It all started when Felix N. Irwin, who did not like to farm, went off to Chicago in 1921 to sell cemetery plots.
A doctor and his wife from Boston, driving their touring car to Washington for the cherry blossoms, stopped by the Irwin farm in Bel Air, 23 miles north of Baltimore. It was a time when interstate auto travel was somewhat of a novelty, and places to stay were few and far between.
Maye Irwin, the wife of Felix, could not refuse their request to pitch their tent on her property. And with that seemingly inauspicious event, a family motel dynasty was born.
When Irwin returned from Chicago, his cemetery venture an apparent flop after two and a half months, he found a field covered with tents and carpenters busily constucting a grocery store. More than anything else an entreneur, Irwin quickly saw the possiblities.
"Oh boy, he got busy," recalls Maye Irwin, now a gracious and gregarious woman of about 80, still living in the same house. "He didn't mind working on the farm then."
By the time Irwin died in 1969, at the age of 84, the family had owned and operated three motels along U.S. Rte. 1 in Maryland, their fates closely intertwined with change along the old interstate highway. Now, Irwin's son is set to build a new motel on a prime site by Interstate Rte. 95, seizing today's opportunity as his parents did yesterday's.
They came out of the mountains of Western North Carolina, from a backwoods existence in rough-hewn cabins and with little formal educaton. Felix Irwin had worked in his father's water mill, hauled produce by wagon over the mountains, considered mining in West Virigina, tried farming in South Dakota and logging in British Columbia.
With wages he had saved, Irwin returned from the logging camps to wed Maye, who was not yet 13, and buy a store in Sparta store over to his brother and bought another in nearby Galax, Va.
It was the second decade of the century, and Irwin joined a migration of some 1,000 Southern families lured to Harford County, Md. by reports of cheap land, rich soil and money-making markets.
"He didn't like a farm to work on himself," said Maye Irwin in her living room filled with family pictures. "He would say, 'I'll use my head, not my back.'"
So he hired men, often other immigrants from North Carolina, to work the farm while he went into real estate. In 1919, he wound up buying one farm he did not sell - the 210-acre "Major's Choice" where his widow still lives in an 1834-vintage farm house.
"Few farms are so ideally located as this one," said Irwin's advertisement for it a 1920 newspaper booklet.
Indeed, for the motor court business, which the Irwins were to pioneer, the location on what became U.S. Rte. 1 could not have been better.
The tent charge was 50 cents a night, but soon there alos were four corrugated tin cabins, a $1 a night, with "just enough room for them to put their (own) pad mattresses on the ground,Maye Irwin recalls.
A dozen wooden cabins shot up, later increased to 23. The grocery store was augmented by a restaurant with 12 hotel rooms upstairs - one even had a private bath - and nine gas pumps out front. There was a recreation building where you could throw balls at likenesses of Jiggs and Maggie; a stream-fed swimming pool; three outdoor barbecues; a lawn doll house that was a wonderment to children; and, by the early 1930s, pony rides, a small zoo, a driving range, archery and miniature golf.
They came to this stopping place on Rte. 1 in their Overlands and Essexes and Pierce Arrows and Model-Ts from places as close as Baltimore and as far as Wilmot, S.D., according to fading ledger books.
For a room in the 1930's, they paid from $1.50 for two to $4 for four people. At first, they shared a central bathroom. Later, in the 1930s, individual bathrooms were added.
Not all the passersby were tourists. In the depths of the Depression, there were also the Bonus Marchers, unemployed World War I veterans on their wayto Washington.
I was so sorry for 'em," Maye Irwin says in her soft Southern mountain accent. "They wouldn't have shoes on their feet goin' to Washington. They'd come up and they'd want to chop wood, you know, to get a sandwich, and I said, 'You get a sandwich, but you don't have to chop wood.'"
It was, as Felix "Bud" Irwin Jr. and his sister, Felicia Jackson, recalled, a "family-managed" business. The five daughters were waitresses and maids. But Irwin, now 53, remembers he "did everything," including washing the pool on Mondays.
