Wagon Wheel Motel, Cafe and Station, Cuba, Missouri
Identified by its landmark neon sign, the Wagon Wheel Motel, Cafe and Station in Cuba offers contemporary travelers a glimpse of a well preserved, historic example of a locally owned and operated Route 66 tourist court and a place to sleep. After nearly three quarters of a century, the Wagon Wheel Motel is still in operation! The Wagon Wheel Motel started out along Route 66 in 1936 as a mom and pop food, fuel, and lodging establishment. Aside from the roadside cafe and gas station, the facility consisted of three stone lodging buildings set 200 feet back from the road. Known as the Wagon Wheel Cabins, each building housed three cabins with garages. This layout was unusual because the cabins were not the traditional, freestanding tourist court buildings typical at the time. Instead, the Wagon Wheel Cabins were similar to the multiple unit motel layout that was more common in the 1940s and 50s.
A 1939 AAA travel directory entry for the site illustrates the full service approach favored by many roadside businesses at the time:
Wagon Wheel Cabins on U.S. 66, the east side of town. 9 newly constructed stone cottages each with a private tub or shower bath. Very well furnished; gas heat; fans in summer; enclosed garages. Rates $2.50 to $3 per day for two persons. This is a home away from home. Splendid surroundings. Café; laundry services; rest rooms; super service station. One of the finest courts in the state. Very good.
The original buildings on the property were constructed of the local–and plentiful–Ozark sandstone, with a twist. Local builder Leo Friesenhan designed the buildings in the distinctive Tudor Revival style, which he mastered as a stonemason in nearby St. Louis. Each building, although slightly different in its details, evokes this style’s signature look: steeply pitched roofs with front facing cross gables, round or slightly arched doorways, and decorative stone trimming around windows and doors. This unusual design choice illustrates how roadside businesses, in the age before national chains, were very much a personal statement of the individual owner’s tastes and inclinations. Imagine a road 2,448 miles long lined with thousands of such individualized establishments, and you have imagined the Mother Road in its heyday.
In the mid-1940s, the original cafe and gas station units ceased to be part of the business, and some of the cabin garages were converted into lodging units. In 1947, John and Winifred Mathis purchased the Wagon Wheel Cabins. The name changed to the more modern sounding Wagon Wheel Motel, and two additional buildings, a concrete lodging building and a laundry facility, were added to the rear of the property. Sometime around 1947, Mr. Mathis put in the motel’s neon signage, including the famous Wagon Wheel neon sign, which he personally designed. The Wagon Wheel Motel was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. The Wagon Wheel Motel underwent renovations in 2009 and 2010 under the new ownership of Connie Echols. The renovations included updating the motel rooms and rehabilitating the Wagon Wheel Café to house a gift shop and the motel office.
The Wagon Wheel Motel, Cafe, and Station is located along old Route 66 on 901-905 East Washington St., on the eastern edge of Cuba, MO. The cafe and gas station are currently used as a gift shop and the motel office, while the motel continues to provide nightly accommodations. For information call 573-885-3411