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Who Invented the Motel?*

In 1908, Henry Ford sold the first Model T. Considered by most to be the first affordable car, it sold for $820 until Ford’s assembly-line efficiency brought the cost down to $260. In 1927, he had sold 5 million of them to middle-class Americans who took to the road, tourists in their own country. Before the first campgrounds for automobile tourists were constructed around 1910, tourists who couldn’t afford hotels slept in their cars or in tents they pitched along the highway. As more highways were built, long-distance travel became more common, and the need for inexpensive lodging led to the growth of privately owned lodging alternatives

In the 1920s, more and more auto camps and tourist cabins were built to meet the demand

One of the most notorious was the Red Crown Tourist Cabins, where Bonnie and Clyde shot it out with the laws (That’s what Warren Beatty called them)

J. Edgar Hoover denounced tourist courts as bases of operation for gangs of desperadoes

In 1933, there were 30,000 tourist courts in the United States. Most people considered them to support Americans’ pioneer spirt.

Within a few years, though, these small cabins outside of town had come to undesirable as gangster hideout as partners with bars and brothels masquerading as roadhouses.

Here are some excerpts from one of Hoover’s rants:

“There is today a new home of crime in America, a new home of disease, bribery, corruption, crookedness, rape, white slavery, thievery, and murder. The roadside crime-nests provide convenient hide-outs for gangsters and bases of operations from which desperadoes prey upon the surrounding territory. KEEP CLOSE WATCH ON TOURIST CAMPS!”

Tourist cabins and cottages were increasingly clustered together into larger motor courts

Cottage courts and tourist courts were a step up from cabins and auto camps because they had indoor plumbing and electricity. In addition to rooms for rent, they had small lunch rooms and gas pumps.

When tourist court owners realized they could save money by replacing individual cabins with rows of rooms under one roof, the motor hotels were born

In 1925, Arthur Heineman built the Milestone Motor Hotel In San Luis Obispo, California

When he couldn’t fit the words Milestone Motor Hotel on his sign, he changed the name to Milestone Mo-Tel, creating a portmanteau word that would be adopted everywhere. What really made motels different from hotels was that each room was entered directly from a parking spot in front of the room rather than through a central lobby.

The popularity of mom and pop motels peaked in the 1960s at 61,000

But they soon declined to 16,000 in response to competition from the newer chain hotels that became commonplace at highway interchanges. Privately owned motels couldn’t compete, so some went the novelty architecture route, such as The Wigwam Motel. The first was built in Horse Cave, Kentucky, growing to seven locations, with three still surviving.

The Red Caboose Motel had 48 rooms in three dozen railroad cars and a dining car.

As independents, the quality of accommodation varied widely from one motel to another

There were no consistent standards, including the “sanitized for your protection” banner. There was also no real opportunity for local motels to advertise nationally and no nationwide network so you could make a reservation in a distant city.

And then along came Kemmons Wilson

As a boy, he sold the Saturday Evening Post door-to-door, delivered newspapers on his bicylce, and quit school. His first job was selling popcorn in movie theaters, and followed that by starting a jukebox, pinball, and cigarette machine business. In the late 1940s, he built and sold thousands of apartments and homes.

Then in 1951 he took with family on a road trip from their home in Memphis, Tennessee to the District of Columbia

In each city where they stopped along the way, rooms varied from well-kept to filthy, few had a swimming pool, most had no on-site restaurants, and nearly all charged $2 extra for his fivw children even though the kids stayed in the same room as their parents, sleeping on bedrolls on the floor. Frustrated and angry, he began thinking about how clean and affordable motels would be a good investment.

A year later, Wilson built his first motel in Memphis on the main highway  to Nashville

He took its name from the 1942 musical film Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The Memphis mayor was supposed to come for the ribbon-cutting, but he didn’t show, so Wilson had his five children do the honors.

Wilson wanted his motels to be family-friendly, comfortable, and affordable, so wherever they went, travelers would find the same room and the same amenities

The company’s first slogan was “The best surprise is no surprise.” Every new Holiday Inn would have free in-room TV, air conditioning, a family restaurant, a swimming pool, free ice, and children under 12 could stay free, a big thing for a family with several kids.

In 1953, three more Holiday Inns were built in Memphis. By 1968, there were 1,000 Holiday Inns, ultimately peaking at 365,000 units worldwide.

The “Great Sign” was a successful form of advertising

Wilson decided on a 50-foot tall sign that was visible from both directions. It would also have a changeable marquee to welcome different groups. 

In 1965, Wilson installed a centralized reservation system where a visitor to any Holiday Inn could make reservations for any other Holiday Inn location, assured that a clean, affordable room would be waiting for them when they arrived. Promoting itself as “Your host from coast to coast”, Holiday Inn also added a call center with a toll-free 800 number.

In 1972, the cover of Time magazine called Mr. Wilson ”The Man With 300,000 Beds.”

The concept of business franchising took off in the 1960s with the growth of product branding and national chains. Ray Kroc is often credited with developing the modern business franchising model with McDonald’s in 1955. But in 1954, Kemmons Wilson was the one who turned his Holiday Inn franchising idea (the first of its kind) into an enormous success.

Other motel chains followed Holiday Inn’s lead

In 1954 a 60-room motor hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona, opened as the first Ramada. In 1959, the Twin Bridges Motor Hotel in Washington, D.C. became the first Marriott.


While an undergraduate, I was the 4pm-12pm desk clerk at an L&K Motel along the interstate highway. Most of the weekend rooms were rented to students who lived in dorms on campus. Friday and Saturday nights I knew most of them.


Opened as a gas station in 1937, the Sanders Court & Cafe in Corbin, Kentucky, advertised “Complete accommodations with tile baths, carpeted floors, ‘Perfect Sleeper’ beds, air conditioning, a radio in every room, and open all year.”

The fried chicken served in the cafe was made with 11 herbs and spices, the recipe developed by Harland Sanders, the Kentucky colonel of KFC fame.

*Who invented the motel?

We know who came up with the name and we also know who made motels into a national phenomenon. As to who invented the motel? No one, really, or maybe everyone, because it was a gradual evolution from campgrounds to auto camps to tourist cabins and cottages to motor courts to motels, all within 40 years.

Did you notice how much those early tourist courts and cabins look like today’s Tiny Houses?

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