Thursday, October 30, 2003

Once Upon A Time, in Wisconsin...

There was a place called The Gobbler.

The motel's design was a unique spoked "Prairie" style semicircle; luxurious purple, red, blue and pink shag carpeting graced many of the Gobbler's surfaces in its early-1970's heyday, a period when grooviness meant a bedroom covered floor-to-ceiling in the stuff.

Every detail - from lavender vinyl dining room upholstery to built-in 8-track stereos [in the "business suites" - as if we couldn't guess what sort of "business" was conducted in a motel room with a red shag-covered heart-shaped bed] exemplified over-the-top kitsch luxury.

Staying at the Gobbler, a traveler could enjoy hip sleepquarters, and then roll downhill for fine dining specializing in Meleagris gallopavo at the matching Gobbler restaurant. That would be - ahem - gobbler, because Clarence Hartwig Sr., the original owner of the complex, was a well-known Wisconsin turkey farmer.

Some people believe every object contains a bit of the energy of everyone that came in contact with it: considering its rich lore, that alone would have been enough reason to keep the Gobbler standing. Sure, we can't keep every old building - we'd be overrun with collapsing hulks in a few generations. Still, we can try to remember the interesting, the adventurous, and the unique. The Gobbler certainly was all of those.

Don't forget to stop by the recently-updated (April 2005) Gobbler Links section, with connections to fresh news stories on the Gobbler Motel and Restaurant!

Down, But Not Exactly Out

We beging our story in October 2001, when the circular Gobbler Motel looked down, but not exactly out. The siding was cracking, yellow-brown weeds shot up in unlikely places (like windowsills), and the blue landscaping gravel surrounding the entries was peppered with beer bottles and cigarette butts: the Gobbler had sunk to a nighttime make-out hangout for the locals. Tellingly, a black flocked plastic-letter board toothily revealed chunks of the motel's newest name:



Purple Windows and Shag, Shag, Shag.

In fact, the Gobbler had been renamed King Arthur's Inn several years ago. Walking around the low-slung, swoopy perimeter gave one a view of the exterior-situated rooms, some visible through parted curtains (with the exterior glass shielded by purple-tinted Lucite™) - most of the legendary shag carpeting was long since replaced by more serviceable (and hygienic) indoor-outdoor pile, but the fake stone interior was essentially intact - giving the impression of a cheapie Mod Adirondack ski lounge.

The rear part of the motel, where the swimming pool and shuffleboard court once were was also in dire need of attention; two glass doors, uncloseable because of some mechanical flaw were secured with a thick chain and an ordinary padlock. Every room was dotted with miscellaneous leavings and debris, like carpet remnants, empty paint buckets, and wood scrap. Not the sort of property that screams "DEVELOP ME!"


We spotted the fabled "eyeball" railings as we peered through the smudged glass doors of the lobby (see the photo at the top of this page). As you can see, the interior was done in a hunter-green duotone motif, a la Wal-Mart, circa 1990. You can see a triangular brass colored lighting fixture on the faux stone (well, maybe it was Z-Brick™ - I didn't get a chance to touch it for myself) fireplace, which itself was composed of metallic bars wedged between its upper and lower section, possibly to suggest "flames".

The white object in the lower left hand corner is an abandoned laundry cart. You know someone left in a real hurry when you find a half-empty laundry cart in front of the lobby door. There must have been an ill wind in store - perhaps a frosty Wisconsin one, redolent of cow belches.

Stone Faux Fireplace

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, but ultimately what made the Gobbler so perversely appealing isn't just its extreme appearance.
It was the motel's air of mystery.
After all, what on earth could have made people up and leave in such a hurry that even the tourist-trap brochures remain stacked on the lobby desk?

UFO? Or Restaurant??

The Gobbler Restaurant had been reopened early 2002 under the name "Round Stone Restaurant": the cuisine is best described as classic American Diner, but the interior was restored to a good measure of its former glory. We stopped by for coffee and dessert one evening on the way back from Madison. Fortuitously, when we expressed our archival curiosity to the maitre-d', we were given a brief tour of the restaurant.

