Early Roadside Memories

Warm spring days bring bare feet, ice cream, sunshine, frisbees, open windows, good moods, bustling downtowns coming back to life, patio tables, sidewalk cafes, festivals and the desire for adventure. The best and easiest way to get somewhere in the USA tends to be via automobile. Road trips, maps, coffee, cameras, new roads, backroads, music, intrigue – whether a trip lasts one day, one week or one month, the open roads continues to be a metaphor for American freedom. Filled with the pioneer spirit, many of us are always wanting to go somewhere. Unlike pioneers, 20th and 21st century travelers are not sleeping in covered wagons. This age of lodging options has a fascinating history that speaks to the changing American culture.

The Motel in America

Maybe the burst of spring weather and a constant dream of another road trip are reasons why I finally chose this book from my bookshelf: The Motel in America by John A. Jakle, Keith A. Sculle, and Jefferson S. Rogers. While I have more to read, I managed to devour quite a few chapters in the Sunday sunshine. The beginning will capture a roadside lover’s interest right away:

A drive of more than 450 miles in a single day was an accomplishment in 1948. Up before dawn, we drove until dark, crossing northern Ohio and then dropping south to Pittsburgh and the new Pennsylvania Turnpike. In the early days of the automobile, auto touring was championed as a way of traveling leisurely through landscapes beyond the control of railroad timetables and the corporate powers that those timetables represented. Motoring was promoted as a means of getting to know the country through the slow, firsthand encounter. As highways improved, however, touring became increasingly a matter of “making time” between big attractions more distantly spaced. How quickly Americans came to trade landscapes glimpsed rapidly through train windows for landscapes glimpsed rapidly through windshields. Our family was no exception. {The Motel in America, page 3}

The authors begin with their earliest memories and associations with motels, as part of giving readers their own context and background, and in turn it invites readers to ask of their own recollections.

I grew up in a family of four sisters; with so many of us, we didn’t vacation every year. However, road trips are well worn into my memory. Aside from playing cards with my sister Sarah in the backseat of the Dodge Grand Caravan or playing stuffed animal games with sisters Annie & Erin, too, our family had travel traditions. We packed a cooler of food – sandwiches, drinks, snacks, and some candy(!) – and at lunchtime we’d stop at one of the interstate rest areas. Mom set out a table cloth, we’d gather around the picnic table and eat our sandwiches. Then we’d stretch our legs before getting back into the car. The picnic areas were budget savers to a big family.

Mom always loved the AAA guide books and the TripTiks for directions to our destinations. We never made reservations ahead of time, but when we were getting close to being done for the day (that probably means that we four girls were getting restless and hungry), Mom would browse through the guide book to see which hotel might suit our needs. The four of us always pleaded for a pool. We needed something to do after being stuck in the car all day, and we did not have a pool at home, so it seemed like a real vacation luxury to us. One time we pulled up to Howard Johnson’s and the pool was green. As we always checked out the pool status first, we did not stay there!

Mom & Dad preferred a hotel that included breakfast, and rooms that would somehow sleep six people. (Relatively unknown family fact: on one occasion or two, the youngest sister slept on chairs pushed together so we could all fit in the room. She was little!) On some occasions we were able to negotiate a good deal for two adjoining rooms; this is when we were older and actually needed more than two beds.

The motels we choose were often the type with outside entrances. They were easier for loading and unloading and usually cheaper than the interior corridor entrance style. The chain hotel names that stick in my childhood memory are Days Inn, Comfort Inn, Econo Lodge, and Howard Johnson.

Over the years, we’ve stayed in many lodging types. My mom, Sarah and I have pitched a tent in the dark in a campground field (reminiscent of auto tourists who simply stopped on the side of the road). I’ve stayed in motor courts with the preservation girls. I’ve camped in state parks, at KOAs, and independent campgrounds. Bed & breakfasts, chain hotels, mom-and-pop motels, I think I have most of them crossed off the lodging list. And each type has a good example and a bad example, but all make for good memories (even if they’re only good after-the-fact).

And as for my continued fascination with roadside America? What could be more exciting than traveling the country and seeing our evolving culture manifested itself in the built environment? What are your earliest recollections of roadside travel? Where did you and your family stay? How did it change as you grew older?

Preservation Pop Quiz

What is your guess as to the object featured in this image (taken from a car window)? Bonus points if anyone in Vermont can identify its location.

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Strike!

Bowling conjurs images of shiny lanes, matching shirts, funky bowling shoes, contraptions that reset the pins, return the bowling balls, birthday parties, bowling leagues, bad food, Fred Flinstone, cheesy movie scenes … at least in my head. And something else that bowling brings to mind for me is roadside architecture, thanks to the giant bowling pin on the roof of Port Jeff Bowl. Not quite as exciting as the Long Island Duck, the bowling pin remains part of Long Island’s roadside architecture collection.

