The Tepee, Cherry Valley New York

Date added: August 16, 2023 Categories:
Postcard view, note frame addition has been added (1960)

The Tepee is a distinctive example of a type of popular roadside architecture from the mid-1950s and is associated with recreation and tourism along US Route 20 in the town of Cherry Valley. Built at a time of growing automobile traffic, the Tepee is part of the larger trend of 1950s tourism and economic development. During this time, roadside culture in the United States exploded as the postwar economy pumped the market with automobiles. For the first time since before World War II, American travel was unrestricted by rationing, and families had both the means and the leisure time to explore the country. In response, the early twentieth-century industry catering to the needs of automobile travelers and tourists was re-invigorated. In part designed to capture the attention of the speeding motorist and in part intended to appeal to a sense of regional or national identity, unique forms of roadside architecture encompassed every imaginable form, from food to people to animals. Among them, the tepee, loosely based on the habitat of Plains Indians, became a popular symbol of the American West and was used for everything from gas stations to motels. Although more popular in the western states, tepees were also constructed in the east. Ken and Iris Gurney, who built the Cherry Plains tepee, settled in upstate New York after World War II and decided to take advantage of the traffic along popular Route 20 to open a souvenir stand. Ken Gurney was from Chautauqua County; however, his wife, Iris, was a native of Nebraska, where tepees were especially popular. The Gurneys built their first tepee on Route 20 near the village of Cherry Valley; however, when a new spur of the highway was constructed to bypass the village in the early 1950s, the Gurneys moved their business to follow the road and built an even larger tepee, completed in the spring of 1954, on the new highway. Within a few years after the souvenir stand opened, the Gurneys added a wood-framed addition to provide extra space for display and storage, and a small vestibule. While, like most roadside architecture of its time, the tepee form has no connection to the region in which it is located, the structure's unusual form and decoration and large size combined to attract speeding motorists as they traveled along the highway. Over its fifty-six-year history, the Tepee has become a well-known landmark that has seen visitors from around the world. It has been represented in postcards, guidebooks, and books on roadside architecture, and it is featured in numerous online guides to roadside architecture.

US Route 20

Stretching from Boston, Massachusetts, to Newport, Oregon, US Route 20 is one of the longest roads in the United States, with a total length of 3,365 miles. In some parts of New York, as in other states, it follows centuries-old trails, paths, and turnpikes. In Otsego County, what is now US 20 generally follows the path of the Great Western Turnpike, which consisted of three roads built over a several-year period around the turn of the nineteenth century. The First Great Western Turnpike, built c1799, connected Albany to Cherry Valley, generally over the route of US 20, while the second, built in 1801, connected Cherry Valley to Sherburne over what is now NY 80. In 1803 the Third Great Western Turnpike returned to the US 20 route and connected Cherry Valley to Cazenovia. The Great Western Turnpike was an extremely important route for commerce, trade, and communication with Albany and, via the Hudson River, with New York City; it played a crucial role in the development of Otsego County. Cherry Valley's prosperity has always been intrinsically tied to the thoroughfares that surround and intersect it. As the Great Western Turnpike saw increased usage in the early nineteenth century, the village added services to accommodate travelers moving through the area. Despite a fairly small population, by the 1850s Cherry Valley boasted three taverns, two stores, a doctor's office and a bank.

In 1920, the first and third Great Western Turnpikes were rebuilt as US 20. At its completion in 1924, the section running through upstate New York was billed as the straightest road in the state and was expected to bring tourism and commerce to the area. In New York, motor courts abounded along the new road, many offering small cabins for travelers to rent for a night as they travelled the highway. These small establishments served the basic needs of motorists as they drove their way across upstate New York. The tourists came, and with them accommodations to meet their needs sprung up all along Route 20. Locally, in Otsego and Schoharie Counties, these included the Otsego Diner and Motel in East Springfield and the Commodore Motor Court in Sharon Springs. As had the turnpikes, the original path of US 20 went right through the small village of Cherry Valley.

Roadside Architecture

The prevalence of mimetic roadside architecture like the Tepee exploded with the growth of the automobile.

