THE CAMELS OF ARIZONA

Hi Jolly and his bride, Gertrudis Serna. She refused to take him back after his decade-long disappearance to prospect.

In 1855, US Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, came up with an idea to use camels for military purposes in Arizona. The idea was logical, given the heat and terrain of the Arizona desert, and over the next two years some 77 camels and 6 handlers were imported into the West.

Although an initial expedition with half those camels led by Edward Fitzgerald Beale across southern California was deemed a success, the experiment proved pretty much a disaster. The camels didn’t get on with the horses and mules on the trek; the handlers had trouble getting paid and three of them demanded to go home to Syria; the businesses supplying mules to the military were, unsurprisingly, very vocal in their opposition to the experiment; despite their desert environment, the camels suffered with stones and goat heads in their hooves. But the final death knell for the US Camel Cavalry was the Civil War. Most of the camels were kept at Camp Verde and when it was seized by Confederate forces, the animals were allowed to wander away.

The best known of the camel handlers was a Turkish-Greek Muslim called Hadji Ali, who, when soldiers had trouble with his name, became known as Hi Jolly. After the failure of the camel experiment, Hi Jolly kept a couple of animals to pull a wagon while he was trying his hand as a prospector. He later returned to the Army as a mule handler where he worked until 1886, but the lure of gold (or silver or copper) was too much and, in 1889, with the few camels he had left, he left his family and returned to being a wandering desert prospector. Ten years later, and with his health declining, he came back to Tucson and begged his wife to take him back. She refused, and one can hardly blame her.

For the last few years of his life, he lived in Quartzsite, Arizona, and in 1934, 32 years after his death, a pyramid monument topped with a camel was placed on his grave by order of the Arizona State Highway department, a more elaborate version of the wooden pyramid his friends had constructed for him after he died.

And the camels? Some of those released from Camp Verde were rounded up and acquired by circuses and zoos, but those that had been turned loose continued to roam across Arizona for years, small herds spreading to Nevada, California and New Mexico. Legend has it that Hi Jolly died while hunting the legendary ‘Red Ghost’, a red camel which had trampled a woman to death. If so, he was several years too late – the Red Ghost had been shot in 1898.

Hi Jolly’s memorial in Quartzsite.

A BODY IN ARCADIA

The last stop Carl Beach would ever make – the Threatt Filling Station in Luther, Oklahoma.

Murder was all too common along Route 66 when it was one of the arteries of America. Unfortunately, some were an easy target for those who felt that the contents of travellers’ wallets should be in their pockets and sometimes weren’t too discerning how they achieved that. This is one of those forgotten stories.

In 1948, former New York railway worker, Carl Beach, was driving west to Amarillo, Texas. Just outside Indianapolis on 1st November he picked up two young hitchhikers, Max Eugene Klettke, 23, and Harry Riskin, 18, both from Lansing, Michigan. It was a terrible mistake.

Max Klettke awaiting trial.

While Beach stopped in Miami, Oklahoma, to have a windshield wiper fixed, Klettke and Riskin were already talking about ‘knocking the old man on the head and taking his money’ as Klettke admitted later. Klettke was set upon a delinquent path; brought up in children’s home after his father deserted the family and his mother died of tuberculosis, he had first been arrested for car theft when he was 17 and then had served 15 days in jail in 1946 for reckless driving and using ‘indecent language’ to the sheriff when he was arrested. The year before taking off with Riskin, he had been paroled from a sentence of 6 months to 5 years in the Ionia reformatory for stealing a car. Now, for whatever reasons, he was about to take a huge leap from car theft to murder.

Ulysses Threatt, of Threatt’s Filling Station (the first black-owned service station on Route 66) near Luther, Oklahoma, testified that the trio in Beach’s 1937 Buick had stopped at the station where Klettke had complained that Beach wouldn’t buy him a cup of coffee or even offer him a cigarette, and that Beach had seemed very nervous as he paid for his gas.

The Threatt Filling Station. Maurice L Threatt thinks this might be his uncle Ulysses who gave a comprehensive statement about the stop Beach and his murderers made minutes before he was slain.

Sometime after dark, probably only minutes after leaving Luther, and while on US Highway 66 northeast of Oklahoma City, Klettke – who was in the rear seat – fired four bullets into the back of Mr Beach’s head. Somehow the first shot missed and the other bullets were fired as Beach was turning around in his seat. The pair dumped the body under a bridge in Arcadia and fled with the car.

