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Relighting History

By Alex J. Rodriguez

Photographs by David J. Schwartz - Pics On Route 66

Route 66 basks in the brightness of summertime; it savors the brilliance cast by summer sunshine that washes its historic pavement in an almost holy radiance. Within its elongated days, summer offers road trippers extended light, intensified warmth, and a deepened desire to experience a world outside the generic drone of everyday life. Travelers feel compelled to hop on America’s Main Street, to embrace the thrill of the open road, to search for adventure and an experience that will live long in their memories.

The old road is blessed with countless towns that define the magic that we are all seeking, but destinations like Missouri’s Civil War town of Carthage may best represent the ideal theater to soak in Route 66. The town is home to the quirky attraction of Red Oak II, their very own drive-in theater, and is packed with fascinating history and culture. There is even a terrific square, packed with fun shops and a historic courthouse that is simply astounding. But perhaps the centerpiece of the little town is an unassuming venue that is still drawing in visitors, 80 years after it first opened: Boots Court Motel.

With its hallmark Streamline Moderne architecture, this historic lodging site not only offers plenty of sincere hospitality, but also serves as Carthage’s testament to the Mother Road. Moreover, Boots acts as a beacon, a flare brightening the town’s nights with a serene florescence. Its beauty transports observers to the look, sound, and feel of a time when cars were painted pastel, music blared solely through the radio, and the closest thing to a TV was the rolling scenery beyond the frame of a rolled-up window.

However, the longstanding presence of Boots Court wouldn’t be possible without the passionate effort of three women. The story of Boots is also theirs. It is a story of two sisters and their dearest childhood friend who, after decades of separation, were brought back together by chance, circumstance, and a united desire to restore something meaningful. Their names are Deborah “Debye” Harvey, Priscilla “Pixie” Bledsaw, and Deborah “Debbie Dee” Real. They are the ones who brought Boots back to life; they are the mothers of Boots Court Motel.

Laying the Groundwork

The namesake of Boots Court originated years before these women were even born. It was derived from Mr. Arthur Boots, who constructed the establishment in 1938 and opened it for business a year later. According to the accounts of his son, the late Bob Boots, Arthur’s nature was that of a meticulous and cunning entrepreneur. Bob recalled in interviews with the aforementioned Debye Harvey that his father, a former farm machinery salesman, spent his days in Kansas City chewing over maps, surveying and scrutinizing numerous locations to find the ideal venue for a new business venture to accommodate the millions of displaced Americans roaming the country as a result of the Great Depression.

Route 66 played a pivotal role during this period, providing a system of mobility and migration to those looking for a fresh start. Arthur Boots saw an opportunity lying within the promise of the Mother Road, which led him to choose a small stretch of road located in Carthage, Missouri, where U.S. Route 66 and U.S. Route 71 briefly converged. Boots referred to this specific point as “The Crossroads of America” and considered it the perfect spot to erect a motor court for weary nomads combing the plains for any sort of work—or shelter.

The original blueprints, all conceived by Boots himself, featured trendy characteristics of Streamline Moderne, a style of architecture that emerged during the latter years of Art Deco’s heyday in the 1930s. Streamline Moderne took the extravagant qualities of Deco and applied them to a simpler, more “streamlined” appearance. It is often associated with the sleek, bullet-like physique of an old-school sports car, or a funky roadside diner, or an illustrious, bronzed movie theater straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

However, despite having rapid success and doubling its capacity to a total of eight rooms, Arthur Boots spent a mere three years running his business before a divorce and an entrepreneurial itch propelled him to move on. “Arthur Boots was a free spirit, and he didn’t take well to staying in one place,” explained Debye Harvey. “He liked to build things, but then he liked to move on and build something else. He was only the owner of the Boots from ’39 to ’42.”

After Arthur’s departure, Boots Court entered a perpetual state of change, bouncing around from owner to owner, each of whom remodeled the Court to their individual liking. As the decades piled on and the proprietors revolved in and out, so did the structural changes, obscuring the motel’s architectural heritage and dulling the sheen of its classic charm. Eventually, during the early 2000s, possession of the property fell into the hands of a real estate investor whose aim for the iconic landmark involved demolishing its two huddled buildings and selling it to a drugstore chain.

Luckily, due to some corporate complications, the plan never materialized, forcing the investor to declare bankruptcy and leading the bank to repossess the property. For a number of years, Boots Court Motel stood in limbo, growing decrepit as the wear and tear of neglect lagged on—that is until two sisters decided to take a trip down Route 66.

A Tale of Three Women

The deep-rooted relationship that Debye Harvey and Pixie Bledsaw share with their beloved friend, Debbie Dee, burrows all the way back to their childhood in the early 1950s when they all lived on the same block in the small town of Quincy, Illinois. “They lived next door to me in a lovely part of town on Jersey Street,” reminisced Debbie Dee. “It was a lovely place to grow up—full of kids and trees. We met when they moved in and we were very little. We became friends and spent a lot of time together and had a lot of fun [playing] games and all kinds of things.”

