Out in the Mojave desert, on the side of Route 66, the Ludlow Cafe was once a welcome stop to travellers across California. But, over the last ten years, I’ve watched the building that once housed the cafe become ever more dilapidated until, one day, it was gone.
Not to be confused with the A-frame Ludlow Cafe further west and that, thanks to its position at the top of the off ramp for junction 50 of Interstate 40, still thrives, this Ludlow Cafe was a plain box-like building beside the canopied gas station and was built of lumber salvaged from the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad (the same place from where Mother Preston ‘borrowed’ timber!). Run for over twenty years by Earl and Lillian Warnix, it was sold in the 1960s to Laurel and Cameron Friend who owned other properties on the east side of Ludlow, including the next door 76 gas station.
It was clearly always difficult to get good staff – and then to get them to stay in the middle of nowhere – and, from 1948 an advertisement ran in the classifieds section of the San Bernardino County Sun asking for women staff. That ad would run several times a year for the next twenty years (although, by 1956, the cafe had apparently got a telephone – perhaps they weren’t willing to give the number out to prospective employees before, although as it was Ludlow 3, any waitress keen enough could have made an educated guess).
The Friends moved in 1975 and it’s likely that the cafe closed then. For some years it retained its streamlined lettering and, in 1990, when Troy Paiva (a man responsible for so many of the trips I have made in the last few years) used it for one of his ‘light painting’ photographs, the cafe was still open to the elements, the glass gone from the windows, but the counter still in place. If you look at the ‘1959 Cadillac on Route 66‘ channel on Youtube, you will find (among many of Anthony Reichardt’s other wonderful films) a video from August 1992, by which time the cafe was boarded up. When I first saw the cafe fifteen years later in 2007, the freestanding lettering and the cafe sign were long gone, but the building was still in reasonable shape.
That all changed when I passed by a year later. Winter in the Mojave is cold at nights and apparently transients sheltering in the building had lost control of a fire. I hope that was the case. If the cafe had to burn, then better it was because it was giving shelter and comfort, if in reduced circumstances, as it had all its working life than because it was the victim of kids with too much time on their hands or a casual arsonist.
The gutted building was eventually boarded up again in a somewhat half-hearted way, but, by the last time I saw the Ludlow Cafe in 2014, the building was an open, dead-eyed shell.
And then the next year it was gone, another fire, one which, this time, had reduced it to a pile of rubble and charred wood.
That was the Ludlow Cafe. As far as I’m aware, only a handful of photos – or possibly just one – exist of it when it was a working, busy cafe. Sadly, there are many more thousands that, like mine, record its slow death in the desert.
I hope as you do that it gave shelter to people even in its dour state than to be burned down by yobs.
Interesting that as the building ages in the photos, the “Ludlow Cafe” painted on the front emerges and becomes clearer. Likely this is the original signage that was painted over when the free standing letters were added.but becomes more evident as the succeeding coats of paint wear away. Or make that “became more evident” and “were worn away” as it’s all gone now.
An evocative story relating to a past time when roadside cafes were an important but undervalued part of our lives. The same has happened here in the UK, where the majority of small, family run cafes have disappeared almost without us noticing. In the 60s and 70s I was a very keen patron of the kind of establishment you depict here. Warm and friendly, serving home cooked individual fresh food at reasonable prices, unlike the cloned franchise restaurants we know nowadays. As the lady sang, ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’.
I grew up in Ludlow and my mother (Lillian Warnix) and father (Earl Warnix) owned the cafe, garage, service station and later on bought the motel across the street from the Pennys.
Rex Warnix, my fathers brother had a cafe and service station on highway 91 in Afton. Rex worked for my father for a few months before moving to Afton to start his own business. So it was Earl, husband of Lillian that had the business for more than 20 years.
I found this very interesting, and was happy to come across this. I thank you for bringing up so many memories. I am sending it to several of the people that are still around that lived in Ludlow when it was a thriving town. It is really sad to see the old cafe in such ruin, but I look in the mirror and I think may be I am like the old cafe, an 80 year old ruin.
Again, thank you for the post and thank you for all of the pictures. I have not been out there for over 60 years, so I had no idea what things looked like.
Roger E. Warnix
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The current Ludlow Cafe has been in existence for many years but was unconnected with the previous Ludlow Cafe (research gets confusing at this point with the same names!).
The cafe was operated in the late 40s by my aunt and uncle (Louise and Eldon Farmer). I worked in the cafe with them during the summer of 1948 and visited again many times till 1950,,,,then again in 2005. The declining structures were quite saddening to me.
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Thank you so much for that, Sam.
My parents met in the parking lot of the Ludlow Cafe in the late 1960’s. My dad, Mark, worked at the service station and my Grandmother worked at the Cafe. I always thought it was amazing how two absolute soulmates could meet in such a small community. They were married 49 years until my mom, Barbara, passed away in 2016. Thanks for sharing. I’ll check through the old family photos for any pictures of the Cafe or service station.
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In the summer of either 69 or 70 my dad needed to “dry out” as he called it so we moved from Long Beach to Ludlow. He worked in the gas station,his girlfriend worked at the little cafe right next to it and Cam, who owned the whole town payed me to water a bunch of trees that had been planted in neat little rows. I took a bus every day to the grade school inNewberry Springs. I absolutely loved it there. I had a mini-bike, a 22 long rifle and my dog and we had a blast riding thru the desert shooting cans and coyotes. It was quite a memorable summer!
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