Sunday, October 29, 1989
IF WALLS COULD TALK
(BEN CALWELL IS A CHARLESTON, W.VA., FREE-LANCE WRITER AND PHOTOGRAPHER.)
Tourist camps were the forerunner of motels, offering the road-weary travelers privacy and a touch of comfort Today, they're crumbling ruins of a vanished culture.
July 1, 1939. Red-and-white awnings cover the entrances to 20 sparkling white cabins neatly grouped in a semicircle beside U.S. 60 in Morehead, Ky. The bright colors catch the eye of the traveler and are right for the season -- summer vacations, the upcoming Fourth of July, and adventures along the open road.
Among the cabins are massive cars with sloping lines and rounded edges bearing the names of explorers Hudson and DeSoto. Tourists and traveling salesmen mill about swapping stories about their journeys along the winding road. Truck drivers arrive in big-fendered behemoths, weary from the endless gear selection required along sinewy U.S. 60. They are drawn to the restful cabins and home cooking of the Morehead Tourist Camp on this, its opening day. In a clean white building centered in front of the cabins is a restaurant. From there the fragrance of homemade pies -- especially pecan pie -- mingles with the smell of gasoline dispensed out front from two electric pumps crowned with glass orbs that light with a pleasing glow at twilight. The restaurant seats 46 at tables, booths, and a counter. Customers gently complain about curvy U.S. 60 as they enjoy fried chicken and pecan pie with coffee chasers. In the cabins, overnight guests test the beds and inspect the bathrooms. Summer breezes whisper through the screen doors of each little house, freshening the bed linens and carrying the sounds of traffic from the two-lane transcontinental road. Children in high summer spirits romp and laugh on the grass in front of the cabins, for they know this is a place of fine adventure along the highway. In front of the restaurant a bright red metal disk with the words "Coca-Cola" on it catches the strong July sunlight. . .
Autumn 1989. Approaching
the quiet eastern outskirts of Morehead, Ky., on U.S. 60, coming out of a dip
in the road and into a curve, the traveler is only slightly distracted by the
cluster of crumbling cottages off to the left -- a mental snapshot from the
corner of the eye that's quickly forgotten. But these forlorn little
buildings are the remains of the Morehead Tourist Camp, and like the ruins of Rome, they tell of a vanished culture.
Through holes in their roofs, shafts of sunlight illuminate vacant rooms, as tattered shower curtains flutter in the wind. Decades of Walls can't speak, but May Williams, left, who ran the Morehead Tourist Camp with her husband, can speak for them. Below, two of the crumbling cabins await demolition.
Tourist Camp voices in passage along U.S. 60 haunt the walls, inviting questions: What kinds of people passed through the door of Cabin 1, and what were their stories? Was a 1940 Hudson automobile once cozied-up to the door of Cabin 2 to reassure the occupants who were far from home? In which cabins did four members of the "Our Gang" comedies stay one night during the 1940s? Were Alfalfa and Spanky among them, and is the suitcase they left behind still around? To the highway archaeologist these are intriguing questions.
In a large room where travelers once ate her famous pecan pie, May Williams remembers the days when she and her husband, Archie, fed and housed travelers at their tourist camp on coast-to-coast U.S. 60. The only clue to the room's past life as a restaurant is a lunch counter with stools and a brass foot-rail that now seem to disappear into the room's current decor as a combination living area and office.
A forthright, self-reliant woman in her 70s, May Williams' eyes can quickly read the character of strangers -- a skill honed in more than 25 years of dealing with travelers of every stripe who ventured along U.S. 60. Her catalog of tourist-camp memories is filled with scenes of road life before chain motels and superhighways.
"It was July 1, 1939, when we opened," she recalls, "just four days before the big flash flood hit this area, where 26 or 28 people were killed late at night. We had 20 buildings and 21 rooms, but no number 13 -- people didn't want 13 ---- bad luck, remember."