The first roadside buildings of the 1920s came in the familiar form of cottages or houses. Merchants sought to remind motorists of the normalcy of home as they traveled in unfamiliar surroundings. The practice of incorporating garish advertisements and designing imitative architecture evolved through the early decades of the twentieth century. With the advent of the speeding automobile, it became necessary for a merchant to attract potential customers in a matter of seconds as they sped down the highway, and colorful signs were no longer enough. An entirely different culture began to appear along America's highways. Made up of gas stations, motels, gift shops, and restaurants, it was designed specifically to attract the business of automobile tourists and travelers with images so large and distinct that they would be readily identifiable from a distance, encouraging the motorist to slow down and investigate. To accomplish this goal, merchants increasingly merged advertising with the design of their buildings. Among the most famous examples of roadside architecture from this time period is the Big Duck, in Flanders, Suffolk County. This concrete building, constructed in 1931 in the shape of a giant duck, was built on the property of duck farmer Martin Maurer. The building housed a store selling Maurer's ducks and it acted as a giant advertisement for his product. This type of roadside architecture continued to evolve throughout the 1920s and 30s. Gas rationing during World War II temporarily restricted travel, but as the war came to an end, Americans began traveling with renewed enthusiasm, and roadside attractions entered a period of explosive growth. By the mid-twentieth century, motels, restaurants, gas stations, food vendors, and souvenir shops in the shape of every imaginable food and object came into being.

Native American imagery like tepees, wigwams, and totem poles was quite prevalent in the roadside architecture of the 1940s and 50s. In part, these Indian-inspired artifacts were one symbol of a newly rediscovered or newly invented "Western" heritage that allowed communities throughout the American West to share in the business and profits of tourism. The popularity of US Route 66, for example, influenced the expectations of American tourists. The road thrived on its image of the epitome of the romanticized American West; merchants sought to perpetuate this image, and their businesses reflected it. Middle-class Americans began visiting the West to experience a region that was being defined as quintessentially American, the product of hardy pioneers and rugged individuals who tamed a continent. Visiting these spots, patronizing them, buying a souvenir, tourists could temporarily imagine themselves as part of this authentic American mythology. The mythology of the American West became so powerful by the 1950s that it dominated movies, TV shows, and children's toys, and Native American imagery became an expected component of the American roadside landscape.

Roadside Tepees

Among the Indian-themed roadside attractions, tepee-like structures were especially popular. Historically, tepees were cone-shaped shelters used almost exclusively by the nomadic Indians of the Great Plains. Their portability made them well suited to the lifestyle of the Plains Indian; they could be put up and taken down quickly and carried from place to place. Tepees varied in size, but most were ten to twenty feet tall and fifteen to thirty feet in diameter. They were constructed using three or four large poles as the major supports and twenty to thirty lighter poles as secondary structural supports. The poles were tied together near the top and then covered with animal skins, canvas, reed mats, or sheets of bark, leaving exposed the familiar crossed posts at the top. An adjustable flap was left near the top to regulate smoke and another near the bottom to serve as a door. The exterior covering was held together with wooden pins along a seam, and tepees were often decorated with colorful paintings, usually incorporating animals. However, none of this was especially important to roadside entrepreneurs, whose tepees simply reinforced the popular notion that Indians were a defining feature of the American West. Not only that, but the tepee itself, with its especially distinctive shape and suitability for colorful design, was well suited to the needs of roadside entrepreneurs.

Although there are earlier known examples of roadside tepees, their popularity as a roadside icon has been attributed to Frank Redford, a Kentucky businessman. While on a trip to California, Redford encountered a 1920s Long Beach lunch stand shaped and painted to look like a tepee, which inspired him to return to Horse Cove, Kentucky, and create first a tepee-shaped ice cream parlor and later, in 1933, a filling station and cafe marked by a sixty-foot-tall wood and stucco tepee. In response to customer requests for overnight cabins, in 1935 Redford created the first "Wigwam Village" by adding six tepee-shaped sleeping rooms to the ensemble. The first tepee guest rooms were constructed with wood frames and stucco exterior coverings. In 1936 Redford applied for and received a fourteen-year patent for his design from the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The following year, Redford developed Wigwam Village No. 2, outside of Cave City, which became the model for his subsequent chain of similar motels.

Wigwam Village No 2 consisted of fifteen tepee-shaped guest rooms and a large concrete and steel structure that served as an office and lunchroom. The individual rooms, each approximately thirty feet high and twenty to twenty-five feet in diameter, were arranged in a semicircle around a common recreational area, and each tepee had a paved parking pad. Redford's slogan was "Eat and Sleep in a Wigwam," and later owners sold plastic replicas of tepees, as well as glasses, matchbooks, and other souvenirs to guests and auto enthusiasts.

