For Yangs, memories of Happy Traveler Inn will outlast demolition

Published 5:22 pm Monday, March 7, 2022

SALISBURY — The landscape of East Innes Street will forever be changed when demolition crews bring down Happy Traveler Inn this week.

The faded turquoise and white motel standing at 1420 E. Innes St. will be leveled to make way for a car wash. While Salisburians will notice the change, few will feel the building’s loss more personally than Steve Yang.

The Happy Traveler Inn served as the backdrop to some of Steve’s most formative childhood years. Steve’s father, Gil, and mother, Moon, owned and operated the motel from 1978 to 1985. Steve fondly remembers learning to ride a bike in the motel parking lot. He has fewer fond memories of doing laundry and making beds.

“Most of my life has been tied to that business, that space, that land,” said Steve, a Salisbury dentist. “A lot of family history. Looking back at pictures and everything, you can tell there is some part of the motel in a lot of pictures.”

Before she sold the property last month, the motel was operated for decades by Steve’s aunt, Yuki Lee.

Lee took charge of the business after Steve mother, father, and 16-year-old brother, John, were killed in a car crash while driving to the beach. Steve survived the crash, which also claimed the life of a truck driver.

Lee says it’s time to part with the motel, but she will be sad to see Happy Traveler Inn go.

“I feel like I’m losing some family or something very important,” Lee said.

Steve was 8 years old when his parents decided to pack up and move across the country from Los Angeles to Rowan County.

Both Korean, Gil and Moon met in Texas during college. They returned to Korea to marry before settling down in Los Angeles. With violence on the rise, Gil looked east for a smaller, safer town to raise his family.

“He did get in a car and drove as far east as possible,” Steve said.

Gil and Moon purchased the Happy Traveler Inn for $635,000 in 1978. The motel was built in 1964 and was once called Quality Courts Motel.

Why Salisbury? Steve isn’t exactly sure, but Lee said she remembers Gil being charmed by the quaint town. Why the motel business? The answer to that question may be lost to time.

“How he chose Happy Traveler Inn as his business, I want to know the answer to that,” Steve said.

In those days, before I-85 became the heavily trafficked transportation artery it is today, the Happy Traveler Inn was one of just a few hotels in the area. The inn was used by Norfolk Southern as a layover spot for passenger train crew members, but it also welcomed NASCAR fans and furniture buyers planning to visit High Point’s market.

“Back then, the hotel business was not as populated as it is now,” Steve said. “Of course, Salisbury isn’t close to High Point or Thomasville, but due to supply and demand, a 30- or 45-minute drive was not lengthy for them because there weren’t enough hotels or motels close to that area.”

The motel boasted a pool out front, but the swimming area was removed when Innes Street widened. There also was a restaurant, well-known for its salad bar, that served three meals a day. Steve remembers eating there often. He also recalls the kindness of motel staff members who put up with two kids always hanging around.

“They had a lot of employees back then and I still remember they were very cordial and kind to my family,” Steve said. “Things like that you always remember. You don’t remember the names and faces, but you always remember the good deeds.”

The hospitality industry was demanding, and Gil was committed to ensuring Happy Traveler Inn lived up to its slogan: “Let us make you a happy traveler.”

“I remember twice on one beach trip I woke up and my dad had driven back to Salisbury because there was an issue,” Steve said.

Steve watched as his father trudged through the elements to make sure his motel was running during the coldest weeks of the year.

“The first three or four years, we lived in that duplex near the Happy Traveler, and it snowed at least 6 inches. And cars back then, four wheel drive was not very popular,” Yang said. “I remember him walking back and forth to work everyday for a week, walking through the snow.”

Lee didn’t plan on following in Gil’s footsteps when she flew to Rowan County in 1985 in wake of the car crash. She brought along her two children, Jhoon and Joyce, and planned to sort out the family’s affairs, sell the Happy Traveler and take Steve back to California.

But like Gil, she liked Salisbury and eventually decided to stay.

“Nice weather, nice people, nice neighbors,” Lee said.

Plus, she wanted to keep Steve in a place that was familiar to him.

Having owned a gift shop in Los Angeles, Lee knew a thing or two about business, but she had no prior experience in the hospitality industry. She didn’t let that stop her.

“It probably was a challenge for her,” said Lori Yang, Steve’s wife. “She’s a go-getter, not a very shy, timid person. She probably came in and took charge and kept it going.”

Lee put her own spin on Happy Traveler Inn, making changes that a teenage Steve didn’t always agree with. Now, Steve says he realizes his dissent likely stemmed from seeing the motel altered after his loss. Lee guided the motel over the years, adapting to changes in the industry and surviving as national chains such as Hilton and Holiday Inn came to town. It became increasingly difficult to renovate the motel, especially when vacancy rates increased.

Steve said Lee turned down several offers to sell Happy Traveler Inn in the previous 15 years. But at 84, Lee decided this year was finally the time to retire. For the first time in decades, she doesn’t have to worry about checking customers in or keeping rooms clean. That doesn’t mean she’s gotten used to retirement quite yet.

“Still my mind is motel,” Lee said.

The offer Lee finally accepted came from Will Whipple and Josh Moore, friends and business partners who have launched several car washes in the Carolinas. The duo is bringing Heroes Express Car Wash to Salisbury. It will be their first location in Rowan County.

Heroic characters created by Whipple and Moore will be represented throughout the car wash, which will boast a 130-foot-long tunnel.

“This will be a state-of-the-art car washing facility,” Whipple said.

The plan is to have Heroes Express up and running by the end of 2022.

“We’re just super excited to serve the Salisbury market,” said Whipple, a Raleigh native. “We love the town.”

Steve said it will be difficult to drive down East Innes Street and not see the Happy Traveler in its normal spot. Even so, he understands the motel was destined for demolition.

“Sometimes, change is inevitable,” he said.

Steve stepped foot in the Happy Traveler Inn for the last time in early January. He searched for any keepsakes to take with him and found a wall sign advertising Happy Traveler Inn that he’s stashed in a storage unit. The sign might be one of the last tangible remnants of the motel besides Yang family memories.

Steve isn’t the only one who will keep the memory of the building alive.

“There are still a lot of good stories I hear,” he said. “Even almost 40 years later.”

About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at ben.stansell@salisburypost.com.

email author More by Ben

Comments