Before building the Morehead Tourist Camp, Mrs. Williams and her husband had learned the business of operating six little cottages in nearby Farmers, Ky. "I was taken there as a bride. We were married in 1934 and rented them out till the last of October 1937. At Farmers we just had wash basins in each cottage with separate outdoor toilet facilities. We charged traveling salesmen 50 cents a night and tourists 75 cents a night. If there were two people we charged one dollar. Here at Morehead we charged two or three dollars a night when we first opened and eventually got it up to 10 or 12 dollars a night, if I remember right."
In the evolution of roadside accommodations, tourist cabins were a giant step up in luxury from early auto camps where travelers had to pitch their own tents or sleep under the stars. Cabins made year-round long-distance car travel feasible. People could travel light and in all kinds of weather. Cabins also provided privacy, and the more upscale operations like the Morehead Tourist Camp offered in-room bathing facilities and heat. The tourist cabin was the forerunner of today's motel.
From the old restaurant, large windows on the front and sides provide views of the road and of the aging cabins which, like children who know they're being talked about, seem to gather round to eavesdrop on the stories of May Williams. "Each cabin had a bed, two chairs, a desk, a hall tree for coats and hats, and built-in showers and steam heat. We had a wonderful clientele of local people and a lot of coast-to-coast travelers. This highway runs from Newport News, Va., to Los Angeles. People traveling from one ocean to another would take U.S. 60 all the way across."
The road usually brought pleasant people to the Williams' tourist camp -- like the California couple who drove a few hundred miles out of their way just to get May Williams' pecan pie recipe. But occasionally an "ill wind" blew in off the two-laner, and May Williams was always there, ready to stare down any fool the road brought her way.
"By and large people were very nice, although I could tell you a lot of little stories." She settles in and quickly unwraps the memory of a 1963 run-in with a grumpy traveler, whose lack of appreciation for home-cooking at fair prices has stayed with her to this day. "I remember a couple stopped in, and I was serving at that time a country-ham-and-egg breakfast for one dollar, and country ham with two vegetables, salad, and drink for a dollar and a quarter. The man ordered the breakfast, and the woman ordered the lunch. I had just taken some pies out of the oven, and I asked them if they would like some hot homemade pie. The man said, 'Does it come with the meal?' I said, 'No, I'm sorry; it's extra, but it wouldn't come with the breakfast anyway.' 'Well it ought to,' he said. 'That ham was no good.' I said, 'Maybe you don't realize what real country ham is," and he shot back, 'Of course I do; I've eaten at the finest restaurants in New York.'
"I looked down at his plate, and all that was left of the ham was the little bone from the center. I looked at him and said sarcastically, 'Well I'm so sorry you couldn't eat it all.' Needless to say I didn't ask them back again. I've often wondered why he did a thing like that unless he was traveling the country getting free meals by complaining. Oh, I can still see his angry face," she says, her face flushed from the memory.
Just then the sounds of the road become louder as a man opens the door to ask for directions. Mrs. Williams greets him as someone she knows, but then quickly realizes she is mistaken. "I thought you were a politician," she says to him, laughing. The mistaken identity is understandable because in its day the restaurant was a frequent gathering place for hungry politicians. "Oh, yes, former Governor Happy Chandler has eaten many a meal here. Politicians were here all the time. . . . I can remember former Governor Stanley, and Earl Clements, too. Alben Barkley, who had been our vice-president -- he was here for dinner once."
In its heyday, the restaurant's popularity could be attributed to May Williams' cooking -- specifically her pecan pie. "I'm the one who brought pecan pie to Rowan County in 1939. We had stopped in Asheville, North Carolina, once to spend the night, and there was a restaurant close by that served it. We had never heard of pecan pie before, and it was so good we asked for the recipe, and to our surprise, they gave it to us. When I started serving food here it became one of my leaders. A little boy in town who's now grown used to say, 'Daddy, let's go up to "Pecan's" and get some pie,' " she recalls with a laugh.
