In the days of mom and pop travel lodges “No Vacancy” signs festooned motel row

Before the days of the chain lodging companies, places where travelers could stay for the night across America tended to be downtown hotels, clustered around the railroad depot.

 But those did not have parking to accommodate automobiles, increasingly becoming more common for travelers as the 20th century progressed. “Tourist rooms” signs sprang up in houses along the main auto routes through a town like Laramie. Often the proprietor was someone with more house than family. It was likely that all guests would share the bathroom. Travelers with children or pets were often out of luck.

 I recall that there was at least one house on Grand Avenue with a sign like that when I first arrived in Laramie in 1965. But well before that, auto travelers tended to stop for the night in “camps” along the highways or on the edges of towns. The motorists carried their own tents, or had ingenious contraptions that attached to their cars. Even Model T’s could be fitted out with attachments for sleeping space.

 Tourist Camps

The term “Tourist Camps” is how these accommodations started being listed in the Laramie and Albany County directories. In 1939 there were nine of them listed. One that was well known was Carlisle Camp on the east end of Grand (where Aspen Square strip mall is today at 30th St.). Its proprietor was a colorful character named Bill Carlisle, known as the “gentleman bandit” for his conduct when robbing trains. He was caught, did his time, and wrote an autobiography that captured public interest in the 1940s and 50s.

 Among the others were: “Hein’s Tourist Camp,” “Laramie Modern Camp,” “Nottage Camps,” “Rocky Mountain Camp,” and “Snowy Range Tourist Camp.” Some were on South 2nd St., which was the main route into town until Highway 287 was relocated to 3rd St. Others were on North 3rd St., which was the way north and west out of Laramie when 2nd St. was the south entry into town on Highway 287.

 Usually these tourist camps were established around a house with the yard given over to camping. The central washroom was in the house. Local historian Jerry Hansen says that “City Park” (now called Undine) also provided overnight camping prior to 1920 when the Lincoln Highway came up to Laramie from Tie Siding.

 Motor Lodges

Gradually the proprietors of these camps realized that there was a need for cabins that travelers could rent. The word “motel” had not been coined yet, but the directory entries changed from “camps” to “motor lodges.” In 1949, there were 16 of them altogether in Laramie, not counting the six hotels downtown. The name “tourist camps” had disappeared, though it is likely that some of these lodges still provided space for pitching a tent for a small fee.

 Many motor lodges were the original tourist camps that now provided actual cottages. Carlisle’s for instance, became “Carlisle’s Cabins” and a restaurant/gift shop was part of the attraction. Others like “Blosser’s,“ “Hein’s,” “Lincoln,” “Log Cabin,” “Mountain View,” “Richard’s,” “Superior,” and “Traveler’s Trail,” included something like “auto court” or “lodge” as part of their name. All of these listed except Carlisle’s were on North 3rd St.

 There were at least two motor lodges on S. 2nd St. that featured cottages joined to each other in a strip, with garage units between each cottage. These were beginning to take the shape of the more modern motel. Another built the same way was Hein’s Cottage Court, at 365 N. 3rd St., which had been a tourist camp at first. By 1949, the south entrance to Laramie had become 3rd St., and some accommodations on S. 2nd St. became apartment rentals.  

 No vacancies

Between 1949 and 1965, the word “motel” came into general usage, and individual cabins, or the cottage strips with garages became outmoded. Some of the newer motels were even two stories, and the covered garages became a thing of the past. There were 19 motels altogether in Laramie in 1965. Three were on East Grand Avenue, and the doomed Diamond Horseshoe was about a mile north on Highway 30/287, which would soon be by-passed by I-80. Twelve were on “motel row,” N. 3rd St.; most were mom and pop establishments, not part of any chain.

 The new Holiday Inn on South 3rd (now the Ramada Inn) signaled the beginning of chain motels in Laramie. Sometimes a group of us who had been working late at the Ag College would pile into someone’s car and drive out N. 3rd St., checking out the signs on our way to the Diamond Horseshoe for its exotic Chinese fare. Usually the “no vacancy” signs were lit by 9 p.m. The Holiday Inn began a new policy of not using the sign—instead, it encouraged desk clerks to find another accommodation for the travelers if there were none at their establishment.

 Free picnic tables?

I was amazed at the volume of traffic that came through Laramie in 1965 when I arrived. The concept of a “truck stop” was new to me, which is basically what the Diamond Horseshoe was then, with a motel, service station, and restaurant. Interstate 80 was constructed as a by-pass around Laramie, but once the traveler got out of town travelers were mostly on the two lanes of US 30, with very few accommodations between towns.

 I do remember remnants of a tourist motel in Bosler, which was already ramshackle in 1965. But one of the buildings still sported a sign which said: “Picnic tables free to guests, all others pay 25 cents.”

