Making the ordinary extraordinary. That’s what the awesomely absurd carnival of roadside attractions seek to do – beckoning wayward travelers with the siren song of whirligig farms, backyard museums, and llama petting zoos. All found in places with names that are punching above their weight, like Cuba, Oklahoma, Coffee, Alabama, and Metropolis, IL.
I recently took a crash course in kitsch, taking a trip along the back roads of America while fulfilling my promise to visit every Stuckey’s during my first year as CEO of the company my grandfather founded. I quickly learned that where you spend the night is part of the experience, especially if you can actually sleep in the roadside attraction. Which is what led me to Cave City, Kentucky and the Wigwam Motel. The real human story of its creator and its place in the history of the American road trip is what I find the most fascinating.
Frank Redford, native son of Hart County, Kentucky, was inspired by the teepee-shaped design of a BBQ joint in Long Beach, California and had a vision of creating his own Kentucky version of the teepee experience that would attract tourists from Mammoth Cave National Park. Redford was part of a national trend of entrepreneurs who opened themed motels featuring rail cars, windmills, adobes, and other eccentricities to compete with the box chain motels. These early mom-and-pop motor lodges often mimicked the design of tourist camps with individual cabins clustered around a central gathering space, reminiscent of those described by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.
Wigwam #1 was built in Horse Cave, KY in 1933 and became such a hit that Redford was awarded a patent in 1936 for his “resort design”. He soon outgrew the original site and replaced it with the larger Wigwam #2 five miles away in 1937 – the same year that Stuckey’s was founded. This second village boasted fifteen teepees and a 52-foot tall Indian Trading Post featuring his collection of Native American artifacts and selling ice cream, cold sodas, and souvenirs. Eventually, Redford’s wigwam empire would grow to seven motels spanning all the way to the West Coast, only three of which are still in operation today (the other two are the iconic location in Holbrook, AZ and outside San Bernardino, CA, both of Route 66). All are preserved and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A quick architectural detour is in order at this point. Redford erroneously referred to his creations as wigwams – which are dome-shaped huts – when his structures are technically in the form of teepees. Redford fancied the term wigwam over teepee, so nomenclature be damned!
I visited Wigwam Village at the end of June 2020, with the flashing neon sign brightly inviting weary motorists to “Sleep In A WigWam”. The place has long been bypassed by the highway, so the only visitors are those who have set their GPS coordinates to this roadside relic. While retaining its vintage appeal, Wigwam Village #2 is in need of some TLC – the trading post is long-shuttered with its collection of roadside artifacts sadly auctioned off by Sotheby’s. The ice machine is broken. And the once brilliantly painted red markings on the white teepees are fading. But the place bears an unmistakable nostalgic charm and the lingering memories left by an 80-year parade of travelers in search of something unique and different.
To their credit – the concrete-and-steel teepees still stand proud, clustered in a horseshoe shape around a common greenspace, true to their motel court roots. The night I was there, kids were jumping around the playground while parents sipped brightly colored cocktails on metal benches scattered in front of the teepees, later joined by motorcycling couples with a few 6-packs of beer. There was definitely a fun camaraderie among the guests – a feeling like we were part of a secret cabal entrusted with keeping alive these special places found off the beaten path.
The rooms themselves can best be described as efficient – 14 feet in diameter and 32 feet high with a small tiled bathroom with sink, toilet, and shower. In keeping with the authenticity of the original look, the hickory furniture from the Redford days has been carefully preserved and there are no telephones. But the rooms do include a noisy window-mounted air conditioner, cable TV, and internet access as a nod to modern conveniences. There’s also a two-decades old Mr. Coffee Maker that’s nonetheless functional. All these details aside, the best thing about sleeping in a wigwam is that it’s constructed of thick concrete and is super quiet. A good night’s sleep is almost guaranteed in such a cozy, peaceful mini abode.
Visitors to the Wigwam Village would do well to take time to stop at the other nearby roadside oddities – Yogi Bear’s Jellystone camping and cabins, Big Mike’s Rock Shop and Mystery House a ‘wonky wormhole of fun for the whole family’, the Corvette Museum, and Dinosaur World.
What makes a road trip memorable are the stops along the way. In a world full of blah, nondescript box hotel chains littering highway exits, it’s refreshing to know that places like Wigwam Village still persevere and exist. Even if they don’t have any ice.
Stephanie Stuckey, is president and CEO of Stuckey’s Corporation. Like many motels on Motelorcycle.com, Stuckey’s was founded in 1937 to satisfy the needs of a curious and traveling public. Stuckey’s may be best known for their signature Pecan Log Rolls and have been providing a haven for travellers along the road ever since. The opinions expressed are those of Stephanie Stuckey.