THE BRITISH AIRMEN OF MIAMI

Frantie Mae ‘Frances’ Hill tending to the graves of her boys, marked then by white wooden crosses.

In Miami, Oklahoma, there is a stop of which many Route 66 travellers are unaware, even the British tourist to whom it would be of most significance. On the side of Route 66 to the north side of town is the Grand Army of the Republic cemetery, which dates back to 1899. Among the thousands of graves spread over 18 acres are 15 sombre headstones in a row, each one signifying the resting place of a young British airman.

One of only six training schools in the USA at the time, the No 3 Spartan School of Aeronautics opened in Miami on 31st July 1941 to train air crew. Great Britain’s Royal Air Force decided that, America having not entered the Second World War at that point and being thousands of miles from the theatres of war, it would be an ideal place to train its airmen. Over the next four years, some 2124 RAF cadets would train in Oklahoma (some under the initial impression that they were actually heading for Florida). Peter McCallum was one of the first cadets and wrote home, ‘You could just imagine what a wonderful place [this] is… All the food is fancy. We fly from 7am till 12.’ Sadly, McCallum was one of the first Miami cadets to be killed when his plane crashed; he is among the British flyers buried in the GAR cemetery.

The Union Jack flying above the RAF airmen’s graves.

Many of the young British cadets were just teenagers, many homesick, and Miami residents took these boys to its heart, but none more so than Frantie Mae ‘Frances’ Hill. She was old enough to be the mother of many of the boys – ten of those fifteen airmen who lie in the GAR Cemetery were 21 or younger – and one of the many Miami folk who welcomed them to the town. Her daughter Rosie, said that her parents’ friendship with the cadets began in the early 1940s when a Miami country club hosted a dance for the young trainee pilots and Frances and her husband, Claude, particularly hit it off with one Jack Taylor. Jack did not survive the war, and when Frances noticed that two of the graves in the GAR cemetery were looking shabby (one of which belonged to Peter McCallum), she decided she had to ‘do something for Jack’s countrymen’.

For the next forty years she regularly walked three miles from her home to tend the graves and plant them with roses and irises. Every holiday she decorated the graves and their simple wooden crosses (these were replaced with stone markers in 2014). She did this without show, but simply because she regarded them as ‘her boys’. She also kept in touch with many of the families, sending them photographs of the decorated graves.

The King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom; Mrs Hill’s medal was one of 2539 awarded.

In June 1947, George VI presented Frances with the King’s Medal of Service in the Cause of Freedom, but most people in Miami had no idea she had been accorded this honour until after her death. In 1989, the Number 3 British Flying Training School Association erected a monument in her honor with the following tribute: “Mrs. F.M. Hill of Miami, buried alongside, voluntarily tended these fifteen British airman’s graves and helped their loved ones from 1941-1982. These selfless human actions were unknown to most. She was awarded ‘The King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom’ by King George VI. Thanks to Mrs. Hill from the graduates of Number 3 British Flying Training School Association.”

The marker erected to the memory of Frances Hill from the training school graduates.

She tended the graves without fanfare because she was determined that someone would always care about these young airmen. Until she was too frail, shortly before her death in 1982 at the age of 84 (she had been a widow for over twenty years by then), she made sure the boys always looked smart. Her wish was to be buried alongside the fifteen airmen and that is where she rests.

 

 

The British Commonwealth headstones of the British air cadets.

A LITTLE PLACE IN THE DESERT

Collapsing mine processing building.

A ghost town in Nye County, Bonnie Claire is now little more than haphazard timbers clinging together in the semblance of buildings and old mine workings.

It didn’t seem wiser to get any closer to what seemed like quite a deep shaft.

North of what is now Nevada State Route 267, Bonnie Claire began in 1906 as a tiny settlement, originally to service nearby mines (although there had been a camp, Thorp or Thorp’s Wells, out here since the 1880s) with mills owned by the Bonnie Clare Bullfrog Mining Company. In September of that year, the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad was extended and the new station was named the Montana Station. However, when the townsite was established, it was known as Bonnie Claire. The Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad soon also laid lines to the new town.

The Bonnie Claire Mine, now private property and fenced off.

