Have you ever thought about what travel was like before freeways and hotel chains? It was definitely a much simpler time.
Early travel meant dirt roads, with ruts and mud holes. It was only after the First World War that road improvements became a priority. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 funded a system of paved, two-lane interstate highways, giving each state responsibility for building standards and numbering systems within their borders. Wow, this sounds like a travel nightmare waiting to happen.
In November 1926, the United States’ numbered highway system changed the way American drivers navigated the country. North-south routes received odd numbers and east-west even numbers. That’s when US Highway 81 was born. It stretched from Laredo, Texas, Canada, roughly following the 6th meridian. Part of it ran from San Antonio to Solms, then along New Braunfels and up to San Marcos.
The first travelers stayed in hotels located in cities. As more and more people traveled America’s back roads, more and more roadside overnight accommodations appeared.
West of the Mississippi, tourist campsites have become popular. Then came “cabin camps,” essentially gas stations that offered cabins for rent with or without mattresses. In the 1930s or 1940s, roadside tourist courts became a fancier alternative to shack camps. Each cottage was decorated according to a theme, linked together around a central courtyard. They were designed to be suitable for automobiles, often with attached carports.
New Braunfels, billed as the “Beauty Spot of Texas”, had many touring grounds along US 81.
The first was Sunset Courts. It was a small strip of rooms located at the end of the triangle where 81 meets Butcher on Avenue A. Owned by Willie Deterling, they boasted air conditioning/heating, kitchenettes, carports (like most of them) and a four star rating.
Alta Motel was located at the top of the hill at the corner of Highway 81 and Magazine Avenue.
This tourist yard had 11 small, tidy, individual white cabins with covered parking located all around the perimeter of the property.
The two-story office and swimming pool were located in the central courtyard. In addition to amenities similar to Sunset Courts, they offered a free swim at Camp Warnecke or Landa Park.
The last buildings were demolished in the early 2000s to make way for Advance Auto Parts.
Lucky Star Motel was located between the Guadalupe River Bridge at 81 and what is now McKenna Avenue. Lucky Star was a collection of flat-roofed stucco buildings with carports built around a central walkway.
It currently operates as Riverside Lodge. The office is now a two-story structure, and the roof of each building is gabled.
Dwight’s Motel was located at the corner of 81 and Ridgewood Avenue.
It was a collection of stucco units connected to each other in an “L” shape around the edge of the property.
In the center of the courtyard were an office and a private swimming pool.
A few years ago the motel was updated with brick facades and gabled roofs. It currently operates as the Garden Inn of New Braunfels.
Shady Oak Courts originally sat on what was the old Meyer Ranch/Farm.
After Meyer’s death, Hylmar and Lucille Meyer Oberkampf inherited and built the Shady Oaks Motel with its swimming pool.
It changed hands several times before being sold to the Smokehouse.
The New Braunfels Smokehouse Tasting Room, which was originally on what is now Howard Johnson’s property, has been moved across 81 to the Shady Oaks property.
I remember they initially left the pool, but then filled it up.
Parts of the motel rock fence around the property could still be seen around the Smokehouse property until they moved the restaurant again.
It is now a car wash.
The Fountain Court Motel was built by Thurman and Bertha McEvoy in the mid-1940s to serve the burgeoning tourist community of “snowbirds” long before Interstate 35 was built.
It consisted of half a dozen stucco duplex-style cottages with attached covered parking on each side.
They were arranged in a semi-circle around a large central grassy courtyard with a fountain. Later, they installed a large rock fountain and a huge swing.
The cottages have become a home away from home for all regular guests. The last buildings were destroyed when Walgreen’s was built in the early 2000s.
Alta Vista was located on Highway 81 just north of Fountain Courts.
Owned for many years by Art & Leah Queen, it was built in the Spanish Revival style.
The white stucco buildings had shaped parapets and were connected by red-tiled roof entrances.
The office was at the front, facing the road. The last building was removed to make way for the Lux Funeral Home.
Although I listed them in order along Highway 81, I deliberately skipped one and left my favorite memory for last.
Have you ever heard of the Diving Lady? To me, she was a neon wonder calling to travelers on Interstate 81 and an absolute sight to behold in the dark of night.
She sat atop the River Courts Motel at the base of the Guadalupe River Bridge in New Braunfels, blinking back and forth from upright to overhead.
The motel was made up of several wood frame units connected by carports and a gable roof.
Owned by the Biedermanns, the motel has neatly wrapped around the property perched above the Guadalupe River.
The diver promised a refreshing dip in the pool.
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had seen the highways in Germany during World War II, approved the Federal Interstate Highway System to build four-lane highways across the United States.
Construction of I-35 began in New Braunfels in 1959, taking traffic from US 81 as it grew.
Eventually, US 81 in New Braunfels became Business 35 and Elliott Knox Boulevard, but you’ll still hear locals lovingly calling it simply “81.”
It was from a simpler time.
Sources: Archives of Sophienburg; https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/twilight-mom-and-pop-motel-180963895/