Over a fifteen-year period, Redford developed a chain of seven wigwam villages in six states. Two of them were located along the legendary Route 66, and all of them were constructed according to his patented design. Redford continued to own two of them but the others were owned by others who gave him 1 percent of the annual profit according to the terms of the patent.

Beginning with Wigwam Village No 2, all of those built according to the patent followed the same design. Individual multisided tepees were constructed with vertical steel frames wrapped in horizontal metal bands; exteriors were finished in a concrete-like stucco with sculpted folds representing flaps framing each entry. They featured diamond-shaped windows with painted frames. All were painted white and embellished with simple, red zigzag motifs. On the inside, the rooms were furnished with comfortable rustic furniture, made of hickory with the bark left on, and decorated with authentic Apache blankets, Navajo rugs, tepee-shaped lamps, and wigwam ashtrays. Redford created a distinctive decorative style by using an eclectic mix of iconography taken from a variety of Native American tribes to create a generic "American Indian look." In developing this idiosyncratic appearance, he had little concern for accuracy regarding how authentic tepees were constructed, where they were built, or how they were decorated. Redford was not alone in this; a lack of historical accuracy. can be considered a defining characteristic of the roadside tepee type, many of which bore only the most superficial resemblance to the form that inspired them. This concern for image over accuracy is perhaps most clearly illustrated in Redford's choice of a name for his motel chain. While Redford's structures resemble authentic tepees most faithfully in their cone shapes, he called the motels "Wigwam Villages." Wigwams, a different type of shelter used by woodland Indians, are almost always domed or rounded on top. An informal survey of known examples of commercial architecture using the tepee form reveals that the terms tepee and wigwam were often used interchangeably.

The same informal survey turned up more than thirty examples of roadside tepees. The majority of them were motels, as the individual tepee form apparently made an unusual and appealing overnight cabin; however, there were also examples of gas stations, restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops. And although many tepees stood alone, others were attached to buildings as vestibules, false fronts, or simply decorations. In some cases, the tepee was a freestanding decorative object rather than a building. In several examples, the word tepee was used as part of a name and appeared on a sign, even though the attraction had no tepee-shaped structure. For the very few examples where the construction method was noted, stucco seemed to be a popular exterior finish. In others, pictures suggest metal cladding; however, no conclusions can be drawn from the scant amount of information available. While the cone shape is almost universal in roadside tepee architecture, a few examples were more conical in intent than in reality. Other shared characteristics include poles emerging from the top, which show up in many, many examples, even though they are virtually all strictly decorative, and applied Indian symbols, usually painted on. The majority of these employ a generalized vocabulary, some of which may actually have antecedents in Native American iconography and others of which may be less accurate motifs that, like the tepee itself, have come to represent an "Indian style" to the general public. The most popular embellishments are zigzag forms of all types and two-dimensional thunderbirds. Other common motifs are geometric forms such as diamonds and circles, arrows (including broken arrows and lightning arrows), snakes of various types, and assorted animals. Although they were most common in the West, tepees can be found across the United States and even internationally. A Swiss ski resort built a tepee lodge complete with totem pole, Native American merchandise, and food. Though examples exist from many time periods, most mimetic tepees seem to date between 1930 and 1960.

The Tepee

There is little available documentation about the Gurneys' life or their motivations. Ken Gurney was born in Chautauqua County. There is no other information about where he spent his boyhood; however, he was living in Otsego County in 1942, when he enlisted in the Army. At that time he was single. Iris Gurney was a native of Nebraska. Ken must have met her during or right after the war and they married soon after because their son, Roger, was born in 1947. We don't know how the Gurneys made a living in the early years of their marriage, but in 1950, the couple opened a small store along US 20, just outside of the village of Cherry Valley. Similar in nature to the Tepee building, it too was a metal tepee with tourist goods and food for sale inside. The merchandise had a Native American theme, from rubber tomahawks to pennants and stickers. The Gurneys operated the store in that location for approximately four years before the course of Route 20 changed dramatically. Increasing numbers of travelers had rendered the route through the village, with its multiple turns and restricted speeds, a hazardous bottleneck by the mid-twentieth century. It was a familiar story in 1950s America, as interstate highways were built and travelers desired ever more efficient roads. In response to this, a bypass was constructed in 1954 that diverted the highway to the northeast and away from the village, much to the anger of residents and merchants. Realizing that their business depended on a steady flow of traffic, the Gurneys built a new store, also in the form of a tepee, along the newly built stretch of Route 20, which was then known as the "Cherry Valley Bypass." Gurney began construction in the winter of 1954 and was open for business in May of that year. The building was prominently located on a hillside above the road, giving travelers an excellent view of it from either direction. The move was a smart one for the Gurneys, as traffic continued to speed along US 20, while only locals or those with a specific interest turned off the highway and ventured the three miles south to the small village of Cherry Valley.

