Secrets of the Blue Ridge: The Days of Linen on Route 250: Great Food and a Good Night’s Rest

Sunset Lodge’s brick cottages, with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, were fronted by a full-service dining room, between Ivy and Mechums River. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

It wasn’t The Colonel who created a nationwide passion for consistently good fried chicken. That mantle was worn by Oklahoma’s Beverly and Rubye Osborne whose grand idea, hatched in 1936, eventually launched popular Chicken in the Rough franchises featuring a “Fried ½ Chicken, served unjointed, without silverware.” From coast-to-coast, independent restaurants featured the tasty meal served on a platter with shoestring fries, rolls and honey.

Simultaneously, stretching across the decades of the 1930s into the ’60s, was the production of color-saturated linen-like textured postcards promoting roadside businesses and attractions to a mobile society with spare cash to spend on leisure pursuits.

U.S. Route 250, west of Charlottesville, featured a once-vibrant 17-mile stretch of neon-bejeweled roadside services that make present-day convenience stores and boxy hotels pale in comparison. Not surprisingly, the first of those businesses, Skipper’s Chicken in the Rough, encountered 1.5 miles east of Ivy, featured the Osborne’s trademarked, colorful rooster, raising and lowering its fractured golf club through the magic of neon.

Blue Ridge Terrace, below Rockfish Gap, had it all: delicious food, comfortable rooms, mountain breezes and unparalleled views. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

At the village of Ivy, Esso and Gulf service stations were on the east side of the C&O Railway underpass. On the west side, at the highway’s intersection with Owensville Road, was [Stanley and Mary Elizabeth] Athey’s Restaurant (today: Duner’s), featuring “Chicken, Barbeque, Seafood, Ham and Steaks. Family operated, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.”

Adjacent to Athey’s was the Siesta Motor Court. The motel opened for business with five duplex cottages, each with private bath and individual garage. In time the number of rooms doubled with the conversion of the garages into guest rooms. What caught the traveler’s eye, however, was the creative signage featuring a tired traveler, sombrero pulled down over his eyes, asleep at the base of a tall cactus. Colorful neon lettering lit the way for those seeking a room for the night.

Midway between Ivy and Mechums River, 1.3 miles west of the Siesta, was Sunset Lodge Dining Room and Motel, “Catering to Discriminating Clientele.” The property’s ¼ mile road frontage with cottages on a slight knoll above the highway, facing the Blue Ridge Mountains, was opened in 1938 by Mr. and Mrs. Hugh W. James. Set along a semi-circular drive, six brick single cottages and two double brick cottages faced a full-service dining room that featured cocktails, steaks, seafood, sandwiches and desserts, with “accommodations for parties to 100 persons.”

Family owned and operated, Siesta Motor Court, and adjacent Athey’s Restaurant, in Ivy, were typical of America’s pre-interstate roadside charm. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

In 1960, Carl Morris opened his Oasis Restaurant at the intersection of Rts. 240/250/680 at Mechums River. His full-service menu included breakfast, dinner and sandwiches, and featured a palm tree motif. Oasis newspaper ads noted, “Dine and dance every Friday and Saturday night.” In 1964, Pete and Diane Besseas purchased the establishment, renamed the Driftwood Restaurant. Pete, a longtime Charlottesville restaurateur, was noted for his tasty pizzas. Eugene “Pop” and Ethel Sandridge took over the business in 1971, renamed Pop & Ethel’s, and fed locals and travelers until 1977.

The E&S (later, Greenwood) Motel was 1.5 miles west of Mechums River. Like many motels of that day, it, featured an in-house restaurant for the convenience of guests.

Only a half-mile beyond Greenwood Motel were two more motels on opposite sides of the highway, each with a restaurant and gas station. Walter and Ruby Radford operated Clover Lawn Motor Court, Snack Bar and Gift Shop with a four-leaf clover motif. The roadside Esso gas station was operated by Floyd Radford. The motel’s snack bar/gift shop was converted later to Clover Lawn Basket Shop, which touted “The Largest Basket Display in Virginia.”

