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Route 66: History, Myth and Memory

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Motels: Their Rise and Decline Along Route 66

For most Americans, driving on the interstate is a routine experience, even a mundane one.  Highways take us to work, to the mall, to dinner, to visit family and friends and often they even take us on vacation.  It is difficult to imagine life without them.  One of the things they often fail to do, however, is allow us to see the towns, cities and landscapes along our routes (Jakle 1985: 140).  This was not the case with the early history of interstates.  Many of them went straight through small towns and even larger cities.  “Existing roads twisted across the countryside, often leading drivers in indirect routes or even in circles, much as small country roads do today” (Dedek 2007:30).

Route 66 was one of these early highways.  Its history as an official U.S. interstate began in 1927 and lasted until the federal government decommissioned it in 1985 (ibid.:34).  However, something about Route 66 was different—it drew motorists to it during its heyday for reasons other than just a more direct route to their destination.  More importantly, it continues to draw motorists, now in the form of tourists, despite the fact it has been decommissioned for over twenty years. Tourists flock to the parts of Route 66 that are still drivable, seeking to remember and celebrate a time in America’s past.  Some drivers may have driven the road in the 1950s or 1960s while others may look to recreate an experience they never had.  Still others desire to see America in a way that modern interstates do not allow.  Whatever the reason, Route 66’s legacy has become a mythologized part of America’s culture.

But it is more than just driving the road itself that moves tourists. It is also what sits along the road.  Historic diners, gas stations and other tourist attractions and tourist traps dot the Route 66 landscape.  In addition to these pieces of Americana, older roadside motels are still found alongside the road.  While one may find a number of historic motels still in operation, it is not uncommon to find many more that are closed, abandoned or simply gone. The Route 66 motel is disappearing.  Even the National Trust Organization placed Historic Route 66 Motels on its 2007 list of the 11 Most Endangered Places.

So, how did these motels, once found all along Route 66, from Illinois to California, go from being so prevalent to so rare?  Their rise coincided with the increase of private automobile ownership and interstates while their decline can be attributed to almost the same reason.  This trend is also referred to as a rise in car culture.  Major efforts to build national interstates started in the early 1900s.  One of the first major initiatives was the Lincoln Highway whose lobbying efforts began in 1912 with the goal of a highway that connected New York to San Francisco (Gutfreund 2004:18).  Coinciding with this increase in nationally funded roads was the rise in automobile ownership.  In 1910, there were less than 500,000 cars in the U.S.  Only three years after the commissioning of Route 66, in 1930, there were over twenty million (ibid.:26).  At its earliest beginnings, the automobile was available only to the wealthy.  As time passed and the purchase of a car became not only more affordable, but an almost natural action for adults, highways and the places the automobile could take people, literally opened up new opportunities. 

Early in its history, Route 66 provided a key route west for those fleeing the economic hardships caused by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression (Dedek 2007:34).  But another major trend prompted by the increase in cars and better roads to travel on was an increase in tourism.  People wanted to get out on the road and see America.  Cars allowed people to leave “the bounds of city and town to roam the countryside in search of nature, region and history” (Jakle 1985:xi).  But, once out on their own, experiencing what America had to offer, tourists still had basic needs.  Thus, the beginning of the roadside motel. 

The ancestor of the roadside motel was the auto camp which was used by early highway travelers who often brought along their own tents and cooking utensils (Jakle, Sculle and Rogers 1996:15).  This gave way to the cabin court where shelter was now provided for those tourists who basic desires were “simplicity, self-sufficiency, and comradeship…” (ibid.).  Ultimately, the cabin court gave way to the motel court as the traveler became more of a consumer whose needs for “comfort, service, and security” outweighed all others (ibid.).  This change in offerings and amenities did not lead to any uniform name for the motel until later.  In a 1950 highway travel guide, there were twenty-eight different names for what constituted lodging.  These included tourist court, cottages, village, bungalow court, tourist cabins, motor inn, city, homes and tour-o-tel, to name a few (ibid.:19). 

