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Omaha Magazine

Checking Into the Past, Checking Out the Future: Motels Reserve Memories of the Past

Apr 29, 2021 03:44PM ● By Lisa Lukecart

Bare feet dangled from the rear window of the 1958 white station wagon. The father wadded a used cigarette pack, laughed at his two daughters, and tossed the pack out the window. An empty Orange Crush bottle followed, shattering against the side of the highway. The parents puffed on cigarettes while their girls played games. Who could hold the Life Saver the longest without it breaking? The wind ruffled its hot fingers through the girls’ blonde hair as each sucked diligently on the cool mint of their candies. His wife, in a casual skirt and blue blouse, exhaled cigarette smoke. While her husband enjoyed the ride with their children, she drove the entire trip from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Scottsdale, Arizona. 

The girls looked forward to stopping for chocolate ice cream at the Howard Johnson motel, with its iconic orange roof. Karen Palmer, now 69 and a retired teacher from Millard Public Schools, recalled the rules of the road were different back in the 1960s. 

Palmer, a frequent traveler who has visited 20 countries and too many states to count, believes the bygone days of family adventures have been left by the roadside. 

“I think people have a Bluetooth on or are playing on their iPads,” Palmer said. “You don’t have that unique family opportunity anymore.”

A motel along the highway became an oasis after a lengthy drive. Roadside motels peaked at 61,000 in 1964, wrote Mark Okrant in his book No Vacancy: The Rise, Demise, and Reprise of America’s Motels. Bright neon “No Vacancy” signs faded when interstates paved paths across America. The industry seemed checked out, diminishing to a mere 16,000 operating motels by 2012. 

Many of those motels were locally owned, but the brand that inspires the most nostalgia is the one with the signature orange roof—Howard Johnsons. According to the website hojoland.com, by the late 1970s, Howard Johnson’s had more than 1,000 restaurants and over 500 motor lodges, including two in Nebraska—one on 72nd Street in Omaha, the other at 3201 S. Jeffers St. in North Platte.

There are still old-school motels around, but they are not always on the beaten path. Situated on the old Lincoln Highway, off I-80 to the west, is the Lazy K Motel in Ogallala, a classic motel that has been maintained since 1956. It has colors of pink and blue with a midcentury sign bearing an askew “K,” and offers rooms at $35-$65 per night, with an additional fee of $5 per pet, if needed. The rooms come with a refrigerator and microwave, but no swimming pool.

Those who head north through the sandhills can stay in Valentine at the Raine Motel, which has been in existence since 1963. This brick building boasts 1960s architecture, notably a low-hipped roof with extended section at the front to protect arrivees from inclement weather. Rates range from $60-$90, and the motel has an attached bar and grill called the Neon, featuring classic steakhouse fare.

During the heyday of back-road travel, most small towns in Nebraska had motels. Mullen, Nebraska, population 320 as of 2019, offers The Sandhills Motel. It has 19 recently renovated rooms and includes RV hookups and a trailer to be rented by visitors during deer hunting season.

Many motel owners and managers are making design changes to lure in travelers, adding modern twists with old-fashioned décor. The North Platte Inn & Suites had a $2 million facelift after breaking its former Howard Johnson chain link. Only the bright orange walls remain. The motel now caters to longer-staying travelers, offering amenities such as full-sized fridges, microwaves, and two-burner stovetops. Instead of eating the well-known clam strips and double-butterfat ice cream, people can head to the grocery store for the basics to stay in. Christy Kackmeister, the general manager at the North Platte Inn & Suites, mentioned traffic increased at the motel in April during the height of the pandemic, up 234 rooms from the previous year.

Kackmeister, though, wasn’t sure if the North Platte Inn & Suites would be considered a motel or hotel. The line is often blurred and somewhere in between. Hotels, typically centered in urban areas, had been around the states since the late 1700s. Even before author John Steinbeck named Route 66 the “Mother Road,” people cruised for convenient places to rest. Some camped, stayed at cottage courts, or slept in cars. Architect Arthur Heineman filled the gap, designing a “motor hotel” specifically for drivers, the Milestone Mo-Tel Inn. The “mo-tel,” as he later coined it, cost $1.25 per night. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid-Highway Act, motels increased in popularity in the 1960s and ’70s. Bright signs beckoned in all their cheesy glory next to plain one- or two-story buildings made from regional construction. Although some might have a swimming pool or playground equipment, motels lacked the luxury services a hotel would offer. People parked cars right in front of rooms, providing easy access. Guests could walk out into exterior corridors for a smoke rather than navigate endless interior hallways. 

These mom-and-pop lodgings offered affordability and anonymity. But the latter earned motels a sinister edge. Anyone who watched Alfred Hitchcock’s slasher film Psycho still remembers the infamous blazing vacancy light on the Bates Motel Sign, luring in Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane off the dark rainy highway to her death. Even the famed Rosebud motel from Schitt’s Creek, located in Orangeville, Ontario, served as a backdrop for the thriller A History of Violence

Motels still have a long way to travel to reclaim the neon glow of their glory days. 

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.