A visit to Colonial Beach always feels like a step back in time, and no place epitomizes that nostalgic feeling more than Doc’s Motor Court on the Potomac River beachfront.
It was the brainchild of Herbert Veolo “Doc” Caruthers, who wanted to start a business for himself in the late 1940s by capturing the budding market of post-World War II summer weekenders and vacationers looking to cool off in the waters of the Potomac.
Before long, he met Eleanor “Ellie” Crary. They married in 1951 and lived happily ever after for 59 years until Doc passed away in 2010 at the age of 83. In March 2019, Ellie passed away as well. She was 92. They had a daughter, Sarah M. Caruthers, who lived from 1962 to 2014.
More about Doc’s and Ellie’s love story in a minute—but let’s take care of some business first. To close out Ellie’s estate, the properties that hold the motor court, residence and caretaker’s cottage, totaling 0.7 acres, have been listed with Jimmy Coates of Exit Realty in Colonial Beach. The asking price is $1.2 million.
“It’s pretty much just as it always was. Families would come here, generation after generation,” Coates said during a tour of the motor court earlier this week. “We’re hoping that someone comes along who wants to fix it up.”
The main house is a bungalow located at 15 Beach Terrace and dates to 1933. It is in relatively good shape, with many of the interior plaster walls paneled halfway up with knotty pine wainscoting. It is listed with 1,508 square feet of living space and has three bedrooms and two full bathrooms.
The kitchen and bathrooms have some updated fixtures and appliances, but are otherwise largely original. The detached, two-car garage next to the house has front and rear doors.
The origins of the house are not entirely clear, but Coates explained that although Doc Caruthers wasn’t a doctor, his father was, and the elder Caruthers (Veolo Oglesby Caruthers Jr.) used a lower-level area of the house as his office for seeing patients.
Doc eventually inherited the house and Ellie continued to live there until shortly before her death. At the beginning, though, the newlyweds made their home in connecting motor court units No. 7 and No. 8.
The small caretaker’s cottage looks good with its Victorian front porch treatment, but is in rough shape inside, and a new owner would have the choice of restoring it or tearing it down, Coates said. It has salvageable features, such as the claw-foot tub in the bathroom.
Doc may have thought he and Ellie could make a living running the motor court, but once they were married, he decided to take a job at what was then called the Naval Ordnance Proving Ground at Dahlgren. The story goes that he informed Ellie after their honeymoon that the motor court was hers to manage from then on—a job she held for 60 years, give or take.
Until she married Doc, Ellie had worked as a nurse in Washington, D.C., and it became her passion to make sure the motor court guest rooms were “hospital clean,” even following up behind her maid to make sure.
Though it is located right next to the main house, the motor court’s address is 11 N. Irving Ave. There are 16 units in two parallel, single-level buildings. Coates said the motor court was built by his father-in-law, the late Shirley Gray.
The guest rooms are a basic combination of sleeping area, bathroom and closet. Some of the rooms have connecting interior doors for families looking for some generational privacy. Air conditioning is provided by individual in-wall units, but the rooms have no heat because the motor court was open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Though the motor court shut down as a business once Ellie could no longer keep it up, she would keep a few rooms tidy for longtime guests who would visit and bring their own bed linens and towels.
In August 2006, Free Lance–Star reporter Frank Delano wrote a story about Ellie’s work at the motor court that began:
“[Ellie Caruthers, then 79] usually arrives at work by 7 a.m. from her house next door. Her summer morning ritual is decades old. She turns off the old neon sign that has glowed all night on Irving Avenue and the yellow night light on the porch of the office. She removes the “No Vacancy” sign from the screen door.
“She picks up The Free Lance–Star in the driveway between the motel’s two buildings. She sits down in a wooden chair in front of Room No. 8 nearest the street. No. 8 is now used for storage. The chair has two broken slats in its seat. She leans the chair back against the wall, puts her feet on the rungs and opens the paper.
“The front desk of Doc’s Motor Court is open and ready for business.”
Delano’s story about Ellie includes Doc, who had retired at Dahlgren in 1983. Doc recounted that in 1946, when he was 19, he and his buddies took a road trip to Florida and stayed at places called motor courts along the way. Travelers could spend the night with their car conveniently right outside the door.
When he got home, Doc persuaded his father to help him build a motor court on the vacant lot next to their riverfront house. The buildings cost $25,000 to build and $5,000 to furnish, he said. When the motor court was completed in 1949, guests would pay $6 a night to stay there.
If 1949 was already a good year for Doc, it would get even better. It was the same year, Ellie said, that she met the “handsome devil” on the beach.
The motor court turned out to be a better idea than Doc thought. In the 1950s, Maryland, which owns the Potomac River up to the Virginia shoreline, legalized gambling, and several piers holding casinos were built from Colonial Beach into the river. After a magazine called Colonial Beach “The Las Vegas of the East Coast,” the “No Vacancy” sign went up almost every night.
Even after the first Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened in 1952, many people from the Washington area preferred coming to Colonial Beach instead of making the long trip to Ocean City, Md.
Sometimes, Doc recalled then, families would book a week’s vacation at the motor court, but would have to cut it short when dad lost all of this money at a casino on the first night.
Hopefully subsequent trips would not end so abruptly.