None of them received a salary or allowance. That was Felix Irwin's way. "We're all a family," he would tell Bud. "Anything you need, you get out of the cash drawer, but don't spend it foolishly." They rarely ever spent it, foolishly or otherwise.
Despite the Depression, business at the Bel Air cottages, known as the Del Haven Hotel and Cabins, boomed. But an improved U.S. Rte. 40 east of Rte. 1 threatened to take much of the traffic north of Baltimore.
Since most of the traffic was Washington-bound, the Irwins looked for a new location south of Baltimore. In Berwyn, seven miles north of Washington, they found 10 acres of weeds and briars, with the Revolutionary War-era Rodes Tavern - once visited by George Washington. It's just above the spot where the Capital Beltway now crosses Rte. 1. To Maye Irwin, it is still "the new place."
By 1937, they had turned the site into the Del Haven White House Cottages, with an uprecedented 50 brick units. "No tourist court in the U.S. then had as many as 50 units, brick construction, ceramic tile bathrooms, carports between the units," said Bud Irwin, its manager from 1947 to 1957.
The American Automobile Association's Northeastern Tour Book for 1941 described the Bel Air Del Haven as "one of the better camps of northeastern U.S." and the Berwyn Del Haven as "among the finest in the northeast."
The AAA book did not mention, however, one feature of both establishments that was not unique on Rte. 1 in Maryland: They were segregated.
At Bel Air, recalled Bud Irwin, "we didn't have a rest room for blacks. The sign said 'White Only.' They was carry-out food only for blacks. We never accepted blacks (at either motel). I'm not saying this with any pride. It's just the way it was."
Racial policies aside, the Berwyn motel did exceedingly well during the heyday of Rte. 1.
So crowded was the motel, family members say, that the "no vacancy" sign burned constantly from March to October.
Times change, however. Felix Irwin "could see the economic obsolescence" of the Bel Air complex "coming fast," his son says. He sold it around 1941 to his brother, who sold it outside the family after World War II. The Bel Air cottages operated as such into the 1960s, when the new owner tore them down and built a small shopping center, Del Plaza, that still exists on the site.
At the other Del Haven, times were changing, too. The opening of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in 1954 caused a sharp drop in Rte. 1 traffic, and old motels were undergoing a new era of modernization to compete with the new generation springing up.
But Irwin, who was by then president of the Maryland Motel Association, got the word from AAA: "You're going to have to put in room phones, and a restaurant, or we're going to have to drop you from the (guide) book," he remembers being told.
Bud's father balked at making the improvements, he said, and otherwise disagreed with his son. After replacing the gas station with a new restaurant, Bud Irwin quit.
Bud Irwin then teamed up in real estate with a friend who was dissatisfied with working for his father-in-law in the lumber business. One of Bud Irwin's first jobs was to broker the Royal Pine Tourist Court, a 10-unit motel built in the early 1940s in College Park on U.S. Rte. 1.
At the time, the youngest Irwin daughter had just married Ed Sims, an Alexandria man with plans to take his law degree and bride to California. To keep them here, the elder Irwin gave the couple the down payment on the Royal Pine.
"I wound up with practically no commission because it was in the family," said Bud Irwin.
Today, Sims, a tall, athletic-looking man of 49, manages the White House Del Haven - jointly owned by the six Irwin children - and is expanding the old Royal Pine into a 115-unit Best Western motel.
Sims is "really a good operator," says brother-in-law Bud Irwin, so good that Irwin wants him to operate the huge new 240-unit motel planned for the intersection of 1-95 and Rte. 198 in Laurel.
Irwin bought the ground along the interstate right-of-way before the road itself was built. It is located at the only interchange on the interstate between Washington and Baltimore where a traveler can exit and easily re-enter the highway without having to drive some distance to turn around.
"There will be no other motel within sight of 1-95," he beamed. Then, sounding stangely like his father descibing the Bel Air location 57 years ago, he added, "It is one of the number one sites on the East Coast.