Neon Lights Go Dim: How Flagstaff is Becoming Less Dependent on Route 66

In 1946, Bobby Troup composed a song titled "Route 66". The lyrics tell the tale of The Mother Road, a highway that connected Los Angeles to Chicago, a highway that boosted tourism in many towns and put them on the map. Flagstaff, Arizona, is even recognized in the song as one of the towns that Route 66 passed through.

Route 66 used to be a vibrant part of Flagstaff, a definitive quality of the mountain town. Now, decades after The Mother Road has been replaced by Interstate 40, Flagstaff is starting to forget its rich Route 66 history. As I write this blog post, an old Route 66 motel, The Knights Inn (which was formerly the Spur Motel), is being torn down so that a completely new hotel can be built in its place.

The Knights Inn is only one of several motels that have been torn down in Flagstaff. A few months ago, the Snow Peak Inn was demolished to make room for more housing units, and the Wonderland Motel was torn down, leaving an empty lot. The Flamingo Motor was demolished to pave the way for Barnes and Noble, and The Frontier Motel was removed to make room for Starbucks. The Snowbowl Motel was destroyed to build Kachina Restaurant, and the Park Santa Fe Plaza sits where the Parker Village Motel used to stand. Tractor Supply Co. is where The Timberline Motel used to be, and City Hall has taken the place of the Vandevier Motel.

Seeing Flagstaff eager to erase its rich Route 66 history is heartbreaking for my family who owned two Route 66 motels during the road’s heyday.

My grandparents, Jack and Mary Jean Bublitz, traveled to Flagstaff from Wisconsin in 1962 with their three young children: Peggy, Dwayne (my dad, who is the middle child in the picture), and Brian. Jack and Mary Jean placed a mattress in the backseat of their ‘58 silver blue Chevy Impala to create a play area for their children during that three-day car ride. After Mary Jean heard from her mother about the economic opportunity in Flagstaff due to Route 66, she knew that moving across the country was a no-brainer.

Jack and Mary Jean bought the Geronimo Motel, a 20-room motel on the east side of Flagstaff. Business was consistent, and the beauty of the mountain town never failed to take the their breath away, but they couldn’t stop dreaming about their old ranch home in Wisconsin. So, they packed up their children, placed them on the mattress in the backseat, and moved across the country again after only living in Flagstaff for two years.

Back in their ranch-style house, the family was content once again, but not for long. After dreaming about the quaint Arizona mountain town, the young family decided again to move back out west. Once Mary Jean told her parents that her family was on the move for the second time, her father smiled, saying, “Once you get that Arizona sand in your shoes, you can never shake it out.”

This time, they bought the Time Motel, which was situated a few yards from the intersection of 89A and Route 66. The Time had more than double the rooms of the Geronimo as well as a swimming pool to maintain. In her memoirs, Mary Jean describes March 1, 1966, their first day as owners of the Time Motel, as “[t]he first day for the rest of [her] life.”

As my grandma says, running a motel wasn’t a fairy tale. It was a job that required 24/7 attention. Jack or Mary Jean was always at the front desk. At night, Jack awoke if anyone rang the bell for service. He also ran the switchboard (a contraption used back then to connect callers), which became a full-time job when the German Olympic swim team rented out all the rooms while training in Flagstaff before the 1968 Olympic Games. Mary Jean explained in her memoirs, “We had at least twenty calls a night since we had more than 80 German people staying with us. Jack was busy placing these calls through the switchboard from 10 pm until about 2 am every night for several weeks.”

There was never a shortage of problems to solve. The snowstorm of ‘67 brought 84 inches of snow in eight days. Jack and Mary Jean quickly realized that the weight of the snow had caused roof damage, leaving many cracks. When temperatures warmed, snow began melting down the walls and into the rooms. Thinking quickly, the Bublitz family thought to use extra bedspreads to soak up the water. The roof was redone, and just when things were looking up, Time magazine wrote an article about the Flagstaff snow storm which scared visitors away until late April.

During the summer months, the family loaded into their Chevy Impala every night where they would cruise up and down Route 66. My dad was always fascinated with the neon lights that lined the street.

When the family passed the drive-in movie theater, my dad's eyes would fix on the rows of colorful cars illuminated by the giant movie screen. Nowadays, the United States Postal Service on the east side of Flagstaff takes up the space where the drive-in movie theater used to be.

The Bublitz clan continued down Route 66, stopping at every motel and counting the cars in the lots to see how their own motel stacked against the rest. The night concluded with a stop at A&W Root Beer where the waitress delivered five frosted glasses straight to the car. This ritual was a nightly occurrence during the summer months.

Daily life changed drastically on October 1, 1968, when Interstate 40 opened in Flagstaff. For some Arizona towns like Seligman and Peach Springs, the opening of Interstate 40 was devastating because these towns were completely bypassed. My grandparents, like most business owners at this time, had no idea what the interstate would do to Flagstaff. They soon realized that businesses that were located right off of the highway exit, like the Time Motel, would thrive. Motels like the Geronimo and Blue Spruce which weren’t close to any exits were going to struggle. My grandparents were lucky.

Jack and Mary Jean sold the Time Motel in 1972 and later bought the Quality Inn and Quality Suites (now Embassy Suites) before retiring from the hospitality business in 2000. Over the years, they have seen Flagstaff slowly lose its dependence on Route 66.

Just because Flagstaff no longer relies on The Mother Road, does that mean that we forget about the rich history only these motels can tell? Like my grandparents and my father, I wonder why Flagstaff has lost its Route 66 roots when other Arizona towns like Williams and Seligman choose to embrace them. Instead of tearing down their historic motels, these small Arizona towns remodel them so that visitors today can have the opportunity to stay in an authentic Route 66 motel. Why doesn’t Flagstaff remodel motels like The Frontier Motel and the Snow Peak Inn instead of tearing them down? Once a historic motel like that is gone, the history that was once there can’t be restored.

Thankfully, The Geronimo (now Mountain View Inn) and The Time Motel (now Econo Lodge) continue to stand in Flagstaff. Although my family’s old motels have yet to be torn down, my grandparents and my dad can’t help but be saddened to see Flagstaff choose to erase its rich Route 66 history. At this rate, The Mother Road will be forgotten in Flagstaff, just like the motels that are no longer standing, the motels that told a story of a simpler time.

#travel #flagstaff

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