For more than 70 years, this family-owned, retro-style motel has stood as a testament to the American entrepreneurial spirit.
Photographed by Amberlee Christey Photography
Nestled in the green mountains of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, just east of the Potomac River’s famous South Branch and the small town of Romney, lives a little bit of history—a piece of the American dream preserved. The Koolwink Motel, family-owned and operated for more than 70 years, isn’t just a retro, 1950s-style tourist destination; it’s living proof of the resilience of the American small business owner.
“I remember when all the main street businesses were owned by local people,” says owner Wallace Mauk, now 86. “To buy a place and bring it up by the bootstraps to where you could make a living for yourself—you can hardly do that anymore. I’m the last of a vanishing breed. There aren’t too many of us left.”
“Back in those days there were no Holiday Inns and all these little ‘Mom and Pops’ sprang up to accommodate the traveling public,” says Wallace’s son-in-law Robert Lee, who currently oversees nearly all of the motel’s daily operations—from customer service to fixing washing machines.
Originally a tourist home owned by his great-aunt Nora Klien, Wallace and his wife Pauline bought the motel at auction in 1955. Robert describes Wallace’s decision to take over and eventually transform the business as something like a calling. “Wallace was living over in Cumberland, Maryland, and he came back to help with the auction. He got so emotional because he used to come up here all the time. He used to play in the creek and the fields in the back. He just couldn’t let it go,” he says.
Over the past 57 years, the Mauk family has transformed the original tourist home—which had provided a comfortable “bed and shower” combination for just about $4—from a small two-story house and pair of guesthouses into the landmark it is today. With spacious, artfully decorated rooms, queen-size beds, and private entrances, the motel emerged as a cornerstone of the local, owner-operated culture of Romney. But it was never easy. “When I started there were a couple other nice motels in Romney. They’re gone now,” Wallace says.
Even as other small motel businesses were disappearing, Koolwink continued to grow. Despite a lack of formal training, Wallace got to work designing from the ground up—doing much of the work himself. Though it was a struggle, the Mauk family maintained its commitment to quality and affordability, treating each room like an extension of their home and each guest like a member of the family.
Wallace, while working on the nearby Potomac Railroad and providing for his own growing family, oversaw the construction and renovation of the many new rooms, adding modern amenities like air conditioning, refrigerators, microwaves, coffeemakers, and TVs.
“He was perfect for the job,” Robert says. “He was an innovator and Pauline, his wife, she was a personable person—the backbone of the place. She was the one behind the desk. They complemented each other well.” Running the small business was hard work, but both Robert and Wallace describe it as nothing less than living the American dream.
For just $59 a night, guests today can enjoy impeccable service, pristine rooms decorated in vintage 1950s style, and all the modern conveniences—from flat screen TVs to wireless internet. Each room has access to a porch with comfortable deck chairs and several picnic areas big enough for the whole family.
Whether you’re heading to Romney to ride the famous Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad, relive history at Fort Mill Ridge, or canoe down the river hoping to catch a glimpse of a bald eagle in flight over the vibrant wilderness, the Koolwink Motel is more than just a place to stay.
Koolwink Motel, Route 50 East, Romney, WV 26757; 304.822.3595; koolwinkmotel.com