Make the ordinary extraordinary. That’s what the incredibly absurd Roadside Attractions Carnival tries to do – lure wayward travelers with the siren singing of vortex farms, backyard museums, and llama petting zoos. All of them are found in places with names above their weight, such as Cuba, Oklahoma, Coffee, Alabama, and Metropolis, IL.
I recently took a crash course in kitsch and took a trip down America’s back roads while fulfilling my promise to visit everyone Stuckey’s In my first year as CEO of the company, my grandfather founded. I quickly learned that where you stay is part of the experience, especially when you can actually sleep in the roadside attraction. That took me to Cave City, Kentucky and the Wigwam Motel. The real human story of its creator and his place in the history of American road trips are what I find most fascinating.
Born in Hart County, Kentucky, Frank Redford was inspired by the teepee-shaped design of a barbecue place in Long Beach, California, and had a vision to create his own Kentucky version of the teepee experience that tourists from Mammoth Cave National enjoy would attract park. Redford was part of a national trend of entrepreneurs opening themed motels with railroad cars, windmills, adobe bricks, and other eccentricities to rival the box chain motels. These early mom-and-pop motor lodges often mimicked the design of tourist camps, in which individual huts were grouped around a central assembly room, reminiscent of those described by John Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath.
Wigwam # 1 was built in Horse Cave, KY in 1933 and became such a hit that Redford received a patent in 1936 for its “resort design”. It soon outgrew its original location and replaced it with the larger No. 2 wigwam five miles away in 1937 – the same year Stuckey’s was founded. This second village had fifteen teepees and a 52-foot Indian trading post with its collection of Native American artifacts and the sale of ice cream, cold sodas, and souvenirs. Eventually, Redford’s wigwam empire would grow to seven motels stretching all the way to the west coast, only three of which are still operational today (the other two are the iconic location in Holbrook, AZ, and outside of San Bernardino, CA, both route 66). All are preserved and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A quick architectural detour is appropriate at this point. Redford mistakenly referred to his creations as wigwams – dome-shaped huts – when his structures are technically in the form of tipis. Redford imagined the term wigwam over teepee, so damn the nomenclature!
I visited Wigwam Village in late June 2020. The flashing neon sign brightly invited tired drivers to “Sleep In A WigWam”. The site has long been bypassed by the freeway, so the only visitors are those who set their GPS coordinates for this roadside relic. Wigwam Village # 2 retains its vintage appeal and needs some TLC – the trading post is long closed with its collection of roadside artifacts that were unfortunately auctioned off by Sotheby’s. The ice machine is broken. And the once bright red markings on the white tipis are fading. But the place has a distinctive nostalgic charm and the lasting memories left by an 80-year-old parade of travelers in search of something unique and different.
To their credit – the concrete and steel tipis are still proud and grouped around a common green space in a horseshoe shape, true to their roots in the Motelhof. On the night I was there, children jumped around in the playground while the parents drank colorful cocktails on metal benches in front of the tipis, later couples came along with a couple of six-packs of beer. There was definitely a fun camaraderie among the guests – a feeling like we were part of a secret cabal tasked with keeping these special off-the-beaten-path places alive.
The rooms themselves can best be described as efficient – 14 feet in diameter by 32 feet high with a small tiled bathroom with a sink, toilet, and shower. In keeping with the authenticity of the original look, the Redford time hickory furniture has been carefully preserved and there are no telephones. However, the rooms have noisy window air-conditioning, cable TV, and Internet access as a nod to modern amenities. There is also a two-decade-old Mr. coffee maker that is still functional. All these details aside, the best part about sleeping in a wigwam is that it’s made of thick concrete and it’s super quiet. A good night’s sleep is almost guaranteed in such a cozy, peaceful mini-accommodation.
Visitors to Wigwam Village should take the time to stop at the other nearby roadside curios – Yogi Bears Jellystone Camping and Cabins, Big Mikes Rock Shop and Mystery House, a “shaky wormhole full of family fun”, the Corvette Museum. and dinosaur world.
What makes a road trip memorable are the stops along the way. In a world full of blue, nondescript hotel chains littering highway exits, it’s refreshing to know that places like Wigwam Village still exist and exist. Even if they don’t have ice.
Stephanie Stuckey is President and CEO of Stuckey’s Corporation. Like many motels on Motelorcycle.com, Stuckey’s was founded in 1937 to cater to the needs of a curious and traveling audience. Perhaps best known for its signature pecan log rolls, Stuckey’s has been an oasis for travelers along the road ever since. The opinions expressed are those of Stephanie Stuckey.
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