Like much else that remains a mystery about the Gurneys, now deceased, it is not known where they got the idea to build a roadside souvenir shop in the form of a tepee or whether they based it, either structurally or decoratively, on any model. Since Iris Gurney was a native of Nebraska, where tepees were especially popular, it is tempting to speculate that she was familiar with the form. In fact, among the roadside tepees surveyed, the one that most closely resembles the Cherry Valley building is Jerome's Tepee (c1940s) located in Grand Island, Nebraska. A Colorado example, the Trader Post Tepee (c1948) appears to be an identical cousin of Jerome's. While not an exact replica of the other two, the Cherry Valley tepee is very similar in form and its use of decorative motifs. However, other than their outside appearance and function, little is known about Jerome's (no longer extant) or the Trader Post (status unknown), and according to Roger Gurney, son of the original owners, the Gurneys chose to build a tepee simply because they thought it would attract tourists by standing out. The younger Gurney added that his father had extensive experience building farm silos, so he and a friend constructed the store using a farm tractor and a pulley system.

The tepee stands approximately fifty feet tall and is made of galvanized steel with a wooden support frame. The building has four levels inside: the ground floor containing the gift shop, an attic, and two lofts. Originally painted silver in color, it featured a large zigzag motif around the bottom, with a small circle between each "peak." Original decorative motifs included several thunderbirds, a lightning arrow, and a snake. There was painted lacing resembling a seam and, as in many other examples, decorative poles emerged from the top. The original door was recessed into a triangular opening; however, a small wood vestibule was added later.

Also added shortly after the original construction was a one-and-one-half-story L-shaped wood-frame wing with a cross-gabled roof. The addition was framed right into the original tepee structure and provided extra space for the gift shop on the first floor and storage above.

In order to enhance its image as an attraction, the Gurneys added several objects to its property to make it stand out even more. For the twenty years that they owned the Tepee, a stuffed black horse sat in the parking lot to the west, placed in a pose as if it were bucking. Visitors were invited to climb onto the horse for photographs. One postcard view shows a child atop it, with a woman (perhaps his mother) observing. A car with an open door waits nearby. Jerome's had a nearly identical bronco (except that it had a spotted coat resembling a pinto), and its postcard noted that one could pose on it for pictures. The Cherry Valley building also had two totem poles sitting near the roadside, bought from Native American tribes in Florida. Subsequent owners of the Cherry Valley tepee replaced the totem poles and the horse, which has been exchanged for a fiberglass buffalo. While not original, these objects perpetuate the kind of generalized association with Native American culture that inspired the construction of buildings like the Tepee in the first place.

Guest books at the store prove the durability of the tepee as an attraction, despite the almost immediate popularity of the New York State Thruway, a mid-1950s limited-access highway constructed across central New York through the Mohawk Valley, about ten miles to the north of US 20. Although the Thruway greatly reduced the number of travelers on the older highway, other popular attractions along Route 20, as well as the fact that the route was the main access to Otsego Lake, a popular vacation spot, and the village of Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, kept people traveling US 20 consistently since the tepee was constructed. Today, Route 20 also provides access to the Glimmerglass Opera, Glimmerglass State Park and Hyde Hall State Historic Site, among many other popular attractions on Otsego Lake. The original owners encouraged visitors to sign in and used the information to track how many people came to the store and where they were from. In 1955, the second year the tepee operated in its new location on the Cherry Valley Bypass, 2,678 people signed the guest book, representing forty-four states and twenty countries. These figures seem to be typical, with books from most years documenting approximately 1,500-3,000 visitors. While not all visitors signed in, the guest books demonstrate that the Tepee has continued to attract tourists from around the world for more than half a century.

