Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A visit to John's Modern Cabins


As I wrote in a previous entry, my goal on our recent trip to Missouri was to stop by John's Modern Cabins. In another entry, I wrote about the history of the place.

I was anxious to stop by, because everything I've read indicated that their condition is grave. These accounts are true. Out of 6 original cabins, two are completely to the ground, one is about halfway gone, and the other three all have severe roof and wall damage. Preservation efforts are being undertaken, but they're going to need to do something soon.

If you look closely at the sign here, you can see that traces of the neon tubing remain on the "ern" of "modern." There are also a couple of lights dangling from the bottom of the sign. I'll have to look in my books and see if I can find a picture of the sign when it was operational.

John's Modern Cabins used to be visible from I-44, but an update to the highway rendered them available only to those who seek them out. The directions I read online said only to take exit 176 (Sugar Tree) off I-44. It didn't say which direction to take, or the names of any roads. This is where knowing a tiny bit about how to follow Route 66 came in handy. After taking the exit, we crossed over I-44 and picked up the frontage road, and I said, "I'll keep an eye out for them." We hadn't gone far, and as I glanced over to my right, I said, "THERE THEY ARE!" (I probably said it about like that, too...I was caught up in the thrill of the hunt!) We were able to pull off the frontage road, formerly the 2 eastbound lanes of Route 66, cross the 2 former westbound lanes of the old road, and park in front of the cabins.

The cabins are literally melting into the surrounding trees. At first, I even had to look for the famous sign, because it has rusted so much that it blends into the dimness of the woods. A sign nailed onto one of the large trees states that this is private property, and although it does not forbid entrance, it says very clearly that the owners are not responsible for any injuries, including any resulting from falling timbers or branches. The remnant of the Route 66 pavement in front of the cabins isn't in bad shape, but in one direction, the pavement stops and runs into the grass. In the other direction, the pavement goes a little past Vernelle's Motel, another old one (looks like it's still operating!), and I believe it stops not too far past it.

We walked all around the cabins, and saw how falling limbs and trees have begun to destroy the roofs and walls. The shingles are moss-covered and the roofs are falling in. The logs themselves are sometimes in fair condition, but inevitable decay has weakened them, and any large limbs that fall will continue to contribute to the collapse of the cabins. At one of the cabins that has completely fallen, we were able to see an actual foundation, and we surmised that that was where the owner and caretaker lived. The white cabins were built of a concrete-asbestos mix, and are in a little better shape. At one point, Ken poked his head into one of the white buildings, there was a sudden commotion, Ken said, "Agh!" and grabbed his chest, I said, "WHAT?!" and grabbed my chest...and we both laughed when we realized it was a startled dove flying up into a tree from the nest she'd built over one of the windows. It's definitely an eerie place, and I'm not surprised we both had quite a start over that!

I can't begin to describe the feeling of finding this place and walking around it. While the sound of the traffic whizzing by on I-44 was still audible, I was able to ignore it and focus on the intense silence, interrupted by nothing other than the chirping of the birds in the trees, and the sound of our footsteps. It was a spooky place, with the remnants of Route 66 stretching for a hundred yards or so in front of it. It's hard to imagine that 60-some years ago, the same stretch of highway was a bustling place with plenty of traffic and plenty of people stopping for the night at John's Modern Cabins. The tiny cabins in the hills of Missouri probably held quite a bit of appeal for those traveling from the big city of Chicago (it would have been about a day's drive from Chicago to the motel), providing a feeling of camping out and a certain rustic quality to their trip.

The cabins are so tiny...I wonder about the sleeping arrangements. I can't imagine that there was room for more than a couple of twin beds...did a family of four crowd into one cabin, with mom and dad in one bed, and the kids sleeping head to toe in the other? I can definitely imagine that happening for our fictional family. It would have been very hot there in the summer, so they'd probably need to crack the windows, at the risk of allowing in mosquitoes and other insects. But they'd also hear the sound of the woods around them, and hear the cars speeding west on Route 66--after all, not everyone had the money to stop at a motel overnight, and sometimes they'd drive through the night. I'd be willing to bet that there were picnic tables by the cabins, and our fictional family would enjoy a dinner of sandwiches outdoors, perhaps chatting with a family staying in the cabin next door. I'd also be willing to bet that our fictional mom and dad enjoyed a cold beer or two bought from the office, while their kids played around the property, burning off some of the energy they stored up during the day's drive.

In my fictional family, the parents are probably gone, and the kids probably have children and grandchildren of their own. I wonder if those kids remember their family vacations with fondness, and long for similar vacations? Do they have memories of Route 66, and of spending the night at John's Modern Cabins? Do they ever see pictures like the ones I took the other day, and think to themselves. "Wow, I remember that place!" I don't remember every place we stayed at when I was a kid, but I DO remember staying at little motels, many of which included Magic Fingers! (Some of you will remember that!) For me, Route 66 is the embodiment of such road trips, although we never took a trip to California (we always went to Minnesota in the summer and Florida in the winter). It's a reminder of family vacations and hitting the open road, seeing our beautiful country and meeting some nice people along the way. The convenience of flying superseded the length of the road trip, but that seems to be going back the other way. Ken and I would have spent the entire day flying to Missouri, and it was a lot more fun to drive and see the countryside and the interesting buildings and signs, and to get a chance to stop at a little local place.

In the past, that little local place might very well have been John's Modern Cabins. Here's a video, and you can go see the other two at John's Modern Cabins 2 and John's Modern Cabins 3. You can find all of my pictures from this trip at my gallery of Route 66 pictures. I hope you enjoy hearing, seeing, and reading about what Ken calls my "controlled obsession" with Route 66. (Actually, he called it an obsession...I added the "controlled.") It captures my imagination in a way that nothing else can.


madcobug said...

Those were pretty neat. I can see why it is posted though. It's looks like it would be almost an impossible job to restore any of them. Thanks for sharing. Helen

slapinions said...

Hey, did you hear ABC picked up Scrubs for a new season?


mpnaz58 said...

I wonder if in a past life, you were an inhabitant of John's Modern Cabins...or of that period!  Hmmm, perhaps for the day, they were modern.    Very interesting!
xoxo ~myra

badge9408 said...

Enjoyed the visit, very nice pictures!  :-)


queeniemart said...

What an interesting entry. Sounds like these cabins are not going to survive...which is a real shame. I love history and i understand your obsession.