A bit of American history — quirky and curious, but history nonetheless — huddles next to old U.S. 59, past the tractor dealers and the rice mills, just before a green sign that proclaims Wharton's population of 9,237.
It's easy to miss. But it is there, just around the bend: a row of 10 freshly painted, sand-colored tepees.
As in the Tee Pee Motel, a throwback to the 1940s and '50s, when taking a drive was still in style and roadside businesses used gimmicky architecture — like a gas station that looked like an oil derrick — to lure customers. The Tee Pee Motel is one of a handful of tepee-themed lodges left.
For years, however, Wharton's Tee Pee Motel was little more than gutted shells engulfed by a tangle of overgrown weeds and a broken sign that once beckoned guests with neon lights and an image of an American Indian chief.
Then, a diesel mechanic named Bryon Woods won $49 million in the Texas Lottery in July 2003.
Four months later Woods and his wife, Barbara, were driving by the ruins of the Tee Pee Motel, about 50 miles southwest of Houston, when Barbara Woods piped up.
"I want to stay there," she said. "Let's buy it and renovate it."
The Woodses bought the 10-acre property for $60,000 and spent the next two years and $1.6 million sweeping away the cobwebs and debris, remodeling, painting and fixing the neon sign.
"This wasn't about making money. It's having something no one else has," said Woods, 42, whose grandmother was Comanche. "This is a piece of Texas history."
Barbara Woods and her sister decorated, adorning each of the tepees with American Indian artifacts purchased at powwows and covering beds with handmade quilts.
Modern conveniences were added: barbecue grills outside each room, air-conditioning units jutting from the exterior walls and high speed Internet and satellite TV in each tepee. The Tee Pee Motel reopened for business in October 2006.
Soon couples who had spent their honeymoons at the Tee Pee Motel were paying the $52.50 a night to celebrate their golden anniversaries there. Adults who had pined to sleep inside the tepees as children came back to fulfill that long-ago yearning.
Usually, Woods said, once a family stops to get a motel brochure, they're hooked.
"We see a lot of families come out here. The kids love it," Woods said. "They are running around, saying 'I'm staying at the Tee Pee Motel!'"
The Tee Pee Motel is at 4098 North U.S. 59 in Wharton, Texas, about 50 miles southwest of Houston. Nightly rates for two: $52.50, additional guests $5. Pets welcome; $25 deposit. 979-282-8474.