Within eight years, mining was virtually played out in the area and Bonnie Claire might have disappeared at that point, But, when Albert Mussey decided to build a holiday home in Death Valley, Bonnie Claire had a brief resurgence. For three years from 1925 to 1928, all the construction materials for Scotty’s Castle were delivered to Bonnie Claire station. However, when that project ground to a halt in 1928, the railroad closed, the tracks removed in 1931, the post office closed, and Bonnie Claire’s fate was sealed. There was a small flurry of activity during the 1940s and early ’50s, but since then the town has gradually fallen apart.

 

 

 

The Huson House, with an extension in the form of a vintage trailer.

One of the last official residents of Bonnie Claire was A Victor Huson, a local miner, who lived here in the 1950s with his wife, Mellie. Vic Huson died in 1961 and is buried in nearby Beatty. In complete contrast to Bonnie Claire, Mellie saw her years out in Las Vegas, living to the age of 92.

 

 

Rapidly deteriorating mine building; six years ago this still had the roof framework.

That speaker probably doesn’t date back to the 1940s…

Interior of one of the mine buildings.

The Huson House.

 

SIGN OF THE TIMES

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On a lonely stretch of Route 66 east of Newberry Springs, California stands a sign. It’s not much of a sign and, as the years go by, it’s becoming even less of one. It sags in the middle as if one good gust of wind would destroy it forever but it’s still just possible to read CAFE MOTEL with an arrow beneath. Now that arrow points to nothing but desert and the remains of an old trailer, but once this was quite literally a Desert Oasis.

In his A Guide Book to Highway 66, Jack Rittenhouse notes two gas stations at this point within a half mile of each other, one ‘with cafe, few cabins and garage’ and the other ‘similar but lacking a garage’. Rather frustratingly, at a time when every clutch of houses merited its own name, Mr Rittenhouse doesn’t cite place names but in 1939, seven years before his book, the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration produced a guide to California in which it names two places, Mojave Water Camp and Guyman (‘each has its small knot of sun-bleached buildings’) which are very likely the sites of Rittenhouse’s two stations.

The Mojave Water Camp service station. Note the cabins to the left of the main building.

It’s also likely that, by the time the Guide Book to Route 66 was published, the Mojave Water Camp no longer existed. The last tangible evidence of its existence is in a 1939 photograph by Burton Frasher which shows a Shell station and cafe with a small row of cabins beside it. Some sources say that two service stations were incorporated into one, but contemporary reports speak of two separate establishments a half mile apart.

Poe’s Cafe in 1949.

Down the road from the Mojave Water Camp, the gas station at Guyman was bought and redeveloped by Ed Poe, who built a new modern cafe building which proclaimed POE’S CAFE in a square sign and advertised chicken dinners on the front of the cafe. From there on, the place was always known as Poe’s Cafe and the area became generally known as Poe or Poe Town. By 1949, it was ‘Poe’s Cafe and Continental Bus Stop’ and sold Shell fuel although, according to a legal notice in the Bakersfield Californian the following spring, it was by then a Texaco station. A few cabins – or the motel – were added on the side of Route 66.

The Desert Oasis Cafe in the 1950s, to judge by the gas pumps. The Poe’s Cafe sign has been replaced and awnings fixed over the windows, while the gas station now retails Richfield fuel.

Poe sold the business in the early 1950s and it was renamed the Desert Oasis, although the name never really took. To the end of its days, the place was known as Poe’s Cafe. Once again, it changed brands, becoming a Richfield station. However, as with other places along the busy highway, not all travellers were filled with good intentions and a desire for a piece of home-cooked pie. In September 1952, a waitress at Poe’s Cafe fell to talking with 33-year-old Robert Elmer Jensen. He persuaded her into his car with the promise of a better job and then took her on a 24-hour ride during which he raped her twice. The waitress managed to escape although she would never have to testify against Jensen who was shot dead by Pennsylvania state police a month later.

