By Tara V. Kohlenberg —
Have you ever thought about what travel was like before superhighways and chain hotels? It was definitely a much simpler time.
Early travel meant dirt roads, complete with ruts and mud holes. Not until after World War I did road improvements became a priority. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 provided funding for a system of paved two-lane interstate highways giving each state the responsibility for building standards and numbering systems within their borders. Wow, that seems like a travel nightmare waiting to happen.
In November 1926, the United States Numbered Highway System changed the way U.S. drivers navigated the country. North-south routes were given odd numbers and east-west given even. That is when U.S. Highway 81 was born. It ran from Laredo, Texas to Canada, roughly following the 6th meridian. Part of it ran from San Antonio through Solms, then along the edge of New Braunfels and on through to San Marcos.
Early travelers stayed in hotels located in towns. As more people traveled the back roads of America, more roadside overnight accommodations appeared. West of the Mississippi, tourist campsites became popular. Then came “cabin camps,” basically gas stations that offered cabins for rent with or without mattresses. By the 1930s or ’40s, roadside tourist courts became a classier alternative to cabin camps. Each cottage was decorated with a theme, connected together around a center courtyard. They were designed to be automobile friendly, often with attached carports.
New Braunfels, touted as the “Beauty Spot of Texas”, had many tourist courts along U.S. 81.
The first was Sunset Courts. It was a small strip of rooms located on the tip of the triangle where 81 meets Butcher at Avenue A. Owned by Willie Deterling, they boasted AC/heat, kitchenettes, carports (as most of them did) and a 4-star rating.
Alta Motel was located at the top of the hill on the corner of Highway 81 and Magazine Avenue. This tourist court had eleven tidy little white individual cabins with covered parking situated all around the perimeter of the property. The two-story office and swimming pool were located in the center courtyard. In addition to similar amenities as Sunset Courts, they offered free swimming at Camp Warnecke or Landa Park. The last buildings were torn down sometime in the early 2000s to make way for Advance Auto Parts.
Lucky Star Motel was located between the Guadalupe River bridge on 81 and what is now McKenna Avenue. Lucky Star was a collection of stucco flat top buildings with carports built around a central driveway. It currently operates as the Riverside Lodge. The office is now a two-story structure, and the roof of each building is gabled.
Dwight’s Motel was located on 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 court was an office and a private swimming pool. Some years ago, the motel was updated with brick facades and gabled roofs. It is currently operating as 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 pool. It changed hands a couple of times before being sold to the Smokehouse. The New Braunfels Smokehouse tasting room, which originally sat on the property that is now Howard Johnson’s, was moved across 81 to the Shady Oaks property. I remember that they originally left the pool, but later filled it in. Portions 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.
Fountain Court Motel was built by Thurman and Bertha McEvoy in the mid-1940s to serve the budding “snowbird” tourist community 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 half circle around a large grassy center court with a fountain. In later years, they installed a large rock fountain and a huge swing set. The cottages became a home-away-from-home for any repeat 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 entry ways. The office was at the front, facing the road. The last building was removed to make way for Lux Funeral home.
Although I have listed these in order along Highway 81, I purposely skipped one and left my very favorite memory until last. Have you ever heard anyone speak of the Diving Lady? To me she was a marvel in neon calling to travelers on Highway 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 diving. The motel was comprised of several wood frame units joined together by carports and gabled roof. Owned by the Biedermanns, the motel wrapped neatly around the property perched above the Guadalupe River. The Diving Lady promised a refreshing dip in the swimming pool.
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had seen the autobahns in Germany during WWII, signed off on the Federal Interstate Highway System to build four-lane highways across the United States. I-35 construction began in New Braunfels in 1959, taking the traffic from U.S. 81 as it grew. Eventually, U.S. 81 in New Braunfels became Business 35 and Elliott Knox Boulevard, but you will still hear the locals lovingly refer to it simply as “81”. It was from a simpler time.
Sources: Sophienburg Archives; https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/twilight-mom-and-pop-motel-180963895/