Roadside Hospitality

This picture was taken a few miles from the small town of Middleville, New York in November of 2009. In all likelihood most of you reading this are a lot younger than I am (I’ll be 65 in a few weeks.) but I can remember when motels like this were common.

Traveling across country in the 50s was a much different experience in those days than it is now. Construction of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System didn’t even begin until 1957 so it wasn’t until I was almost out of high school before my family began traveling the interstates.

Between the ages of (probably) 4 and 16 my family made the trip from Upstate New York State to central Oklahoma I would guess, 4 or 5 times. We probably averaged 40 or 45 miles an hour in my dad’s car on the roads that existed then so it was a very long trip—especially to a child. The American roadside my siblings and I watched fly by was no where nearly as homogeneous and predictable as it is today. Take food for example.

In the last several decades on a long trip you can decide what to have for supper hundreds of miles before reaching the restaurant. The menu at Pizza Hut is pretty much the same in Upstate New York as it is in central Oklahoma. In the early to mid-50s every state, every town was different. Every restaurant was different. Same for lodging—The Holiday Inn or Motel 6 chains of today promise a room that’s pretty much the same in every state. In the 50s motels, hotels, tourist homes were all a crap shoot—you never knew what you were getting into until you checked in.

Along the major, cross-country travel routes—the U.S. Highway system—there were souvenir shops (called “tourist traps”) selling trinkets and junk with (for example) “Baggy Pants, Alabama,” or “The World’s Biggest Outhouse,” or “Route 16 Freak Show” emblazoned on them like it was a major attraction.

We kids loved the “Burma Shave” promotional signs. These were silly little poems broken up into 5 or 6 phrases on as many little signs so, whizzing by the window you saw, (1) “He Lit a match” (2) “to check gas tank” (3) “that’s why they call him,” (4) “skinless Frank.” And the last sign (5) was always “Burma Shave”—the shaving cream company that put up the signs.

And there were old barns with huge painted signs covering the entire roof or the entire side of the building advertising “SEE ROCK CITY-114 miles” and “Red Man Chewing Tobacco.”

Motels (like the one in this picture) that offered separate, identical little cabins instead of rooms in a long, barracks-style building were a common sight along American highways in those days. These accommodations are rarely seen today and when a place like this is discovered on some forgotten back road it inevitably precipitates a pleasant–if melancholy–little trip into the past for old men with cameras wandering the paths less taken.

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2 Responses to “Roadside Hospitality”

  1. Nelson Cheang Says:

    Wow, OT, you are older than me more than 20 years. Probably that is why I can always catch some quiet feeling from your articles and photos.
    Besides, I want to say that I do not always up photo to fotoblur because I
    am very busy in recently, actually I thing up photo just one step, can I learn more from the discussions and submit comments that is another step , but it need much time.
    Perhaps in the middle of next month will be better.Many thanks again.

  2. orion Says:

    Hi Nelson–your life is very busy–very demanding. I’m happy I can provide you with a little relaxation and distraction. There are many, many people out there leading difficult lives–lives of hard work, pain and dissapointment. I hope I can be of support and comfort to them also. Please keep me informed of how things are going for you. You are in my thoughts. O.T.

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