On Page A1 of the Feb. 9, 2017 edition of the Independent Herald, a story recounted the frequent police presence at the Oneida Family Inn, which was formerly Tobe’s Motel.
With a Better Business Bureau rating of D+ and the district attorney general’s office reportedly looking into the possibility of remedy for the Town of Oneida under the state’s nuisance statute, the motel has fallen on hard times.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Tobe’s Motel started in the mid 1930s, when Tobe Phillips constructed three “travel cabins” at the Belle Meade travel center he purchased along Oneida’s modern-day Four Lane. In those days, Oneida proper was still nearly a mile and a half away, centered around the railroad tracks and South Main Street.
But Phillips’ cabins became a hit with guests, and when travel cabins went out of style, he built garages between them to form one continuous building. He slowly built to that building until Tobe’s Motel eventually became a 50-unit complex as it is today. The route of U.S. Hwy. 27 changed, Oneida grew, and Tobe’s Motel ultimately went from being an off-the-beaten-path destination to being right in the heart of town.
Phillips died Jan. 3, 2000, at the age of 91, 16 years after retiring from his business.
Following is a feature story that appeared in the July 27, 1977 edition of the Independent Herald, written by Paul Roy:
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With $15 in his pocket and a bride on his arm, 25-year-old Tobe Phillips forgot about it being the midst of the Great Depression and decided he would go into business for himself.
He took over the management of the Belle Meade Cafe — a Gulf service station, eating establishment and general hangout for youth of Oneida. It was “out in the country,” just off U.S. 27 near Oneida.
That was 1934. Within three years, Tobe was to have bought Belle Meade outright and constructed three travel cabins — a unique sort of lodging place for people on the go. People probably snickered at Tobe in 1937. After all, here he was trying to lease out three tiny cabins to the occasional tourists that passed through Oneida — usually on their way south.
Three little cabins. Within a mile and half of Tobe’s out-in-the-country establishment was downtown Oneida and five rather prosperous hotels — The Commercial, The Cross, The Grand View, The Gibson and The King Hotel.
Times were hard for Tobe and Lona Phillips. For a while, they lived in one of the little cabins — in which their first child was born. But with a lot of persistence and hard work, plus a “good food” restaurant, Tobe’s Belle Meade Cabins & Restaurant soon became both popular and prosperous.
It’s 1977 now. The Commercial, Cross, Grand View, Gibson and King hotels are gone. But Oneida’s first combination motel and restaurant is still going strong.
In 1937, a typical room at Tobe’s contained a bed, a night stand — with a porcelain pitcher full of water — a small dresser, and, of all things, a small picturesque coal stove. The room rented for $1.25 a night. A typical breakfast, lunch or dinner at Tobe’s Restaurant cost the traveler a whopping 35 cents. If he wanted a hamburger “all the way,” that could be had for one thin dime.
Now, there’s nothing quaint about a room at Tobe’s. The rooms are lavishly furnished and spacious, clean and decorative. Where there were three in 1937, there are now 50. But aside from the modernization, growth and the fact that Tobe’s is no longer “out in the country,” little else has changed.
Tobe says there are still a few people around who visited his motel in his first year of business. In 43 years of business, Tobe, 68, has played host to a number of famous guests — including Sen. Albert Gore, Sen. Joe L. Evins and Pat Boone. But his favorite guest of all time, Tobe says, was the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, father-in-law of Huntsville’s Sen. Howard Baker. Pointing to a spot located directly behind the “new” restaurant, Tobe says, “I’ll never forget a speech he made right there. I love to hear that man talk.”
The last of the old Belle Meade establishment — the restaurant — was torn down in January 1967, as the new restaurant had opened up the month before. Sentimentalist that he is, Tobe left the old chimney and fireplace standing, barely seen now as it is overgrown with ivy in the courtyard adjacent to the restaurant.
When the three cabins kept filling up every night, more cabins were build. When the cabins weren’t the in-thing anymore, a chain of garages was built between them, joining all the cabins together. Next came the more modern-looking single structure, all the rooms joined together. The highway route changed, and suddenly, in the early ‘60s, Tobe found himself adding more and more on to his hotel — eventually winding up with a wing of two-story rooms on the south end.
At 68, Tobe doesn’t act like he’s anywhere near his retirement. At the time schedule for this interview, I found myself waiting while Tobe was busy in the kitchen grinding meat for fresh hamburger.
I asked Tobe why he decided to go into the motel business in the first place. His answer? “I couldn’t afford a hotel.”
This is the February 2017 installment of Forgotten Times, presented by United Cumberland Bank on the fourth week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series.