Route 66 News

Former owner of the Elms Motel of Miami dies

James Leonard Swinney Jr., the former owner of the long-gone Elms Motel on Route 66 in Miami, Okla., and son of the founder of the closed Swinney’s Hardware on Route 66 in Tulsa, died at age 98 on Dec. 28 in Albuquerque, according to an obituary in the Grand Lake News in Oklahoma.

Swinney owned five gas stations in Tulsa during the 1940s and ’50s and became better-known as a huge proponent and early developer of the Grand Lake area in northeastern Oklahoma, especially Monkey Island.

Details of his tenure as an Elms Motel owner and of the motel itself are scant. The postcard image above dates to 1957, so the motel was at least that old.

Online records and a recent Miami News-Record column show the Elms was in the 1300 block of North Main Street in Miami, behind where the Edwards Retail Package Store is now (map here).

A description of the motel on the back of the postcard:

16 Ultra Modern Units, Air-Conditioned by Refrigeration, Vented Wall Furnaces, Wall-to-wall Carpets, Tile Showers, Radios In each room. Designed for Comfort, Safety and Convenience of the Guest. Located on North Main, Miami, Okla. On U. S. Highways 66 and 69.

Unfortunately, the Elms Motel became best-known for being where a Miami police officer was fatally shot in 1988. Officer BJ Tunnell, 27, died after being shot at point-blank range during a struggle with a criminal he was trying to detain at the motel. The motel’s owner and another officer killed the shooter with gunfire. Tunnel’s death was the first officer in Miami to die in the line of duty in more than 50 years.

I strongly suspect the motel was demolished not long after that. In researching the history of old motels on Route 66, they’re usually not long for this world after a homicide such as that one.

The motel should not be confused with the Elm’s Motel in Claremore, Okla., which is still operating on Route 66.

Swinney’s father founded Swinney’s Hardware in 1941 on an older alignment of Route 66 in Tulsa at 32 S. Lewis Ave. James’ brother John ran the store for many years until it closed in 2008. At last check, the building was being converted into an antiques mall.

This part of Swinney’s obituary made me smile:

James was fascinated by gadgets and technology and strove to keep abreast of the latest. He got his first computer at age 72 and became fairly proficient with it for 25 years, while his wife complained she was still trying to understand the telephone. He loved puzzles and games and, for his opponents, the name of the game was always “beat Swinney,” which rarely happened. He was a great storyteller and never lost his dry sense of humor, still joking with nurses in his final days.

Swinney was married to his wife, Frances, for more than 70 years, until she died in 2007. The funeral for Swinney was private.

UPDATE: Phil Gordon did a little digging into his memorabilia collection and found this:

My 1952 AAA Tour Book on page 201 lists The Elms and says this:

“A very nice new court on landscaped grounds. Large, well-decorated units have one or two rooms, tiled shower or tub baths, free radios, thermostatically controlled floor furnaces or vented heat; garages. Air cooling or air conditioning. . . ”

There were 16 units in the motel and rates for one person were $5 and for two persons $5 – $6.50.  The motel was AAA-approved.

Gordon found no listing for the Elms Motel in any the late 1940s editions. So it seems safe to say it was built in the early 1950s.
(Image of a Elms Motel postcard courtesy of the Illinois Digital Archives)


One thought on “Former owner of the Elms Motel of Miami dies

  1. Lee Sundermeyer

    RIP, Mr. Swinney. During their heyday, these motels were delightful roadside sanctuaries. Most had air conditioning when many of the homes of their guests did not (like ours), Wall-to-wall carpeting was all the rage in the 50s and 60s. And i you were really lucky, there would be a swimming pool….

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: