Historic Structures

Wigwam Village - Tee Pee Motel, Cave City Kentucky

Date added: June 14, 2022 Categories: Kentucky Hotel Roadside Attraction

A primary impact of the automobile was its broadening of the concepts of recreation and leisure. Unlike travel by train, for decades the most common means of long-distance transportation used by the majority of Americans, automobile motoring permitted the travel itself to be part of a vacation, not just the means of reaching a destination. In the early 1920s, "autocamping" became the rage and campgrounds sprang up all over the country. By the end of the decade, however, the camps' latrines, common showers and increasing patronage by itinerants brought about by the onset of the Depression had led to a loss of desirability to many motorists. The next step was the cabin or cottage camp, or the proto-motel.

In a March 1986 Smithsonian article entitled "The Great American Motel," Phil Patton explains that the word "motel" (first coined by Arthur Heinemann in 1926 for his Mo-tel Inn in San Luis Obispo) encompasses three phases of roadside hostelries--the motor court, the classic motel, and the chain motor inn. The first phase, equivalent to the cabin or cottage camp, appeared in a variety of materials and styles limited only by the imagination. The tiny individual tourist cabins could be mock Colonial New England houses or adobe huts and usually emphasized the attractions of the region. Carports eventually were added to many units in a transitional stage leading to the reign during the 1940s and 1950s of the classic motels, long one-story buildings of rooms attached in a string and bordered by parking spaces. Although a few companies built chains of motor courts and classic motels, most of the early motels began as mom-and-pop operations incorporating gas stations and restaurants. The 1960s boom in chain motor inns, characterized by standardized units, an emphasis on family values, and the financial resources of franchising, accompanied state and national highway programs and soon rendered most of the classic motels obsolete.

Patton characterizes the Wigwam Village chain as "the most famous of the old protomotels." These complexes combining motel, gas station and restaurant originated in 1933 in Horse Cave in Hart County, Kentucky. Of the seven Wigwam Villages eventually constructed, Wigwam Village No. 2, approximately three miles southwest of Horse Cave, is one of the few still in existence and the only one that has remained in continuous operation as a motel. Its imaginative concept of mock wigwams as the individual units represents a total design created by architectural setting, costumed personnel and packaged products.

The term "place-product-packaging" was first publicized by a 1978 Cooper-Hewitt Museum exhibit of the same name which focused on roadside building types as exemplars of total design. Later, the term was used by cultural geographer John Jakle to explain the uses of imagery by roadside restaurants and to provide a framework for further examination of such place-making. Equally strange-looking buildings such as the shell-shaped Shell Oil gas station in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the duck-shaped poultry shop in Long Island appeared across the American landscape in the 1920s and 1930s and on through the 1950s, but most of the early ones have been lost or neglected and very few survive well preserved and serving their original purpose as Wigwam Village No. 2 has.

Frank Redford, a native of Horse Cave, created the first two Wigwam Villages and fully developed the Indian motif of their place-product-packaging. Redford was born February 17, 1899, to a farm family, but after high school graduation went to work for a banana company in Honduras. He remained with the company for three years and returned home to be with his mother when his father died. On a trip to California with his mother, Redford visited Long Beach where he saw a lunch stand shaped and painted like an Indian tepee with smaller but otherwise similar-looking structures outside for restrooms. This unusual collection of structures, built sometime in the 1920s at the corner of Covina and Fifty-Second Place and razed in 1950, featured the rolled flaps of the tepee front and the red zig-zag decoration that later would be featured in Wigwam Village. The impression of these curious California structures stuck in Redford's memory.

Upon his return to Horse Cave, Redford opened and briefly operated a tepee-shaped ice cream parlor. He wanted to make more money, however, so in 1933, on recently paved highway 31E, he opened the gas station and lunch room that would become the nucleus of his first Wigwam Village. The location was ideal as the heavily travelled Highway 31E led to several nearby tourist destinations, including the extremely popular Mammoth Cave, the world's longest known cave system and the focus of lore about the Native Americans who once populated the area. Doubtless snared by the stylized tepee, which housed a small office and a lunch counter seating 20, travelers flocked to Redford's roadside business. When customers began asking why motel rooms were not available, Redford built six in 1935. The 30-foot-tall conical, stuccoed wood-framed "sleeping rooms" (he preferred not to call them tepees or wigwams, or even cabins) were arranged in an elliptical arc. An open lawn separated the rooms from a new and taller office/lunch room tepee flanked by restrooms at the roadside, similar to the Long Beach restaurant Redford had seen in Long Beach. A small, four-sided wooden stand, or "trading post," augmented the Indian setting with its sales of real Indian jewelry as well as ice cream, cold drinks and souvenirs.

The improvised roadside business prospered, and in 1936 Redford made bigger plans involving construction under patent of "Wigwam Villages" throughout the country. The following year he set up Wigwam Village No. 2 outside of Cave City on Highway 31W as the model for the system's operation. Although the site plan was similar to that of the Horse Cave business, there were fifteen sleeping facilities and a larger lunch room, all constructed with steel frames covered in concrete. The location even closer to Mammoth Cave on the heavily travelled interstate road connecting Louisville, Kentucky, and Nashville, Tennessee, assured good business. The difference between the interstate traffic and traffic through Horse Cave on Highway 31E also was related to the distinct characters of the two "Villages": the smaller lunch room with curb service in Horse Cave became a favorite spot for local teenagers while the heavy interstate traffic, including truckers, rendered Wigwam Village No. 2 a stop for adults.

