COLUMBIA — In the 1950s, a traveler who decided to spend the night in Columbia was probably lured by a two-story neon sign that displayed a Native American boy blowing smoke rings from a campfire.
The Arrow Head Motel, built in 1938, was among the first motels between St. Louis and Kansas City. Its neon sign served as a beacon for anyone who needed a place to stop overnight.
These days, the property on the Business Loop — old Highway 40 in the early days — shows definite signs of age, but it remains the only intact motor court in Columbia.
"It's really one of the last old tourist camps," said Deb Sheals a Columbia-based architectural historian and historic preservation consultant.
Originally named the Arrowhead Camp and Service Station, the motel evolved into the Arrowhead Tourist Court and later became the Arrow Head Motel.
It has gone through more than six owners and a handful of structural updates over the years, but some of its original charm remains.
Faded aluminum awnings still shade the doors, and a tattered tarp covers the swimming pool, once quite a draw for a roadside inn.
Although connected under one roof now, the original cabins are still visible among the glass blocks and red brickwork.
Mohammad Eldeib bought the Arrow Head 13 years ago. About five years ago, he waved the last overnight lodger goodbye and decided to turn the place into a full-time truck rental lot.
But Eldeib isn't finished. He has dreams of turning the sprawling, 25-room motor court into affordable studios or one-bedroom apartments.
"I'd love to see this being restored and offered up for some students or some senior citizens," he said.
The American motor court was the outcome of a boom in highway travel during the 1930s. Motels expanded options for travelers, who were no longer limited to the hotels in big cities and campsites in national parks.
After reaching a peak in popularity during the 1960s, national chains began to scatter hotels across the country, and many of the independently operated, early motels faded into obscurity.
Yet, the Arrow Head remained a fixture in Columbia long after many others had given up.
Roy and Blanche Massey purchased the motel in 1961 after selling a dairy delivery company in Granite City, Ill. Roy's stepson, Dave McKeal, remembered they scoured the country searching for a suitable place, eventually landing on the Arrow Head after exploring options in Illinois and California.
"My stepdad was a very serious promoter," McKeal said. "He would go to the local schools and send brochures to stir up additional business. He was a hustler."
According to McKeal, business boomed during fall football weekends in the 1960s under coach Dan Devine.
"The MU football team rented out the whole motel on Friday nights," he said. "They would come into our house for bagels and orange juice because at that time we lived at the motel."
Massey capitalized on another promotional strategy common among motor courts during the mid-1960's – postcard sales. He commissioned Kelly Press Inc., a Columbia printing company, to create a tri-panel card with images of the Arrow Head's most prominent features.
The text boasted "25 rooms near downtown – On U.S. 63-40-70 – Courtesy Coffee, TV. Radio, Free Local Calls, Air Conditioned, Tubs and Showers, Heated Pool, Free Newspapers. Restaurant half a block away."
In 1970, Edwin Echelmeyer answered an ad for a manager and ended up making a bid for the motel.
A church loaned Echelmeyer some money for the mortgage, and he, his wife, Audrey, and their eight children scraped together the down payment.
"They all had a little money, and they put the money in with what I could get," said Echelmeyer, who had a background in accounting. "And that's how we bought it."
In 1970, the nightly rate for single rooms was $8, and double rooms were $12. Unlike many other motels, the Arrow Head did not rent rooms by the hour. When Eldeib finally closed the doors to travelers, the most expensive room cost $30 a night.
The Echelmeyers, who owned the motel for 30 years, depended on their children and grandchildren to lend a helping hand. On football weekends, he said they would compete to see who was the speediest housekeeper.
"The whole place had been sold out, and you should have seen how fast they could make those beds," Echelmeyer said.
Things were always unpredictable at a roadside stop like the Arrow Head.
"You always kind of wondered as you'd go in a room that was used the night before what you would find," Echelmeyer said. Strange discoveries ranged from mountains of clipped coupons littering the floor to stripped marijuana plants rolled up in curtains.
Once, a group of Future Farmers Association of America — now FFA — members stayed at the Arrow Head during an annual statewide convention in Columbia. Echelmeyer decided it would be best to house them in the four-plex at the rear of the property that was purchased by the previous owners for long-term guests.
During the night, the FFA boys poured molasses all over the beds. Irritated, Echelmeyer contacted the school principal. After a few phone calls, he said, everything was ironed out.
Another time, the Echelmeyers noticed a footlocker filled with coins while cleaning a room. Suspicious, the couple notified the police. They discovered the guest was wanted for murder in Colorado.
Police arrived, surrounded the building and stormed the room to arrest him. Later, Echelmeyer said he discovered that the man had killed a relative and stolen the coin collection.
After three decades, the Echelmeyers grew weary of running the Arrow Head and sold it to Eldeib.
Edwin Echelmeyer still lives in Columbia, though his wife died in 2008 at the age of 83. Their eight children gave them 28 grandchildren and more than 30 great-grandchildren.
In 2012, the Columbia Historic Preservation Commission named the Arrow Head one of the city's "Most Notable Historic Properties."
"It was chosen because it's a piece of Americana," said City Planner Rachel Bacon, the Columbia Historic Preservation Commission staff liaison.
It represents a time and an era when Highway 40 was a major east-west connector across the United States, she said, when folks in the new modern motor age would stop and stay for the night in the motel.
Much of the Arrow Head's distinction rests on the landmark neon sign at the front of the property. It was designed and built by Henry Dietz Signs, a Columbia-based company that was sold in 1977.
In the '50s and '60s, neon signs with loud colors, blinking lights and bold designs were important to travelers trying to pick an establishment for the night, said Ralph Wilcox, who belongs to the Society for Commercial Archeology. The national organization is dedicated to saving diners, drive-in theaters, neon signs and other 20th century nostalgia.
The Columbia City Council outlawed animated signs in the early 1970s. Almost immediately after Echelmeyer purchased the property, a city official told him the Arrow Head sign was illegal. Echelmeyer ended up modifying the internal circuits so the neon lights would no longer blink.
"Over the years, it didn't pay to keep repairing it as much," he said "As long as we could get 'Arrow Head Motel' up there, I just left it like that."
Although it's rusted now and missing components, Edleib said the sign continues to attract inquiries. In fact, smaller mid-century signs in similar condition have fetched more than $10,000 on eBay.
"We still get a lot of interested folks wanting to buy the sign, in particular because of the little Indian part of it," Edleib said.
The Arrow points forward
Eldeib became interested in the motel in 1999 after getting a tip from a local real estate agent who specialized in historical properties. The agent persuaded him that he needed to make the investment, so Eldeib made an offer.
For a while, he maintained it as a motel, then ran it alongside his truck rental business. In the spring of 2008, six rooms on the west end of the property were damaged in a fire caused by a natural gas leak. By that time, Eldeib had decided to close it as a motor court.
After more than 13 years of ownership, he said he has been blessed to have the opportunity to preserve the Arrow Head.
"It has a lot of history in it to tell," he said. "It reminds me of the old days of the pyramids in Egypt. They are witnesses to whoever passes by and dwells in them and testify on them and their actions."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.