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 and erroneously known as the Little Juarez Diner – it was never called that) 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.
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.
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.