The Wagon Wheel, that retro motel, restaurant and bowling alley along the 101 freeway in Oxnard, is pure Americana. Rare Americana, vanishing Americana. Just like hot dog stands shaped like hotdogs or motel rooms shaped like tepees, the Wagon Wheel is a funky, out-of-fashion snapshot of mid-century roadside America before McDonald’s and Holiday Inn took over. The Wagon Wheel’s pioneer spirit greets every one of the millions who drive by on their way to and from somewhere else. Even defunct, with its darkened neon and imposing chain-link rent-a-fence, the low-slung, teal ranch façade of the Wagon Wheel announces, “Toto … We’re not in Orange County anymore.”
This year, the Wagon Wheel turns 60 years old. But will the building make it to its 61st birthday? After the Wagon Wheel Motel closed last year (to make way for a new development on the surrounding 64 acres) many locals assumed that its demolition was a foregone conclusion. But what if it isn’t? What if the redevelopment of the Wagon Wheel building and property is an opportunity for Oxnard to pioneer a new era, where preservation prospers alongside new development?
Here is the story of the Wagon Wheel and its creator, Bud Smith. In rediscovering the roots of this endangered building, it becomes even more clear why the Wagon Wheel deserves to be saved.
Wagon Wheel Timeline
1918: The man responsible for the Wagon Wheel is Martin Vance ‘Bud’ Smith. He passionately believed in Oxnard, where for 60 years he lived, worked, raised his family and eventually became the most important developer in its history. Born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1918, his family moved to Beverly Hills when he was 5. The stock market crash of 1929 dashed his plans to become a lawyer, so he eventually dropped out of high school and began work maintaining jukeboxes and vending machines.
1941: Bud Smith’s first Oxnard venture began as payment of a debt on several jukeboxes. He assumed the lease (and debts) on a failing 12-seat hamburger stand on Oxnard Boulevard. That tiny hamburger stand evolved into the renowned Colonial House, a cultural landmark that resonates in the collective memory of locals because it was the place to celebrate every conceivable type of special occasion. Over the decades the Colonial House sprouted a motel, pool, two bars and seven private dining rooms. The building also featured a 23-foot open-hearth fireplace. Today, the lone fireplace still towers over a weed-filled lot where the Colonial House stood until its demolition in 1988.
1945: Bud Smith’s development career began in 1945 with his first real estate purchase: “a hog farm and swamp.” The property was a neglected, 40-acre parcel prone to flooding. Situated four miles north of Oxnard and six miles south of Ventura, that hog farm became the most recognizable landmark on the 101 in Ventura County: Wagon Wheel Junction.
During excavation of the site, Smith unearthed branding irons left by earlier livestock operations in the area, uncovering a theme for the entire development. With the pioneer motif in place, he set out to mastermind the development. Using surplus Seabee barracks he won at auction in Port Hueneme, he laid out the motel’s design in a sweeping “U” shape. He cut some of the old barracks buildings in half and transformed others into a restaurant and office with a western ranch style.
He hired a Hollywood set designer to create hardware from branding irons and spurs, and furnish the rooms with rustic wood furniture. Out of a cactus-filled median along the highway, real wagon wheels sprouted at intervals, next to a rustic wooden sign that read: “Wagon Wheel Motel – New and Modern – Breakfast Service Day and Night – Single $3 – Double $4.” To promote the restaurant, Smith turned loose 200 chickens in downtown Oxnard. Strapped to their legs were bands stating, \\\”I just escaped from the Wagon Wheel, where they serve the finest chicken around.\\\”
With 40 acres to develop, Smith had a long list of ideas to develop Wagon Wheel Junction, including a bowling alley, shopping center, roller skating rink, industrial units and a row of restaurants. These were all located on streets with Wild West names like Winchester Drive, Petticoat Lane, Saddle Avenue and Buckaroo Drive. His restaurant row included the Wagon Wheel Steakhouse and the El Ranchito. The plush Trade Winds Polynesian restaurant was even adorned with a full-sized Chinese junk and rickshaw, revealing Smith’s penchant for traveling the globe to forage for decorations. (He joked that he had to open the Trade Winds because his wife wouldn’t let him bring his treasures home.)
1956: After the success of Wagon Wheel Junction, Smith never stopped developing. In 1959, Oxnard’s historic American Beet Sugar factory, with its 156-foot twin smokestacks, was put up for sale. It became Smith’s next development. It would be 28 years before Smith would replace those twin landmarks with a pair of his own – the high-rise towers at the Topa Financial Plaza. Meanwhile, Smith was involved in many notable developments, such as the Channel Islands Harbor, Casa Sirena Resort, the Esplanade Shopping Mall, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Carriage Square Shopping Center, the Maritime Museum and a plethora other projects.
1995: When Bud Smith shifted into semi retirement in the mid ’90s, his company, Martin V. Smith and Associates, was the biggest developer and landlord in Oxnard, with some 4,500 tenants and over 200 properties from Calabasas to Santa Maria. Retirement was not Smith’s style, and rather than vacate his office on the 21st story of the Financial Plaza tower, he divested himself of most of his properties. (He kept the Wagon Wheel.) He and his wife then created the Martin V. and Martha K. Smith Foundation to support community organizations. When Smith died in 2001, he left Oxnard its greatest legacy, both for his community development and his philanthropic legacy.
2007: Now, a new vision for the Wagon Wheel has been proposed to the Oxnard City Council. The project, dubbed “The Village,” was created by an Orange County developer. In its prospectus, “The Village” looks like an architectural mishmash, with photos of cobblestone streets in Europe next to buildings from the Charlestown Historic District. Ironically, the blueprint for “The Village” is the very antithesis of anything historic. The plan first requires blanket demolition of every building between the new Home Depot and the Santa Clara River. The landmark Wagon Wheel would be replaced by two high-rise towers tucked behind an unbroken 12- to 18-foot tall concrete sound wall stretching along the highway from the new Santa Clara River Bridge to Oxnard Boulevard.
Fortunately, no plans have been accepted and no demolition permits have been granted. “The Village” proposal currently awaits an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before moving ahead. The EIR, due out in early 2007, should address the area’s historical significance and its association with Bud Smith. Currently, however, there are no plans to retain the Wagon Wheel building. Preserving even a percentage of the landmark is well within the scope of the development.
“The Village” project could redevelop the area while ushering in a new era of preservation in Oxnard. After all, they just don’t build ’em like that anymore and they never will again. California has a small number of roadside establishments from the middle of the century, and everyday more and more disappear. With this project, Oxnard has the opportunity to begin embracing its past instead of blindly erasing its history. As the Wagon Wheel’s original founder, Bud Smith, said in 1991, “I live here. I’d hate to see this area become like Orange County around the John Wayne Airport.”