THE GLENRIO PONTIAC

Larry Travis’s Pontiac Catalina.

Of the many cars along Route 66, probably one of the most photographed and instantly recognizable is the white Pontiac in Glenrio, Texas. Everyone who visits the town takes a photo of it and, while they might congratulate themselves on identifying it as a 1968 Pontiac Catalina, very few will even give a second thought to how it ended up on the forecourt of a derelict gas station.  But there is a reason why the Pontiac is there.

The Texaco station forecourt on which it sits was built by Joseph (Joe) Brownlee in 1950, while the diner to the side – often known as the Little Juarez Diner – was originally called the Brownlee Diner and opened in 1952. Behind the gas station is the Joseph Brownlee house which was first built in 1930 in Amarillo and was then moved to Glenrio when Joe bought land there. It now houses Mrs Ruth Roxann Travis, Joe’s daughter and the one remaining resident of Glenrio; the dogs whose barking welcomes you to Glenrio belong to Roxann.

Roxann grew up in Glenrio, helping her father, along with her six brothers and sisters, at his two gas stations at a time when Route 66 was often nose-to-tail traffic. It all came to a grinding halt when Interstate 40 opened in 1973. Three years before, when she was just 19 and he three years older, Roxann had married Larry Lee Travis, a quiet young man from Darrouzzett. By 1975, however, everything was just about closed in Glenrio and Roxann and Larry now had a family, a little son called Michael Joe. So Larry approached a former employer, Don Morgan, and asked if he could rent the Standard Service Station on the east side of Adrian. Mr Morgan had closed the gas station a few months before and didn’t expect it to reopen. But he knew Larry was a hard worker and, after some persuasion, he agreed to rent the garage to him.

So, each day, Larry got in his white 1968 Pontiac Catalina and drove the 25 miles to Adrian to run the gas station. It wasn’t a job without risks – just the previous year a group of gas, shop and service station owners had banded together as a vigilante force to patrol the streets of Vega and Adrian. They never caught any criminals but nor were there any burglaries and robberies while they were on watch. By the beginning of 1976 the patrols had fizzled out and so there was no-one around but Larry when, after driving the Pontiac to work for the last time on the evening of 7th March, a 23-year-old Texan called Lewis Steven Powell entered the Standard Service Station. No-one knows what happened in those few minutes, whether Larry – proud of his hard work – refused to hand over his takings, but Powell made him kneel down and shot him in the back of the head before robbing the till.

The Pontiac Catalina in front of Joe Brownlee’s old Texaco gas station with, to the right, the Brownlee Diner which became the Little Juarez Diner.

Powell was a high school graduate who had served four years in the Navy and never been arrested, received a speeding ticket or been suspected of any mental disorder. But Larry was the second man he had killed in 36 hours. The police were already hunting the killer of Clyde Franklin Helton near Dallas and just the next day Powell was apprehended after a shoot-out in Colorado. In a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison. Life, in this case, meant just seven years before he was eligible for parole, although there would be a 40-year sentence waiting for him in Colorado as a result of firing at police during his arrest. But again, 40 years was a vague figure. Powell has been a free man for some time, although I am pleased to say that, as of May 2017, he was back in custody due to parole violations.

Despite sitting for 40 years, the Pontiac still looks like the car Larry loved.

Larry never came home again, but his Pontiac Catalina did, and it keeps silent sentinel in Glenrio, perhaps looking after Roxann as much as her dogs and her son, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Please remember, it’s not just another junk car parked for a Route 66 photo opportunity, respect the Private Property signs, it’s not for sale. It’s as much a part of Glenrio as Roxann Travis, and that is where it belongs.

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THE TOWN THAT NEVER WAS

KODAK Digital Still CameraSilverado was to be a shining new community for north-west Arizona. Situated just off US-93, outside Kingman, the 5000-acre site would have homes (around 113 luxury dwellings would stand on their own two-and-a-half acre plots), parks with barbecue grills and an 18-hole golf course designed by Forrest Richardson. Neighborhood communities were planned with 12,000 homes, schools, a fire station, shops and a sewage plant. ‘The quiet beauty of the surrounding desert’ would, said the developers, ‘enhance life’s daily experiences.’

