Away from the satellite dishes wrapped with copies of Native American basket paintings and the tourist trap of a drive through Route 66 arch, travellers heading west through Grants could be forgiven for thinking there is little of interest in the wide open sandy lots on each side of the road, home to the odd struggling business and a gas station.
But on the north side of Route 66 are some abandoned buildings which many people fly past, unaware that they represent what a town like Grants was all about – what, in fact, the American dream is all about. It was here a young man carved out a business for himself and for his family, where that man had the foresight to take advantage of his surroundings and to create a business which prospered for decades. This is where Charley Diaz had his eponymous radiator shop.
Charley was born in 1914 and married Dorela Cordova in 1935. He worked for the Red Ball Garage and the Chevrolet dealership in Grants and, during the Second World War, as a mechanic at Fort Wingate. During this time he saved enough money to buy a small piece of land and it was there, in 1943, that he opened a service station with Dorela keeping the gas pump books. Born Carlos, he was always known as Charley although the spelling wandered around a little. Most histories spell it as ‘Charley’, but Mr Diaz signed his World War II draft card as ‘Charlie’, while he would spell it both ways on his garage over the years, settling for ‘Charlie’ when he started his radiator shop.
Charley and his maternal grandfather, Joseph Capelli, an Italian stonemason who had emigrated to the USA in 1904, built a garage and a house out of local material – not, in this case, adobe, but the harder wearing and lighter pumice. (Capelli was a noted craftsman and was responsible for many of the early houses in Grants). At the time that Charley first opened the doors to his service station, the area was undergoing a remarkable boom. The soil was ideal for growing root crops and Grants became the carrot capital of the world, while it’s estimated that, between 1940 and 1950, the population of Grants increased by 270%.
Following the death of his wife in childbirth and his son drowning a few weeks later, Charley’s great uncle, Salome Saiz, came to live with the family in Grants with the newborn baby and his teenage daughter. Charley gave him the opportunity to build a business and Salome constructed the Star Café, a small building to the east of the garage, in 1949. By 1950, uranium mining had overtaken carrots as Grants’ main industry and the Star Café happened to be near a bus stop where men waited to go to the uranium mines. When Salome sold the place, the new owner, the appropriately named Mr Moon, came up with the idea of offering these workers pre-packaged sandwiches to take to their job. While we take for granted that we can buy a readymade sandwich anywhere, this was quite a revolutionary move. The Star later became the Star Drive-In and Moon would run it until he was beaten and robbed one night, something that rather put him off the restaurant business although the Star would stay open in new hands until 1985.
By the mid-1950s Charley had removed the gas pumps from the front of his garage, unable to compete with the new filling stations at the west end of town. It turned out to be a blessing; Route 66 was widened through Gallup in 1956. It was around now that he decided to specialise, concentrating on radiator servicing. Radiators on contemporary cars frequently became clogged by hard water and so Charley moved into undertaking most of the radiator work for local businesses. (He would offer them a 25% discount if the garage removed the radiator from a car and delivered it to him; the garage passed the charge onto the customer and everyone – in the motor trade at least! – was happy). He also capitalised on the local boom in uranium mining, contracting to local mining companies, a job which often required working through the night so a truck could be ready for use the following day. Being on the side of Route 66, he also found a healthy trade in fixing the cars of tourists whose vehicles had overheated and was at one point, it’s believed, the only radiator shop between Albuquerque and Gallup, a distance of over 120 miles.
Things were going well for Charley, so well in fact that, in 1959, he could buy Dorela a brand-new Chevrolet Impala. She would barely have time to run it in before suddenly dying of a stroke three months later. She was just 43. The Impala sat in front of the Diaz house until 2015. But Charley soldiered on, supported by his family and by the need to look after his son Joe. In the late 1980s, with Charley now in his 70s, someone made an offer to lease the shop which he accepted. But the new lessee proved to be inefficient and Charley evicted him and carried on working for the next few years, dying of a heart attack in 1995. He was 80.
Charley Diaz was a man who worked hard to better himself and to improve life for both him and his family. But he still retained a touching faith in people as his son Joe, told John Murphey of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Programme in 2010. One winter’s night a man knocked on the garage door. He said that his car had broken down and he had no money for repairs, but would work off the debt. Charley told him he didn’t need any help but told him to get a sandwich and then sleep in the garage overnight and they’d talk about a job in the morning. Joe was horrified – he thought the stranger would rob them blind and steal all their tools. But his father was adamant that the man could sleep on the premises. The next day he tried the man out. Joe Bounds would work for him for the next 33 years.