By Stephen Smoot
As workmen lowered the new Mountain Springs sign into place last week, many still remember decades of family fun over generations at the site once known as the Thompson Motel.
It all started as a service station established near the junction of US 220 and US 33 in 1948. Before the construction of the interstate highway system, these US routes served as main routes of long-distance traffic through the Eastern United States. J. Riley Thompson and his wife, Mattie, opened their doors that year to their service station, a small café, and four cabins.
Thompson had served for three years during World War II in the South Pacific theater. Before that, he taught school in the North Fork area for eight years. After the war, he was the county road maintenance supervisor. His wife worked as a clerk in the Franklin Post Office.
The original motel buildings pioneered development on the north end of town. Behind them rose a low ridge dotted with a few trees. Nothing but clear farmland and the mountains beyond graced the landscape between the motel and US 33 extending to the west.
Those traveling by road after World War II sought out more convenient and less costly accommodations than the typical hotels of the era designed to cater to rail travel. Seeing the rising demand, Thompson opened a 29-room motel in 1952. Demand continued to rise like a rocket. He expanded by 15 rooms in 1957. Two years later, he added 20 more for a total capacity of 70.
After completion, the Pendleton Times article about the motel noted that “he hopes he will not have to do any more building for a while.
Thompson constructed for tourists “living accommodations that are as luxurious and as comfortable as can be found anywhere.” Visitors enjoyed the “one stop shop” aspect of getting gas and food in the same place as one lay their head. The 1959 building featured “a plastered interior and stuccoed exterior.” The building sported a “unique feature” in “the cement porch for second story rooms that extends to the rear of the building at ground level.” Both stories also had front porches.
On July 1, 1969, Paul Morton completed “one of the largest business transactions ever negotiated in Franklin” when he purchased the property for a quarter million dollars. He had served as survey party chief for the design division of the West Virginia State Road Commission. For Morton, much of his tenure owning the motel centered around family values.
“At the time, I was married and worked for the department of highways statewide,” Morton remembers. He added that “it really was difficult. I had been talking to Riley Thompson and he was wanting to semi-retire.” He explained that “I loved what I did,” but that statewide travel, particularly in a time before most four-lane highways appeared in West Virginia, kept him away from home too much.
Morton applied the engineer’s maxim “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” when he took over. He kept the staff and also the name with no change in management policies, wisely keeping the formula of its success.
One of the most common praises that people sing about the former Thompson’s Motel revolve around its family atmosphere. Judy Stout, who is in her 33rd year at the motel, remarked about their customers “they’ve been coming here since they were kids with their grandfathers and daddies to go hunting and fishing. Some of the guys have been coming for 20 or 30 years. Now they have kids of their own that they are bringing.”
Morton described ownership of the motel as including both lows and highs. In 1988, Trooper Rick Gillespie, now Pendleton County emergency services coordinator, investigated the theft of a safe from under the counter. It contained “an undisclosed amount of money, checks, lottery tickets, business papers, and records” and was stolen in the early hours of the morning on Feb 2. A truck driver found the safe off of Peters Run Road.
That robbery took place two and a half years after the Flood of ‘85 that turned the South Branch watershed into a nightmare of destruction as nearly 10 inches of rain fell. Morton remembers “that was a terrible time.” As he described, “the problem was the people in the area couldn’t leave. They had no roads, no electricity, no water.”
John O’Brien’s book “At Home in the Heart of Appalachia” describes some of the worst of what occurred. The emergency call monitor that often went completely silent on weekdays at that time registered “calls . . . from all over the county, the ridgetops down to the valley bottoms.” The South Branch River came “up and over” the low water bridge in Franklin “raging with frightening power.” North of Franklin at Ruddle, the river “might have been three hundred yards wide and twenty or thirty feet deep.”
Water got into the shop, Morton says, but not the motel itself. With even mountaintop residences reporting full basements, the lack of damage was fortuitous. Many trapped travelers and locals unable to get to their homes had to rely on whatever lodging they could.
The bad times and hard times, however, do not dominate Morton’s memories of owning the motel. “I just have a good memory of the people that I met and that I served in the restaurant,” Morton said, adding that one such personage was U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd. Morton said that he also remembered Delegate Harold Michael and State Senator (later commissioner of agriculture) Walt Helmick stopping to eat there as well.
Morton enjoyed seeing “people from different states…people coming for hunting season from year to year. I have a lot of good memories.”
And, thanks to Paul Morton and his staff, countless thousands who stayed at the motel over the decades can say the same.