Joys of the Road Less Traveled
Abandoned in the 1980s, eleven concrete tee pees stand as a testament to a much larger phenomenon that began crisscrossing the country in the 1930s and continued into the 1960s and early 1970s. Originally conceived in Horse Cave, Kentucky, wigwam accommodations reflected America's growing obsession with the Wild West and its developing love affair with the automobile. As it became possible for more Americans to travel the country, with the improvements to state and local highways, road side accommodations began positioning themselves along these main thoroughfares, and as competition increased, innovative marketing strategies were needed to bring the American tourist to their door.
Originally conceived in the 1930s, a tee pee shaped restaurant welcomed the dawning of wigwam motor courts in America. Incorrectly coined, these villages were the brain child of Frank Redford, whose original concept was patented and sold for $500 each to motel owners across the country. This new theme capitalized on tourists' fascination with the Native American culture and allowed them to experience it while on the road.
The original concept designed by Redford placed the largest tee pee, office/ restaurant/ souvenir shop with gas pumps in front, with 10 -15 tee pee shaped cabins circling behind. The main tee pee included two smaller restroom tee pees labeled "Braves" and "Squaws" along each side, and all were decorated with Southwestern designs using red and white zigzag motifs painted on the inside and outside of each 10 sided tee pee. Inside, the cabins offered tiled baths, hickory bark and cane furniture with Indian blankets on the bed and Indian rugs on the floor.
As the success of these themed motor courts grew, new, smaller chains began to appear. One lesser known chain running through Texas included the now abandoned Tee Pee Courts or Tee Pee Motel which still survives as eleven neglected units on US 59, in Wharton County. According to Joe Holley from Texas Monthly, the Tee Pee Motel was part of a small chain that had at least a dozen outposts around the country, and at one time had Texas franchises in San Antonio, Corsicana, Wharton and Port Neches.
Built in 1937 by original owners George and Toppie Belcher, this motel was situated on 9 ¼ acres and was known as the Belcher Motor Courts. In 1942, to meet the ever-increasing national demand for wigwam accommodations stimulated by its introduction in Horse Cave, Kentucky, the Belcher's built the tee pee units along with wooden carports and began charging $3.50 a night with great success.
That same year, the Belcher's changed the name from Belcher's Courts to Tee Pee Courts and finally to the Tee Pee Motel. At the time, it was considered one of the finest motels in Wharton County. The Belchers maintained the property until 1955 when it was finally sold. For the next thirty years, the Tee Pee Motel exchanged hands numerous times until 1985 when it was owned by Tom Carlson of Wharton, Texas. As newer more developed highways lead tourists away from this rural area, and as property taxes mounted, Carlson abandoned the property and allowed it to sit empty rotting in the Texas sun. By the mid-nineties, it was the last tee pee motel in the state, and the aging concrete structures, though still intact, had fallen into disrepair.
With the demise of many of the blue highways as major thoroughfares, and as newer motels/ hotels began offering more amenities, these older, smaller, less well kept, and now less convenient motels became less appealing. Americans having more expendable income, and the ability to travel, expected more than a flashy decor. All of these circumstances signaled the decline of the themed motor courts on American's rural roads.
In its heyday, each of the 11 tee pee units consisted of a bedroom and separate bathroom with shower stall, closet and toilet. The hand towels and pillowcases were each embroidered with scenes of ponies and headdresses. The exterior of each tee pee was constructed of 13 sides painted with Native American designs. Although the exteriors are in decent shape the interiors are ruined.
Gone are the wooden carports that used to complement the individual tee pees but some still have faded red Native American designs. Still, even though the facility is infested with rodents, covered with native vines and weeds, the Tee Pee Motel still attracts considerable attention.
Beginning in the 1990s, roadside architecture began to develop a cult following and many of the abandoned sites started experiencing a revival of sorts. The Tee Pee Motel, a wonderful piece of Americana, was well positioned for its own revival even in its decrepit state. This site was considered by many of its devotees as having significant historic value worthy of restoration so that future generations could experience the same atmosphere as they had in the past. When film maker Adrian Lyne chose this location for inclusion in his 1995 remake of 'Lolita,' its revival seemed imminent. It was during this time the first 7 tee pees were repainted to look new. Shortly afterwards Lee and Debbie Van Winkle, from Sugarland, Texas, purchased the motel and acreage at a tax auction for $23,000. The Van Winkles planned to restore the facility to its original splendor, but difficulties with adjoining landowners caused them to rethink their plans which were eventually abandoned.
The Van Winkles eventually sold the motel to Wortham Smith, a local real estate investor and developer. Smith wanted to renovate the facilities as well, but he too abandoned his plans. Smith went as far as to research the possibility of moving the units to a new location but changed his mind due to its expense. To date, nothing has come to pass and the tee pees remain sweltering in the hot Texas sun. Recently the motel office was torn down due to its poor condition and unless new investment is put into the remaining structures, the 11 concrete tee pees are not long from sharing the same fate. Once again the remaining units are up for sale. This time Harrison Realtor has placed the property with 7 acres fronting Business 59 on auction for $59,950, but it will take much more too fully revive this treasured space. If the site is not quickly purchased, this may be the end of a valuable piece of roadside Americana.
The thought that an historic property such as the Tee Pee Motel could be demolished is quiet unsettling. In an age of Wal-Mart super stores, all you can eat buffets and generic super fast foods, loosing one unique piece of Americana is like loosing one piece of our heritage. With the current restoration efforts underway in the town of Wharton, it would be a shame not to include this time worn location. As more and more Americans start their own renewal along the forgotten blue highways of rural America, these roadside attractions are becoming relevant once again. As society looks to its past for the signs of simpler days, these sites help them relive what they feel our country has lost. The age when families traveled together and when fun was found in the wonder of our own imagination. For the Tee Pee Motel to regain this spirit, it will take someone with creativity and conviction, and hopefully one day, someone will see what possibilities exist and will once again allow the Tee Pee Motel to beckon tourists to its open door.
(click for update : renovations on the tee pee motel began in 2005 and the hotel reopened October 30, 2006)