15 June 2007

Rotting Places, Mournful Faces

"Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything." --Charles Kuralt

If you've seen the recent movie Cars, you're familiar with Radiator Springs, the decaying ghost town along old Route 66.

The much-storied "Mother Road", it must be said, was far from the only major national highway in those wondermous days. And there were many here in the Southeast, alone. One of them is very close to where I sit: US 301. It was widely-used as a 'short cut' for travelers from the Northeast U.S. bound for Florida, and all the fun and frolic therein.

As with "Route 66", every town along 301 was chock full of restaurants and motels. And what luck -- the residents of these towns had plenty of options for eating out, or for civic club meetings. Sure, these diners catered mostly to the traveler, but a wise motel operator never snubbed the locals. (That's a lesson Kemmons Wilson took to heart when he designed his Holiday Inn chain. All of them had on-premises restaurants, and often they were the best places in town to eat.)

But while Route 66 began meeting her demise as early as the 1960s, US-301's role as a major route for Florida-bound folk continued for much longer. You see, I-95 was one of the last major stretches of interstate to get completed in Georgia and South Carolina. As late as 1975, 95 had barely 1/4 of its mileage complete between Santee, S.C. and Jacksonville, Fla.

Today, Santee is little more than your basic interstate "watering hole" -- a collection of chain motels, chain fast food, gasoline and such. Hit the offramp, fill the tank and the tummy and back on the freeway you go.

And yesterday? Santee used to be a big fork in the road. It's where US-301 split off from other major roadways to go it alone toward Georgia (US-15 would've taken you toward Charleston, Walterboro and Savannah - the "scenic coastal route", if you will). Plus, with its strategic location about a day's drive (by two-lane standards) from Washington D.C. and points northward, Santee was perhaps one of the biggest motel meccas in the United States.

While on a trip to South Of The Border a year or so ago, we got off of I-95 onto an alignment of two-lane which used to carry US highways 15 and 301 through Santee. From S.C. 6 to the 15/301 split once existed about two miles of wall-to-wall motelia. If Tom Bodett left the light on for all the motels in Santee, it would've caused a glare to rival the Las Vegas Strip.

And what about now? Out of the high-traffic view of Interstate 95, Santee, South Carolina is nothing less than the Deep South's answer to Radiator Springs. And from time to time, my mind finds itself up there. If one is into geocaching, I suspect Santee offers plenty of succulent opportunities for fun.

Although work is now being done to 'improve' the look of this stretch of road by demolishing some of the old buildings, a lot of empty, rotting motels and equally-rotting signage still remain.

For instance, one of the more prominent motels in Santee was the Congress Inn. This used to be a chain of motels, rooted in a 'member/referral' group called Congress of Motor Hotels. I remember a Congress Inn on Lido Beach in Sarasota way back when. Huntsville, Ala. had one too.

To the left is the Santee Congress Inn's sign, circa 1966. And to the right is the rusting sign frame, still up and visible today. Only the 'dome' element of the logo remains.

Congress Inn went down as an obscure footnote in Beatles history -- there's news footage of a New Orleans motel operator where the group stayed while on their '64 concert tour. He took the bedsheets where John, Paul, George and Ringo slept, cut them into hundreds (if not thousands) of small squares ... had "certificates of authenticity" printed ..... and SOLD THEM. The motel in question was a Congress Inn.

Congress Inn as a chain shriveled up in the '70s, and today a handful of motels still using both the name and logo are her only reminders.

Here's another image of the Congress Inn from that 1966 postcard:

What a layout! That's a big playground out front -- imagine how many baby-boomer chirren frolicked out here, full of elated excitement. We're gonna be in FLORIDA tomorrow!! (while Dad wonders, with a small degree of anxiety, if Ludowici, Georgia really is the speed trap from hell)

Up "old 301" from the Congress Inn was the The Gamecock Motel:

Above is a postcard image of the Gamecock from the early 1960s. The adjacent Gamecock Restaurant was well-known along 301 as being a good place to eat. Initially, the Gamecock Motel was a member of the the original "referral chain", Quality Courts (it grew into what we know today as Choice Hotels).

But later in the decade, the Gamecock traded the gold seal/ribbon for a four-leaf clover:

Another association of independent operators was Superior Motels. The four-leaf clover icon with the words "A Superior Motel" now figured into the signage.

And in the late '60s, the Gamecock Restaurant began offering Kentucky Fried Chicken! If the four-leaf clover wasn't enough of a siren call at dusk, then perhaps the rotating bucket outside was enough to convince you that The Gamecock was going to be your host. A superior bucket of chicken to eat in your Superior Motel room.