Across the road was George Durham’s TidBit Restaurant with curb service, which expanded upon the footprint of an earlier ice cream stand. A towering, smiling roadside “Mr. TidBit” held aloft a spatula. Next door, behind the TidBit Motel, was a fishing lake; in the front lawn was a swimming pool. Buddy Baber’s Amoco service station joined the parking lot.

Skyline Parkway Motor Court at Rockfish Gap occupied the grounds of the former Mountain Top Inn. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

At the intersection of Rts. 240 and 250 at Brownsville was a Pure Oil service station. The station building doubled as a popular short order grill, operated at various times as Tom’s Grill, Pugh’s Grill, Pack’s Grill, and Ida’s Grill. Six-tenths of a mile west was Odell Rhinehart’s Gulf service station.

Skyline Grill, at Yancey Mills, sat another 500 yards to the west. That short-order grill and good-ol’-boy watering hole was next door to Levi Maupin’s colorful fruit stand. A short hop west of there was Harry Napier’s filling station and store (later, Ridge Market.)

In the old village of Hillsboro at Yancey Mills, an 18th century stagecoach tavern was remodeled into the c.1912 Sign of the Green Tea Pot (later, Paulownia Tree Lodge), a quaint spot favored by locals and travelers. It offered overnight lodging and a tea room serving pastries, tea and coffee. Up the street was the Old Dutch Tavern (later, Dutch Gardens in Virginia.) Operated by Lawrence deBalbian, Dutch Gardens had a full-service dining room and cottages for overnighters. Its gift shop featured articles imported from the Netherlands. Local businessman Louie Trunzo rebranded that business as the Restwell Motel.

Skipper’s Chicken in the Rough, between Charlottesville and Ivy, was part of a popular coast-to-coast franchise. Courtesy Phil James Historical Images.

Close by, Kenneth and Anne Wood’s Village Market & Drive-In Restaurant featured Pit-cooked Bar-B-Q and Virginia ham, along with groceries and gasoline. Passing Village Market, one quickly came upon fruit stands run by the Morris family, another by the Maupin brothers, as well as E.P. Gentry’s filling station, store and fruit stand combination.

Needless to say, if your travel needs had not been met by this point, you were snoozin’ in the back seat. Fox Brother’s Gulf station and garage was a mile and a half ahead if it was a bottle of pop that you craved.

Starting up the mountain, three miles ahead, was your next chance to stop, indulge in some amenities, like a swimming pool, and spend the night in a comfortable bed: Tuckahoe Motel’s Native American motif and neon signage beckoned. Ridgeway Service Station was there to help you away safely in the morning.

A mile up the mountain, it was hard to pass by Boxwood Gardens without a stop to stroll its beautiful gardens of shrubs and azaleas, tulips and daffodillies in season, let the children peer inside the roadside dollhouse, and stroll among the variety of handcrafts inside their rustic stone gift shop. Blue Ridge Terrace Motor Lodge and Dining Room (think Brunswick Stew, Fried Chicken and Waffle Dinners, and views of the Rockfish Valley that seemed to go on forever) awaited a half-mile up the mountain toward the summit at Rockfish Gap.

We’ve made it! Rockfish Gap—the travelers’ mecca! Where to begin… Skyline Parkway Motor Court’s 65 guest rooms, gift shop, Skyline Doll and Toy Museum, and a swimming pool shared with the adjacent Skyline Parkway Motel, all stood on the former grounds of historic 19th century Mountain Top Hotel, where Thomas Jefferson and a host of notables assembled in 1818 to choose the location for the University of Virginia.

Front and center of it all was an iconic, orange-roof Howard Johnson’s Restaurant—think Fried Clams, and 28 ice cream flavors. Leighton and Virginia Bower’s Oak Bower Motel was just downhill from Pettit’s Gulf Service.

Holiday Inn joined this fabulous mountaintop ensemble in 1968, even as I-64 construction was approaching from the east. Just as photo-chrome postcards supplanted the fanciful linen cards of old, so did Dwight D. Eisenhower’s interstate highway system spell the beginning of the end for many such sentimental roadside delights. 


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