Sleeping in a Wigwam

The Wigwam Village Motels

by Dan Harlow

NOTE: The article below was previously published in the Winter 1996 issue of Route 66 West magazine.

The teepee is an instantly recognized symbol of the west, travel, and adventure. Its shape conjures images of Native Americans, cowboys and frontiers.

Sign: Eat and Sleep in a Wigwam

As Americans took to the highways in the early 1930s, the teepee developed as a roadside attraction. Many tourist stops including curio shops and hamburger stands appeared alongside the road in the familiar cone shape. Among those were teepee motor courts known as Wigwam Villages.

The motels were the brainchild of Frank Redford, who was inspired by a teepee-shaped drive-in restaurant in Long Beach, California. He built his first village in Horse Cave, Kentucky in 1933. Six Teepee cabins were added to the original gas station and lunch counter in 1935. Mule teams were used to dig the foundations for Wigwam Village #1.

By 1950, there were seven villages stretched across the country. The distinctive buildings which Redford mistakenly referred to as wigwams could be found in Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Arizona and California.

The wood and concrete structures had a brightly painted door that opened into a 10-sided room featuring hickory and cane furniture, a hidden bathroom and diamond-shaped windows pointing to four lodge poles extending from the roof. Designs painted on the exterior reinforced the Native American motif. The forces of time, neglect and new interstate highways have reduced the number of Wigwam Villages from seven to three. Two are on Route 66 in Holbrook, Arizona and San Bernardino, California. The third is in Cave City, Kentucky near the site of Redford's first village, in Horse Cave.

The Arizona village has seen tough times after Interstate 40 bypassed it. And, the last village built struggles to survive in San Bernardino.

Redford began construction on the final link of the wigwam chain in San Bernardino, in 1949. Wigwam Village #7 was completed in 1950 and featured 11 teepees valued at a grand total of $18,500. The success of the California village prompted the addition of eight more teepees, a swimming pool and even an outdoor barbecue in 1953.

Wigwam Village No. 6, Holbrook, Arizona
Vintage postcard depicting the Wigwam Village in Holbrook, Ariz.

Susan Branch, of Glendale, Arizona remembers the heydays of the 1960s. She would spend summers in and around the kidney-shaped pool her grandparents helped maintain as managers of the San Bernardino village. “I just remember how much fun it was as a child,” she recalls. “It was really neat. I hate to hear that it's in bad shape or might be torn down.”

But the days of prosperity on Route 66 quickly faded with changing times. The stretch of the legendary highway once traveled by visitors seeking adventures in southern California is now a stop-lighted urban boulevard and the current owner wished to get rid of some or all of the teepees.

Owner, Chen Lung Kuo proposed turning the three-acre site in San Bernardino into a new hotel and mall. However, the city required Kuo to obtain a demolition permit. This process would have included a study to determine the historical significance of the building and site; according to city planners Route 66 is designated a "historic corridor" in San Bernardino and is part of the Historic Resources Reconnaissance Survey conducted by the city. The Wigwam was identified as “potentially significant.”

Kuo dropped his proposal in light of the study which could have cost him upward of $2,500. Instead, he has offered to give several of the teepees to the city for preservation elsewhere. The cost of relocating the teepees was too high, however, and this plan was also abandoned. Kuo has suggested that the city could buy the land and open a museum, but the city declined. When asked if the property was for sale, he said, “Always. Perhaps the city should buy it.” The asking price is $1.3 million. He insists that the village is maintained although over the years, all the original hickory furniture has been replaced. Kuo describes the area surrounding the village as poor and states that the motel operation is no longer viable. At $30 per night for two persons, he says he is losing money and may have to quit.

Near Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park, village #6 survives on the sentimental care given by the children of its original owner, Chester E. Lewis. Son John Lewis admits they operate it now more for the memories than profit.

The village lay dormant for nearly a decade. Then following their father's death, Chester II, John, and sister Elinor restored the village to its original condition. The teepees were reopened to travelers in 1989 complete with hickory furniture and brightly painted designs. The only piece missing from the early days was the pay radio.

In lieu of an architectural fee, Wigwam Village creator Frank Redford installed radios in each teepee. For ten cents, a visitor could hear one hour of their favorite radio show. The receipts were then forwarded to Redford.

The Arizona village has been featured in many books, magazines and even calendars. “It is our most treasured asset,” John Lewis explains. “This is where we grew up. Everyone remembers it from when they were young.” Indeed, many of the travelers who stop now were in years past the youngsters who by fortune got to sleep in a wigwam, or by circumstance could only yearn from the back seat of an automobile. Today, they bring their own children.

In the Kentucky countryside, red and white teepees reach toward blue sky. The Cave City village has survived intact. The care of serious owners and managers have helped keep Wigwam Village #2 in operation. Owners Tony and Beth Rutherford proudly point out that their village is now part of both state and national historic registers.

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Dan Harlow
Dan Harlow

Dan Harlow is an educator, historian, publisher, and avid proponent of Route 66. He currently makes his home in southern California with his wife, Sheila.