It Happened One Night: Boots Court Motel

Clark Gable on a Harley-Davidson

Clark Gable stayed here twice in the 1940s but that should come as no surprise. A journey along Route 66 is a dream for many motorcyclists. And Clark Gable rode a motorcycle. The ‘mother road’ is on almost every motorcyclist’s bucket list and each year thousands of travellers from around the world come to ride it. When sisters Debye Harvey and Priscilla Bledsaw embarked on an epic road trip together by car, travelling the entire 2,278 miles of Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, they stopped along the way to photograph all the iconic sites – one of which was the Boots Court Motel in Carthage, Missouri.

The year of the sisters’ epic adventure was 2007. The Boots Court Motel, built seventy years earlier in 1937 by Arthur Boots, had changed hands numerous times over the years, and was dilapidated and barely operational. Still, the sisters photographed it because it represented one of the few Streamline Moderne Art Deco design motels still in existence. Streamline Moderne Art Deco architecture became popular in the 1930s and 40s and feature buildings with aerodynamic lines and curves.  So, after taking their picture, the sisters continued their journey. It wasn’t until a few years later that opportunity struck.

Boots Court Motel a rare example of 1930s Streamline Moderne Art Deco motel application still operational.

It happened one night at home in 2011, Debye – a historical preservationist with the US Parks Service at the time and nearing retirement – was doing some digging on the internet when she discovered the Boots Court Motel was for sale. She remembered the property and, as a joke, she emailed her sister Priscilla to let her know. It turned out the bank had repossessed the Motel and was selling it for a steal. According to Debye, Priscilla immediately suggested they buy it. Despite Debye living in Georgia and Priscilla living in Illinois, the decision was made and that is what they did.  

The sisters moved to Carthage and began work on restoring the Boots Court Motel to its original glory. They received a National Parks Grant and launched a GoFundMe campaign to help raise the money needed to restore the motel. With a preservationist’s mindset, they removed the pitched roof that was part of a 1970s renovation scheme, added green neon lighting, and were able to get a replica motel sign to match the original one that donned Route 66. They even went about redecorating seven rooms all under Debye’s watchful historian’s eye.

One thing all motelorcyclists love is being able to drive up and park outside your motel room door, which you can do that at each of the Boots Court Motel rooms. And if you request it in advance, you can ask for one of the four rooms that has carport attached, allowing you to park your bike to protect it from the elements.

As for the interior decor of the rooms, Debye and Priscilla chose to model them in authentic 1949 furnishings. Every room is adorned with period furniture, painted plastered walls, built-in wooden desks, ceramic tile showers, window air conditioner and a radio tuned to an AM station that plays music from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. You won’t find televisions, coffee makers, microwaves or in-room refrigerators because those aren’t in keeping with the 1949 theme – though each room does have access to high-speed internet. Boots Court Motel didn’t get televisions until 1954. 

To make your stay truly authentic, and if you are a Hollywood fan, plan your arrival at Boots Court Motel on Thursday through Sunday nights where you can head over to watch a movie at the 66 Drive-In theatre, which originally opened in 1949 and is located just three miles down the road. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the Route 66 Drive-In still shows a double feature four nights a week. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you can catch a classic like the 1934 pre-code romantic comedy It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. We know what happened there. The leading characters fell in love on a road trip after sleeping a night in a roadside tourist court motel. And just as Debye and Priscilla did after stopping for photos in Carthage, Missouri, you too will fall in love with your stay at the Boots Court Motel.

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