Lein’s Cabins’ last guest unruly by nature"
Fort Atkinson – When I drove past the onetime tidy and ever tiny cabins that made up the old motel on Highway 12, I could hardly believe my eyes. Tidy had checked out. Steven King’s worst nightmare had checked in.
It was a movie set for “Halloween 6.” I’d noticed a few times in passing through the years that the cabins had deteriorated badly, but now it seemed as if the Earth was intent on just swallowing up those old buildings. Scrub trees were growing around and through and over them, hiding them from the highway where they had once reigned. The windows were gone, now just openings in the wall that stared back like vacant eyeholes of the dead. The sign that once proclaimed Haven Motel had fallen part-way through the roof of the main building, awaiting only an ill wind to finish the fall.
Made me feel old, too. I remember as a kid when the motel – originally it was called Lein’s Cabins, then Lein’s Motel and still later Haven Motel – was still operating. I always was intrigued by the place, how it was a regular motel but with separate units instead of rooms on either side of a long hallway.
It was everything a Holiday Inn wasn’t, the kind of place John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson might have stayed back when, paying cash for the liberty of not having nosy neighbors. I always imagined them, with molls sitting close on the seat, of course, pulling their big sedans right up to the cabin door and walking quickly inside for who knew what kind of no good, maybe peeking back through the curtains first to make sure the coast was clear.
There was just something about the place, and while I know time passes and things change, it was sad to see it in so pronounced a death. Because once it had real life. Once those cabins housed real people, some famous ones, too, but regular folks as well.
If those cabins could tell stories, here is what they might say.
A change of career
Lloyd and Myrtle Lein were farming on the Albion prairie in Dane County when health issues prompted a career change. In December 1929, they bought 28.6 acres about midway between Fort Atkinson and Whitewater along the east side of Highway 12 and began to build a motel. Location was key. Highway 12 was then the main route between Chicago and Minneapolis – at one time the motel was advertised as the only one between the two cities – and good fishing in the area brought visitors for longer stays.
A relative had sent a picture postcard from Santa Fe and Lloyd liked the adobe-style buildings they showed, so he decided on that for his motel. He built the cabins one by one of stucco over hollow drainage blocks that made up the walls, brought in electricity from a nearby line after agreeing to pay $3.50 for power each month. He opened a filling station on Decoration Day in 1931 and the first cabins on July 3. The cost was $1.25 a night if you slept on Myrtle’s hand-made muslin sheets, $1 if you brought your own.
“Mom and dad never charged more than they were willing to pay when they traveled,” said daughter Betty years later.
That’s how we know the old cabins’ story.
Betty, now Betty Perkins and living in Arizona, grew up at the Lein Cabins, worked there as a child, even ran the place when still a girl and eventually left the family’s history to Fort Atkinson’s fine Hoard Historical Museum, where curator Karen O’Connor was kind enough to share it when I inquired.
On one hand, the story is of hard work. Lloyd continued to add cabins, Myrtle helped with painting and sewed awnings. Lloyd built picnic tables and lawn furniture. Myrtle, with help from her daughter, two sons and local women, handled the linens and towels for 32 beds every day, wrestling with a wringer washer and hanging the laundry on long lines to dry.
“My dad often planted clover in the field next to the clothesline and that made the linens smell wonderful,” Betty recalled later.
It was, as well, a sometimes exciting story. There is no evidence Baby Face Nelson ever stayed (I continue to believe it is possible), but the singing von Trapp family did. I saw a picture. They stayed for three nights in 1944 while preparing for a concert in Madison, holding to a strict schedule of rehearsing each day but taking time to play croquet on the lawn in their long Austrian dresses. Betty thought their practices sounded like angels singing. And when the von Trapps later opened their own hotel near Stowe, Vt., they stayed in touch with her parents, now all in the same business.
That same week, a photographer from National Geographic stayed as well, mesmerizing young Betty with his accounts of taking a small boat up Alaska’s “Inside Passage” and visiting Korea. Later, she saw his published pictures in the magazine at the Fort library.
Ozzie and Harriet ate in the restaurant her family later added to the operation, as did the lady who invented the bubble machine for the Lawrence Welk show. An ambassador to Australia was a guest, and one day a man – a world champion boxer, as she learned – came in and asked if they were still serving lunch.
She found that odd, until she realized the real question was whether she would serve everybody in the party, black and white. She would, of course. They stayed two hours and ate lots of food, and her father was disappointed she never called him to come in and meet the great Joe Louis.
The Leins sold the motel in the late 1950s, and it changed hands again later. It was in the 1980s when the then-owner locked the door and left, and if you’ve seen the place since you know the years have not been kind.
Not like those first years.
“I spent all my ‘teen’ summers in this little restaurant,” Betty wrote later. “Although I did not have time to learn to fish and swim, etc. I really did love my work and would not have traded places with any other teen on earth. I met so many interesting people, too, Ozzie and Harriet, a world champion boxer, ambassador from Australia, the inventor of the bubble machine, just to name a few. Great memories.”
And they’ll live on, even as the cabins that gave them life continue to disappear into the brush, bulldozed by time. On Sunday morning I walked through the motel grounds, imagining the von Trapp girls playing croquet on the lawn while the sheets on the line smelled of sweet, sweet clover. But when I listened for the sound of music, there was only the eerie quiet of a cabin graveyard.