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Tourist camps and courts were a common form of lodging for travelers in the United States from the 1930s to the 1960s. The terms “tourist camp” and “tourist court” were used to describe both an individual cabin or room rented for the night and the business as a whole. In their early days, they typically consisted of stand-alone structures that looked and functioned like small houses, with as few as four units to rent. Those built during and after World War II were increasingly likely to be under a single roof in the form recognizable today as motels.
Unlike earlier hotels that served mostly railroad passengers, tourist camps and courts evolved along roadways to accommodate the needs of the newly motoring public. In the 1920s, the average white, middle-class family likely owned a car, and recreational travel by automobile became increasingly common as Americans sought a nature break from crowded cities. The common practice of roadside camping spawned free municipal campgrounds across the country, often in city parks. Most city-sponsored campgrounds did not last into the 1930s, due mostly to overcrowding, increasing costs, and the potential profits to be made from the growing numbers of Americans on the road. The experience of Little Rock (Pulaski County) was typical; the city had opened a free campground in City Park (now MacArthur Park) around 1923 but was in the process of making sure auto tourists could no longer camp there by 1926.
Beginning in the mid-1920s, thousands of small, private, locally owned tourist camps were being built across the country; the more modern of these began calling themselves “tourist courts.” They furnished an increasing array of amenities, such as heat in the winter, electric fans in the summer, private bathrooms and kitchens (as opposed to the communal ones of the earlier camps), linens, radios, and garages. In 1927 or 1928, Lape’s Tourist Camp at 1324 Ringo Street became Little Rock’s first privately owned, for-pay tourist camp to open for business. By 1935, Little Rock and North Little Rock (Pulaski County) had eighteen tourist camps and courts. (No trace of Lape’s exists in the twenty-first century.)
By the 1940s and 1950s, many tourist courts offered room telephones, cafes, gas, and even swimming pools and air-conditioning. “Motel” (a blend of motor and hotel) became a popular term beginning in the 1940s and implied more rooms and greater conveniences to travelers. The terms co-existed into the 1950s and early 1960s, after which “tourist court” was largely dropped by business owners and the general public. Exceptions still in business in the twenty-first century include the Ozark Court in Hot Springs (Garland County), the Sherwood Court in Eureka Springs (Carroll County), and the I-30 Courts in Benton (Saline County).
Naturally, the greatest numbers of tourist courts and motels were near popular tourist destinations and in larger cities. Hot Springs had by far the most in the state. In 1960, for example, Hot Springs had eighty-two courts and motels, compared to thirty-nine in Little Rock and North Little Rock. (The sheer number of courts and motels and the fact that no interstate highway has cut through Hot Springs have helped preserve a number of its roadside lodgings.)
Owners of camps and courts often appealed to tourists by referencing local attractions in the names of their businesses. For example, the Diamond Court operated at the entrance to the mine near Murfreesboro (Pike County), and the Oaklawn Tourist Court sought the business of those attending the nearby horse races in Hot Springs. However, like courts across the United States, most in Arkansas were either named after their owner(s) or referenced comfort or appealing images. A few instances of the former are the Betty-Ann Court in Rogers (Benton County), Rhodes Tourist Cottages in North Little Rock, and Pop and Joe’s Lakeside Court near Plainview (Yell County). The latter included the Hollywood Court in Hot Springs, the Sun Valley Court in Mountainburg (Crawford County), the Cozy Courts in Green Forest (Carroll County), and the Resthaven Court near Eureka Springs. A few names were the unique creations of their owners, notably the Boco Courts in Fordyce (Dallas County): “bought on cash only.”
The construction of the interstate highway system in the late 1950s and early 1960s signaled the decline of “mom and pop” tourist courts and motels, as well as the end of their common practice of racial segregation. Roadside lodging became an increasingly franchised business of larger “hotels” along the new roads. The number of locally owned tourist courts and motels peaked in the United States in 1961, and in Arkansas a few years later. Today, most of the hundreds of tourist courts in Arkansas have been demolished. Some that survive still function as motels. Others serve as rental housing, storage, retail space, or are abandoned.
Arkansas Tourist Camps, Courts, and Motels Listed on the National Register of Historic Places or Arkansas Register of Historic Places (* denotes Arkansas Register):
Bates Tourist Court
Marshall (Searcy County)
Bear Creek Motel
Bear Creek Springs (Boone County)
Hot Springs (Garland County)
Cove Tourist Court
Crystal River Tourist Camp
Cave City (Sharp County)
Fox Motel House
Bald Knob (White County)
George Klein Tourist Court
Gibson Court *
Lynwood Tourist Court
Merle Whitman Tourist Cabin
Ozark (Franklin County)
Perry Plaza Court
Tall Pines Motor Inn
Eureka Springs (Carroll County)
Taylor Rosamond Motel
Web Long House and Motel
Hardy (Sharp County)
Willmering Tourist Cabins
Silver Hill (Searcy County)
For additional information: Balasco, Warren James. Americans on the Road: From Autocamp to Motel, 1910–1945. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
Curran, Jill, and Michael Keckhaver. “Pulaski County Tourist Courts and Motels—Then and Now.” Pulaski County Historical Review 58 (Fall 2010): 77–95.
Jakle, John A., Keith A. Sculle, and Jefferson S. Rogers. The Motel in America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Jill CurranLittle Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated 9/24/2013
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