Redone in a subtle late-80's jewel tone theme, the foyer sported two large circular "couches" divided crosswise into four equal seating sections to greet waiting patrons. A decorative fountain worthy of a Las Vegas Chinese eatery dominated the lobby; artificial palm trees and orange-and-fuchsia lotus blossoms frolicked with the pink plastic flamingoes ensconced there, like some bizarre Botticelli's Venus.

Eye Of The Gobbler

How groovy! How positively shagadelic!

Some of the overstuffed white vinyl seats at the bar were - gasp - loveseats! Imagine - two swinging lovebirds could cozy up to the bar ("belly up" isn't quite the right image) and sip Long Island Iced Teas while spinning around the room. You wouldn't be able to tell if your vertigo was induced by the booze or the orbiting bar.

The "Royal Roost" loft wasn't open for business at the moment, but we did get a chance to see it for ourselves - after climbing the Brady-Bunch-Era steps, we saw the interior was still covered in a lavender shag, with a built-in bar and circular dance floor - and, not mentioned in previous literature - a one-way mirror connected to the adjacent upstairs manager's office, no doubt to discourage any hanky-panky in the loft (or more likely, to enable discreet spying). Sadly, the Roost's primary function is now for mere storage of essentials like glassware and table napkins.

A visit to the ladies' room was an adventure in itself: it was shaped like a wedge, with no right angles in sight (probably a bit disorienting after a few drinks) and wallpapered with red, purple and gold butterfly-design paper, it made everything else in the place seem almost conservative by comparison.

Sign Of The Times

[Memorial Day 2002] View from the I-94 exit 267 eastbound offramp, showing the "exit now for the NEW Gobbler!" sign which was painted over or removed sometime in June 2002. Photo courtesy David Mierzwinski (be sure to check out his Retro Milwaukee" site on our Links page)

The Grand Carport

The Gobbler Restaurant's grand carport, where diners and swingers could pull up under the glittering icicle-light trimmed canopy, and marvel at the red-carpet luxury of genuine sandstone, amethyst chunks set into the facade, and volcanic tufa for a coarse, rugged touch. It was almost like parking at the entry of a spaceship, all swooping lines and Jetsons curves.

As you walked in, you were greeted by an onslaught of pinks, purples, brasses and all shades in between - from the walls, the turkey-motif carpeting and the vinyl chairs to the clamshell phone booth backdrop.

It was a sight to see, indeed.

Pile Of Rubble

The End: alas, the noose was tightened, and there was to be no stay of execution. We didn't even see the gallows floor drop out.

When we returned on an icy day on February 10th, 2002 en route to Madison, it was already over.

I knew something was wrong when we approached the Johnson Creek interchange off I-94, and this time, no familiar spiked dome stood atop Hartwig Hill.

The Gobbler was gone.

Swimming Pool Pit

What awaited us in the gusting, frigid wind was a blackened hole surrounded by slushy snow, partially filled with architectural wreckage. They burned it down! The air still had a smell of charred plastic, burnt wood and insulation.

There was something heartbreakingly sad about looking into a pit that was the Gobbler's swimming pool, once filled with laughing children in inflatable beach rings and blase hipsters sipping mai-tais, now strewn with relics like theft-proof hotel coat hangers and half a pink toilet.

Pompeii could have been no more tragic. I pictured the building screaming as it burned like some inanimate Joan of Arc, proclaiming its sanctity unto ashen death.

Before we drove away into the sunset on Wisconsin I-94, I made sure to take souvenirs. A brick with two cracked blue pool tiles. A rusted coat hanger with a ring instead a that no one would ever try to steal again. And, most poignantly, a chunk of semi-precious pink rose quartz the size of my fist - somewhere in that morass was a piece of stone that possessed the power to draw love, peace, and harmony.

Surely, the gods were smiling, to allow me to keep such a gift, since that half a toilet I had my eye on was just too hard to pull out of the rubble.

"No Water For You!"

5/30/02 - On our recent Memorial Day weekend trip to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Indiana we stopped by Johnson Creek hoping to take some additional interior photos of the Gobbler restaurant (a.k.a. The "Round Stone"); unfortunately, it appears that the establishment has "bitten the dust" once more.