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Right away the three bonded over their youthful energy and a mutual love for plants and animals, which, ironically enough, influenced Debye and Pixie’s family to move away from Quincy when the girls were in junior high. “We moved out into the country because my mom wanted a pony,” laughed Pixie. “My mom was an animal lover and Debbie Dee was an animal lover, so she encouraged our friendship. That was probably why we ended up staying friends with her, even after we moved away.”

The sisters ended up relocating to Decatur, Illinois, where they spent their young adult years together before Debye moved down to Georgia during the early 80s to pursue a career in mechanical drafting. Meanwhile, Debbie Dee managed to sustain her relationship with the sisters for a number of years until she set off for South America in 1978. “I went out to visit quite a bit, and we had adventures out there—just a jolly good time,” she recalled. “Then years passed; I moved up to Chicago for a while, married a man from Venezuela, then went down to Venezuela where I lived for quite a few years. I loved it. I was in the water as much as possible. If you didn’t like water sports [there], you were S.O.L.”

Priscilla, Debbie Dee and Debye.

Pixie stayed in Quincy, where she entered the jewelry industry, inevitably opening a business of her own during the early aughts. “It was just a natural attraction to things that sparkle,” she chuckled. “When I was growing up, it wasn’t easy to get things with sequins on them. I was in dance for eight years before I got a tutu, and that was the only reason I wanted to get into dance—to get that tutu.”

While down in the Peach State, Debye worked for a contracting firm that landed some business with the National Parks Service. “We got the job to do a condition assessment on a building that the Parks Service wanted to convert [into] a historic site. The project also included [writing] a history of the complex, so I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ I gathered together all this information, wrote that article, and the Park Service accepted it,” she mused. “We got another project of a similar type, and I just kept doing the work until one of the Park Service guys [asked], ‘Where did you get your degree in History?’ I said, ‘I don’t have a degree in History!’ and he said, ‘Well, we require that our historians have a degree in History.’ So, I went back to college, [and] ended up with a master’s in Historic Preservation and a bachelor’s degree in History.”

Through this winding journey, Debye unraveled a calling that intertwined her love of history with her curiosity about the inner workings of buildings. “I want to know how things got to be the way they are,” she mentioned matter-of-factly. Unbeknownst to her, this appetite for preservation and engineering would ultimately persuade Debye to purchase a rundown motel in the middle of America’s Heartland.

How Did We Get Here?

In June of 2006, Debye and Pixie carried out their longtime wish to experience America’s Main Street together. “It was a mind-boggling trip,” Pixie exclaimed. “There was so much to see and do that it took us three days to get to Pontiac, Illinois, from Chicago. We decided that we better step up the pace or we were going to use up our three weeks and not even get out of Illinois. Heck, we lived in Illinois! We could’ve started in Missouri! But we did Route 66 and just loved it.”

Along the way, the pair found themselves in Carthage staring at the dilapidated facade of Boots Court Motel, which had caught their eye because of its signature Streamline Moderne design. “This particular style of building was something I always liked. They always looked like giant blocks of ice cream,” said Pixie. While attracted to the structure’s architecture, at no point during their encounter did it occur to the sisters that this establishment was something worth pursuing—commercially or otherwise. “It really looked like the wrath of God when we first saw it,” Pixie lamented. “[We noticed] how sad it was that something this neat looking was being neglected beyond what we thought at the time, the point of no return.”

Years later, in 2011, a life-changing opportunity presented itself and changed the sisters’ perspective. “I saw that Boots was about to be auctioned off by the bank that owned it,” explained Debye. “This was just by chance. Because of my career, I have the Preservation Magazine from the National Trust, and there was this tiny little article in there that talked about it. I thought that was interesting, so I contacted my sister. [She] was very excited about buying it. I’d retired by then and thought it’d be fun to take this building and return it back to the way it looked in the 1940s. [I thought], I’ll restore it and open it up again as a motel for Route 66 travelers. In life, if you only see one door, that’s the one you take.”

Debye made a commitment there and then, throwing herself and her retirement into purchasing Boots Court with her sister. They carried a determination to reanimate the glory days of this historic motel as vividly and authentically as possible. Utilizing her historic preservation expertise in tandem with her engineering wherewithal, Debye began to reevaluate the structural integrity of the motel, assessing what measures needed to be added in order to bring its appliances into the 21st Century, while also poring over stacks of historic documents and conducting hours upon hours of interviews.

