Day Trips

Rainbow Courts Motel
Rainbow Courts Motel (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Rainbow Courts Motel in Rockdale began with America's love with the automobile, and 85 years later the rows of white cottages are still offering the traveling public a special retreat from the highway. As the oldest continuously operated motel in the South, the Rainbow combines comfortable elegance with historic character.

"We're centrally isolated," jokes Joan Ratliff. Joan and her husband Dan purchased the aging motor court from her mother in 1992. Since then, they have embarked on a remodeling program that has updated the rooms without losing the charm. The 11 motel rooms and eight suites are outfitted with stylish furnishings mixing antiques and modern amenities.

While some of the rooms are on the small side, as you might expect for cabins and cottages built between 1920 and 1960, the grounds are a garden begging to be used and enjoyed. Four rock picnic tables are older than most of the cabins, and large porch swings dangle from the heavy tree branches. The sweet smell of fresh-cut grass and flower gardens add the perfect touch to a restful retreat. Much like it was in the beginning.

Joan's great uncle Nathan Monroe Bullock bought the lot a few blocks east of downtown Rockdale on the main highway from northeast Texas to Austin in 1918. Soon after, he opened the tree-shaded site to travelers looking for a place to camp for the night. His brother, Ira Benjamin Bullock, joined him in the business in the early 1920s.

Evidently, the camp did pretty well because the brothers began adding cabins. The rows of rooms included small kitchens and covered parking spaces for the cars. "You've got to remember that traveling by automobile back then was a new thing," Joan says. A trip to Rockdale in an open car traveling 15 to 30 miles per hour over dirt roads was a big deal. "The Rainbow Courts was a destination for a lot of families," she added.

Nathan Bullock passed away in 1945, and Joan's grandfather Ira Bullock bought the courts from Nathan's widow. For nearly three decades, her grandparents watched the American style of traveling evolve. "My grandmother used to fix breakfast for the guests," Joan says. Before bed & breakfasts became fashionable, guests at the Rainbow could get a morning meal for 25 cents in addition to a room for around a dollar.

Most of the old registers were lost in a fire, but a few remain from the 1930s and 1940s, Joan says. Playwright Tennessee Williams stayed at the courts in 1939. Williams was between projects and was working his way to California when he crossed Texas. Bob Wills, the king of Western swing, paid Joan's grandmother for a night's stay with a copy of his latest album. "She didn't even own a phonograph player," she says with a laugh.

When her grandfather died, Joan's mother ran the motel until 1992. "This was such a great place for a kid to grow up," says the girl who was born and raised in the Central Texas community. The Ratliffs have updated the tourist court into a place where new families are creating new memories.

"We have had several weddings here and lots of family reunions," Joan says. During the week, business travelers, many visiting the Alcoa aluminum plant, appreciate the home-style atmosphere, computer connections, and coffeemakers in the rooms. "We see a lot of winter Texans twice a year," she says. "Once on their way south and once on their way back north."

For day-trippers, Joan says, the Rainbow Courts is a perfect place for a weekend retreat or a base camp to explore the countryside. Antique shops fill the little towns surrounding Rockdale, Lake Granger is only 15 minutes away, and the motel's courtyard is the perfect place to relax with a good book.

"Once we get a customer, we keep them," Joan says. The combination of personal service and charming surroundings make word of mouth their best source of advertising. The Rainbow Courts Motel is at 915 E. Cameron Ave. (U.S. 79) in Rockdale. Rates ranges from $49.95 for a single room to $149.95 for the Cottage Suite. For more information, call the Ratliffs at 512/446-2361 or visit their Web site at www.rainbowcourts.com.

623rd in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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