“Tacitus” Thursday…The Ponca Motel

For today, I decided to share a short story I wrote for a book that I was hoping would be published. This particular one unfortunately didn’t. But that’s ok, I’m going to share it with the world now lol

The Ponca Motel is considered a dive here in the city of Abilene. But in it’s day, it played an important role in downtown Abilene. Here is just a small story about the Ponca Motel, and I hope you enjoy it.

The Ponca Motel

Majestically looking north, the bust of the Ponca Indian warrior sits atop the entrance of the Ponca Motel. Only a few hundred yards away from the Texas Pacific Railroad depot, the warrior was encouragement for weary travelers. During trips from West Texas to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, many would have stopped at the Ponca for rest and comfort.

Round windows, trimmed in green and inlayed with wagon wheel spokes, line the front office, providing an idea of the décor used for the construction of the Ponca. Twenty rooms outline the U- shaped exterior; providing a refuge for fatigued travelers passing through Abilene for more than three quarters of a century.

Just as Abilene owes its genesis to the Texas and Pacific railroad, the Ponca Motel owes its to the advent of the automobile and the highway system. On the Bankhead Highway, which Highway 80 was known as, is where the Ponca was built in 1928.[1] Major cities the Bankhead ran through in Texas were, Dallas-Fort Worth, Abilene, and El-Paso.  The Bankhead highway got its name from Senator John Hollis Bankhead of Alabama. Bankhead played an important part in the passing of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, which provided funds to establish an all-weather national highway system that ran from the east to west coast.[2] Fortunately for the Ponca Motel, that highway system ran right through Abilene.

Lumpy mattresses, the smell of musk, tiny bars of soap and paper thin walls; welcome to the life of the local motel. It seems rough, but compared to how life on the road was before the motel, it is not bad.

The early traveler of America’s roadways would carry tents and cooking pots in their vehicles. When families would get tired, they would just camp along side the roadways. The name of this practice was called auto camping. In the early 1920s auto camping was the most common way that motorist were able to get rest.  In the more populated areas, entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to provide upgraded facilities for these early travelers, often through the provisioning of rental cabins.[3] So the cabin court, tourist court, or what turned out to be the motel, was born. The motel developed in the second decade of the twentieth century to fill the need for practical, available, and economical sleeping arrangements.[4] Though hotels were the lead form of lodging for those traveling by train, the motel eventually became the dominate form of lodging for those traveling by car.

The Ponca showed up in the Abilene phone directory in 1948 listed as a tourist court. Then in 1957 it was listed as a motel/tourist court and operated by George Williams. The Williams family played a role in operating the Ponca for at least twenty-five years. [5]

Driving down the old Bankhead Highway, if you blink your eyes to fast, you’ll miss the Ponca. However, a long time Abilene resident told me, “It was a first rate motel in its time.”[6] The Ponca, along with many other motels along the road sides of America, has seen their best times pass.

[1] Central Appraisal District of Taylor County, Taylor Properties, http://www.taylorcad.org/taylordetail.php?theKey=000000051151 11/14/04

[2] Richard F Weingroff, , Federal Aid Road Act of 1916; Building the Foundation Sidebars, U.S. Department of Transportation Federal  HighwayAdministration,http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/rw96b.htm 11/14/04

[3] John A. Jakle, Keith A. Sculle, Jefferson S. Rogers, The Motel in America (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1996), 15.

[4] Perry Frank, “Motels,” in Dictionary of American History, ed. Stanley I. Kutler, 3rd ed., 10 vols. (Newyork:Thompson Gale, 2003) 462.

[5] John F. Worley, Worley’s Abilene(Taylor County, Texas) City Directory 1948 (Dallas, Tex,: John F. Worley Directory Co., Publishers, 1948), 649; John F. Worley, Worley’s Abilene(Taylor County, Texas) City Directory 1957 (Dallas, Tex,: John F. Worley Directory Co., Publishers, 1957), 511; R.L. Polk, Polk’s Abilene(Taylor County, Texas) City Directory 1972 (Dallas, Tex,:R.L. Polk&Company, 1972),369.

[6] Jack Tyler, Personal Interview, 22 Oct. 2004, Abilene, Texas


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