Early proprietors along Route 66 learned to evolve as their customers’ needs changed.  Joy Spears Fischel, daughter and granddaughter of the founders of a motel site that originally began by renting out tents to travelers for fifty cents a night relates the evolution of the auto camp into the motel at Camp Joy in Lebanon, Missouri:

“ ‘Daddy used to talk about fighting my grandfather to put running water in those cottages,’ she said.  ‘Originally there was a bathhouse in the middle, and grandfather though that was plenty.  Dad eventually overrode him and put running water in the cabins.  Later, when he saw that we should put in air conditioning, it was the same thing, but as soon as those things were done, my grandfather took full credit for the ideas!’ ” (Scott and Kelly 1988:43).

Besides modernizing, motels also learned they had to compete with other motels for the more selective consumer.  Motels needed to distinguish themselves.  This took shape in two primary ways—neon and architecture.  Neon signs advertising motels became a routine sight along Route 66.  Out west, they were especially creative and had signs in the shape of an arrowhead and other Indian images (Dedek 2007:42).  Large, neon signs also were important aesthetically as they added “a vertical dimension to an otherwise low-to-the ground building configuration” (Jakle, Sculle and Rogers 1996: 47).  Besides trying to lure tourists with flashy images, signs also provided practical information required by travelers:  “the ‘vacancy’ sign.  If accommodations were booked solid, the dimmed portion of the signal was illuminated.  From the highway, one could tell at a glance whether or not a motel had empty rooms” (Witzel 1996:140). 

Sunset Motel, Villa Ridge, Missouri

 

Architecturally, motels also used gimmicks to encourage business.  Often, these unique motels were designed to represent the native landscape or culture.  For example, there were motels built to resemble wigwams and others designed to evoke a Spanish-colonial style (Dedek 2007:44).  But for the most part, the Route 66 motel generally resembled an actual motel.  Following World War II, motels developed a more common style that often featured u-shaped designs within those single-storied units and included porches or patios, swimming pools and “a landscaped ground suggestive of a resort” (Jakle, Sculle and Rogers 1996:43-45).  In a recent interview, Molly Butterworth, Curator with the Transportation Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, noted the design reflected traveler’s needs:  “People often wanted to be off the road by evening, by the time it was dark…so, it was important for places to feel residential” (March 22, 2008).    Similarly, many of the motels began including an important feature for road travelers—the ability to park their cars right outside their units (Kaszynski 2000:73).   Furthermore, reflecting the more modern, sleek designs of cars following World War II (ibid.:146), motels, too, began to modernize their designs by including “rounded corners and speed lines” in a style that became known as Streamline Moderne (Witzel 1996:148).  The Coral Court Motel in St. Louis, Missouri represented this newer style. 

Gardenway Motel sign, Grays Summit, Missouri
 

The motel industry boomed.  In 1928, there were approximately 3000 motels in the U.S.; by 1961 that number reached 60,951 (Jakle, Sculle and Rogers 1995:20).  But, by 1972, the number dropped to 51,860; and by 1987, it was down to 40,424, the latter two numbers including both motels and hotels (ibid.).  Perhaps not so coincidentally, this data corresponds with the rise and fall of Route 66.   The motel, once a thriving industry, lost its luster starting in the 1960s. 

Several items contributed to the decline of the motels in the U.S. and Route 66.  The increase in the number of cars meant an increase in the number of interstates.  “When the concrete road was built, the maker could sell a faster car; the faster car called for a road wider, safer, and more nearly straight.  Every improvement by the highway engineer was matched by increased demands from users” (Jakle 1985:143).  Upkeep on Route 66 was minimal as “people felt buyout and bypass were imminent” (Scott and Kelly 1988:181).  Thus, if the roads could no longer handle the newer, faster, bigger cars, and there were new roads that could accommodate them, it was an almost natural progression by travelers to begin bypassing Route 66 for the safer, faster route.  For hotel proprietor Homer Ehresman, he estimated that “Interstate 40 took away 90 percent of his business” when the bypass went through in the 1970s (ibid.:183). 

Another reason for the decline of the small, roadside motel was the increase in the larger, chain motels.  They were able to offer tourists more amenities, discounts and other services as they often partnered with other groups who prospered from the rise in American car culture.  The American Automobile Association (AAA) offered guides for its members that included selective lodging recommendations (Kaszynski 2000:152).  Another example was a motel proprietor from California who developed the “Best Western Motels as a referral system.  Motel owners who joined agreed to share expenses, direct business to each other, and improve the quality of hotel/motel service” (ibid.).  