Politicans weren't the only people of note who visited the Williams' tourist camp. "We had a group of four kids from The 'Our Gang' comedies stay here one time, and they were stone broke. My husband and I recognized them when they checked-in, but I can't remember their names. This was sometime in the 1940s, and I guess they must have been in their teens or early 20s. There was a girl with them too, who played in 'Our Gang.' I remember one of them became sick, so they had to stay an extra day, and when they departed they they left behind a suitcase full of clothes. I remember they left without checking out, and I guess they intended the clothing to be the payment for their stay.
Could it be that Alfalfa once slept at the Morehead Tourist Camp? A little research into the cast of "Our Gang," which later became the "Little Rascals," reveals the names, among others, of: Mickey Daniels, Norman "Chubbys" Chaney, Dickie Moore, Bobby "Wheezer" Hutchins, Jean Darling, Darla Hood, "Spanky" McFarland, and Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer (who was shot to death in 1959 during a drunken brawl with a former business partner). "One of them might have been Alfalfa," Mary Williams muses, "but I just can't be sure -- this was nearly 50 years ago. If my husband was still alive he could tell you which ones they were, and I no longer have the guest register for those days. I do remember them as nice young people -- I had no problems with them." And the suitcase and clothing? "They're gone," she laughs.
On winter evenings past, when the headlamps of Buick Roadmasters and Studebakers cast their yellow into the cold blue dusk, the lights of the Morehead Tourist Camp, just ahead, would reflect warmly on the snow, promising refuge to lonely souls on U.S. 60. "I remember one real cold night there was a little sailor standing out by the road trying to catch a ride to Ashland. When we got ready to close the poor little fellow still hadn't caught a ride, so my husband walked across the road to him and said, 'Say, would you like to have a good warm room to sleep in tonight?' The sailor said, 'I don't have any money to pay for it.' My husband said, 'I didn't ask you that -- I'll give you a good warm bed,' and so he did. From then on that boy would never pass here without stopping to say hello," she says.
For many years the Morehead Tourist Camp was about the only place to stay on U.S. 60 between Ashland and Lexington. Then motels "sprang up everywhere," Williams says. "One man opened up a little place down below us -- he and his mother. They took advantage of our good name -- he openly admitted that he counted the number of cars that pulled in to our place. They were also putting in a restaurant, and his mother asked me how I fixed my fried chicken. I had a special recipe for it; in fact, a truck driver said I should package it and sell it -- he said it was far better than Colonel Sanders'. She asked me how I fixed it, and I told her it was my private receipe. Here she was building a restaurant close by and she had the nerve to ask for my prize recipe. I thought to myself, if she's got the nerve to ask, I've got the nerve to refuse her." Along with the growth of tourist cabins and early motels came their reputation as meeting places for amorous couples. "Yes, occasionally we would have something here we wouldn't approve of -- but doggone it, you can't teach people morals all the time. I remember there was a holier-than-thou type fellow up the road who had some cabins, and one time a couple stopped in and rented a room from him for 30 minutes, and then left. He took their money and threw it into the creek. I remember a doctor stopped in at our place one time and rented a cabin. His wife had a headache, and he was going to give her some medicine. Well, in 30 minutes they were gone -- I don't know what kind of medicine he gave her, but she got well awful quick," she says with a laugh.
But it wasn't all pecan pie, politicians, and the trivialities of life at Morehead Tourist Camp; human dignity was preserved there too at a time when it wasn't the most popular thing to do. "For a while," she recalls ,"as far as I know, we were the only place around here that would accept black people." - Outside the former restaurant, on the old road where gentle cars once passed, come quarrelsome modern cars with sharp, aggressive styling and tinted windows that hide the humanity inside.
Inside the old restaurant, May Williams ends her stories and produces a stack of old postcards showing an artist's folksy rendering of a brand new Morehead Tourist Camp -- bright white cabins and restaurant, gas pumps, green grass, and blue Kentucky skies. "We had to shut down in 1964. We knew the road would miss us -- they had already done the surveying and everything."
Very soon she will have the last of the cabins demolished. "Everything will go, right down to the concrete floors." When that happens the tiny picture on a few aging postcards will be all that remains of the Morehead Tourist Camp.
to the Web Page Index