ASHTON — Nestled just beyond the edge of town, the Rankin Motel is a symbol of times gone by and a reminder of how important tourism continues to be for the north Fremont County community.
Local farmer and businessman D.K. Rankin opened the rustic lodge in 1924, the dawn of the motel-era. But it didn’t start off as a motel. It originally was an auto camp.
“Auto camps were really the forerunners of the modern motel,” granddaughter Jennifer Groom said. “It used to be that people traveled long distances by train, but when the automobile came onto the scene … people had mobility and they wanted nicer places to stay with access to bathrooms and water for the night.”
That’s what auto camps offered travelers, usually for only a few cents. As automobile use became widespread in the U.S., tourism increased. Places such as Ashton — on the road to Yellowstone National Park — became stopovers for road-weary tourists.
The Rankin auto camp evolved as tourists demanded accommodations beyond a field plot with a water spout. Rankin built several cabins in the early 1930s, which remain in use today.
When Rankin’s daughter, Betty Grover, and her husband, Byron, took over the motel in 1967, they expanded the facility and discontinued the auto camp. The motel grew to 10 units that included a trio of two-room cabins, a one-room cabin and standard motel rooms.
In 2008, Robert and Jennifer Groom, the third-generation of the family, took over operation of the motel. They set to work restoring the facility.
The Rankin is the oldest motel in Ashton and the Grooms have taken extra care to maintain the vintage feel of the original establishment. Bed frames and several pieces of antique furniture are from the original to the cabins.
“Our guests prefer us like this,” Robert Groom said. “One of our biggest draws is that people don’t like cookie-cutter motels. They prefer to stay at a locally owned, small place that feels a little like home.”
Despite the vintage decor, Groom said the motel offers all the modern amenities, including refrigerators, microwaves, air conditioning, flat-screen televisions, satellite T.V. and wireless Internet.
The motel often is fully booked from May to October with tourists on the road to somewhere else, as well as cyclists, hikers and fishermen, among others. More people stay at the facility each year, Groom said. He attributed that growth to the upgrades and a number of positive reviews on Internet hotel sites.
“One of our biggest compliments we get (on the Internet) is the cleanliness of the cabins,” Groom said. “And we seem to respond better to guests than our competition does. I always have a phone next to me, we promptly respond to emails and I always answer the door.”
Prices range from $65 a night for a single person to $80 for three or more people. Many repeat customers request a specific cabin, Groom said, because each has a slightly different feel and decor.
Ashton businessman Dave Jacobson owns the grocery store next to the motel. The Rankin has been bolstering his business and the community for many years, he said.
“They are great neighbors,” Jacobson said. “They’ve been around a long time … and have maintained this small, hometown feel. They give their guests choices … and they especially cater to repeat customers.”
Reporter Nate Sunderland can be reached at 542-6763.