A COUNTERFEIT STORY

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The former Conoco station between Arcadia and Luther, Oklahoma.

Just between Arcadia and Luther, Oklahoma, on Route 66, is a small stone ruin on the side of the road. There’s a homemade sign which says ‘HISTORICAL BUILDING “RT 66”’ but no further explanation.

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The front of the Conoco station where the pumps would have once stood.

This was once a Conoco gas station, one of the earliest in this part of the country, and one of the few of which anything remains. Despite its age – it was probably built around the early 1920s and certainly pre-dates Route 66 – there would be little to mark it from any other stone ruin were it not for the fact this little place has a story. But is it story or myth?

 

This place doesn’t even appear to have had a name – I’ve seen it referred to as the Old Rock station, but that might simply be a handy description rather than an actual title. However, as it stands on the edge of land belonging to the Rock of Ages Farm, it seems as useful a shorthand as any. The gas station had two fuel pumps, one for regular gas and one for ethyl, as well as dispensing drums for oil and kerosene. The latter was necessary because electricity was a long way from making it out to this remote spot and most homes and buildings used kerosene lamps. So far it was no different from the dozens of little gas stations that sprang up to service the growing wave of motorists.

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The fireplace at the rear of the store which would have been the only source of heat.

But, so the story will have it, despite bearing the Conoco name, the place fell upon hard times, and sometime in the 1930s, a passing salesman offered to sell the owners printing plates for making counterfeit $10 bills. It was, apparently, too good an opportunity to miss. A small room was built on the back of the already tiny building, the entrance to this hideaway through a rear window which was kept boarded up. The bills were printed one side at a time but clearly they weren’t quite the key to fortune the station’s owners had hoped; when one of them was arrested while trying to pass one of the phony bills, the police searched the fuel station and found the printing plates. The gas station closed and never re-opened.

It’s a great story. The trouble is there is no evidence that it ever happened.

Back in the 1930s, the newspaper was king and Oklahoma possessed several lively papers that covered every scrap of news available. Yet there is no mention of any counterfeiting ring at the Old Rock or, for that matter, anyone from Luther being arrested for just about anything. Counterfeiting was a popular crime during the 1930s and the newspapers of the time covered many such police investigations and trials in huge detail, but not one mentioned anywhere or anything that could be conceivably linked to the Conoco station.

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Lyle Dean Melton (left) and Red Abbott. Probably not hardened counterfeiters…

There is no trace of the hidden room at the ruin or even any indication of how it might have been constructed, while the only known photograph of the operating gas station is not only clearly marked ‘1940’ – after the supposedly crime and closure. It also names the two men in the photo as ‘Red Abbott’ and ‘Lyle Melton’ and it’s a reasonable supposition that they either owned or worked there. Red Abbott seems lost to time, but Lyle, 29 years old when the photograph was taken, was from a large family which had settled in Luther. There’s no evidence that he was ever in trouble (least of all for counterfeiting) and, although he and his wife Mary later moved away, they are both buried in Luther Cemetery, along with his parents and four of his ten siblings. None of the family were born in the little town; they were from Christian, Missouri, but clearly they were sufficiently attached to Luther to make it their place of eternal rest, which might not necessarily have been the case if one member of the family had been a notorious local criminal.

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The window in the rear wall was, apparently, the entrance to the hidden room where $10 bills were printed.

It’s not the only dubious but unsubstantiated claim to criminal fame given to Luther. Several notable books on Route 66 state that it was near the gas station that, a few days after Christmas 1950, serial killer Billy Cook abducted and killed the Mosser family from Illinois. However, the unfortunate Mossers didn’t get as far as Luther; when they stopped for a hitchhiker it was between Claremore and Tulsa, some way further east. But sometimes the story is just better than the truth…

THE ELIZALDE CEMENT WORKS

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Just south of Beatty, Nevada, is the Elizalde Cement Factory which was built by the Carrara Portland Cement Company at the beginning of the 1940s.

ooAlthough officially known as the Carrara Portland Cement Company Plant, it was usually referred to as the Elizalde works after Angel M Elizalde, a major investor in the plant and director of the company. At the time, it was intended to be one of the most advanced plants of its kind in the USA with houses for the workers. It would produce commercial grey cement and also a fancy high quality cement made from the crushed marble and clay from the nearby Carrara quarry.

oooooooHowever, the factory never went into operation. The popular notion is that it provided to be too costly and logistically difficult to move the cement. Whether that’s true or not, just a month before production was due to start in July 1941, a fire completely destroyed the machine shop, storehouse, blacksmith shop and an office. A few weeks later, the Carrara Portland Cement Company at Carrara closed down, apparently unable to find parts to replace those lost in the fire.

oooThe company, however, announced its intention to continue, and then Pearl Harbor happened. The advent of fuel rationing in the following spring made it impossible for the company to run its machinery and transport its goods, even if it had been able to get the plant back up and running, which, without sufficient diesel was impossible. It was abandoned, although some of the machinery remained for several years. Today, the only visitors are those wielding aerosol cans or those who’ve glanced up from Highway 95 and been curious to drive the deteriorating track.