Typical of the mom-and-pop management mode of the majority of early motels, Mr. and Mrs. Redford worked as a team to dispel the stigma of uncleanliness, bad food and debauchery attached to many early motor courts and to make their place desirable in every regard. According to Mrs. Redford, she was in exclusive charge of the lunch room where she only allowed women to work in keeping with the prevailing sexual division of labor. She believed customers regarded the preparation of food in plain view at Wigwam Village No. 2 as certification of its purity. Only men cleaned the rooms, made the beds, and pumped the gas. Drinking was permitted, but not to boisterous excess. The wholesome results were advertized by Duncan Hines, headquartered in nearby Bowling Green, Kentucky, who carried information about Wigwam Village No. 2 in his nationally circulated publications Adventures in Eating and Adventures in Sleeping. Mrs. Redford recalled that Hines was gratified to find high quality examples which embodied the standard he hoped to set for the new automobile travel industry.

Respectability bred more respectability. The good reputation of Wigwam Village No. 2 helped Mrs. Redford to recruit young farm girls to work in the lunch room with the consent of their protective fathers. There also was a policy of employing young marrieds just out of high school, perhaps because the young partners' mutual dependence for prosperity ensured industry. These employment practices yielded an attractive group of young adults who must have subliminally reinforced the consumers' assurance of a reliable product. This image was enhanced in the early years by the employees' wearing uniforms, which tend to convey the impression of order; the women's beige dresses were trimmed in red rick-rack similar to the design on the wigwams. Perhaps the most dramatic touch in labor practices was the occasional employment of Indian dancers from Oklahoma to perform in the so-called "arena" or space encircled by the sleeping rooms.

Labor practices were only an adjunct to the core of Wigwam Village's place-product-packaging, namely, its architecture. The large, almost abstract geometric forms of the tepee sleeping rooms, with their metal "twigs" at the top, "flaps" folded back to reveal the door, and bright paint scheme of white with red zig-zag accents, surely lured the fun-seeking and curious. The buildings' image was especially dramatic after dark when floodlights were beamed on them. Moveable and decorative items augmented the architecture. Authentic Navajo rugs and blankets purchased by the Redfords during trips to Arizona decorated each tepee sleeping room. Because an actual Indian bed would have been unacceptable to most auto travellers, the furniture of hickory complete with bark was chosen as sufficiently rustic to connote a frontier or wilderness setting and thus appropriately enhance the village's special atmosphere.

The Redfords fully conceived and executed the place-product-packaging of the Wigwam Villages Indian motif. Only Paul Young, who purchased the motel in 1946 when the Redfords moved to California, extended the technique by stocking items intended for easy removal and long-time retention by travellers. These included handbills simulated as checks and ashtrays embossed with tepees. Young also erected along Kentucky's highways tepee-shaped motel signs advertising the Wigwam Villages.

Place-product-packaging seems never to have been as fully developed elsewhere in the Wigwam Villages as at its points of inception by Frank Redford in Horse Cave and Cave City. Redford himself opened the largest village, with 19 sleeping rooms, in 1947 on Route 66 in San Bernadino, California, but this motel lacked a restaurant. Interior decor did replicate the rustic furniture, Indian rugs and blankets, and zig-zag bathroom tiles of the earlier Kentucky motels. Place-product-packaging is not known to have been fully examined at the other four villages. Located in Holbrook, Arizona, New Orleans, Birmingham and Orlando, they were owned and operated by other individuals in return for one percent of the gross annual income paid to Redford under the patent he obtained in 1937 for his tepee design.

Of all of the seven Wigwam Villages, only Wigwam Village No. 2 in Cave City has been carefully preserved and continually operated as a motel. (The first Wigwam Village of frame and stucco in Horse Cave was razed in the 1980s after a prolonged period of deterioration. The Orlando, Birmingham, and New Orleans Wigwam Villages also have been destroyed. The deteriorated Arizona motel currently is the target of a tax act project.) After Paul Young's tenure of ownership, title passed in 1953 to H. H. and William G. Proffitt, whose relatives, Roger and Elizabeth Proffitt, own and operate Wigwam Village No. 2 in the 1980s. Although the uniforms and Indian rugs and blankets have been gone for years, a certain degree of place-product-packaging survives. The lunch room has been converted to a large gift shop with a good deal of merchandise in an Indian theme. Wigwam Village souvenirs include tee shirts and miniature plaster statues identical to the tepee sleeping rooms (the customer may select one with the number of the unit he stayed in). The Proffitts also have retained the letterhead stationery with the Wigwam Village motif and have reprinted as a flyer a 1987 article celebrating the fiftieth birthday of Wigwam Village No. 2. Mr. & Mrs. Proffitt are proud of their motel and have taken steps to ensure that it is preserved after they retire.

Before 1970 when I-65 was completed a few miles southwest, the "no vacancy" sign at Wigwam Village No. 2 was lit every night. After I-65 came, business tapered off for awhile, but now the "vacancy" sign is lit less often and the motel is full every weekend, its novelty and low rates ($10.00/night for one double bed, $15.00 for two) (1980s) attracting a steady clientele. Knowledge of the history of a creation such as Wigwam Village No. 2 is essential to an understanding of the cultural landscape engendered by the automobile. The enduring popularity of this proto-motel demonstrates that novel commercial concepts merging the product and architectural form continue to capture our imaginations by providing escape from the mundane which has become all too pervasive in our culture. As the Proffitts like to ask, "When was the last time you slept in a tepee?"