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Early Travelers Stayed in 'Tourist Cabins,' Rustic Predecessors to Motels

In Plainfield, the place to stay was Spangler's Camping Cottages, one of which still remains today.

The Inquiry

Did have any historic motels along the famed Lincoln Highway?

The Facts

For a century or more, hotels in smaller towns had been located near the local livery stable, where horses and carriages were available to the traveling public. By the dawn of the 20th century, most hotels were near railroad stations, which had been the hub of American travel for more than 50 years. 

But, as Americans began to experience the freedom of automobile travel, they increasingly sought overnight accommodations far from the well-traveled rail lines. 

As the Lincoln Highway became increasingly popular among American motorists, many new amenities were established along the route. In addition to the diners and gas stations that lined the famed roadway, “tourist cottages,” “tourist camps” and “tourist cabins” became staple comforts for the road weary.

As the predecessor of the mid-20th century motor court or motor-hotel, the early 20th century tourist camps provided simple accommodations, usually in individual cabins. The small cottages began as simple structures. Typically, the cabins provided a cold water shower and a bed with spring mattresses. 

Toilet facilities were often provided in shared privies. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, nightly rates ranged between $1.50 and $2.00 for a single occupancy.

Most often, “tourist camps” were operated as a secondary occupation of their owners.

Spangler’s Camping Cottages

In Plainfield, Spangler’s Camping Cottages were established about 1.5 miles south of the village, where Lincoln Highway intersects with Renwick Road. 

Melvin and Cora Belle (Austin) Spangler were born in Plainfield, the children of early Plainfield pioneer settlers. They married in 1892 and welcomed their only child, Alta Mae, in 1896. 

Around 1912, when the Lincoln Highway route was being planned, Mel and Belle Spangler purchased a portion of the Alvin J. King farm. There, at the northwest corner of Renwick Road, the Spanglers constructed a new home.  Mel Spangler continued farming along with his brother, Clinton, and father, Henry, who lived on adjacent farms.

Mel and Belle Spangler, along with her brother, Harry Austin, established “Spangler’s Camping Cottages” at the close of the 1920s. They erected several small cabins that overlooked Lake Renwick. Described as “picturesque,” the tourist camp was “well known to tourists from many states.” 

While Mel continued to farm and Harry worked in the Joliet steel mills, Belle cared for the cabins and frequent guests. 

Mel Spangler died unexpectedly in 1935. After his death, Belle Spangler and her bachelor brother, Harry Austin, managed the manicured grounds and neat cabins of the popular tourist camp. When his sister died in 1941, Harry continued to operate the well-regarded Lincolnway cabins as the “Lakeview Tourist Camp.” 

By the early 1950s, Alta Mae (Spangler) Brown was assisting her uncle, Harry, with the operation of the Lakeview Tourist Camp. When Harry Austin died in 1956, Alta Brown maintained the Lincolnway lodging spot for several months, before she sold the site to Tom Collins of Plainfield. 

The following year, Collins subdivided a portion of the site and moved several buildings onto the grounds, developing the Lakeview Motel. By the early 1960s, the small motel was a modern, mid-century overnight stop that, later, provided color televisions and air-conditioning.

A Legacy Amid the Ruins

By the early 1980s, the once-pristine Lakeview Motel had begun a downward spiral into disrepair. In September 2010, of the motel. was completed in February 2011.

The process of clearing the site spared three significant structures. The Spangler House (circa 1912) remains, although somewhat altered over time. The house is one of three nearly identical homes constructed in the Plainfield area.

The Spangler Carriage Barn (circa 1912) also survives in a somewhat altered state.

Most significantly, one of the original (circa 1928) tourist cabins—a rare remnant of the famed Lincoln Highway—still stands, moved and attached to the Spangler Carriage Barn.  

Although published accounts suggest the imminent demolition of the remaining structures on the site, the tourist cabin (as well as the other Spangler family buildings) provides a unique opportunity to promote heritage tourism along the Lincoln Highway as it passes through Plainfield. 

Rehabilitated, the remaining buildings of the Spangler Camping Cottages could become another important, local project that demonstrates Plainfield’s distinctive claim as Will County’s Oldest Community. 

Next Week: A Paved Highway, A Small Town, An Unshakable Legacy

Have a question about Plainfield’s history? Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch (karen@patch.com).

Joan Senffner April 30, 2012 at 04:16 AM
Oh my!!! Lived in that area since 1957 & never knew this!!! Very interesting!!!

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