The Great American Motel

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The single-engine plane comes in low over the green hills of Zululand, then bounces to a landing on a grassy strip. The American tourists clamber out into the African sun. The surrounding countryside is dotted with clusters of thatch-roofed huts, and rhinoceros and wildebeest lurk nearby. The comfort and ease of home have been left far behind. And then, a stone’s throw from the strip, they spot a familiar green and yellow sign, topped by a star. It is a Holiday Inn.

Along with computers, rock music, and fast foods, any listing of mid-twentieth-century America’s distinctive contributions to the world must surely include motels. Today they are found not only along the interstate highways crisscrossing the United States but also in Moscow and Islamabad and beside French country roads, as well as in Zululand.

As they have spread around the globe, motels have become part of American folklore. Bonnie and Clyde engaged in a celebrated shoot-out with the police at the Red Crown Cabin Camp near Platte City, Missouri. The most titillating scene in It Happened One Night occurred when Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were thrown together in a motel room.

Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita , found motels the quintessence of America. Now many people find them the quintessence of what is wrong with America—plastic, disposable, uniform, a symptom of a boring homogeneity that increasingly afflicts our lives. Partly true perhaps, but in all fairness we should recall the plight of the automobile traveler in those distant days when there were no Holiday Inn or Howard Johnson’s or Ramada Inn signs glowing at the end of the long day on the road.

Hal Borland, the naturalist, drove from New York to Los Angeles in 1923 in an Oakland touring car with folding top and side curtains. It was a thirty-two-day trip, over paved roads until Omaha, dirt after that. Borland shunned hotels. In cities they were in the heart of downtown, accessible to the rail travelers for whom they had been built but usually not convenient for motorists. In small towns the hotels tended to be “grubby and bugridden.” Most of the time, Borland camped, each night unpacking the array of gear—tent, folding cot and chair, cooking utensils, dishes, portable gas stove—that he carried in boxes on the running boards of his car.

Finding a pleasant campsite was often difficult, particularly on the first half of the journey. “I pitched my tent in an open field in Pennsylvania, behind a signboard in Ohio, in a country schoolyard in Indiana. In Iowa, I found a municipal campground, a few vacant lots beside the town dump, with a cold-water spigot and an outdoor privy. It was run by the town marshal, who charged 50 cents for the privilege of camping there overnight.”

In the wide-open country west of Iowa the choice of campsites improved, and Borland also encountered something new—the “cabin camp.” “Some were clean and comfortable, but most of them were mere clusters of shabby little huts, each with a water pitcher, an iron bed and a bare floor,” he remembered. Though Borland was not terribly impressed—he decided he preferred his tent—such cabin camps were the genesis of the motel industry.

They had evolved from the campgrounds where pioneering long-distance motorists pitched their tents. Many early automobile tourists shared Hal Borland’s aversion to hotels. Even if they chanced to find themselves near a decent one at dusk, it was expensive to put up at a hotel night after night. Moreover, in those days of frequent breakdowns and tire changes, motorists were often a grubby lot, and they felt ill at ease parading through elegant lobbies. Thus many, like Borland, carried camping equipment.

Initially, motorists had little trouble finding a place to camp beside the road, but as their numbers grew, their welcome diminished. Some towns began to view them as a nuisance; farmers put up No Camping signs in their fields. But then a few more farsighted communities, as well as some private landowners, began to look upon the campers as a source of profit. Here and there farmers and gas station operators put up new signs offering campsites at twenty-five cents a day. Some towns, seeing the campers as potential customers for local merchants, set aside tracts of land for motorists to use at little or no charge.

The municipal auto camps spread rapidly, particularly in the West, and by the early 1920’s there were hundreds. Many were no better than the bleak plot beside the town dump that Hal Borland found in Iowa, but some provided a variety of amenities. Denver, which opened the first of several camps in 1915, had one offering cold showers, fireplaces (an evening’s supply of firewood cost a nickel), tennis courts, and a dancing pavilion. A handful of municipal camps even erected rustic shelters for individual families, and it may be that Douglas, Arizona, which knocked together half a dozen board shacks for the use of motorists in 1913, should be honored as the site of the very first motel.