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When you picture Memphis back in the 1950s, what do you imagine? For many people, the first thing that comes to mind is the King himself, Elvis Presley. Even today, Elvis’s allure is mainly responsible for putting Memphis on the map; it still draws thousands of tourists to Graceland annually. But the 1950s offered up another world-changing (albeit less recognized) figure who made his mark on Memphis in the same era – Kemmons Wilson. Kemmons opened the first Holiday Inn on August 1, 1952.

Humble Beginnings

Kemmons Wilson had humble beginnings. He was born in Osceola, Arkansas (about an hour north of Memphis), along the Mississippi River. After the death of his father when he was only nine months old, Kemmons’s mother, Doll, moved to Memphis. Doll was a single mother, and as Kemmons got older, he dropped out of high school to work and provide for their small family.

A hard worker with a knack for business, Kemmons was known for coming up with great entrepreneurial ideas. According to his oldest granddaughter, Carey Snider, the idea for Holiday Inn emerged while on a road trip. By this time, Kemmons had married Dorothy Elizabeth Lee, and together they had five children. He decided to take the family, along with his mother, on a road trip up to Washington, DC.

Kemmons and Dorothy Smiling for the Camera in formal wear
Dorothy and Kemmons attend a black-tie event | Image: Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation

Inspiration in Unlikely Places

At that time, hotels were usually run by small businesses that did not regulate the sizes or rates of their rooms. After agreeing to a specific room and price, he was told that it cost $2 extra per child for the room. Carey says that this was when Kemmons came up with the idea for Holiday Inn.

He told his mother he wanted to build a hotel where the rooms came in predictable sizes and styles, and children stayed for free. “He standardized the hotel industry. He was the first one to do that,” Carey says. When he came back home to Memphis, he began to work in earnest on his new hotel concept, and in 1952, he was ready to open his first hotel on Summer Avenue.

The name came about by happenstance. Kemmon’s friend Wallace Johnson was drawing up the hotel plans to show investors and happened to be watching the film Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire at the same time. He simply added the name “Holiday Inn” to the drawings as a placeholder, but Kemmons Wilson decided he liked it and kept the title when the hotel opened.

Black and white photo ribbon cutting with children in front of a Holiday Inn
Children help with a ribbon cutting for a new Holiday Inn | Image: Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation

Spreading Like Wildfire

In 1998, Kemmons Wilson, along with writer Robert Kerr, released a book called Half Luck and Half Brains. The title was a saying and a way of life that Kemmons embodied through his work with Holiday Inn and other businesses. A combination of hard work, vision, and faith, along with smarts and good business acumen, led to enormous success.

Though Ray Kroc is often credited with developing the business franchising model, Kemmons pioneered the idea and grew Holiday Inn into an enormous franchise success, the first of its kind.

Kemmons and Dorothy pose with a portrait in front of a Holiday Inn Sign
Kemmons and Dorothy celebrate his retirement | Image: Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation

There was also a bit of luck on his side. Kemmons’s hotel concept coincided with the growing interstate network, making road-tripping and hotel stays even more popular. His instincts told him to base the hotels on the outskirts of cities along the highways, which helped the business grow quickly.

In just one year, there were three more Holiday Inns in the Memphis area. In five years, there were over 30 hotels, with the numbers growing exponentially each year. Today, though the brand is no longer owned by the Wilson family, Holiday Inn has become a household name with properties all over the globe. The international network of hotel chains and franchises represents the work that Kemmons Wilson started in 1952.

The Kemmons Legacy in Memphis Today

Though so much has changed since those early days on Summer Avenue (the original location was demolished in 1994), the company is still making its mark on Memphis through the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation. Kemmons and Dorothy opened the foundation for charitable giving in the 1960s, and Kemmons Wilson sold his interest in the company in 1990. It wasn’t fully funded until after he died in 2003. Since then, his five children and at least five grandchildren have been on the board and allocate funds for worthy projects in the city.

Photo of Kemmons and Dorothy standing in front of a river
Kemmons and Dorothy Wilson smiling for the camera | Image: Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation

Tate Wilson, the CEO of the foundation, who is also married to Kemmons and Dorothy’s youngest grandchild, is proud of the work the foundation has been able to do in Memphis since its inception. She says that, historically, they have primarily given to large foundations, including starting the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management at the University of Memphis. They also support the Baptist Center for Good Grief, a grief counseling center that provides free support for grieving families.

While the foundation has continued to support these established programs over the years, the younger generations of the Wilson family are working on new projects. Tate shared that the board agreed to get the majority of our grantmaking budget to work in Soulsville and South City. Starting with partnerships like Anasa Troutman at The Big We Foundation and Rebecca Hutchinson at SCORE CDC, Tate Wilson says, “We’re building out this web of relationships, and hope that we can be a part of seeing South Memphis revitalized, not gentrified.”

A celebration at Crosstown Arts red spiral stairway with balloons and many people
The foundation celebrates at the Crosstown Concourse | Image: Kemmons Wilson Family Foundation

Ultimately, Tate says the foundation’s goal is “to see a Memphis where all Memphians have access to the resources that they need to thrive.” Carey brought it all into focus when she said, “We do it all with our grandparents in mind and just knowing that we want to honor them and the city that they loved.”


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About the Author
Jordan Arellano