Holding Court

Senior editor Anne Dingus discusses auto camps, motels, and newfangled amenities like swimming pools, ice machines, and television.
Pueblo Cibola, Amarillo

texasmonthly.com: When and how did you first learn about Tourist Court Journal?

Anne Dingus: Don Sanders, of Dallas, tipped me off about the existence of this funky (and defunct) little magazine. In 1996 he and his spouse and co-author, Susan, were working on a book about a great and largely late American institution, the drive-in movie theater. Because I had once done an article about small-town movie houses, Don called me to see if I had happened to run across any good sources on drive-ins. During the conversation, he mentioned seeing an old-fashioned motel publication called Tourist Court Journal at Temple’s Railroad and Heritage Museum. He said, “You ought to do a story on it someday.” I tucked the suggestion away in the back of my mind and finally acted on it seven years later. Don, a thousand thanks!

texasmonthly.com: What is the difference between terms like auto camp, tourist court, and the like?

AD: Both the auto camp and the tourist court were early terms for what we now call a motel. The auto camp was the first incarnation, and its appearance was an inevitable result of the popularity of the automobile. Drivers began realizing they could motor, as they called it, not just around town or to a neighboring city but considerable distances, thus reaching places that weren’t the same ol’ destinations offered by trains. The auto camp sprang up to accommodate these travelers, because there were no hotels in places so newly designated tourist attractions. As the name implies, an auto camp was very basic; either guests slept in their cars or in plain cabins, and shared dining and bathroom facilities, much like kids do at summer camps today. Some historians believe that the nation’s first auto camp, or proto-motel, was established in Douglas, Arizona, as early as 1901—hard to believe that was more than a century ago. By the early twenties, however, travelers’ lodgings had become considerably nicer, and the term tourist court reflected this improvement. A tourist court usually featured miniature cottages, each with its own bath facilities. The little cabins usually formed a U and all faced an inner court with trees and flowers or perhaps a lawn with a croquet set or a barbecue grill. Guests parked outside the U, to preserve the gardenlike effect. In El Paso there was a famous place called Camp Grande, which was built in 1923 and which combined the appeal of both the older auto camp and the trendier tourist court. Guests there could rent, for only 75 cents, a covered but open-walled garage with room for folding chairs next to the Model T, or a “bungalette” complete with three tiny rooms and a bath. By the late thirties, a trendier term was motel, a shortened form of “motor hotel.” The motel was yet a different arrangement: a single building with rooms in a straight row or an L shape, which was a more-cost effective form of construction, and travelers parked their cars directly in front of their rooms.

texasmonthly.com: How did you research this story? Was it difficult to track down information?

AD: This story was a delight to research because all I had to do was sit down and pore over copies of the Tourist Court Journal. I called the Railroad and Heritage Museum in Temple and hooked up with Craig Ordner, the archivist there. He obligingly hauled the full set of Tourist Court Journal—some fifty bound volumes, spanning the years 1937 to 1969—from their shelves in a storeroom and set them up for me on a table in a quiet corner. I drove in from Austin early one morning, and he left me to it. There was no way I could look through all those issues—more than three hundred of them—so I started with the first full year, then skipped every three or four years and jotted down notes nonstop. The material was fascinating, in part because the publisher was a complete novice and his efforts were, at times, amateurish and stilted (albeit in a rather endearing way), and in part because the magazine was a mini-mirror of American life and values. It was fun to see the look of the magazine change—the dresses of the women in the ads, the color schemes favored in the motel rooms, the concerns of the couples who ran the inn and lodges. I started reading the volumes at eight-thirty in the morning, and at one point Craig stuck his head in and said, “Aren’t you hungry?” It was two-thirty. Six hours had gone by. (And, gee, was one part of me numb!)

texasmonthly.com: What was your favorite cover of Tourist Court Journal ? Why?

AD: Ooh, it’s a three-way tie, and first I have to say that “favorite” means “funniest,” because few of the covers were what I would term attractive. The production quality was lousy—obviously there wasn’t a huge budget—and the images all seem so dorky now. My three favorites were all from the forties and early fifties. One was a photo of the interior of a motel room (the most common subject of TCJ covers), but this one was—at least to my modern eye—staggeringly ugly: dark green walls, dark blue cord bedspreads, a hideous gold-speckled beige lamp on a blond-wood nightstand along with a lethally heavy ceramic ashtray that was vaguely boomerang-shaped—and that was it. If that magazine had been offered on a newsstand, no member of the species homo sapiens would have bought it (except, possibly, for the can-you-believe-this value). Another wondrously awful cover showed a little girl in a cornfield—apparently because the theme of corn was related, at least thinly, to the issue month, October—but the photo was blurry, the child looked like the starved subject of a Dorothea Lange Depression-era photo, and the corn appeared to have been feasted upon by a horde of grasshoppers. In fact, the following month a letter from a Kansas subscriber to the Texas staff offered, tongue-in-cheek, to provide an attractive picture of healthy corn and a pretty girl


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