Kemmons Wilson was born on January 5, 1913, in Osceola (Mississippi County) to Kemmons Wilson, who sold insurance, and Ruby “Doll” Wilson, a homemaker. He was their only child.His father died when Wilson was nine months old, and his mother took the baby to her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, where she found work as a dental assistant.
Wilson’s business career began when he was six and sold subscriptions to The Saturday Evening Post. When he was fourteen, he was hit by a car while making deliveries on his bicycle. He was told by doctors that he would never walk again.It took a year to recover, but he regained the use of his legs. After his mother lost her job during the Depression, he dropped out of Memphis’s Central High School to deliver newspapers, sack groceries, and work as a soda jerk. Borrowing fifty dollars from a friend in 1930, Wilson bought a popcorn machine and sold popcorn in a Memphis movie theater. By 1933, he had made $1,300 from his popcornbusiness and a pinball machine venture.
Wilson used his money to build a home for himself and his mother in Memphis. He then borrowed money against his house to buy into the local Wurlitzer jukebox franchise, later owning and operating several Memphis-area movie theaters and working in real estate. After serving in World War II and starting a successful homebuilding business in the 1940s, Wilsonbecame even more successful after taking a partner. Wallace E. Johnson of Memphis owned the largest and most successful homebuilding business in the South and was an officer of the National Home Builders Association when Wilson approached him about a partnership. Both Wilson and Johnson would later be quoted as saying their biggest piece of luck was having each other as a partner. Theirthirty-five-year-long partnership in homebuilding and real estate development proved rewarding for both entrepreneurs. By 1950, Wilson was a millionaire.
Wilson married Dorothy Lee and had five children by 1951. In August of that year, at his wife’s insistence, he took the family in their Oldsmobile (without air conditioning) on a vacation to Washington DC. Along their drive, they found accommodationswhich forced them to choose between expensive downtown hotels and “mom-and-pop” operations such as boarding houses and tourist courts. The accommodations were of varying quality and generally charged for each of his five children. At one lodging, the room was six dollars, and the Wilsons were also charged two dollars for each child. He decided that with more middle-class Americans traveling in thepost-war prosperity of the 1950s, families needed clean, comfortable places with air conditioning, the newly popular television, nearby food, and a swimming pool for the children to play in and adults to relax around.
Wilson saw the benefits of having a dependable chain with “no surprises” and no additional charge for children. He is quoted as saying, “In those days, you wouldn’t dream ofrenting a room without inspecting it first. I wanted to create a brand that people could trust.” His criteria set the standard for the hotel industry.
On August 1, 1952, he opened the first of four hotels in the Memphis area. He decided on the name Holiday Inn after the popular 1942 Bing Crosby film, which his draftsman had watched the night before submitting his plans. The very first Holiday Innwas on Memphis’s Summer Avenue, not far from today’s Graceland.
Using his movie theater experience, Wilson designed the green-and-gold Holiday Inn marquee along with the Cummings Company of Nashville to be bright, cheerful, and easily visible from the highway. A blinking arrow pointed to the office, while an illuminated sign promoted local gatherings such as civic clubs and proms. It was...