Five years later, Poe’s service station – the name Desert Oasis didn’t catch on with the San Bernadino County Sun newspaper – was destroyed by fire after all three pumps caught fire on the evening of 17th April 1957. Fire department units from the nearby Marine Base and the California Department of Forestry at Hesperia found the service station engulfed by fire but they managed to save the cafe, which the San Bernardino County Sun was still calling Poe’s Cafe when, in 1974, it reported on two Daggett juveniles breaking in and stealing food stuff.

From then, Poe’s Cafe quietly disappears into history. Except for that crumbling and broken sign on the side of the highway, for that very sign was intended to entice travellers off Route 66. And then, of course, there was no more Route 66 and no-one wanting to stop for a bed or pie, but the sign still carries on doing its job, long after Poe’s Cafe had vanished into the desert.

All that’s left of Poe’s Cafe, service station and motel.

THE BIGGEST SKULL IN ARIZONA

I’ll admit that I will drive a long way for a Big Something, and who wouldn’t drive down to the very south of Arizona to see a 30-foot-tall cow skull? Sadly, it’s not real although maybe that’s a good thing; Arizona can be lively enough without cattle the size of four story buildings roaring about.

 This particular skull stands just off Highway 90 on South Nogales Highway, around 25 miles south of Tucson. For years it welcomed diners to the Longhorn Grill although the skull was originally constructed for a bait shop which stood between two lakes, now long gone. Made of concrete, it was the work of Michael Kautza who was also responsible for other huge sculptures in Tucson.

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Over its life time, the building it dominated housed various different businesses including a clothing store and a roofing company, but for much of its life it was the Longhorn Grill (as well as featuring in several movies such as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). In 1993, Ed Madril started the restaurant but, by 2012, business had dropped off so much that the building was in foreclosure. It went on the market with a price tag of $319.000, and then $299,000, but was sold at auction to a buyer from Patagonia, Jeff Ladage, for $155,000. However, that sale fell through.

20170415163817090464000000-oBack on the market, the Longhorn Grill was purchased by John Gourley for a knockdown $130,000 who turned the place into part events centre, part gallery. Gourley, a metal sculptor and retired real estate broker, intended to add large murals and palm trees and spent thousands of dollars on cleaning the place up. The idea was that it would host weddings, parties and community events. However, Amado is a tiny town with a population of less than 300 people. The Longhorn Grill could accommodate most of them at once (and cook for a third of them at time thanks to its barbecue pit on which could be grilled a hundred burgers at a time) and it seems that the area just didn’t have that much call for an events venue.

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Today the Longhorn Grill and its famous skull are silent and up for sale again for a substantial $325,000. People stop for a photo of the massive head and then themselves head across the road to the Cow Palace for a burger.

 

 

THE FINEST DRUG STORE IN CREEK COUNTY

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For years, the Coppedge Drug Store has been just a roofless shell. Just behind, on the left, can be seen Dr Coppedge’s house.

Depew in Creek County, Oklahoma, is a small town with one main claim to fame. It was, by all accounts, the first town on Route 66 to be bypassed by a later alignment. In fact, Route 66 ran through the main street of Depew for just two years; by 1928, a realignment meant that traffic now flowed three blocks north of the town’s main thoroughfare. The town’s population began to decline shortly afterwards and now stands at little more than 400 people.

The town was established in the first decade of the 20th century and almost died completely in May 1909 when a tornado wiped it off the map. However, two years later, Depew boomed after an oil field in nearby Salpulpa saw the Salpulpa & Oil Fields Railroad construct a line from Depew to Shamrock in Texas. Within ten years, Depew had three grocery stores, two barbers, three service stations, four hotels, two theatres, a Ford dealership, a funeral home, three lumberyards and as many churches. It also had the Coppedge Drug Store, one of the best drug stores in the area (and certainly in Creek County), thanks to Dr Oscar Sterling Coppedge.

In the 1920s, the large plate glass windows must have been an impressive sight on Main Street.

