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Motels and Hotels

During World War II, most motor courts did not fair well, as gasoline was rationed and automobile production was curtailed.  After the war, roadside lodging quickly revived and "motel" took over as the favored term.  The first use of the word motel occurred in 1926 on the sign for Arthur Heineman's Milestone Motel in San Luis Obispo, California.  It was a contraction of motor and hotel.  The word became a generic label for a wide variety of highway-oriented accommodations.

During the post-war period, individual cabins slipped from fashion and single buildings with a string of rooms gained in favor.  The motel building was also more popular with owners because it was less expensive to construct and easier to maintain.  Like their cabin court predecessors, motels used exterior ornamentation and gimmicks to attract guests and were remodeled to appear modern.  By the 1950s, the roadside-lodging field was ripe for an invasion by corporate chains.  It was not long before the national chain motel dominated the lodging industry, replacing independently owned cabin courts and motels.

Roadside Highlight: Hotel Retlaw, Fond du Lac

The Hotel Retlaw (listed in the National Register September 7, 1984), located at 15 East Division Street in Fond du Lac, has been a prominent commercial and visual downtown landmark since it was constructed in 1922.  At the time of construction, the city of Fond du Lac called itself "the Gateway to the Fox River Valley."  The growing city, located at the confluence of USHs 41 and 151 and STHs 23 and 55, was in need of modern institutions that reflected the city's increasing population and industrial development.  Milwaukee businessman Walter Schroeder (Retlaw is Walter spelled backwards) was responsible for the hotel construction.  The Schroeder Hotel Company chain was one of the largest hotel chains in Wisconsin in the 1920s.  In addition to the Hotel Retlaw, the chain operated the Hotel Northland in Green Bay, the Hotel Loraine in Madison, and the Schroeder Hotel in Milwaukee.

The eight-story, 235-room hotel proved successful and an eight-story addition was planned in 1923 that would contain more rooms and apartments.  From 1923 through the 1970s, the hotel maintained its position as Fond du Lac's premier hotel.  Such notable figures as John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Eleanor Roosevelt, and leading Wisconsin politicians were known to have visited the hotel.  The hotel's position on four well-traveled highways, in addition to the Yellowstone Trail, also meant that automobile tourists frequented the establishment.  The Hotel Retlaw has been restored and converted into the 132-room Ramada Plaza Inn Hotel.

Roadside Highlight: The Rainbow Cabin Court becomes the Rainbow Motel

The Rainbow Motel, located in Wisconsin Dells, is a prime example of the evolution of lodging facilities from cabin courts to motels.  Originally known as the Rainbow Cabin Court, the complex was established in the 1920s.  Like many cabin courts, the Rainbow faced constant pressure to upgrade due to increased competition and consumer demands.

Eventually, the Rainbow Cabin Court became the Rainbow Motel.  The original cottages were joined with a drive-through that offered covered parking and the main office was upgraded in an attempt to appear modern.  The drive-through shelters were eliminated in an effort to maintain a modern appearance.  During a third renovation, the office was remodeled and the original cabins were relocated to the rear of the complex.


The Rainbow Cabin Court,
as it appeared during the
1920s. Courtesy of Jim Draeger,
personal collection.

The Rainbow Motel Court entrance
and office after renovations.

The Rainbow Motel Court units,
after renovations. Note the covered
parking space between two cabins
that were joined.
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