As Route 66 was bypassed for newer, wider, modern interstates, so, too, were businesses along the old road.  As had happened with the railroad, small towns and independent proprietors were left behind by an ever-modernizing American car culture.  But, the story did not end for Route 66 with its decommissioning in 1985.  Even during its heyday, the gimmicks used by business owners along Route 66 were effective uses of publicity and self-promotion.  Events, one-of-a-kind experiences and distinctive architecture and businesses made the road unique. (Carden 2006:133).  The enticement of tourists had always been an area where Route 66 excelled.  “…Route 66’s history, from the time the road opened to current preservations efforts, not only details the rise, fall, and rebirth of an icon, but the evolution of public relations” ibid.:131).  It has continued to live on in people’s minds through its continued presence in pop culture, from The Grapes of Wrath, its own personal song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” and even its own TV show “Route 66” (Dedek 2007:5).  Additionally, businesses, especially those near the old route, often utilize 66 in their titles.  Route 66 has been ingrained in the psyche of a large number of Americans. 

An over-the-road trucking company that utilized Route 66 insignia
 

Even before the road was officially decommissioned, efforts were beginning to save Route 66.  There are now preservation groups in all states where the road ran (Carden 2006:137).  The federal government became involved in preserving the iconic highway with the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Act of 1999 that “authorized $10 million for revitalization efforts…to stimulate business and economic growth” (ibid.).  In 2004, a National Historic Context Study was undertaken in order to identify building types that could be placed on the National Register of Historic Places (Cassity 2004:vi).  Additionally, there are re-commissioning efforts being undertaken in the Route 66 states.  Their goal is to make the road “more visible to the traveling public” and “increase traffic and business along the old road.”

But, for many businesses, especially motels, the renewed interest has come too late.  Motels, despite their proliferation and individual uniqueness, continue to lose ground.  It’s not common for buildings to disappear seemingly overnight.  Curator Molly Butterworth, who regularly drives Route 66, comments on the changing road:  “The number of buildings that have been lost in the last few years has been remarkable.  It’s very sad and kind of frightening…so I think about the buildings I have photographs of that I took just a few years ago that are no longer standing” (March 22, 2008).   

In early 2008, I surveyed the status of seven Route 66 motels from Litchfield, Illinois to Villa Ridge, Missouri, approximately 100 miles.  Two of the motels sit abandoned (the Sunset Motel and the Belevidere Motel), two have been demolished (The Stanley Cour-tel and the Coral Court Motel) and three that are still functioning (the Gardenway Motel, the Greenway Motel and the Innkeeper), including one that is not a Route 66-era motel but sits only minutes from the old Route along one of the same interstates that caused its demise.  According to its owner, Tushur “Tim” Bhuktu, the Innkeeper Motel in Hamel, Illinois rents about ten to fifteen rooms a year to Route 66 travelers (March 23, 2008). 

Increased interest in Route 66 has not necessarily meant good things for the independently-owned motel.  It is still difficult to compete with large chain-motels and the convenience of sleeping right off the interstate in the known, familiar setting usually wins out over the off-the-beaten path choice.  Curator Molly Butterworth comments on picking between the chain motel versus the Route 66 motel: 

MB:  Whereas in the small motels, you really have no idea and you can’t always tell from the outside or the sign or the registration desk.  It isn’t until you get in there and you have to accept that the beds are going to be smaller and the bathroom will be smaller and it’ll have the original tiles and the phone’s not going to be fancy and there is no WiFi….So, it takes a certain kind of traveler I think to let go of expectations of travel as we commonly know it and try the whole 66 thing (March 22, 2008) 

Fortunately, some people still embrace the different and appreciate the older motel for what it means to them, much of that meaning coming from past memories.  One enthusiast posts on her website that “on every road trip my family took, one of my favorite moments of the day was when my mother would suggest to my father that it was time to find a motel for the night.”

Of course, the  myth of Route 66 and all of its glorious memories are often not reflective of the status of the road today and the businesses that once thrived upon it.  While there are many original motels still in operation, so many more have disappeared.  One may argue, however, that the disappearance lends itself  to the ongoing romantic myth of Route 66 as people may feel a more urgent need to get out and enjoy what is left of the Mother Road.  If everything was still operating as it was during its heyday, Route 66 might be treated as just another country road to be bypassed for the quicker route on major interstates. 

 



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