Dr Coppedge had moved to the area from St Louis, Missouri, as a young man; his father Benjamin Thomas Coppedge was a dentist who had opened a drug store in neighbouring Bristow in 1903. But Oscar Coppedge had bigger plans. In 1920 he started construction of a modern brick building on Main Street, Depew, to house his drug store. In May of that year, the local newspaper, the Depew Independent, proclaimed; ‘The walls are about completed on the Coppedge building. This is a dandy brick and when the Doctor gets his new $4,000 soda fountain and other new fixtures installed he will have one of the finest drug stores in this part of the country.’ By August, it was almost ready to open and the Independent gushed; ‘Dr. Coppedge has been having a tile floor put in his new building this week. It is the finest floor in town and has been the cause of much favorable comment.’

The coming of Route 66 in 1926 brought not only the first paved highway to run through Depew, but an increase in patients. Across the street from the drug store Dr Coppedge built a hospital which he ran with his older brother, Omer – also a physician – while he lived behind the drug store in a Gordon Van Tine Roberts house bought from the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalogue. (This particular model of kit home was popular in Oklahoma. In 1916, the two storey, three bedroom home could be purchased for $1260.)

Dr Coppedge’s Sears, Roebuck house which also stood in disrepair for years but has now been refurbished.

However, it’s said that, despite being a pillar of the local community, Dr Coppedge had a soft spot for outlaws and was the ‘go-to’ doctor for anyone who had sustained a gunshot wound that they couldn’t – or didn’t care to – explain. Dr Oscar was known as a medic who would treat the injury without involving the local forces of law and order. In fact, it’s said that Charles ‘Pretty’ Floyd was one of his patients. There’s no evidence one way or the other, but as Pretty Boy did live in Oklahoma and was regarded and protected by many locals as the ‘Robin Hood of Cookson Hills’, it’s quite possible.

Following the Great Depression, Depew slid into a terminal decline. By the time of the Second World War, only two grocery stores, a bank, a hardware store and two service stations survived – along with Dr Coppedge’s practice. He died in 1960 with, it seems, no children to carry on his legacy, his brother having died four years previously.

The Coppedge Hospital stood across the street and was built in the same style. It’s in better shape than the drug store, but for how long?

The Coppedge Drug Store itself has been a derelict shell for years, a few remaining letters on the front and part of ‘the finest floor in town’ the remnants of its former self. I last saw it in the second week of April 2017 when it looked the same as ever, beyond restoration but a part of Depew’s history. And then, two weeks later, it was gone. One night the old building took its last breath, perhaps remembered its past glories and then gently collapsed into a pile of rubble.

Main Street, Depew. Nowadays, 93% of the residents work in other towns. The road in front is the original surface of Route 66, it’s never been overlaid with asphalt since 66 moved almost 90 years ago.

THE STRANGE TALE OF KENNEDY’S LINCOLN

Although a 1961 model, the Lincoln was fitted with a 1962 grille before it went into official service.

It’s the most famous Lincoln Continental in the world, and for the worst of reasons. On 22nd November 1963, President John F Kennedy was shot and killed while riding in the back of this ’61 Lincoln in Dallas, Texas.

In the aftermath of shock that went around the world, you might presume that the car would quietly disappear, hidden forever in a secure warehouse or secretly crushed, watched over by men in black to ensure that curious workers didn’t try and salvage a piece.

Workers from coach builders Hess & Eichenhardt customizing the Lincoln for its duties with President Kennedy.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the stretched Lincoln was indeed spirited away by the Secret Service – but to be modified, fitted with a permanent steel roof (after Kennedy’s assassination, no US President would ride in a convertible again), with bulletproof glass. It would go back into the White House motor pool and be used for another thirteen years. Among those who rode in the car in which Kennedy died were Lyndon B Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

 

The Presidential limousine on duty in early 1963. Here the detachable rear roof is fitted. It had been removed in Dallas, although it wasn’t bulletproof anyway.

Why? Sadly, it seems to come down to cold hard cash. Although Ford leased the Lincoln to the government for a paltry $500, the work required to turn the stock convertible into a coach built Presidential vehicle, 41 inches longer than stock, did not come cheap. To replace the car would have cost $1.5 million in modern terms. Instead, just five months after JFK’s death, the Lincoln Continental was returned to active service, where it remained until 1977.

 

When the Lincoln – codename X-100 – returned to service in 1964, it had been fitted with a permanent steel roof, a more powerful engine, titanium armor plating and solid aluminium rims that allowed the tires to run when flat

THE GOLDEN DAYS OF THE TECHATTICUP MINE

All aboard for the Techatticup mine!

