Motels are as old as civilization. They existed in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and elsewhere. In Rome, hotels, which were found in the center city, were known as hospitia. Motels, which were found near the city gates, were known as stabula, because they provided parking for your animals, cart, chariot, whatever. And the rooms clustered around a center court, a design that would later be copied in many early American motels.
From colonial days, American towns and cities had centrally located inns and rooms to rent. Scattered haphazardly in between were many country inns where a traveler could get food and drink and a relatively primitive sleeping space. The coming of the railroad in the mid-19th century put many of those inns out of business, as hotels and rooming houses clustered around the railway depots, where they pretty much stayed until Henry Ford made the automobile affordable for the masses and independent tourism became possible.
You can watch movies of the Vagabonds here:
Ford, with his pals John Burroughs, Harvey Firestone and Thomas Edison, became pioneering auto tourists, calling themselves The Vagabonds and making frequent forays into the backwoods together. They carried camping equipment, servants and fine silverware and often spent the night on some farmer’s land, which set the tone for all the other early tourists. By the 1920s, tourist camping became more formalized, with rural entrepreneurs advertising tourist camps, with a small fee for the use of the land, water and maybe an outhouse. Next came tourist cabins, typically $1 per night for the cabin, 25¢ extra for a two person mattress, with onsite bathing facilities and outhouse.
Meanwhile, the first facility to use the word motel opened in San Luis Obispo, CA in 1925. The Motel Inn cost $80,000 to build, charged $1.25 per night and was projected to be the first of 18 such facilities spaced 150-200 miles apart across the west coast. But the owners were unable to trademark the name, cheaper copycats gave fierce competition, investors could not be found and shortly after the Great Depression began, the original owners lost the property to foreclosure. The main building is still standing today and is used as the offices of a much newer hotel next door.
As the motel concept worked its way eastward across the US, the tourist cabin concept was evolving into the tourist village. A typical village consisted of a main building housing the office, a restaurant and possibly a bar or nightclub. The cabins were separate, but much improved from earlier times, with a garage or carport, a simple kitchen, and indoor bathroom, with shower.
And others were exploring chain-type operations, but the Depression made it almost impossible to find money to take on such large projects. So in 1933, a small group of owners met in Santa Barbara, CA and put together the first national association of independently owned tourist villages under the name United Motor Courts. Right from the start they published a wonderfully illustrated guide to recommended tourist villages coast to coast.
Just two years later, members of the Dobbins family and others built Winston-Salem’s first such facility, the Winston-Salem Tourist Village. It was located on the Greensboro Road, an extension of East Fifth Street, near the current junction of US 158 and Business I40 East. The first manager was Charles A. Dobbins. The village was made up of a main building right on the highway, and a number of cabins set back in a wooded area. They quickly paid their fee and joined United Motor Courts.
In 1940, Charles Dobbins’ widowed sister, Myrtle Dobbins Cohn, took over the management. One of the services that she provided was a car shuttle, often driven by her, that picked up and delivered passengers at local railroad and bus depots. In November, 1948, Earl Schooley, a magistrate from Atlantic City NJ was on his way to Florida for a vacation. Apparently he decided that he needed a night in a bed that wasn’t moving, so he detrained and wound up at the Winston-Salem Tourist Village.
It is not entirely certain what happened next, but it is likely that he was scheduled to catch the midnight Winston-Salem Southbound train. Maybe they were running late. The next station south of Winston-Salem was Eller (now Midway) in Davidson County. That station was not much farther from the Winston-Salem Tourist Village than the local station, so Myrtle and Earl raced through the densely fogged night for Eller. As she turned off of US 52 South onto the bridge leading to the station, Myrtle lost control of her 1948 Packard sedan. The car hit one railing, crossed back to the other side, went over and through that railing and fell 35 feet to the tracks below, landing upside down. Moments later, it was hit by a slow moving 64 car Southbound freight train and dragged along the tracks for about 65 yards. Rescue workers were able to get Myrtle out of the car right away, but Earl was trapped under the wreckage, so took a bit longer. Both were already dead. Earl was 51, Myrtle 41.
Another family member, Ruth S. Dobbins replaced Myrtle as manager. The village closed around 1953, but in 1957 it reopened as the Salem Manor Motel under the management of Thad Williams. By then other tourist courts and motels were popping up around the city (see pictures at end of post). With growing competition and cut off from the main traffic arteries by the East-West Expressway and the new US 52, Salem Manor struggled to get by. At some point it began renting the cabins as extended stay units. Around 1980, the Salem Manor name was dropped, replaced by the name Eastview Apartments. Most of the complex is still standing today, designated by the City of Winston-Salem as an historic development opportunity.
Driving While Black
Jim Crow is a word thrown about lightly by most Americans, who have no idea what it meant. As white Americans began enjoying the freedom of travel made possible by the automobile, many black Americans wanted to join in. They had cars. They had the money to afford accommodations and meals. But across most of America, they had no place to go. And we’re not talking just the South here. The famous US route 66 stretched 2,448 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, CA. It was known as the Mother Road, the Will Rogers Highway, and the Main Street of America. But like far too many Main Streets, it was pretty much closed to black Americans. Even in the early 1950s, only about 6% of the hotels, motels, restaurants, gas stations, amusements parks, swimming pools, laundries and public bathrooms along route 66 were available to black Americans.
“Would a Negro like to pursue a little happiness at a theater, a beach, pool, hotel, restaurant, on a train, plane, or ship, a golf course, summer or winter resort? Would he like to stop overnight at a tourist camp while he motors about his native land ‘Seeing America First’? Well, just let him try.”
— Crisis, 1947 (The magazine of the NAACP)
The situation was so bad that in 1936, Victor H. Green, a New York postal worker, began publishing The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide to places that DID accommodate black people. At first, it covered only the New York area, but soon expanded to include most of the United States, parts of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda. For a black American traveling in North America, it was as essential as a suitcase. The guide was published from 1936-1966.
Ironically, the South had more such accommodations than most places, because it had the highest density of black residents. If there is anything that will overcome racism, it is money. So areas with high black populations also had the most public accommodations for blacks. On a local basis, the towns of Salem and Winston had hotels and restaurants for whites from day one. By the 1880s, there were a number of lunchrooms and cafes and rooming houses in Winston that catered to blacks. But the earliest hotel for blacks that we can find is the 1915 Ideal Hotel, located at 705 Depot Street, the heart of the Liberty-Patterson black business district. The hotel was a bit of space in the Hall Building, under the management of J.G. Smith. The first real hotel, 1935, was the Lincoln, on the second floor of a building owned by black entrepreneur Charles H. Jones at 9 East Third Street. The first tourist court did not appear until the mid-1950s…the Camel City Tourist Homes, operated by Louise Jones at 513 Cleveland Avenue. Of course, there are no pictures of any of them.
Late 1950s, early 1960s motels in Winston-Salem