Tee Pee Motel: reviving roadside history

Just outside the farming community of Wharton, Texas, on SH 59, you’ll come across 10 tee pees huddled along the roadside–the renovated Tee Pee Motel. It’s a remnant of driving vacations many families took during the 1940s and 1950s when gimmicky motels vied for travelers’ attention for an overnight stay.

Tee Pee Motel outside Wharton, Texas

Feel part of history at the Tee Pee Motel

Built in 1942, the popular motel became an important part of the town’s history. But as interstate highways overtook country roads, business declined, and the motel was abandoned in the 1980s, leaving sagging shells of the teepee-shaped structures beside the road.  Promised restorations never happened.

In July 2003 local $11-an-hour diesel mechanic Bryon Woods won the Texas lottery for $49 million, and the fate of the Tee Pee Motel changed.  Woods’ wife Barbara, who grew up in nearby Rosenberg, had always wanted to stay in the Tee Pee Motel as a child. She convinced Bryon to buy it and renovate it.

Tee Pee Motel near Wharton, Texas

Tee Pee cottages are a novel place to spend the night.

Woods bought the 10-acre property for $60,000, and the couple spent the next two years and $1.2 million cleaning, remodeling, painting, and fixing it up.  Although the property was in severe disrepair, the couple persevered in their labor of love through struggles with contractors, permits, and an attempted annexation by the city.  “It’s an opportunity to restore a part of history—to have something that brings back memories for so many people,” Woods says.

For curious history buffs, the motel’s brochure explains the origin of tee pee: In the Lakota language, ti means “to dwell or live” and pi means “used for.”  Early nomadic tribes needed a sturdy dwelling that could withstand strong prairie winds and yet could be dismantled quickly and easily.  The tipi (or tee pee) was warm in winter, cool in summer, and waterproof.  As one of only four such accommodations in the country, the Tee Pee Motel attracts travelers who like novelty and sharing a bit of Native American history.

By the time the Woods took over, the structures had been ravaged by a quarter century of weather and vandalism.  Each tee pee was stripped to the beams and totally rebuilt inside, while the outside was re-stuccoed and painted light tan.  Barbara Woods searched for Native American artifacts to adorn each room.

Tee Pee Motel near Wharton, Texas

Handmade quilts decorate rooms at the Tee Pee Motel

Each tee pee room is modernized with microwave, refrigerator, tiled shower, cable TV with high-speed Internet, and full-size bed covered with a handmade quilt.  Barbeque grills outside each teepee offer convenient cooking options. The Tee Pee Motel opened for business again in 2006, and the adjacent RV Park with full hookup and amenities opened in 2007.

“I like having something different—something that no one else has,” Woods says.

The Tee Pee Motel and RV Park, Business Hwy 59, Wharton, Texas, www.teepeemotel.net

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Read more travel stories at Going on Adventures and Austin Adventure Travel