Port Jeff Bowl in Port Jefferson Station, NY.

Port Jeff Bowl. The pin doesn’t rotate or light up, it just stands on the building.

Port Jeff Bowl

Maybe some fellow Long Islanders can give me a hint as to the age of the building, bowling alley and the pin (Mom, any ideas?), but I have been unable to find any information so far. Anyone else know of a giant bowling pin?

Preservation Photos #134

St. Albans Drive-in Movie Theater.

It’s drive-in movie season, and the perfect time to get out and explore roadside America off the interstates. See more of the St. Albans Drive-in in this post (playground included).

*Note: no special effects were added to this image. Vermont was simply that beautiful that day. 

p.s. Preservation Pop Quiz brick answer coming up soon. Anyone else have thoughts on it?

Preservation Photos #129

The Miss Bellows Falls Diner located on Rockingham Street in Bellows Falls, Vermont. The interior is a step back in time and the food is excellent!

The Miss Bellows Falls Diner is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, significant as, “the only completely intact example in Vermont of the barrel-roofed Worcester Diner produced by the Worcester Lunch Car Company, a leading manufacturer during the first half of the twentieth century.” Read the National Register nomination here. (And by the way, I recommend the chili.)

Rocky Point Drive-in Theater

A follow up to Preservation Photos #120.

Long Island had many drive-in theaters in the 1960s-1970s. The suburban setting and still vast amount of land available was perfect for drive-ins. The Rocky Point Drive-in opened in 1961 with capacity for 750 cars, a modern snack bar, speakers for the cars and a playground for the kids. The spaces for cars were on an angle, so the front of each car would be raised a bit for better viewing. It closed in 1988 and remained empty into the 1990s. After closing as a drive-in, the Rocky Point property reopened as a golf driving range; however, that didn’t last long. You can see in these photographs that the driving range used the existing sign.

Drive-in opening from the Port Jefferson Record in 1961. Found via New York Drive-ins. Click for source and to see additional advertisements.

As a kid, I always found the Rocky Point marquee fascinating; to me it was something tangible of my mother’s childhood, and helped me to imagine what Long Island was like for her. It is a unique relic for Long Island, one left alone among the intensive development. Beyond that marquee, my mother’s stories and the movie Grease, I didn’t have any connections to drive-in theaters. As we know, drive-ins today are few and far between. I don’t think I ever saw one in operation until I lived in Virginia (and my friends and I had to make a trek to find that one).

The marquee for the Rocky Point Drive-in on Long Island has been slowly deteriorating throughout my entire life. For years I  have wanted to stop and photograph the sign, hoping to capture a bit of roadside Long Island before it was too late. Finally, I found the time to do so.

View of the Rocky Point Drive-in marquee on the westbound side (looking east) of Route 25A.

Looking to the former drive-in property.

The abandoned driving range.

Drive-ins existed on Long Island throughout the 1950s-1970s, with many closing in the late ’70s and ’80s; few lasted into the ’90s.  The Westbury Drive-in was the last operating drive-in on Long Island; it closed in 1998 after a long fight. Aside from the lure of indoor theaters, drive-ins closed mostly due to pressures of real estate prices; once closed and demolished, the land became more profitable shopping malls and hotels.

Over the years, "Rocky Point Driving Range" has fallen off to reveal the "Drive-in" sign beneath it.

Side profile of the marquee.

"Rocky Point" covered "Drive-in".

View looking west.

What will happen in this location? There has been talk of big box stores wanting this land for decades. Fortunately, the citizens of Rocky Point are opposed. A Facebook group  is hoping to garner support to reopen the drive-in. Who knows? Maybe it will become  a park and leave some green space on Route 25A.  I’m glad I finally took those pictures.

Preservation Photos #120

The marquee of the long abandoned Rocky Point Drive-in Theater in Rocky Point, NY.

More photos and history coming in another post, later today.

Adventures in Gatorland

Featuring a guest post today with a good roadside America tale!

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By Elyse Gerstenecker

Florida is well-known for its wacky attractions, roadside architecture, and, let’s face it, unusual citizenry. This, along with live oak trees hanging with Spanish moss, bungalow and Mediterranean houses, and abundant orange groves are all situated under the umbrella known as “Old Florida.” If you have read a Carl Hiaasen novel, you probably understand what I mean. I now live in Central Florida, which is a mecca for lovers of Old Florida. I have created a long list of places to visit and hope to provide entertaining posts for Preservation in Pink’s followers who are interested in Florida beyond the beaten Disney path, although Disney World often serves as a catalyst for wackiness.

