The Showboat

The Showboat service station about 1960.
The Showboat service station about 1960.

Moored on the Nebraska prairie one mile east of Hastings, the Showboat was a familiar site to travelers along the DLD (Detroit-Lincoln-Denver) Highway which became Highway 6.  During its forty year history it served as a service station and portions were at times a café and souvenir shop.  An auto court (later called a motel) was located directly east and operated in conjunction with the service station.

During the 1920s and 1930s, highways improved and speeds increased.  In Nebraska the speed limit was raised to 35 miles per hour in 1921.  As the motoring public began traveling cross country on the new highways, auto campgrounds began to appear.  During the 1930s the demand for more comfortable lodging was met by the auto court or tourist court, which featured identical cabins often arranged in a semi-circle.

In April 1930, newlyweds Guy and Helena Miller purchased an acre of ground east of Hastings on which to build a gas station and tourist court.  The acre was located on the south side of the DLD Highway which had been graveled in 1924 and was the primary highway from Omaha to Denver.  During this time service stations were built in whimsical shapes to attract customers. Helena has seen a showboat in a magazine and she chose that shape.

The first Showboat tourist cabins were built in 1931 and rented for two dollars a night.  Travelers had to supply their own bedding.  Later an office with round port-hole style windows was built next to the highway.

Edgar and Ida Marshall leased the service station in 1936 and purchased the complex in 1944.  During World War II the entire motel was rented to married air corpsmen stationed at the Harvard Army Air Base.   A café operated in the showboat.  In 1952 the Marshalls closed the café and operated a gift and antiques shop there.

This 9 inch Showboat souvenir plate was sold by the Marshalls.
This 9 inch Showboat souvenir plate was sold by the Marshalls.

In September 1960 the Marshalls sold the Showboat complex to Morrison-Quirk Grain Corporation, which owned the surrounding farmland.  M. E. “Bud” Renschler was operating Juniata Roofing Company.  He needed a winter job so he and Maxine, along with their four children still at home–Penny, Pat, Donis and Mike–moved into the managers cabin to operate the gas station and motel for one winter.  They stayed for seven years.  Bud ran the “station” as we called it and Maxine the motel.  The manager’s residence was located on the north end of the west line of cabins, next to the highway.  The rooms were small and the walls were covered with varnished plywood paneling.  There were three bedrooms and two very small bathrooms. A cement walk ran from the kitchen door to the station.

The motel operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or until the “No Vacancy” sign was turned on.  The station was open about twelve hours a day from 7 am to 7 pm, seven days a week.  The Renschler children who were still at home helped their parents; Pat in the station and Penny and Donis cleaning motel rooms and doing the laundry.  Mike, the youngest, was still attending school. During the 1960s many of the motel’s clients were construction workers who rented rooms by the week.  At that time there was a lot of construction in Hastings, including the anhydrous fertilizer plant east of town.

Bill Kindig, a nice old man from Juniata, ran the station during roofing season.  He suffered a heart attack and died there.  When Pat wasn’t roofing he often operated the station which sold Mobil oil and gas.  Those were the days when there was service at service stations.  When a customer stopped for gas the attendant pumped the gas, cleaned the windshields, checked the oil and sometimes the radiator and the tire pressure. All of this work for a dollar or two worth of gas.

While we were dating I spent many Saturday afternoons at the station with Pat.  This was during the era of professional wrestling matches at the Hastings City Auditorium.  The wrestlers were good actors who put on quite a show.  During their performances they were bitter enemies, but when they stopped at the Showboat to gas up on the way out of town they were all riding in one car, friendly as could be.  I remember one of the villains called Otto von Krup portrayed a big, mean German with a thick accent.

After Pat and I were married in 1964 we lived briefly in Cabin 16 which had a kitchenette.  Occasionally I ran the motel and Pat the station so his parents could get away.  Often, if there was a vacancy people rang the bell for a room in the middle of the night.  There was little rest for a family running a motel and service station.

When Bud and Maxine retired in 1967 and moved back to Juniata, the motel and gas station were closed.  Eventually the Showboat was demolished and some of the cabins were moved away for housing.  It was the end of the era of Mom and Pop motels and independent gas stations.  The Interstate Highway system drew cross-country travelers off the local highways, and large chain motels with their swimming pools and meeting rooms drew the tourist and business trade.  Today all that remains of the Showboat is the  name of the road which ran along the west side of the station, and memories of days gone by.