Harry Riskin in the photo taken by a press reporter after his arrest. He would plead guilty and put all the blame on Klettke.

Carl Beach’s body was found by school bus driver, Robert Traylor, on the morning of 3 November 1948. The pair got as far as Fort Worth, Texas, where Herman Edgar, an attendant, at the Allbright Parking Lot became suspicious of the blood spatter and bullet holes in the car and called the police. Klettke and Riskin were arrested at the Slebold Hotel after returning from a clothes buying spree and Riskin was quick to blame his friend for the murder. They had taken $474 from Mr Beach but missed another $900 in the trunk which was found by police.

After two reprieves, Klettke went to the electric chair on 4 January 1951 at McAlester State Penitentiary, Oklahoma. He was buried beside his mother in Oak Hill Cemetery, Owosso, Michigan. Riskin, who pled guilty, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Klettke would say that he too had wanted to plead guilty but hadn’t been allowed to do so by the prosecuting attorney.

Life imprisonment didn’t mean life even then, but it ended up being longer than Harry Riskin imagined. Riskin was paroled in the 1950s while still in his mid-20s but was returned to prison with psychiatric problems. He was paroled again in 1959 but three years later suffered a nervous breakdown and went back to prison for treatment. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and was later the subject for prison authorities seeking a review of how mentally ill prisoners were assessed for parole. In October 1974 Governor David Hall signed a parole, but Riskin who was then in the Eastern Oklahoma State Hospital for the Insane in Vinita never signed the necessary parole certificate. Parole was again denied in 1979. Harry Riskin is no longer in the Oklahoma prison system.

There was a campaign for clemency for Klettke which failed. First the electrodes were fitted the wrong way and then the blindfold that Klettke had asked for during his execution slipped off.

THE WORLD FAMOUS TAGUS RANCH

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For almost a century the Tagus Ranch, north of Tulare, was an institution in central California. A 7000-acre ranch developed by Hulett C Merritt, it was at the time the largest fruit farm in the world and a destination for migrant workers in the 1930s and, with 11 camps, a general store, post office and a school, entire families lived and grew up at Tagus Ranch; descendants of those workers still meet for an annual reunion. During the Second World War, it also served as a Prisoner of War camp, while it’s said that John Steinbeck began writing The Grapes of Wrath in a little restaurant next to the Tagus Ranch

In 1950, the Tagus Ranch restaurant was opened although it would be gutted by fire in 1958 and have to be rebuilt a year later. By now, both Merritt and his son had died and the ranch land was beginning to be sold off; the last 315 acres would go in 1966. A 60-room motel was built in 1962 to take advantage of the traffic on Highway 99. Three years later the restaurant was destroyed in a blaze once more and then rebuilt again. New owners established the Tagus Country Theater which played host to popular musicians, including Ricky Nelson, The Platters, Merle Haggard and Ray Charles (who played here in 1983).

But, as time went by and franchise restaurants appeared, the Targus complex began to struggle, particularly from 1972 when much of its passing traffic started to use Interstate 5. It became a Basque restaurant in the 1970s, a bar, a nightclub and finally spiralled down until all that was left was the motel occupied by longterm residents. It was bought in 2000 by Tulare dentist Sarjit Malli who entertained ideas of restoring the Targus Restaurant and, when that didn’t come to pass, tried to sell it, but the only buyers interested wanted to turn it into an adult-only gentlemen’s club. Mind you, the Targus Ranch Motel had something of a history in this area – in 1964 it advertised in the local newspapers for its nightly ‘fashion shows’ featuring ‘bikinis, baby dolls, lingerie’ with an ad headlined ‘Attention: TRAVELING SALESMEN’.

Finally, in 2014, local authorities deemed the World Famous Targus Ranch to be an undesirable eyesore and nuisance and, in December of that year, the bulldozers moved in. Mr Malli paid the demolition crew extra to lower the 100-foot sign in one piece although he said at the time he would only be saving the TR top piece and the ‘World Famous’ section. He also added that the sign might be restored, should the site be developed for commercial purposes, but now it seems likely that even the land where the sign and restaurant stood will be lost in widening plans for Highway 99.

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