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From rotting fish to giant spiders… when motels were an adventure

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My parents’ 1937 Nash LaFayette took me on my first vacation. We stayed at a motel—actually, a long string of lakeshore cabins—in 1949. The lake and our cabin smelled of dead fish. Photo by Mark J. McCourt.

The stinky smell of my first motel adventure is indelibly imprinted in my brain.

It was 1949 and my parents and I were on our way to Ontario, Canada, a bumpy trip north through New York State along winding, hilly two-lane blacktops in the family’s black 1937 Nash LaFayette.

It seemed to me Dad shifted a lot, his strong hand moving the long, floor-mounted gear lever, as the Nash’s flathead six pulled hard on steep grades. It was dark when we diverted off the highway on a dirt road bisecting tall trees and paralleling a lake. Weathered signs announced “Cabins ahead,” “Good fishing,” and “Bait.” Dad looked worried as the Nash bumped along, its wheels falling into deep ruts and hitting rocks. He sometimes spoke in hushed, anguished tones to Mom about “breaking an axle” or “getting a flat tire.”

The elderly gentleman who managed the long row of lakeshore cabins met us at the “office,” a primitive building with broken boards and chipped paint fronted by a dock extending into the water. Burly men with fishing poles, their lines falling into deep, dark depths, lined the dock and stood motionless or sat on chairs.

It was pitch black as Dad followed the dirt road, the old Nash creaking and groaning. Our cabin was at the end of the road and wasn’t lighted. Dad got his flashlight from the trunk and we stumbled behind him, suitcases in hand, to porch steps and a front door. Once inside, Dad pulled a cord that turned on the single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Greeting us was the knock-you-off-your-feet smell of rotting fish heads someone left in a garbage pail.

I quickly accepted the fish smell…but never got used to the mosquitoes that relentlessly attacked all night. Nor did I like walking in the rain to an outhouse that served occupants of several cabins. It smelled as bad as our cabin. Couldn’t I pee in the lake?

My first motel stay was in a “court” made up of cabins lining a lake in northern New York State in 1949. Our cabin was similar to today’s Long Pond Cabins near Lake Champlain, New York. Photo courtesy Long Pond Cabins.

‘Mom and Pop’ motels prevailed
The foul fish odor bothered my parents so much we seldom stayed at lakeshore cabins (with the exception of a rustic abode on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee in 1957). Instead, they looked for “Mom and Pop” motor courts. The word “motel,” an abbreviation of “motor hotel,” was the invention of the owner of the Milestone Mo-Tel in San Luis Obispo, California.

Cheap highway signs on wood poles announced their “special” features well before you arrived. Dad liked those with attached, one-car garages that provided protected parking. The only downsides were noise and dangerous fumes from running engines that permeated your room. But who worried about noise and air pollution in the early ’50s?

“Let’s stay here!” I’d yell in Dad’s ear, as I pointed to motels along the highway that had Native American totem poles, enormous wagon wheels, or wood elephants, horses, and storybook-heroes—such as Davey Crockett and Paul Bunyan—in colorful entrance displays.

Sometimes, motels got your attention with unique facades. In New England, they were made of red brick, heavy stone, and wood that resembled log-cabin architecture. The farther west you drove—and that meant Pennsylvania for this Jersey kid—you’d occasionally see a motel with “adobe” walls made of cement or stucco displaying a New Mexico motif.

Many motels, like this one in Ft. Worth, Texas, bragged about having attached garages in the 1940s. No one seemed to mind foul odors and loud noises from car engines. Photo by the author.

The “Buckhorn Baths Motel” near Mesa, Arizona, is a present-day example of early American motel motifs. Photo courtesy Walt Greenwood.

Growing up with primitive motels/hotels
Motels were a lot different when my wife, Grace, and I were married in 1966. In fact, they hadn’t changed much from when we grew up in the mid-40s and early-50s.

Our parents didn’t “book ahead” to make reservations. They didn’t know about motels with their own websites, either, or motels that had fast Internet connections, Wi-Fi, exercise and conference rooms, HBO, and other amenities. Finding a motel, or even a hotel, on long road trips was a hit-or-miss, unpredictable event. But looking back, that’s what made it fun.

When they couldn’t find a motel, my parents would stop at old, decrepit hotels offering cheap rates and little else. Many were built in the late 19th century and provided electric fans, not air conditioning, to keep guests cool. I had to wait my turn, toothbrush in hand, at the communal bathroom at the end of long, dark hallways. A door marked “Fire Escape” usually led to a rickety metal staircase that descended to the sidewalk.