Long before neon lit up the sky of Las Vegas, people came to Nevada to seek their fortune. And, in the south of the state, many believed they would find that elusive goal in Eldorado Canyon.

The Spaniards first struck lucky in this area, 25 miles from modern Las Vegas, in 1775. But, despite naming it Eldorado, they found only silver on the banks of the Colorado and quickly decided that it wasn’t productive enough. It would be three-quarters of a century before they were proved wrong when Eldorado Canyon saw one of the first major gold strikes in Nevada. In fact, not only among the first but the most lucrative – over the next 87 years the canyon would reveal millions of dollars worth of gold, thanks to the Techatticup, Wall Street and Queen City mines which, in 1872 alone, produced $25.2 million of gold and silver. Montana, another gold boom state, in contrast produced a mere $4.4 million in the same year.

One of the original mine buildings.

The Techatticup was based on the Salvage Vein, a rich vein of gold which ran along one side of the canyon. It was only wealth for a few – the very name of the mine is derived from the Paiute Indian words for ‘hungry’ and ‘bread’. For the first few years, the original miners managed to keep the strike a secret but a gold rush started in 1861, leading not only to the establishment of mining camps but also a reputation for Eldorado Canyon that surpassed the likes of Tombstone in Wild West lawlessness. As well as miners, the region attracted Civil War deserters who believed – rightly, in the main – that the military authorities wouldn’t look for them in such an isolated spot. Although it was served by the Colorado River, Eldorado Canyon was a long way from anywhere. In its early years, the nearest sheriff was 200 miles away and that led to a community rife with crime and murder. Frequently, those involved did literally get away with murder. The Techatticup Mine itself was often a violent workplace, riven with disputes over claims, ownership and labour disputes. Law enforcement refused to even enter the area, and finally, as steamboat traffic increased on the river, a military post was founded in Eldorado Canyon in 1867. In the 1880s, more people lived and worked in Eldorado Canyon than in the entire Las Vegas valley.

Nelson’s Landing in 1950.

Eldorado itself was eventually replaced by Nelson, a tiny community which still exists as a few houses, and which was named for Charles Nelson. He himself met a gruesome end, killed in 1897 by the renegade Indian, Avote, although Avote’s death toll was far surpassed by another Indian, Queho who we’ll come to in a future post. Five miles east of Nelson, Nelson’s Landing was established on the river, and became one of the business ports on the river during the 1920s. It was washed away in a flash flood in 1974 which swept down the canyon, taking with it nine lives as well as the wharf and buildings.

Nelson’s Landing, the devastation after the 1974 flood.

Mining ceased at the Techatticup in 1945, making it not only one of the most profitable but the longest-lived mines in Nevada. (There is indeed still gold in them thar hills, but it would now cost more than it’s worth to extract it.) The mining camp stood empty for almost half a century until it was bought by the Werly family in 1994. Since then, Tony and Bobbie Werly, with the help of their sons and family, have been resurrecting the camp, restoring to their original places a number of buildings, including some from the Wall Street Mine, and giving tours of parts of the mine. Now many visitors who head off of US-95 are armed not with pickaxes but cameras, as the Techatticup has become a popular destination not only for tourists, but for commercial photographers and filmmakers (across from the main building which houses an eclectic collection of historical, well, stuff, is a fake crashed plane from the Kevin Costner film, 3000 Miles To Graceland.)

A film prop left over from 3000 Miles From Graceland, starring Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner.

Over the years, the Werlys have added not just buildings and artefacts, but a collection of old vehicles, from an old Model T water truck to RVs and even a caravan. In the buildings is a treasure trove of signs and items but if you’re wondering why the likes of American Pickers haven’t been here, it’s because they asked and the Werlys said no. This is, they say, history, not Disneyland. The Techatticup Mine is in safe hands.

One of the mine buildings full of stuff. This will be the outboard motor section.

An original mine tank, saved by the Werly family.

No fancy food options, soda and chips are about all that’s available here.

They like trucks at the Techatticup Mine. Good, I like trucks, too.

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