In 1926, a telegraph arrived at the Colonial Hotel in Springfield with the news that a paved highway connecting travelers all the way from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, would be named Route 66.
With the arrival of that missive, Springfield claimed the title of the Birthplace of Route 66 – dubbed the Mother Road by author John Steinbeck.
In 1929, an enterprising Springfieldian decided to capitalize on the promise of cross-country travelers passing through the city. Deverne Ruckman built a tourist camp and Shell Oil filling station on West College Street.
It sounds like a solid plan, but it wasn’t the best time to go into business, says present motor court owner Phyllis Ferguson. A stock market crash in October 1929 kicked off the Great Depression, and after that, the business changed hands in 1931. And 1932. And again in ’33, ’34, ’35, ’37, ’38, ’40, ’41, ’46 and ’48, when the property earned the name that stuck, Rockwood Motor Court.
Ferguson took over operation of the motor court in 2019, initially through a lease agreement with owner Dannie Wright, though she ultimately purchased the six cabins, filling station, cafe and single-car garage, and she began renovating the property in 2020. She’s not disclosing the purchase price, but notes she bought it at a fair market value and then promptly invested more than she paid for it.
“Still, I think I’m right-side-up on it,” she says.
Not everyone has the fortitude and flexibility to be an innkeeper, awaiting late-night check-ins and turning over rooms in the hours between guest departures and arrivals, every single day.
Ferguson contracts with a housekeeper who helps with room cleaning, but otherwise, she’s a one-woman show.
In online reviews and travel blogs, multiple guests give the show a thumbs-up.
Kimberly Bertel lives in St. Louis and has a son attending school in Springfield. Visits to the Queen City led to exploration of Route 66, and her travels ultimately led her all the way to its California terminus.
“When I first started planning our Route 66 road trip, I had no idea how life-changing it would be,” she says via email. “The people I have met on my travels, from business owners to fellow travelers, have become lifelong friends. Phyllis is one of those friends.
“It is the people and the connections that draw you back.”
The business has a 5-star rating on Trip- Advisor, with 13 reviewers praising the site and its host.
“Everything was spotlessly clean and there were so many little touches,” writes one reviewer.
The restoration work is something Ferguson says she got a kick out of. Each cottage has a theme, ranging from the Rockwood Cottage, offering a glimpse into 1940s and ’50s travel on the Mother Road, to It’s All in the Movies, with its mid-20th-century movie memorabilia, and Fill ’Er Up, a room converted from the original Shell filling station and decorated with gas station memorabilia.
Ferguson had three reasons for going into the accommodations business. First is her love of historic buildings. Second is the former city council member’s ongoing mission to revitalize the north side.
“You ought to put your money where your mouth is,” she says.
But third, and most importantly, she thought it would be fun.
Ferguson says the pleasures of operating a motor court outweigh the challenges, and the best part of her job is meeting guests from all over the world.
Like Ruckman building a motor court on the eve of a market crash, Ferguson wandered into the business on the eve of a pandemic.
While she figured she’d be welcoming Route 66 fans, her first visitors came during the pandemic; they were traveling to check on family and looking for a safe place to stay. The motor courts had the benefit of no lobby, no shared hallways and no elevator. Pandemic travelers counted it as a win.
The Route 66 travelers are making a comeback, however.
“There’s so much to see and do on Route 66,” she says.
Prices for overnight stays range from $69 or $72 for smaller cottages, depending on the season, to $120 for the Fill ’Er Up studio that sleeps five. Ferguson says she wants to keep her prices within reach of the average traveler.
Ferguson says she doesn’t believe in offering reduced rates for some guests that other guests fund with higher room fees. Instead, she keeps it simple.
“I come from pretty common roots – i.e., we were poor but we didn’t know it,” Ferguson says. “Just because you’re poor doesn’t mean you can’t afford some enjoyment in life.”
She notes many people don’t realize how many international travelers plan long vacations to travel by rented car or motorcycle all the way from Chicago to Santa Monica. In Rockwood Motor Court, they can experience a tourist camp that has been welcoming travelers almost without interruption since 1929. It’s the kind of hidden gem that makes for nostalgic photos and good stories.
“International travelers love Route 66. They believe they get a true sense of what America is and who American people are,” she says.
“We’re genuine people here. I feel really good that they get to see that.”
The congregation at Crossway Baptist Church is building a children’s wing at the west end of the church, and beginning in 2024, it will be home to a Christian academy.