Popularity of Route 66 helps Lebanon motel thrive

Monday, November 11, 2002

LEBANON, Mo. -- A stretch of old road has given new life to a southwest Missouri motel.

The resurgence of Route 66 has turned the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon into a landmark -- and a favorite stopover -- for those looking for a piece of nostalgia.

"It's like Route 66 lovers are one big family," motel owner Ramona Lehman said. "We care about each other."

The motel's history is as storied as that of Route 66, she says.

It grew from a popular sandwich shop that specialized in barbecue on the Big Piney River in nearby Devils Elbow, Lehman says. Shop owner Nelle Munger married Emmett Moss after her husband died, thus becoming Munger-Moss.

Years later, a St. Louis couple took it over. Business was good until a new four-lane Route 66 was built in the early 1940s, bypassing the town.

But the owners were determined to keep their business growing, Lehman says. They discovered a four-acre parcel outside the east city limits of Lebanon with a restaurant and service station. They bought it September 1945 and moved to Lebanon.

Six months later, they built seven cabins and rented them for $3 a night -- creating Munger Moss Motel.

Lehman and her husband Bob took over in 1971. The couple was living in Iowa; Bob worked for a feed company, while she was a doctor's nurse.

A terrible snow storm hit that January. Her husband ended up stranded at a farm house with about 25 other people. "When he got home the next day, he said, 'We're moving south,'" she said.

The couple had been interested in the motel business and decided it was time to see if they could turn it into a living.

They drove to southwest Missouri that spring, made an offer on the Munger Moss and were owners by June 1971.

Business began to fade in the 1980s as lodging chains moved into the area, Lehman says. The couple converted some of the rooms into efficiency apartments.

"It really took away from the mom-and-pops," she said.

Alive and evolving

Things began to turn around in the 1990s, along with renewed interest in Route 66 culture.

Today, Route 66 is alive and evolving, although 17 years have passed since it was removed from the nation's official road maps as a federal highway.

The Munger Moss now has 44 rooms, 16 efficiencies and a swimming pool. The rooms still have that 1940s flare -- from the neon sign out front to the colorful tile bathrooms.

The biggest change came with the introduction of "themes" in eight rooms.

The most popular, of course, is The Route 66 Room, with myriad pictures of the highway and its travelers.

"When people who are driving Route 66 came here, I try to make sure they get that room," Lehman said. "It adds to their experience."

There's no question the Munger Moss has grown in popularity since Oklahoma author Michael Wallis declared it one of the many treasures on the 300-mile stretch of historic roadway.

Francois Leulliette says they learned about the Munger Moss on the Internet. It also was pictured in a book on the history of Route 66.

"The bathrooms are famous," Leulliette said.

It's a story that still makes Lehman smile.

"When Route 66 first came back, this guy from California comes in and says, 'I shot a whole roll of photos in your bathroom!'" Lehman said.

Puzzled, she asked what he said.

"He says, 'The color tile is so beautiful,'" Lehman said.

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