Driving eastbound on I-94, a large sign next to the restaurant reads, "Exit here for the NEW Gobbler!" - I'm not certain how old the sign was, but it didn't seem to be enough to stave off the eatery's recent closing.

There seems to be a newly-paved parking area adjacent to the Gobbler restaurant, which could be intended for a new building somewhere; and although the interior lights were on, a quick drive around the rear revealed several utility disconnection notices posted on the Gob's kitchen door - "no water for you!" The garbage man apparently hadn't been paid either, as the air was ripe with Eau de Olde Dumpster.

However, some unexpected treats awaited us; several food-service carts and steam trays were left outside by the trash, and one of the lavender tufted chairs (with some dings) was left out for the vultures. The chair we promptly rescued, and now graces our non-lavender living room.

Just think - nearly half a century's worth of Gobbler tushes have polished that vinyl seat!

"Sargon and His Wife": Beheaded!

Johnson Creek was practically deserted that Memorial Day Sunday (2002) - that, and the mild sunny weather emboldened us to do some spelunking in the Gobbler Motel ruins. The concrete foundation clearly shows the outlines of the round "Passion Pit" beds, with the nearby sunken hot tubs now filled with ash and debris.

At the motel entry, a square slab of concrete marks the spot where the faux fireplace stood, with rusty square holes where the Eyeball Railings once leered at guests.

Remember "Sargon and his wife"? The Gob's trusty luminous guardians of the front door have been beheaded, their headless corpses (with wires jutting out of their necks) warning trespassers away.

The Blue Door

Here, the swimming pool pit is still filled with the burnt jetsam of hostelry, like old chunks of bathtubs, toilets and shower stalls, and one lone pile of (seemingly inflammable) refuse sits atop the circular concrete slab - frankly, I'm surprised that no one has lit a bonfire atop Hartwig Hill yet! [Note (10/31/03): Has anyone burned the remains yet? - LR]

Several entry points to the underground led only to storage areas, where we found items like damp boxes of old documents and receipts dating back about 5 or 6 years, broken lavatory fixtures and empty paint buckets.

Oddly, one white toilet was placed squarely in the center of one basement room, like a ghostly throne...

View Underground

Something we didn't notice on our last trip in March was a small (now wrecked) miniature golf course on the northwest side of Hartwig hill next to a toppled "King Arthur's Inn" sign.

All that was left was a few very faded greenish plywood structures with muddy pieces of Astroturf™, a scaled-down railroad crossing sign and a little crushed chapel with plastic "stained glass" inserts. The toppled sign was in even worse shape - the printed plastic covering was ripped through, showing dozens of shattered fluorescent tubes inside.

Look closely at the debris on the stairs: empty chemical carboys, beer cans and cigarette butts. We're not the first ones to pay a visit! Inside we found an old white toilet, old pizza coupons and Christmas wrap; a broken shower stall door, and an old Dukane™ tube PA system, far too heavy and ungainly for even die-hard scavengers to pull up the litter-strewn steps.

NOTE: If you're planning a scavenger hunt to the old Gob, you may want to reconsider. We've been told by local residents that the motel wreckage is now under tight surveillance by the police and Sheriff's Departments. Frankly, the wreckage site is pretty dangerous - there's lots of loose footing, broken glass, sharp metal and rusty objects. Don't say we didn't warn you!

A Revelation

6/12/02 - We received some new background information today on the Gobbler from Carol O'Neil, a member of the Johnson Creek, WI village board. As a resident of the town, she had some interesting revelations on the property's history:
The restaurant has been opened and closed many times in the years since the original restaurant closed. (I think 6 times.) As of today, no one has applied to maintain the liquor license for the facility. The hotel was burned down just before Christmas by [the Johnson Creek] fire department. There are plans for a business subdivision in that area. There is supposed to be a Baymont Hotel built on the lower part of the hill. According to a valuable and reliable source, there is no tunnel between the hotel and the restaurant but I guess Mr. Hartwig had an idea to put a tram - such as those at ski hill, between the two buildings. This never happened. The parking a park and ride built by the DOT as part of the current construction project."
Our thanks to Carol O'Neil for providing this information.