In the late 1940s, when Dad couldn’t find a motel, he’d stop at hotels like this one on long trips. They offered cheap rates and little else. Fans kept our room cool and we shared a bathroom with guests. Photo by the author.

Higher on Dad’s preference list were family owned “tourist homes” offering hospitality and hot meals. A favorite on long drives from New Jersey to Vermont was the “Singing Brook Inn” in Pittsford, Vermont. Brook water rapidly rushed by all day and provided relaxing “music” that cured even the most stubborn insomniac.

Home-cooked breakfasts and dinners were included in the low—I think it was less than $15—daily family rate. Everyone in Pittsford knew the couple that ran the inn. Motorists waved and yelled greetings from windows. Sometimes a pickup truck pulled into the gravel driveway after dinner. Men wearing overalls stood around talking while the brook and crickets sang in unison. Guests sat around on lawn chairs, played badminton, and pitched horseshoes. It was the ’50s and the world was still sane.

As the 1950s progressed, however, new interstate highways bypassed two-lane blacktops as well as the early motor courts and motels that made them so unique. It might have been a drive along the New Jersey or Pennsylvania Turnpike when I saw my first Howard Johnson “motor court.” Their orange-roofed restaurants, which first showed up in 1929 and already stretched from coast to coast when I was a boy, had the best ice cream desserts…offered in “28 flavors.”

Soon, Howard Johnsons were joined by Holiday Inns, Ramada Inns, Marriott Inns, and a dozen other motel chains. Their structures quickly expanded from single- to multi-level monstrosities that looked more like hotels than motels. They were comfortable and affordable, but their cookie-cutter appearance and customer service made the “motel experience” boring, in my opinion.

One of my parent’s favorite “tourist homes” was the “Singing Brook Inn” in Pittsford, Vermont. Although we shared a bathroom with guests, rooms had sinks. A brook “sang” all day. Photo courtesy Singing Brook Inn.

First anniversary motel mistake
Grace and I didn’t have much money when we departed Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on our first wedding anniversary in June 1967. In fact, I was grateful for the $50 in my wallet as we drove with another couple to the beautiful beaches of Dauphin Island, then a Gulf of Mexico paradise. After arriving, we spent an hour looking for a motel to spend the night and celebrate.

After driving around the island, however, we discovered there were no motel vacancies. But we spotted an enormous sign in front of the island’s only Holiday Inn announcing the National Dairy Association convention and decided to pull in. The sign’s verbiage—“Let’s all pull together”—generated laughter and jokes.

On a whim, I went inside and asked if there were any vacancies.

“Yes, we just had a cancellation and a room with two king-size beds is available. Would you like it?” the clerk said.

Stupidly, I agreed, thinking we were lucky to find a room and also save money by doubling up. But I learned an important lesson that night. Never share a room with another couple on your wedding anniversary. Our friends were even more amorous than we were, forcing us to escape the “hot room” and go for a walk on the beach.

The luminescent sand sparkled and the moon-lit water was quite unforgettable…as were the mosquitoes, which aggressively sampled our blood and dampened erotic intentions.

Thus began more than 50 years of motel adventures for Grace and me. Perhaps the most memorable stay occurred a few years later.

Unlike today’s version, Yokum’s Store and Motel near Seneca, West Virginia, was a primitive place to spend the night in 1970. Semis roared outside our room and a storm knocked out the electricity. Photo courtesy Yokum’s.

As I stood in the motel doorway in the pouring rain, a spider reared up on hind legs, venom dripping from its fangs, and defiantly blocked me from entering the room.

I’m exaggerating, of course. But I remember my upset as I ran back to our 1961 Plymouth Valiant, its engine running and Grace straining to see what was wrong through windshield wipers.

“There’s something nasty in our room! We need to find another place,” I yelled.

With that, Grace grabbed her purse, exited the car, and, to my amazement, ran into the room. She returned smiling a minute later.

“I fixed the problem,” she announced. In her hand was a can of hairspray—the sticky type—which she used to immobilize the spider with a few quick blasts.

Yes, I suffer from fear of spiders, called arachnophobia. Grace, on the other hand, has no problem with tarantulas, venomous snakes, and biting animals I avoid.

Our visit on that 1970 summer night to West Virginia’s Yokum’s Motel, perched high above the South Branch of the Potomac River, was filled with adventure. Big storms flooded the river, which winds through Seneca Rock’s lush forests, and knocked out the electricity. It took hours to get used to semis roaring on a dark two-lane only 10 feet from our door.

But we didn’t care…we were young and looked forward to a weekend of cave exploring and hiking with friends. We never got back to Yokum’s. Almost 50 years later, I wish we lived a little closer and could stay at the modern, well-equipped motel it is today.