Wharton's Tee Pee Motel is throw-back to bygone era
July 7, 2012 at 2:07 a.m.
WHARTON - Slightly off the beaten path - but not too far, since it's visible from the road - sits a memory of a bygone era. A time when people got their kicks on Route 66, ate in diners shaped like coffee cups and overnighted in interesting places.
Tee pees, to be exact.
Wharton's Tee Pee Motel, with its free-standing circular units, is a bit of vintage Americana, right in the Crossroads.
Construction on the retro home away from home got its start in 1942, said Brandi Massey, the motel's office manager. Lumber rationing meant the build took a bit longer than usual, she said, but Belchers Court, built by George and Toppie Belcher, was up and operating in the '40s.
At the time, the motel included "flat tops," or more traditional motel rooms just behind the tee pees.
The site later changed ownership, and its name, to Tee Pee Courts.
Although popular for some time, tee pee motels nationwide began to lose their luster, Massey said, and most were demolished in the 1970s and 1980s. Wharton's site closed, but remained in tact.
Decades passed, but the tee pees remained, bleaching in the Texas sun and falling into disrepair. That is, until a couple decided to breathe new life into it.
Current owners Bryon and Barbara Woods purchased the motel in 2004, Massey said. With help from Bryon's construction know-how - and lottery winnings the husband and wife came into - they began overhauling the long-forgotten venue the year after.
"They had to pull poison ivy off the sides of the tee pees and get snakes out of the walls," Massey said of the project. The hotel had been abandoned for more than 20 years.
"It was pretty bad."
The makeover meant not only an update for the 10 guest room tee pees, but also included something of a mystery. Another tee pee, dubbed "tee pee 11" by the staff, sits by the office, its purpose unclear.
Although the same size as the other 200-square-foot units, it has no bathroom, Massey explained, and has a simple concrete floor. She said their best guesses were that it went for storage or office space.
Renovations might have been dirty work, but the effort earned the couple air time on TLC's "Lottery Changed My Life" series. The show documents people who win large sums of money, and what they do with it.
Massey said the show, which filmed in May 2007, gained the motel some notoriety, and visitors from all over.
"We've had people come in from England or Germany who said they saw us on TV and wanted to come," she said. "We get people from everywhere."
Every town strives to give itself unique character, and the Tee Pee Motel is a bragging point for Wharton, said Ron Sanders, executive director of the Wharton Chamber of Commerce.
"We have 20 or 30 bus tours that come in from Houston per year, and that's one of the most popular stops," he said. "They want to look inside and they're intrigued by the story. People are very, very proud of it."
Sanders said the property is practical, too. The latest renovation added a 59-site RV park, which helps with the area's ongoing pipeline boom.
All in all, he said he's proud of what it has become.
"We took something that was a lemon, and we didn't make lemonade," he said. "We made champagne."
It appears others would agree.
Hand-written notes sit in a three-ring binder in the motel's lobby, documenting various lodgers' stays.
One Houston-area couple noted they spent their 1948 honeymoon in one of the tee pees, but didn't own a camera at the time. They returned for their 50th anniversary, however, able to snap a photo of the memorable site, and went back once more for their 60th.
Another guest, the descendant of a Native American chief, lauded the hoteliers for the renovation and offered a sort of blessing for future guests.
"May the spirits be with anyone that stays in No. 106," he wrote.
Today, the motel is full most weekends, Massey said, but tends to slow down in August and September. The RV park, however, remains packed most days, with those working in the oil and gas industry.
Busy or not, Massey said the property is fun.
"Most of the stuff like this is down Route 66," she said with a smile. "I love this. It's kind of a throwback."