In 1975, the Tepee was sold to Paul and Marion Stehr, who operated it for nineteen years, making only minor changes to the building. In 1994 the Latella family bought the property, and members of the family own and operate the shop today. The Latellas updated some of the merchandise and repainted the original silver exterior.

Today the tepee is painted tan with brown lacing representing a seam. There is a light blue zigzag painted around the top.

Building Description

The Tepee, a gift shop in the form of a Plains Indian tepee, is located on the south side of US Route 20, a four-lane divided highway, three miles northeast of the hamlet of Cherry Valley. The Tepee occupies a small lot on a wooded hillside that offers a panoramic view of the Mohawk Valley to the north. The building is set back on an elevated site but, due to its large size and iconic shape, it is quite visible from the road. There is an entrance drive and a gravel parking lot to the west of the building. There are two non-historic features on the site, an abandoned mobile home and a small trailer housing a food stand. There are also several objects on the site, including a fiberglass buffalo statue and two wooden totem poles. This is the second tepee built by the original owners. The first was built c1950 along old Route 20, which went through the village of Cherry Valley. In 1954, when a new stretch of US 20 was constructed to bypass the village, the owners built the nominated tepee along the new highway.

The Tepee is a wood-frame structure with a galvanized steel exterior on a concrete slab foundation. It is fifty feet tall and forty-two feet in diameter. The frame is made from a series of studs and cleats, held together with nails and supported by several rafters. Three poles project from the top, replicating the look (but not the structural system) of an authentic tepee. The frame is covered by sheets of galvanized steel that have been bolted to the wood and recently coated with tan paint, both for decoration and to prevent rust. Historic photos reveal that the building was originally painted silver and decorated with painted motifs believed to represent American Indian culture. These included a painted simulated stitched seam over the entrance, large zigzags surrounding the bottom of the tepee, a thunderbird, a lightning arrow, a snake, and other figures. The stitching has been reproduced on the re-painted building, and there is a light blue zigzag painted around the top.

Attached to the south side of the building is an L-shaped wood-frame wing with a cross-gabled roof and metal roofing. This wing is built directly into the tepee, and its roof is connected to the main building using bolted metal. Although the wing does not appear on the earliest postcard pictures of the tepee, it must have been added shortly after construction, based on other period photos from the late 1950s or early 1960s. The wing is sided with wood novelty siding on the east and west sides and sheets of metal on the north. In May 1999, lightning struck the building, causing a fire in the attic. As a result, the roof of the wing was replaced that year.

The main entrance to the shop is into a small, wood-frame vestibule with a gable roof built onto the west side of the tepee. The vestibule does not appear in the earliest postcard views, which show a recessed triangular opening leading to the door, but it was apparently added shortly after construction (possibly at the same time as the frame addition). A contemporary metal door is approached via a small wood porch with three steps. The porch was added at some time after construction, probably to accommodate the re-grading of the parking lot. On the north side, facing Route 20, there are five trapezoidal windows with wood frames and small metal hoods.

Above the windows is a metal hanger for a sign, which is missing.

On the interior, the tepee itself has four levels: a ground floor that houses a gift shop, an attic, and two lofts. The interior of the ground level has a concrete floor covered in carpet. In most areas, the walls have been concealed with drywall and insulated, although originally they were bare metal. In the upper levels, walls are bare metal with exposed wood framing. The floor of the attic and loft is original to 1954. The wing provides additional space for the gift shop on the first floor and attic storage above. The attic space shows noticeable discoloration from the 1999 fire. Despite the loss of exterior decorative painting, the tepee retains all the defining characteristics of this type of popular roadside architecture and continues to function as a gift shop and food stand.

The Tepee, Cherry Valley New York Tepee, west elevation with entrance (2010)
Tepee, west elevation with entrance (2010)

The Tepee, Cherry Valley New York East elevation with frame wing (2010)
East elevation with frame wing (2010)

The Tepee, Cherry Valley New York Gift shop, tepee section (2010)
Gift shop, tepee section (2010)

The Tepee, Cherry Valley New York Upper section of tepee showing structural system (2010)
Upper section of tepee showing structural system (2010)

The Tepee, Cherry Valley New York Postcard view, note lack of frame addition (1954)
Postcard view, note lack of frame addition (1954)

The Tepee, Cherry Valley New York Postcard view, note frame addition has been added (1960)
Postcard view, note frame addition has been added (1960)