 

THE TRADING ATKINSONS OF ROUTE 66

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THE REMAINS OF THE RATTLE SNAKE TRADING POST, BLUEWATER, NM, 2015

In a time when almost every town along Route 66 had a trading post, one small place spawned two families who would not only establish networks of stores but who would, in the 21st century, still be in business.

In the 1940s, Bluewater in New Mexico was home to trading posts owned by Claude Bowlin, the man behind what would become Bowlin’s Travel Centers of which there are 10 across New Mexico and Arizona, but also to the Atkinson family. The Atkinsons were from Texas and during the Great Depression, Leroy Atkinson, the oldest brother of three, headed to New Mexico with his wife and just $18 dollars in his pocket. Leroy was a high school football star when he met Wilmerine Bollin and they had been married in 1935; he was 19 and his wife 17. Leroy found work at the Three Hogans Trading Post in west of Lupton and was later joined by his two young brothers, Herman and Jake.

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LEROY ATKINSON’S BOX CANYON TRADING POST WHICH WAS DEMOLISHED IN A REALIGNMENT OF ROUTE 66 IN 1953

In 1943, Leroy started the Box Canyon Trading Post on the Arizona/New Mexico state line on land leased from Harry Miller, the man who had developed Two Guns. (This was shortly after Miller had been being tried for murder – but that’s another story). The Box Canyon Trading Post prospered; it had a gas station, auto court, store and café. Oh, and live buffalo. However the growth in traffic that ensured its short-term success was also its downfall. The increasing traffic on Route 66 resulted in the road being realigned and running straight through the trading post. In 1953 the Box Canyon Trading Post was demolished and Leroy and Wilmerine moved to Arizona.

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JAKE ATKINSON’S RATTLE SNAKE TRADING POST, BLUEWATER, NM, IN ITS PRIME

In the meantime, the other two brothers had also moved into the retail trade. In 1945, middle brother Jake and his wife Maxine bought the Brock Trading Post from Victor Holmes after briefly running the Stateline Trading Post a mile west of Leroy’s emporium. In order to attract passing trade, they tied burros to the gas pumps, staged cockfights and, most spectacularly, renamed it the Rattlesnake Trading Post. It did indeed have rattlesnakes as well as a café and a night club. Billboards along the highway also advertised that you could see the skeleton of a 48-foot long prehistoric reptile. Anyone who looked closely at that marvel might have wondered why it was made out of a cow skull, cow vertebrae and a good quantity of plaster.

JAKE ATKINSON'S RATTLE SNAKE TRADING POST AT BLUEWATER, NEW MEXICO. C.1952

In 1951, Jake and Maxine sold the trading post to her sister and brother-in-law who kept the name, if not the reptile gardens. But it had clearly given Herman, the youngest brother, an idea. Arriving home from the services, he decided to start his own reptile-inspired ranch. On 1st May 1946, 26-year-old Herman and his 24-year-old wife, Phyllis, opened the Lost Canyon Trading Post a mile and a half east of Grants near what is now Airport Road. To attract trade, they bought two baby boa constrictors which they advertised as the ‘Den of Death’. When the pair of snakes brought in more customers than the souvenirs, he decided to build a large reptile house and charge admission. By the early 1950s, Atkinson’s Cobra Gardens had around 300-400 snakes, including rattlesnakes, anacondas, pythons and cobras. It was the collection of cobras in the USA and attracted thousands of visitors from both home and abroad.

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HERMAN ATKINSON’S COBRA GARDENS NEAR GRANTS. c 1952

However the heyday of the Cobra Gardens lasted less than ten years. Although it made Herman a very successful man, he sold the trading post in 1953, quietly selling his collection of snakes through the classified ads of Billboard in an ad that began GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. He listed a ’13 foot, heavy’ African python for $300, down to ‘assorted small rattlesnakes, $1’ from his home at 51 East Congress Street in Tucson.

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HERMAN ATKINSON, THE COBRA KING. 1953

Herman had seen which way the wind was blowing. The area was moving towards mining and not tourism and there was talk that an interstate highway was planned that would bypass Route 66. He sold the Cobra Gardens and it became the somewhat less threatening Cactus Garden Trading Post. Herman and Phyllis moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he established Atkinson’s Trading Post, which he ran until his death in 2009 at the age of 89. His wife, Phyllis, passed away three years later but their daughter Marilyn continues to operate the store. After he sold the Cobra Gardens, Herman never had anything else to do with reptiles.

Leroy opened the Indian Village company in Tucson with Jake, with Jake eventually taking it over. The company is still in the Atkinson family, now run by Jake’s son, John. Jake and Leroy both passed away in the late 1980s and little remains of the Atkinson’s early roots. The Box Canyon Trading Post disappeared underneath Route 66; the Cobra Gardens was demolished in 2011 and the only building that remains is Jake’s store in Bluewater. Look closely and you can see, across the front of a crumbling building, faded paint that reads RATTLESNAKES. Listen hard and you might just hear on the wind the excited chatter of travellers, pulling off 66 to stroke a burro and see a real live rattlesnake…