SLEEP IN A WIGWAM!

 

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One of the most novel stays on all of Route 66 is, of course, the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona. To be accurate, they’re more teepees than wigwams, although teepees were technically portable and a construction of concrete and steel isn’t really all that mobile. But semantics aside, Wigwam Village #6, as it was originally known, offers not just a chance to sleep in a unique room, but to capture a little of the essence of travelling the Mother Road in its heyday.

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The Tee Pee Barbecue in California which sparked Frank Redford’s imagination.

The whole idea of a wigwam complex was that of Frank A Redford from Horse Cave, Kentucky. Where the idea came from is open to debate – some say Frank was influenced by dwellings on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota, although the preferred story is that, on a trip to California in 1931, he saw a concrete building called the Tee Pee Barbecue, a drive in built by James H Estes in Long Beach in 1927.  Back in Horse Cave he built a copy of the Tee Pee barbecue, operating it as a gas station and café. In 1935 he added six tourist cabins, also in the shape of teepees. The idea of the Wigwam Village – Frank didn’t like the sound of ‘tee pee’ – was born and patented in 1936.

 

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Postcard showing the large teepee at the front which was demolished at some point, although the two smaller wigwams remain.

The following year, he built Wigwam Village #2 (which still exists) in Cave City, Kentucky, and it was this motel which was seen by Chester E Lewis, a businessman who operated a number of motels along Route 66 and elsewhere in Arizona. He was so captivated by the oddly-shaped cabins that he decided to build a village of his own and came to an arrangement with Frank Redford. Instead of a now traditional franchise idea, they agreed that radios would be placed in each room of the new motel that would play for a half hour upon payment of a dime. Frank would then receive the dimes from the radios in exchange for allowing Chester Lewis to build his wigwams.

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The Motel in the late 1950s/early 1960s when it had a gas station out front.

The Wigwam Motel in Holbrook opened in 1950 with 15 teepees on three sides and, on the fourth, the office which, along with two smaller wigwams, originally operated as both office and Texaco gas station. Each tepee houses a round bedroom, tiny bathroom and shower, although the ceiling is normal height rather than extending to the tip 32 feet above. That same year, the seventh and final Wigwam Motel opened in San Bernadino, California, the project overseen by Frank Redford who would die there some seven years later. (Incidentally, the year that the last two motels opened was also the same year that the inspiration for it all, the Tee Pee Barbecue, was demolished).

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What traveller could refuse!

For the next twenty-four years, the Wigwam welcomed visitors with its exhortation of SLEEP IN A WIGWAM until Holbrook and Route 66 was bypassed in 1974. Chester closed the motel and it stood sadly by the side of the highway as Interstate 40 and time passed it by. Chester passed away in 1986, after which his widow and children – sons Paul and Clifton and daughter Elinor – decided to renovate the motel and reopen it, which they did in 1988. They restored the original hickory furniture and fittings; to suit the modern traveller, cable TV and air conditioning units were fitted, there are no phones and the rooms are comfortable if basic, although they do now have wifi. Classic vehicles decorate the parking lot, including Mr Lewis’s own Studebaker.

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In one of the single bed teepees.

The Lewis family continues to run the Wigwam Motel which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 2002. It remains as popular now as it was in the 1950s and booking is always advisable. Alas, the rooms no longer have the dime-operated radios and I can only assume that agreement between Mr Redford and Mr Lewis lapsed long ago.

 

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Some of the original hickory furniture.

 

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This 1955 Buick Special would have been almost new when the Wigwam Motel opened.

 

 

 

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Gas pumps originally stood where the cars are parked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Welcome to your wigwam.

THE COURAGE THAT FAILED

The cheery children's attraction has a surprisingly forbidding appearance.

The cheery children’s attraction has a surprisingly forbidding appearance.

Of the many trading posts to be found along Route 66, it’s surprising to learn that less is known about one of the most recent than of those that ceased to exist decades ago, such as the Rattlesnake Trading Post and Bowlins in Bluewater, New Mexico. But, just across the border into Arizona, Fort Courage, which only finally closed a couple of years ago, is quickly falling into disrepair and obscurity.

The sign with its cheery F Troop cartoons and disregard for copyright!

The sign with its cheery F Troop cartoons and disregard for copyright!

The site of a trading post since 1924 when Joseph Grubbs opened the White Mound Trading Post, the tiny town of Houck – originally known as Houck’s Tank after the man who founded it and, yes, his water tank – served first one alignment of the Old Trails Highway and then Route 66. When Route 66 was rerouted in 1933, Grubbs moved his store to where Fort Courage now stands. The White Mound, which also acted as Houck’s post office, finally closed in 1948.

 

Then, in the late 1960s, Fort Courage was built as

Latterday Houck's tank.

Latterday Houck’s tank.

an unashamed tourist trap. It was an exercise in cashing in on the success of the short-lived but popular television series, F Troop. There was no actual link between the two and it certainly wasn’t the series’ location, but the owners tacitly encouraged the idea that this was where the TV programme had been filmed. There was also little note taken of copyright – postcards from the 1970s show signs that read ‘HOME OF F TROOP’ although they disappeared in later years. Thousands of parents over the years must have been nagged by kids to stop at Fort Courage, and those parents were catered to by the trading post which stocked the usual plethora of Indian goods along with tourist tat, as well as becoming a small supermarket and a post office towards the end of its life.

Pancakes, coffee, tacos - now all off the menu.

Pancakes, coffee, tacos – now all off the menu.

Next to the trading post is the abandoned Pancake House which was originally built as a restaurant by Van de Kamp’s Holland Dutch Bakery of Los Angeles. The company had a chain of windmill-styled bakeries around LA and plans to extend across the country with a distinctive windmill building design. The concrete building had sixteen sides to give the appearance of being round, while the roof would have once supported a giant windmill, although no photographs appear to exist of this. Van de Kamp intended to build 40 of these quirky buildings by 1970, but never came close to that figure. The Houck Pancake House is one of only two of the designs to survive; the other is in Arcadia, California, where the building is now a Denny’s (and that company had wanted to demolish it in 1999 before a local outcry forced a change of mind). The Pancake House also housed a coffee shop and, if you believe the signs, a Taco Bell. Personally, I would treat that with a pinch of salt and a Fort Courage type of disregard for legalities. It’s far more likely that it was an Ortega’s Tacos, named after Armand Ortega who ran the trading post for some years.

This would have originally had a windmill rather than the sign, but there's no proof it was ever erected.

This would have originally had a windmill rather than the sign, but there’s no proof it was ever erected.

Today the trading post, gas station and restaurant are shuttered and fenced off, but it’s still possible to walk around Fort Courage. Some of the buildings were converted into apartments but they lie open and derelict, personal belongings strewn knee deep.

The interior of an abandoned apartment in the 'fort'.

The interior of an abandoned apartment in the ‘fort’.

History has not been kind to Fort Courage. Opened less than fifty years ago, there seems to be no record of even when it actually opened, let alone any details of what is likely to become of it. Faded billboards along the interstate still exhort the traveller to stop, but there’s no longer any genial welcome at Fort Courage. Its single legacy seems to be in the late night reruns of F Troop when viewers of a certain age might pause and think, ‘Didn’t we stop on the film set in Arizona when I was a kid…?’

The tower is boarded up but still in good order.

The tower is boarded up but still in good order.