Monday, July 10, 2023

From Hotels to Motels and Back Again


By Suzanne Norquist

For centuries, hotels and coaching inns provided places for weary travelers to lay their heads. Accommodations varied from shared beds to opulent suites, depending on how much a person was willing to spend.

With the invention of the railroad and its westward expansion, an ordinary citizen could travel across the country, staying at hotels along the tracks. These centralized facilities worked because everyone took the same route with the same stops.

That all changed in the 1910s with the mass production of the automobile. Families could drive wherever the road took them and spend the night in any old place.

In the early days, many travelers considered themselves explorers. They brought their own tents and equipment and set up camp along the side of the road. Few concerned themselves with staying in a farmer’s fields or people’s yards.

Tourist Camps (also known as auto-parks) sprouted up to solve this problem. At first, they didn’t provide much in the way of amenities, just a place to park and pitch a tent without a landowner complaining. Cities or other municipalities frequently provided the space, and often for free. By 1922, more than 1000 automobile tourist camps had sprung up along the United States byways.

By the mid-1920s, most municipalities charged to use the camps. A fee kept the tourist camps from becoming a place for tramps to live. It also helped to cover the cost of trash cans and well water.

Over time, a market for private camps with more amenities appeared. Well water with a spigot became bathrooms with sinks and toilets. Gas stations or food vendors set up near the camps in some places.

By the early 1930s cabin camps (aka cottage camps) began replacing tourist camps. Often, the cabins were arranged in a U-shape with a parking area in the center.

Camps ranged from simple to luxurious.

An article in the Oak Creek Times and the Yampa Leader, Oak Creek, Colorado, August 15, 1929, describes the improvements to cabin camps as follows:

“Spotless linens and shining pots, pans, and tableware await the travelers. A commissary is frequently nearby. Some cabin camps offer private garages and even a kennel for the dog. All of these accommodations are usually obtainable at nominal prices.”

In the book The Motel in America, the authors illustrate the typical visit to a “cabin camp”:

“At the U-Smile Cabin Camp…arriving guests signed the registry and then paid their money. A cabin without a mattress rented for one dollar; a mattress for two people cost an extra twenty-five cents, and blankets, sheets, and pillows another fifty cents. The manager rode the running boards to show guests to their cabins. Each guest was given a bucket of water from an outside hydrant, along with a scuttle of firewood in the winter.”

The Wigwam Motel is a fun example of a cabin camp that still operates today. The uniquely designed cabins draw visitors.

Eventually, property owners decided to put all the “cabins” under one roof, creating motor courts or hotels. The term “motel” is a combination of two words “mot” is from motor, and “tel” is from hotel. It was first used in 1925 when the builder of a motor hotel in San Luis Obispo, California, couldn’t fit “Milestone Motor Hotel” on the rooftop.

It took over ten years for the new term to catch on. I found a newspaper article from 1937 describing the word “motel.” The writer thought it sounded more dignified than cabin camp.

Most of these early motels, tourist cabins, and tourist camps were mom-and-pop operations. They provided a unique experience in American history.

At some point, people wished for the security of an interior door instead of each room opening to the outside. The change turns motels into the hotels of old.

From hotel to motel to hotel with numerous travel experiences in between.



”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?


Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.


  1. Thank you for posting today. I still love finding that gem of accomodation that is run by "Mom and Pop". They are so much better, usually, than a chain franchise.

    1. This is an interesting post, Suzanne. Here in the Ozarks, there are lots of little cabins in the small towns. Some have been restored, some were left to deteriorate. All are very interesting and so now I know the story. Thank you!