 Although the garages were a thing of the past, other amenities motel owners added in their advertising were telephones, radios, and private baths. Gradually, television and air conditioning became standard. The American Automobile Association had begun rating motels, and seeing the “AAA” sign was a guarantee of at least the basics in what might be considered a modern motel.  

 Chains arrive

Nationwide, the era of the chain motels began in 1952 when the first Holiday Inn was built by Kemmons Wilson, of Memphis, TN. He was dismayed by the poor accommodations encountered on a family vacation trip. “Kids free” was one of the mottos he initiated, and a swimming pool became standard, along with other features that travelers could count on in every Holiday Inn across the country.

 Karl McCraken of Laramie recalls that it was 1962 when the first Holiday Inn was built here at the 3rd St. exit of I-80, though the interstate only existed then as a six-mile by-pass. Today there is a new Holiday Inn in a different location—the original one near I-80 is now a Ramada Inn.

 McCraken’s own family entered the market in 1977 with Foster’s Country Corner near the intersection of Highway 230 and I-80, initially built as a Best Western motel. Later Foster’s became part of the Howard Johnson nationwide franchise, and still had that affiliation when sold in 2005. It was torn down eventually and is now the Big D truck stop.

 Even earlier than Foster’s, some of the mom and pop motels in Laramie also joined the Best Western brand or other centralized networks. The central reservation service was attractive to owners, and it gave travelers some level of standardization in the amenities as well as a guaranteed stay for the night.

 Mom and pops fade away

The emergence of large chain motels in Laramie signaled an end to the era of the small motels, especially those that were unaffiliated with the larger chain reservation systems.

What happened to them is typified by one in particular that has a special place in my memory because it was the first place I stayed when I arrived in Laramie in 1965, fresh from graduate school in Columbia, Missouri.

 It was the “Buckaroo” at 365 North 3rd St. Originally Hein’s Camps; it was a U-shaped motel, the old-fashioned kind with an enclosed garage between every unit. The units were built in the yard that surrounded a big craftsman-style house. In 1929, Mrs. Bertha Britton was listed as the occupant of the house, an indication that she was probably divorced or widowed. The house is not listed in earlier city directories, and she is not listed as living in Laramie anytime after 1929.

 But the late 1920s was not a good time to have built a big new house with a big mortgage. The depression hit, banks called in loans, and often these properties were sold at a fraction of their value just to get some cash flowing to the lenders. Such was probably the case with this house. In 1931, a Union Pacific Railroad employee, Chris P. Hein, is listed as offering “tourist rooms.” Though no address is given, he is in the 1934 directory as living at 365 N. 3rd with his wife Nora and operating a tourist camp. By 1937, the address becomes known as “Hein’s Cottage Court,” so the motel units surrounding the house were built around then.

 In 1949 the name changed to “Buckaroo Motor Lodge” and the new proprietor was Kenneth Hein; his relationship to Chris Hein is unknown. After that there were at least seven different owners of the property through 1985 when it was torn down to become Hardee’s Restaurant. Today the property has become Laramie Plains Credit Union.

 Changing tourists’ demands

I’m told the original spacious house of the Buckaroo was moved to the east side of Laramie somewhere, but have not searched it out. Perhaps someone will recognize it from the photo attached. Places like it served a definite need in the early days of automobile travel and their owners did the best they could to adapt to tourists’ changing demands.

 But the day of the mom and pop motel is all but gone now. A drive north on 3rd St. reveals none of the accommodations that blazoned with “no vacancy” signs in the mid-20th century.  “Motel row” on N. 3rd St. no longer exists.

 Now nationwide chains are important to Albany County’s economy. They bring in approximately $850,000 annually with the lodging tax initiated in 1989. The central reservation system “Trivago” advertises 32 motels and hotels in Laramie today while “Priceline” offers 17. That does not include any downtown hotels—they have all become apartment residences or businesses, though two mid-century independent motels still exist—the Travel Inn at 262 N. 3rd St. and the Ranger Motel at 453 N. 3rd St.  

By Judy Knight

Caption: Postcards showing a typical mom and pop motel in Laramie, Hein’s Cottage Court from 1939, surrounding the fine craftsman house that may still exist somewhere in Laramie. Insert: The name changed to the Buckaroo around 1949 when the motel at 365 N. 3rd St. occupied most, if not all, of the block where the Laramie Plains Credit Union is today.

Courtesy Laramie Plains Museum

Courtesy Phjl White

Courtesy Phjl White

Caption: Fosters in its heyday in West Laramie, a “modern” motel with two stories, a restaurant, and ample parking adjacent to Interstate 80. The undated photo is looking west with a portion of Snowy Range Road on the lower left corner.

Courtesy Karl McCraken

Courtesy Karl McCraken