The Gamecock had fallen beyond hard times by 2006. Here's how it looked:

Even part of the old sign remained. But on a recent Santee sojourn, I noticed the Gamecock property was totally leveled, trees and all.

Frankly, though, I'm surprised the Gamecock signed on with Superior. Because, as you saw above, their logo was a four-leaf clover:

This sign makes my heart skip beats and weep at the same time. When I first saw it, I was damn near hyperventilating! The triangle background, the italicized "INN" -- it's all SO early 1960s. The legend behind CLOVER on the sign was full of light bulbs, too. Hubba!

There's a stub of some sort atop this thing, suggesting the presence of something like an attention-getting neon 'star' at one time, a semi-common touch inspired by the Holiday Inn 'Great Sign.'

I am so wanting to find a picture of this sign back in its prime. Even better (and although I doubt it exists) I'd give so much to see either a picture, or film footage of this thing lit up at night.

No vintage postcard I've found has this sign. All I've seen is an earlier linen card below - The Clover was also part of the Quality Courts group (there were lots of 'em along 301 back in those salad days):

Part of the motel building still stands as of this writing. Notice the "Entrance" arrow and 'futuristic' style vertical florescent light post in the image above? To the left is how it looks in 2007. Both are still there.

Time stands still on much of the Clover's property. The pool still retains much of its fixtures. Another battered arrow-shaped neon sign stands nearby pointing the way toward the office (no longer standing).

Yeah, Santee truly is a Radiator Springs. What I'd love to do were Powerball's ping pong balls good to me is to buy that land, rebuild the Clover Motel to its original specs, and restore that grand sign.

On the other side of Santee Lake is a rotting billboard for Quality Courts Motel, most likely advertising one in Santee.........

"Quality Courts: Travel First Class" -- On the left is what the classic Quality insignia looked like (the 'gold seal' and ribbon were the original elements; the sunburst was added in 1962). And the middle picture is the decaying billboard between Summerton and Santee on old 15/301. I don't know how long The Clover (Motel/Inn) stayed with Quality Courts ... I wonder if this might've been a billboard for them?

Check the price - $16.95! I'd say the billboard was last maintained in the 1970-71 time frame, right about the time I-95 was finished, siphoning away most of the traffic. That would be about the going rate back then for a good motel room (read: non-budget, without a Bernard Hermann soundtrack playing or old mansion atop a hill out back).

Yeah ... Santee. What a place. And it stays interesting if you get on US-301 and continue southward. Orangeburg, Allendale, Bamberg, then over the Savannah River into Georgia .... Sylvania, Statesboro, Claxton, Glennville -- many of these towns have their own "Santee stretches", complete with dilapidated motel buildings, rotting signage and abandoned restaurants.

Memories of an America we've lost.

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "Neon Soul" Gleck


nettiemac said...

Wow..... I need to get out more, because I had no idea this was even around Santee.

That was pretty cool -- and sad, too, to see all those dilapidated buildings.

One of our area NTM's is now up for sale. I think I'd told y'all about the Rainbow and its somewhat suggestive art-deco sign back in the 70s and 80s. I swanney, if I had the money, I'd buy it and attempt to renovate it. If it wouldn't throw a nearby Good Rev. into a total tizzy, I'd even bring back the classic signage (moohoohooohahaha)!

Mr. Ashlin said...

When I was a kid my parents always stopped along the Santee strip on the trip from Maryland to Florida. As an adult, in memory of those summers, I collect US301 postcards. I have a postcard of the Clover Inn that shows their motel sign in all it's glory including the missing top you desire. You might also be interested in knowing that the Congress was originally called by the much better name "Carolina Moon". I have postcards of the Carolina Moon/Congress under both names.

Do you want an image of the Clover sign?

It was a pleasure reading your article.

Jerry Levy said...

We used to take US 301 to Florida in the 1970s, it was an interesting drive. Today the old tourist information center at the GA/SC border is still operating. Great food just north of Sylvania, GA. Is there a web site for US 301?


Debra Jane Seltzer (aka agilitynut) said...

The Clover Inn sign's "stub" is what's left of a Roto-Sphere. Here's what the sign used to look like:

And more info about these signs:

Talmadge Gleck said...

Hi, Mr. Ashlin:

Obviously Blogger doesn't do e-mail notifies on comments posted beyond a given date, so I just now saw this (plus the others).

If you see this, I would very much like and appreciate the opportunity to see that old Clover Inn postcard image.

e-mail: ratpack27 /at/ windstream /dot/ net