On a recent Saturday morning, I woke up with a desire to seek out some roadside architecture. I picked up my Roadside Florida book in search of a basic guideline to follow, and, when my boyfriend A woke up, I informed him that the day’s plan was simply to drive east on US Route 92. The early portion of our day was spent exploring antique stores and other shops in Lake Alfred and the recently revitalized downtown area of Kissimmee. For those planning a Disney trip, I highly recommend visiting Kissimmee for a Main Street experience. After we saw signs for Gatorland, one of the places on our “Old Florida Must-See List,” we decided on our destination.

From the brochures and old-school wooden signage, A and I expected the usual roadside attraction – cheesy and a bit run-down. Instead, we stumbled upon a wonder that attracts quite a number of visitors, is very well-maintained, and operates both as a theme park and an alligator, crocodile, and bird preserve. Future visitors, be warned: the admission price is not terribly cheap, and the place draws quite a crowd of families. This being a theme park that centers on man-eating creatures, I would highly recommend families with little bitty ones avoid it to save themselves (and others, like yours truly) the anxiety.

The Gatorland mouth. Photo courtesy of Elyse Gerstenecker.

Gatorland opened in 1949 under the ownership of Owen Godwin, whose family still owns the park. Godwin had operated a small alligator sideshow out of the backyard of his home south of Sebring, Florida in the 1930s, and his wife sold gator products out of their kitchen. Godwin then decided to achieve his dream of creating a park showcasing native Florida wildlife and purchased a borrow pit for an alligator-themed park off of Routes 17 and 92, which were then the highest-traveled roads in the state.

When the park opened as the Florida Wildlife Institute, it featured snakes and alligators, and local Seminole Native Americans lived on the property and wrestled alligators for entertainment. Godwin changed the name to Snake Village and Alligator Farm in the 1950s, and then to Gatorland in 1954. During this time, Godwin began traveling with a 13-foot alligator named Cannibal Jake to northern states to drum up tourism. Business boomed with the growing tourism industry in the 1950s, and Godwin traveled on safaris to attain more creatures for his farm. The famous concrete open-jawed alligator head outside the park entrance was designed by Godwin’s son, Frank, and placed in 1962. Frank Godwin later took over after his father’s death in 1975. Since the 1970s, the park has greatly expanded, but it has also joined forces with the University of Florida to perform research and breed alligators, which were on the national endangered species list from 1967 until 1987.

When A and I visited, we toured ponds and “marshes” FULL of alligators, some so enormous it was frightening. There was a bit of a crowd when we entered, all watching Gatorland’s famous Gator Jumping Show, in which entertainers send out whole chickens on lines for the alligators to jump up and snap off. Visitors walked around with hot dogs in hand, purchased to toss to the alligators for a snack. There were several exhibits about the snakes of Florida and other kinds of wildlife, as well as a sheltered exhibit that featured Louisiana’s albino alligators. I was thrilled to see a flock of flamingos.

A and I strolled through the park’s Swamp Walk, attended the Gator Wrestling show, and, for a fee, had our pictures taken sitting on an alligator and holding its mouth (taped shut by a trainer). Sadly, we did not purchase the photos. We finished our day by walking around the park and seeing all of the saltwater crocodiles. One of my favorite features of the park’s various alligator and crocodile exhibits were the signs telling some of the more outrageous stories associated with some of the creatures – an alligator captured in Tampa after eating several people’s dogs, an alligator kept in a New York City school basement, and an albino alligator so nasty that even the trainers are frightened of it.

Not kidding. Those birds are rather daring. Photo courtesy of Elyse Gerstenecker.

Gatorland has clearly adapted as ideas about entertainment have evolved. The park not only features a petting zoo and miniature train but also now has Gator Gully, a miniaturized water park for little ones to play. This spring, Gatorland opened its Screamin’ Gator Zip Line, a series of zip lines in which visitors in harnesses can zoom high across the alligator marshes. A promptly pronounced it awesome; I personally thought it insane. I can see that, through this evolution, the park has kept to Owen Godwin’s original idea and spirit, combining growing exhibits about Florida’s wildlife and natural landscape with outrageous shows and other forms of entertainment. It is, after all, a Florida theme park, and one that has managed to survive and thrive.

Preservation Photos #102

I cannot resist a roadside gas pump image. This one is located on Main Street in Isle La Motte, VT at Hall's Orchard.

Preservation Photos #90

Chelsea Royal Diner on Route 9 in Brattleboro, VT: where many of the flamingo girls stopped for a meal. Vinny and I enjoyed ice cream at the attached ice cream stand. Recommended!

Classic roadside sign, but we didn’t see it at night so I don’t know if the neon still functions. Anyone?