And then, in 2008, the housing market crashed and so did the plans for Silverado. The owners applied to the Mohave County Board of Supervisors to rezone 1400 acres residential to general commercial/highway frontage to build the Albiasa solar plant. Although, despite controversy over how much groundwater this would use, the county approved the zoning in 2009, Albiasa never applied to the Arizona Corporation Commission for approval and the project was never built.

Just over three years ago, the Board of Supervisors unanimously denied allowing developers more time to meet the conditions of rezoning the property, putting the nail in the coffin for any future commercial development. You can still see the road layout on Google maps, although many of those roads are overgrown or with huge washes now bisecting them.

Today Silverado is returning to the desert. The dozen or so luxury houses that were built stand empty, some with their windows intact, some open to the elements. Many of these houses were days from completion, with their garage doors and light bulbs fitted. Some fittings have been removed but they’re surprisingly unvandalized. All that remains of the so-called dream community are these mouldering houses that never saw life and some faded boards along the highway exhorting people to buy land at Silverado Ranch.

ONLY ON A SATURDAY NIGHT

On a lonely stretch of Arizona’s Route 66, between Seligman and Kingman, where the loudest sound is the wind or a lonesome train horn or the skitter-skatter of tumbleweed across the tarmac, stands a tiny bar where once Saturday nights echoed to the sound of fiddle and guitar and boots tapping on a wooden floor.

Now the music has fallen quiet, but the sign in Valentine still remains, attracting and perplexing passers-by as to what exactly was Bert’s Country Dancing. Bert’s Country Dancing was a legend, but a small and modest legend in the way that people do things out here in a big country. Back when Bert Denton opened his little bar once a week on the side of Route 66, Valentine still had a population in three figures. In fact, in the 1970s, around 200 people lived in this tiny community. And then, of course, the interstate took the traffic away – and out here that meant it took the traffic miles away, not just a few yards away on the other side of a frontage road – but, for a while the people stayed and, on a Saturday night, they danced.

Bert Denton was born Elbert Riggs Denton on 28th February 1915 in Grants, New Mexico, the middle son of Elbert Sr and Ora Denton. The family would move to southern Arizona when all three boys, Edward, Elbert – or Bert – and Robert, were still small. Bert was 19 when his father, a cowpuncher, was bucked from a wild horse and died of a fractured skull the following day. But it didn’t deter the young man from becoming a cowboy and rancher himself and, for most of his life, he was involved in cattle ranching. While living in Gila County, Bert met Marjorie Myrtle Lan (always known as ‘Margie’). Margie had been previously married in 1930 when, at the age of 16, she wed Benjamin J Hinds who worked for the Inspiration Copper Co and lodged with her family. They had three children, Benjamin, Felix and Ruth, but the marriage didn’t work out and, by the time Benjamin was married in 1956, Bert was named in the announcement of the wedding as his father.

Mr Elbert Denton in 1987

A tough man at work, and one who served in the US Navy for over three years, Bert had a softer side, demonstrated in 1956 when the Arizona Republic published a photo of a litter of ten puppies housed at the city pound. The next day, the Denton household had one dog extra…

Both Bert and Margie were keen horsespeople and both qualified as Arizona 4-H horse show judges in the 1960s. Sadly, it wasn’t to be a long retirement, for Margie died at their home in Valentine in October 1976 at the age of just 63 years. It seems that Bert’s Country Dancing came into being shortly after this and it’s tempting to think that it was a way for the retired rancher to fill his time, as well as playing fiddle, guitar and harmonica in the band. He only ever wanted it to be a small country bar and the dancing was, dare I say it, more important than the dollar beer.

Closed, but the building is still hanging in there

But Valentine struggled in the modern day and tragedy beset the tiny settlement when post mistress Jacqueline Griggs was murdered in 1990. Two years later, the Arizona Republic newspaper carried a small piece on Valentine which, unsurprisingly, featured Bert, by then one of just 14 residents. He joked then that they were ‘dropping like flies’. Less than two years later, on New Year’s Day 1994, Bert himself died at the age of 78.

For a short time, Bert’s Country Dancing occasionally opened – for special events such as the 2002 Fun Run – but the little bar has been closed for many years now. But perhaps, sometimes, if you listen very hard you might just hear a few bars of fiddle music disappearing on the wind.

Visiting Bert’s Country Dancing at Bert’s Country Dancing Place