Where's The Eyeball Railing?

But the real mystery is - what happened to that "eyeball" railing? We should all be watching Ebay to see if some poor sucker tries to sell it.

Passion Pit

Before and after: (At top image from a 1960's Gobbler Motel promotional booklet) This, sadly, is all that remained of the Motel back in May 2002.

While the distinctive turtle-shaped roof of the restaurant is still visible down the hill in the distance, all that's left on the hill are shadows and hollows on the concrete foundation. Although the picture at top is an artist's rendering of one of the Gobbler's "Passion Pits," the actual room layout is still clear, and all a devoted Gobbler fan can do is drop to the concrete and sob...

Last Look Up The Hill

A last view of the motel, taken in October 2001 during construction season in Johnson Creek. Note the two white satellite dishes at center left, and the Century 21™ office visible next to the telephone pole.

We hope you enjoyed the tour...and we hope you'll share your Gobbler thoughts or memoirs with our readers. Just click on the Guestbook link!

Monday, October 27, 2003

Gobbler Links

NOTE: There is an updated version of this post with fresh links and Wayback Machine links to defunct pages at

"My mom and my dad just both liked the color pink. Some people like green, some like blue, they liked pink."

Clarence Hartwig, Jr. from Linda Godfrey's "The Gobbler Lives"

Although the motel is gone, the Gobbler Restaurant has opened and closed rather frequently; so if you're interested in paying a visit, you may wish to contact the local Chamber of Commerce to check on its operational status.

Contact them at: Johnson Creek Area Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 527, Johnson Creek, WI 53038. Their phone number is (920) 699-8484. You can also visit the Jefferson County Tourism website at

NEW: picked up the recent Gobbler Motel thread on FARK, and mentioned Requiem for the Gobbler Motel in their March 2005 story, "The Mystery of the Gobbler Motel."

On Friday March 12, 2005, the Madison, WI Capital Times featured an article by columnist Doug Moe, "The Gobbler was one of a kind."

James Lileks' "Grooviest Motel In Wisconsin" - One of the definitive Gobbler resources. This extensive site features a selection of images from the motel and restaurant's promotional brochure, accompanied by Lileks' deliciously twisted commentary.

Linda Godfrey has a newly-renovated page on devoted to the Gobbler, Remembering The Gobbler Supper Club: A Turkey of A Restaurant, where you'll find some very nice photos of the restaurant interior (and that four-sectioned sofa that I didn't have the presence of mind to shoot when I had the chance!).

30-second TV ad for the Gobbler Restaurant (from 1980) in Windows Media Player (.wmv) format! Listen/watch at your own risk - just try prying that insanely catchy jingle out of your brain. It's on - a kaleidoscopic blend of classic Americana, with sections devoted to CB and amateur radio, transportation, old advertisements and more.

Architect Helmut Ajango's Gobbler page - Links directly to his 'Gobbler' page, but you can navigate the entire site from this location and view images of his varied creations through the years - including over one hundred churches, and a memorial in Ajango's native Estonia. Come to think of it, the Gobbler restaurant would make a dandy church; Protestant, of course.

Mark Wedel's "Chicago to the Gobbler" - You'll find some nice images taken within the past few years, showing the Gobbler's interior and exterior during its greener (and shaggier) days - as well as other interesting stops and sights from a trip he and Jules took to the Midwest.

chez smartygirl: live - Another fun personal account of a Midwest Gobbler pilgrimage (with photos) taken prior to the motel's demolition, during the "John-John's Rib House" (pre-2001) era.

David Broudy's Big Giant Gobbler Trip from a Y2k stay; when the place was, shall we say, in the dying mode. He also has some interesting hard-to-find shots and details of the original interior decor, and the rarely seen Gobbler Restaurant downstairs dining room on his Gobbler Photo album.

The Gobbler Lives: the great icon of 70's kitsch returns to Johnson Creek by Tenaya Darlington - Tenaya writing for the online Isthmus Daily Page (Madison, WI); here she provides an aesthetic and gastronomical critique of the 2002 'Round Stone Restaurant' incarnation of the Gobbler Restaurant.