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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"


by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Nothing like a 1,000-plus mile road trip to give you some time for reflection.

Heading home to Austin from Amarillo recently, by way of Borger, I began my southward journey from that one-time oil boom town on State Highway 207 to connect with U.S. 287. After hitting the more-traveled U.S. highway at Claude, the next county seat town I passed through was Clarendon. That’s where I saw a local overnight place called the It’ll Do Motel.

The It’ll Do is a small version of the classic 1950s Mom and Pop (which is to say pre-chain ownership) motel, an arrangement of rooms with outside-only entry. The sign also notes that “Color Cable TV” is available.
Bartlesville Travelers Motel Old Neon
Bartlesville Travelers Motel Old Neon
TE photo, 2009
Needing to be well down the road before bed time, I didn’t have a chance to see if the It’ll Do lived up to its name when it came to being a suitable place to spend the night, but the old motel did get me to thinking about how staying on the road has changed over the years.
Downtown Denison, Texas - Hotel Simpson old staioneray
Hotel Simpson - Downtown Denison, Texas
TE Archive
Temple TX - Doering Hotel Stationery
Doering Hotel - Downtown Temple, Texas
TE Archive
When I traveled as a young child, my family tended to overnight in downtown hotels (which even small towns usually had at least one of). That’s mainly because my granddad was used to staying in traditional lodging, not tourist courts. In his salad days tourist courts – or tourist camps -- still had a somewhat unsavory reputation with his generation. (The outlaw couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, for example, favored tourist courts when they didn’t opt to sleep in their car.)
Oklahoma,  Nowata, Hotel Campbell
Hotel Campbell - Downtown Nowata, Oklahoma
TE photo, 2009
Austin TX - Blue Bonnet Court Old Neon Sign
Austin Texas - Blue Bonnet Court Old Neon
TE photo. See Texas Old Neon
But as more and more Texans hit the state’s ever-improving highway system in the 1950s, motels proliferated and lost most of their shadier image. In fact, they became so common, and so affordable, that many of the traditional high-rise hotels started going out of business.

The first generation of motels were home-owned operations with varying designs as well as distinctive names displayed on often-memorial signage. Then the chains came along, most notably Holiday Inn, which was the pioneer in the field.

Well, times are changing once again. While Texas still has plenty of traditional motels to accommodate travelers, the landscape along the interstates and major highways is beginning to look different.

Anyone wanting to stay in the Clarendons of Texas will have to settle for the locally owned places like the It’ll Do (which actually looked like a pleasant enough place). But cities in the 20,000 and up population range are beginning to sport at least one and sometimes three or four lodgings that are a semi-throwback to old times: Motels that look like hotels.
Muskogee Hotel Old Neon
Muskogee Hotel Old Neon
TE photo, 2009
Nomenclature has changed along with architecture. The word “motel” (motor plus hotel) is beginning to disappear like the glow from a leaky neon light. Now overnight spots are being called “inns” or “suites” or simply by their brand name, as in Holiday Inn Express or Hawthorn Suites.

On my recent trip to the High Plains, I spent three nights in two of these new-fangled “inn-tels,” which slowly began entering the market in the 1990s. In recent year, the pace has accelerated greatly. Both places I stayed offered free wireless internet (not to mention “cable color TV”) and “free” breakfast, though the cost of the morning meal is surely calculated into the room rate. But most of these places don’t cost much more than an “old-fashioned” motel dating from only a decade or two back.

At these newer places, you don’t have to worry as much about some bad guy lurking outside your room, since there’s only one way in and out – past the front desk. And you’re better protected from the weather. Of course, just like in the old days, now you have to cart your luggage into the lobby and up an elevator.

From a cultural history perspective, the downside is that all of these places pretty much look alike. Unless the wind is blowing in from the feedlots, it’s possible to wake up in an Amarillo suite and think for a second you’re in Houston. Well, then you’d smell the refineries. Better to say Waco.
Raleigh Hotel, Downtown, Waco, Texas
TE Archive
In a brief note of remembrance, I had gone to Amarillo for the funeral of my 95-year-old step mom, Nina Ingram Laney. Though born in Illinois, she came to the Panhandle with her family during the 1926 oil boom and never left.

Starting in the 1950s, after getting three kids mostly raised, she taught herself to type and got hired as the Phillips correspondent for the Borger News-Herald. The newspaper paid her a dime per published inch of type to record the comings and goings in that now-vanished oil company town in Hutchinson County. At that pay scale, more names and news equaling more dimes, she did not miss much that went on in that small town.

By the time she retired in the mid-1970s, she had risen to city editor of the Borger paper. She and my late dad, Bill G. Cox, himself a newspaper man, married in 1977.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" April 22, 2010 column
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