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The Rise and Fall of New England’s Motels

The roadside motel flowered in all its neon glory along New England’s roads in the decades after World War II, only to fall to motel and hotel chains.

The vintage motel and the tourist court still exist in New England. Some have been bypassed by highways, and are now run-down and seedy, mocked in The Simpsons as the "Sleep-Eazy Motel,” with burned-out lights that read "Sleazy Motel.

“The business marches along a depressing decline from nightly vacation rates to weekly apartment rents,” wrote a motel historian.

Many motels and tourist courts have been torn down to make way for suburban sprawl. Some survive as neat, clean, affordable havens along New England’s mountains and beaches.

But how did the ubiquitous roadside motel rise – and fall – so fast?

Tourist Camps

The motel started out as a ‘tourist camp,’ a space in a farmer’s field or along a body of water where motorists could pitch their tents. Teddy Roosevelt in 1901 told Congress he wanted free campgrounds on tourist lands.

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A public campground near Acadia National Park.

His cousin, Franklin, created the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, which built two campgrounds at Acadia National Park. As with other campsites on federal lands, they provided picnic grounds, tent space, restrooms and running water.

“The first public campgrounds in the United States were nothing more than large, dedicated clearings, free of trees, within which to concentrate groups of tourists,” wrote Martin Hogue in A Short History of the Campsite.

Along came the trailer, and with it a bad reputation. People complained about the loose morals, the littering and the noise that ‘tin can tourists’ brought with them. One postcard described the tin can tourists as ‘with one shirt and a $20 bill -- and they didn't change either.’

Cabin Camps and Tourist Courts

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A Buzzard's Bay tourist court

The cabin camp emerged as America’s highway network grew along with the population. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “Farmers and other business-folks would contract with an oil company, put up a gas pump, and throw up a few shacks.” The cabin camps weren’t exactly luxe: often dingy, without running water or electricity.

Other roadside amenities, such as Howard Johnson’s restaurants, added to the allure of automobile travel.

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The St. Jean Cottage Court in Hampton Beach, N.H., a popular destination for Canadians.

By the 1930s a homier alternative became popular: the cottage court, also known as the tourist court.  They were more expensive than the cabin camp, but they had indoor plumbing and electricity. They were mom-and-pop affairs, with a shared lawn and cottages decorated with standard themes.

For African-Americans, travel was a challenge. The Negro Motorists Green Book was a guide to accommodations that didn’t threaten embarrassment or danger.

Rise of the Motel

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The Snyders' largest motel in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Meanwhile, the first so-called motel, or 'motor hotel,' opened in 1925 as the Milestone Mo-Tel in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

After World War II, the growing middle class demanded more and more roadside lodging as the federal highway system expanded. People built motor courts at a furious pace. By 1947, there were 22,000 motor courts in the United States.

The 1947 Maine fires wiped out many of the Bar Harbor mansions owned by wealthy summer people. They were replaced by cottage courts and motels, which put all the cottages under one roof. By 1950, there were 50,000 motels and motor courts.

Golden Age of the Motel

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The Little Village Motel on the Berlin Turnpike

The 1950s and 1960s were the golden age of the motel. Mom and pop added color televisions, swimming pools and the Magic Fingers vibrating bed. Neon signs advertised their amenities along strips of road like the Berlin Turnpike in Connecticut, along the Massachusetts coast, on Route 1 in Maine and in New Hampshire's White Mountains.

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The Wigwam Motel, 'facing the beach,' in Misquamicut, R.I.

The industry peaked in 1961, when there were 61,000 motels in America. Today, there are perhaps a quarter of that. The mom and pop motel fell to motel chains like Holiday Inn and Best Western, then to discount hotels like Hampton Inn and Marriott.

But many still cherish the retro comfort and convenience – not to mention the individuality – of the mom-and-pop motel. Some preservationists want to see them saved. Hartford Courant writer Dennis Barone, for example, argued the Berlin Turnpike should be named an official scenic road.

 

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