“I looked at the Boots and [realized] its problems were cosmetic,” she elaborated. “There was plaster falling off of everywhere; the neon was all broken and falling off, and the electricity was old and needed to be upgraded to meet code. So yes, there was a lot of expensive work that needed to be done, but [we] didn’t have to rebuild the building in order to restore it—to plaster and paint, get rid of all the excess foliage, and repair the windows—that kind of thing.”

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Little by little, week by week, removal and addition after removal and addition, Boots Court Motel began to regain the subtle magnificence of its prime. The now seven operational rooms (one of which is the exact same room Clark Gable stayed in 80 years ago) each adhere to the historically accurate guidelines that Debye defined through her research: hardwood floors, chrome light fixtures, chenille bedspreads, built-in dressers, and an antique radio tuned to a station playing only ‘40s hits.

However, even with all the detail paid to restoring its interiors, Boots’ external architecture needed some drastic changes, too. “The main building had an inappropriate roof that got put on it during the ‘70s, and it just killed it,” exclaimed Debbie Dee. “It didn’t look like Streamline Moderne with that roof up there, so we were able to get a grant from the National Park Service to get the roof restored to the original roof, so you could see the beautiful lines of the building.”

“The second thing we did was our upgrading of the green architectural neon,” added Debye. “Some of the neon that was on there when we bought it still worked, but our architectural guy said that it was not in good shape and our best bet was to reproduce it, and we did. He actually restored it to the historic green color [using] the original materials. Now we have the original green color.”

Over the course of five years, these much-needed rejuvenations took place. After countless hours of sweat and labor poured into this rehabilitation, Boots Court Motel had finally reached the point where it could reclaim its status as Carthage’s shining jewel on Garrison and Central. Yet, in the midst of all this restoration, Debye and Pixie actually needed to run the place. After all, it was supposed to be a fully operational motel.

Reuniting for Boots Court

Out of necessity and circumstance, the sisters required an on- the-ground operative to make sure that the venue functioned properly and professionally. “We had no idea about what it took to run a motel—I mean absolutely none,” joked Pixie. “When we purchased Boots, my sister was living in Georgia, and I was living in Illinois, [but] Debbie Dee was sort of in between jobs, so we said, ‘Do we have a deal for you!’ We’d known her all our lives; we knew the kind of person she was. She [was] ideal because she just thinks everybody’s life is the most fascinating thing she’s ever heard. That’s kind of what people on Route 66 really like, because they want to talk about their experiences and what they’ve seen.”

“I was kind of at loose ends,” added Debbie Dee. “I hadn’t decided what to do or what I wanted to do, or where I wanted to go, but then I got a call out of the blue from the girls saying ‘How would you like to go down to Missouri and take a look at this property we just bought?’ When I went down there, [I] walked up to this beautiful Streamline Moderne building, and just fell in love with it. I thought it was irresistible. So, I gave it a little thought and [decided] I could do this.”

Despite her complete enthusiasm, Debbie Dee still had to bear the weight of being the sole on-site employee. “The first couple of years took quite a lot of time and energy—usually 16-hour days,” she admitted. “You’d get up in the morning to see all of your guests off, and then you would turn back and clean as fast as you could. Then three o’clock is when our doors open for guests again, so at three o’clock I had to get back to the office and start taking care of guests again. It was still a lot of fun.”

Much of the joy and fulfillment Debbie Dee gets from her job stems from the opportunities she has to genuinely connect with each guest. “There are some definite perks to this business. Just meeting people from around the world is a wonderful experience,” she expounded. “People who are traveling Route 66 tend to be a little bit outside the box. They tend to be intelligent and all of them have that spirit of adventure. People who have written books about the Route—or are artists or biographers on the Route—have all stopped here and shared their wealth of experience, history, and knowledge. We even had guests from a research station down in Antarctica! It’s such a thrill to meet people from everywhere.”

Without Debbie Dee’s pure kindness and intrigue towards her guests, the 24/7 management lifestyle might have led to a serious case of burnout. Yet even after all the years of long, strenuous days, the appreciation and compassion she radiates hasn’t faded one bit, just like the neon that illuminates Carthage’s nights.

A Retirement Well Spent

Priscilla and Debye, outside Boots Court in Carthage, Missouri.

Sitting on the front porch of her home that sits just down the street from Boots Court, Debye can still see the neon come to life as the sun sets. “It’s almost an emotional experience because it’s so gorgeous,” she ruminated. “It just makes me happy to have that neon come on. We have put a lot of time, effort, thought, and money into the motel, and we like looking at it and thinking, We did that. And boy, did we do a good job.”

To picture Boots Court Motel is to picture the enchanting ambiance of summertime. During the day, its white walls reflect the light beaming down from above, making it glimmer and blend into the rays of sunshine. At night, its emerald glow coats the darkness in a calm incandescence. When you hear the story of Boots Court and the three lifelong friends who revived it, it’s hard not to see that same light emanating from the warm smiles that these remarkable women wear on their faces every single day.

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