baker Gates, heiress to the Texaco Oil Company.
Using only the interest income from his inheritance, Baker commissioned local architects and craftsmen to construct his vision of an elegant, 55-room resort in St. Charles.
He spared no expense to build and furnish the most luxurious small hotel in the country.
Final construction costs totaled more than $1 million, and the hotel boasted the most modern conveniences of the day when it opened June 2, 1928.
"It attracts a lot of attention, and it's an important piece of property in St. Charles," Rowena said.