HARTINGTON — Taking a break after a morning spent serving coffee and breakfast, Erin Schroeder laughs, repeating the joke that she and her husband, Ben, have a new child that now occupies much of her time.
Like any young one, it's consuming a lot of their energy, but it's also helped bring a buzz to Hartington's business district.
The two veterinarians have found a niche restoring century-old buildings here, and their latest project, the historic Hartington Hotel, has kept Erin busy. Rather than doctoring area residents' pets and horses, Erin has been welcoming them to the coffee shop, ballroom and guest suites she and Ben opened inside the hotel on Oct. 1.
"This is our third child," Erin said with a chuckle. "The joke is I'm on maternity leave to take care of our new building."
They've been taking care of one thing or another — usually many at the same time — their entire professional careers, especially since the restoration bug bit them after moving to Hartington a little over a decade ago to take over Cedar County Veterinary Services from Ben's father, John.
Neither Erin nor Ben had a construction background. They loved animals instead. Erin grew up near Lake Champlain in Westport, New York, knowing from a young age that she wanted to be a veterinarian. After graduating from Syracuse University, where she was a scholarship basketball player, she went to vet school at Kansas State University, where she met and married Ben.
By 2007, they had bought Ben's father's practice. They've moved the clinic three times, remodeling each new location to fit their needs for treating cattle, horses and small animals. They did the same when they opened a clinic in Vermillion, South Dakota, and again after opening a Yankton, South Dakota, clinic, which they've since sold.
They grew to like the demolition, planning and design that goes into renovation projects, a departure from their daily veterinary work.
"I really feel like it's two different sides of my brain and my husband, too. It gives us each a creative outlet," Erin said.
The buildings got bigger, the projects more ambitious.
In 2015, they bought the Globe clothing store building, which was built in 1901. They gutted it and turned the top floor into a home for them and their two boys. The main floor was turned into an event space for small parties and gatherings. After finishing that project, they asked a real estate agent if he had any buildings they could buy and restore. He eventually asked if they'd be interested in the Hartington Hotel, a building just up the street from the Globe that they'd eyed a time or two.
"I don't think we got out of the office before saying yes," Erin said.
Vacant for 23 years, the former hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, still stood prominently on North Broadway, Hartington's main business district. The three-story brick structure, built in 1917, was structurally sound and had been gutted years earlier but had reached a point at which something needed to be done before it began to deteriorate.
They didn't have immediate plans for the building, but they knew one thing for sure.
"We wanted to preserve the historic character" and turn it into an attraction, something to bring people to Hartington, Erin said.
They set to work as they made plans. Ben did a lot of the demolition work, Erin planned and designed the final product. Both worked to clean and restore original wooden beams, hardwood and tile floors and the hotel counter. A contractor did the major construction work.
They began work late last year and have transformed an empty building into an attractive and active business.
The main floor is home to The Lobby, a coffee shop that serves gourmet coffee, breakfast and lunch. Erin said local residents desired a formal dining option in town, so on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, they host a sit-down buffet in the ballroom, which also can be reserved for private parties. It's also been used for weddings and receptions.
The top two floors were renovated into 17 bedrooms and nine bathrooms divided among four suites. They're popular with wedding parties, guests and families.
In the basement is The Tap Room, an event bar that was a speakeasy during Prohibition.
Erin will soon open a home decor shop named Togged to the Bricks in a storefront inside the hotel.
It's been a lot of work, a lot of time balancing treating animals and giving a historic building special treatment, but it's been worth it, Erin said.
"It's something you have to be passionate about," she said. "It just makes us proud."
That pride appears to be contagious. Erin said that since they've restored the Globe and now the hotel, she and Ben have noticed other downtown business owners improving their buildings, whether it's a new awning, touching up the facade or doing some renovations. There's more traffic downtown on Saturday nights.
"There's just a renewed energy," Erin said.
Erin and Ben plan to keep that energy flowing. Erin has her eyes on other older buildings she'd love to restore. It may seem like an interest that has little in common with veterinary medicine, but Erin said the two are more similar than you'd think.
"It's a lot like an animal," Erin said. "We see things that are broken, sick and debilitated. Most of the time with TLC and the right care you can improve an animal's life, and it's the same thing with buildings. You just have to love them."