Remember what it was like on those long-ago family road trips? Driving for hours down the four-lane, playing license plate poker in the backseat with your brothers and sisters, and dreaming out the windows of the Ford station wagon, then the quiet thrill of pulling off the highway at last and stopping under the shady carport of a motel. A real motel, with every room opening onto the courtyard. Not just a place to stop for the night, but a destination all its own — a self-contained oasis between today’s miles traveled and tomorrow’s. The shining American way station with a middle-class glamour all its own.
That’s how my wife, Jill, and I feel as we pull into Mother Earth Motor Lodge in Kinston one sunny afternoon, after driving past miles of farms and fields and slowing for a few small, quiet towns straddling the highway. Then, suddenly, civilization: a lighted sign and the motor lodge, bright and sharp, all straight lines and bold colors, the doors just a shade darker than the Wedgwood blue of my family’s ’59 Ford.
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Once, This was the MidTown (or Kinston) Motor Lodge, built in 1963, when such motels had their own distinctive personalities rather than a corporate uniformity. Travelers came to Kinston from New Hope and Dover and Ayden to shop in the busy downtown and gather at the tobacco warehouse-nightclubs, where big bands entertained with jazz and swing and soul. Performers often stayed at the motor lodge — even James Brown himself, the Godfather of Soul.
With the decline of the textile and tobacco industries that drove the town’s economy, the motor lodge fell on hard times. But in 2012, Stephen Hill, the local entrepreneur and patron of the arts who owns Mother Earth Brewing Company, bought the motel and restored it to its former glory — and then some: 45 rooms and suites, all colorfully decorated with original artwork on the walls, retro chairs, and polka-dot bedspreads. The three-ringed pool (reminiscent of the kidney-shaped pools of yesteryear) is surrounded by palm trees and freshened by five fountains. Behind the pool is a play area with grilling stations, picnic tables, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, and a miniature golf course.
Mother Earth brings back all kinds of nostalgia. Jill and I play shuffleboard — a game I haven’t played since I was 12 — and several rounds of miniature golf before dinner. Afterward, I sit in the cool courtyard like my dad used to do, listening to the splash of the fountains and sipping a beer from Mother Earth Brewing — a Park Day Bohemian-Style Pilsner available right in the lobby — and reminisce on days gone by. As evening fades into nighttime, the palm trees glow with blue, red, and green lights.
Mother Earth Motor Lodge
501 North Heritage Street
Kinston, NC 28501