By David Grogan
December 15, 1986 12:00 PM

After helping themselves from a well-stocked cookie jar at the front desk, visitors to Anderson House, a 131-year-old hotel in the sleepy Mississippi River town of Wabasha, Minn. (pop. 2,500), are invited to leave their shoes outside their room for a free shine—and to pick a roommate provided courtesy of the management. “It’s the best gimmick in the hotel business,” says proprietor John Hall, 42. “It sure beats free shampoo in the bathroom.”

It also gives new and noble meaning to the notion of a visit to a cathouse. Located in farm country 80 miles southeast of Minneapolis, Anderson House is a cat lover’s nirvana where the rooms come complete with a feline of your choice with his or her individual litter box. Nearly all of the 13 cuddly companions on call are well bred. Most come from royal Siamese, Burmese or Abyssinian lineages known for their warm sociability. “We like to know the cats’ backgrounds,” says Hall, “so we can be assured they won’t turn wild on the customers.” The one exception is Tiger, a mixed-breed cat who charmed her way into the hotel after hanging around the kitchen door for a few months.

For the cost of a room, which ranges from $29 a night for a double with shared bath to $69 a night for the bridal suite, hotel guests get their house tabby on a first come, first serve basis. Accustomed to being around strangers, the cats, when not visiting hotel guests, live in a second-floor dormitory, each with his or her personal bunk. But time off the job is rare. “Most of our cats are with guests every night,” says Hall. “Visitors generally make sure their favorite cat will be available before they book a room.”

The most popular cat in the Anderson House brood is a half-Siamese named Morris, who bears a striking resemblance to his famous namesake and weighs in at 32 pounds. “Morris is almost obscene, he’s so fat,” says Hall, noting that guests tend to spoil their favorites with food. Kathy Olsen, a Villa-nova University graduate student from Havertown, Pa., reserved a night with Morris weeks in advance. “I came here exclusively because I’m a cat fanatic,” said Olsen, 29. Though attracted to Morris because of his huggability, she offered a mixed report on his deportment the morning after their date. “Morris was kind of bad,” she said. “He was jumping all around and clawing at the chair.” Still, Olsen promised to come see him again in a few months.

The cat hospitality tradition at Anderson House, which has been in John Hall’s family for three generations, began 10 years ago when a young man from Carlisle, Pa. wandered over to Wabasha one weekend from the Mayo

Clinic, 40 miles away in Rochester, Minn. While undergoing an extensive medical checkup, he decided to make Anderson House his home and commute daily to Mayo. “He wistfully asked if we had any cats in the hotel,” recalls Hall, “and we sure did.” After Hall lent the feline fancier a cat belonging to his mother, Jeanne, news was spread by word of mouth of the “rent-a-kitty” service. In time other visitors began arriving from as far away as California and Florida asking for the same privilege.

To encourage the family atmosphere at Anderson House, Hall himself works the front desk with his wife, Gayla. In the hotel’s two dining rooms, guests can feast on sweet breads, wild game, Mississippi catfish, homemade pies and, in winter, hot grog. Oven-warmed, towel-wrapped bricks help keep the beds heated for vacationing skiers and snowmobilers during the frigid Minnesota winters. Old-fashioned mustard plasters are provided free to anyone afflicted with a chest cold. And, of course, the companionship of a friendly cat helps the lonely make it through the night.

For those who are allergic to cats, there is no need to worry. Given advance warning, Hall will have a room scoured from top to bottom and send the old-fashioned quilts out for dry cleaning. “The nice thing,” he adds, “is that nobody has to worry about mice.”