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Developers Hope to Revive History at the Boots Motel, a Route 66 Landmark in Carthage

Photo credit: Rebekah Clark
Photo credit: Rebekah Clark

With the decline of tourism in some places along Historic Route 66, many once-popular landmarks now sit abandoned. Interstates detour drivers around the historic road, and even a renewed interest over the last decade in traveling Route 66 hasn’t been enough to save some businesses along the Mother Road. For our ongoing local history series, Sense of Place, KSMU’s Rebekah Clark tells the story of one local landmark that’s fighting to stay alive.

 [Sound: cars]

The Boots Court Motel in Carthage, Missouri sits desolate on the corner of Garrison and Central. What was once a popular stop on Route 66 now stands out of business and completely run-down, despite sitting at a fairly busy intersection. Wendi Douglas, Executive Director of the Carthage Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, says the motel wasn’t always like this.

 “The hotel was built in 1939, and of course it’s on Garrison and Central in Carthage, MO, which also coincides with Route 66 and intersects with Highway 71. For many years, that area was called the “Crossroads of America” because it’s where you can travel from America either going north or south, or east or west, on the two main highways of the time.”

 Douglas says Arthur and Ilda Boots opened the hotel after seeing a growing market in the early days of motor transportation in the late 1930’s.

 “Ilda and Arthur divorced, but she continued to run the hotel even though they had divorced. She was in charge of operations, she was in charge of all the tourism aspects and keeping the little gift shop stocked and stuff like that, and she continued to run that with her children.”

 Boasting “a radio in every room” and adding a covered carport for each room, the Boots family created a thriving business. At $2.50 a night, the Boots Court Motel was considered expensive and modern with tile showers, floor furnaces with thermostat control, and air conditioning. Even the structural design of the building with its pink and green neon made it a destination for tourists traveling along the road.

 Keith Zoromski is an eighth-grade history teacher and member of the Carthage Downtown Visioning Committee. The group is pushing to restore the Boots Motel to its original structure.

 “Along Route 66, buildings are decreasing from that time period each year. This hotel is one of the last remaining standing structures of its architectural type. Although it’s important to local history, it’s also important to Route 66 history.” 

 The décor was never planned with blueprints. Each design decision was made on a “do-what’s-next” basis by the Boots family. Their instincts seemed to be right though; the rounded corners and “bull-nosed” edges with black glass trim that created the art-deco style attracted many tourists, including famous actors. Hollywood celebrity Clark Gable, famous for his lead role in “Gone with the Wind,” stayed in room number 6 during the 1940s. Also, locals claim that the singing cowboy star Gene Autry stayed a night in the motel with his horse, Champ, resting in the parking lot.   

 [sound: Nat King Cole ‘Get Your Kicks’]

 As WWII came and went, millions of men and women began to embrace mobility. The world became much smaller as it became easier to travel across the country. Route 66 thrived, making the Boots Motel a great success. Not long after the motel began to prosper, the Boots owners opened the Boots Drive-In across the street from the motel. The Drive-In became a popular Carthage teen hang-out during the 50s and 60s. Ron Hart, Director of the Route 66 Chamber of Commerce, remembers “Cruising the Boots.”

 “In high school, I went to McAuley in Joplin, and we would play basketball games with the Carthage team, and I was dating a girl that was from Carthage at the time. We would go to the Boots Drive-In, which is across the street from the motel. I spent a lot of time in Carthage.”

 As the years past, the businesses slowly began to decline in popularity. The Boots family sold the motel, giving way to many other owners throughout the years. Ples Neely and his wife purchased the motel in 1942 and added five more rooms to the back of the building. Then in 1948, the Asplin family bought the motel and operated it for 43 years. Since the 1990s, the business has fallen on hard times. The Boots Motel has faced the possibility of demolition multiple times. Now, the building is in the process of being bought again. A press release from the Route 66 Chamber of Commerce indicates that the new buyers plan to restore the Boots and re-open part of it as a motel. Keith Zoromski with the Carthage Downtown Visioning Committee couldn’t be happier.

“To get an idea of the American experience during the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, is to preserve Route 66. This could be a landmark experience for people to come and stay at this hotel and fully experience—it’s like going back in time.”

 The question is whether travelers will, in fact, invest the time and effort in veering off the interstate and booking a room at the Boots.

 For KSMU News, I’m Rebekah Clark.