About Never Quite Lost

The roads that led somewhere and now go nowhere. The history that you see out of the corner of your eye. The flicker where past and present collide. The time and the road and the world that is never quite lost.

THE TRAGEDY OF THE STATE LINE BAR, GLENRIO

Early days at the State Line Bar where you buy a glass of whiskey, a gallon of gas or a postage stamp. [Photo with very kind permission of Joe Sonderman]

The State Line Bar in Glenrio on the New Mexico/Texas border is today an unprepossessing building, but it’s actually one of the oldest commercial buildings in the town, along with the motel behind it and the neighbouring Broyle’s Mobil Gas Station. The State Line Bar was built in 1935 and some thirty eight years later, the bar would be the scene of a tragedy that saw it close forever.

Two men featured prominently in the history of both Glenrio and the bar; in 1939, Homer Ehresman – who would later build the ‘First and Last’ Texas Longhorn Motel – bought and ran the State Line Bar (which had been built by John Wesley Ferguson and boasted Texaco petrol pumps and a small post office on one side which Mrs Ehresman ran) before selling it to Joseph Brownlee. In 1960, the bar was remodelled and became a much plainer building with a concrete block veneer and narrow high windows.

The former Glenrio Post Office which was attached to the State Line Bar.

A few years later it was purchased by Albert Kenneth and Dessie Leach, a couple who had come to Glenrio in the late 1950s and made their living ranching before purchasing the bar. Married in 1945, Albert and Dessie never had children of their own, but they raised a son, Nolan, and a daughter, Margaret, from Dessie’s first marriage to Nolan Terrill. 10th July 1973 was probably much the same as any other day at the bar. No doubt the Leachs were concerned about the interstate which would cut Glenrio off in a few months, while they must also have been aware that any business was a target for criminals. Just a couple of months earlier, the Standard Service Station in Glenrio had been held up in an armed robbery – while hunting for the perpetrator near Vega, police got a little trigger happy with the result that they shot a hole in the door and the transmission of a Mazda pickup belonging to one Gene Putz, an innocent motorist who just happened to be passing.

But business is business and on that morning 58-year-old Dessie was tending the bar on her own. Her only customers had been a couple from Amarillo, passing through in their RV. While the couple chatted to Dessie, a blond young man in blue jeans and a flowered shirt came in and asked the husband to play pool. He then, as she said, ‘made eyes’ at the Amarillo woman and, thinking the young man was trouble, the couple left.

Did Dessie choose the carpet and booths? It’s quite likely.

Some minutes later, in an apartment behind the bar, Cornelia Tapia was getting ready to go to work when she heard a noise. To her horror, she saw Dessie Leach stagger out of the back door of the State Line Bar holding her stomach, her dress covered in blood. Mrs Leach gasped that she had been robbed and shot, although when she collapsed to the ground it was found she had been stabbed, not shot. She died before she could be transported to hospital in Tucumcari.

Her murderer was apprehended just a couple of hours later in Vega, where it was found that, as well as a long sharp knife, he also had two guns in his station wagon. He was covered in blood and, it seems, made little resistance to arrest. John Wayne Lee was 31 and gave his address as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, although he was actually from Tennessee. He never explained why he had stabbed Mrs Leach – she was a small woman and neighbours described her as crippled with arthritis and unable to put up any struggle. In fact, they thought she would probably have simply opened the till and yet Lee stabbed her four times.

The decaying interior of the bar, sun streaming through through narrow windows.

At that time, a new law in New Mexico allowed for homicide during the course of robbery to be charged as a capital offence. Yet Lee was charged with the lesser offence of second degree murder and, on 31st October 1973 he was found guilty. He was sentenced to two consecutive 10-50 year prison terms for the murder and armed robbery which, you could imagine, would have keep him behind bars for some considerable time. How long do you imagine Lee served for the murder of Dessie Leach? I can bet that you’re wrong. For stabbing to death Mrs Leach, John Wayne Lee served less than four years. In May 1977, he was granted parole although that meant he then had to begin his sentence of 10-50 years for armed robbery. How long he served is not on record but if Lee is still alive, he has been a free man for a long time.

Dessie Leach’s death meant the end of the State Line Bar after almost forty years. Her husband moved to San Jon and spent the years until his death in 2004 raising race horses. The State Line Bar is now derelict, a few shreds of the carpet and furniture that Dessie had no doubt picked herself now mouldering away, and the terrible crime that took place here now merely a whisper on the wind.

The State Line Bar, Glenrio, NM. 2018.

THE MURDER OF LUCILLE HAMONS’ BOY

Lucille and Carl Hamons, reunited in death, along with their only son.

I recently visited the Oklahoma grave of ‘The Mother of the Mother Road’, Lucille Hamons, not expecting that visit to be the start of another quest into times gone by. I was intrigued by the fact that she is reunited in the Hydro Masonic Cemetery with the husband from whom she had been divorced for over a quarter of a century. Of course, it could be that the plots had been purchased while they were still together and Lucille didn’t see the point of selling hers, but a nearby headstone made me wonder whether, even after death, they wanted to be in the same place. The stone reads simply, ‘CARL HAMONS JR, 1935-1962’.

Carl Jr’s headstone in the Masonic Cemetery in Hydro, Oklahoma.

Lucille and Carl Sr’s two daughters are quite often mentioned in articles about the Provine Service Station; it was the late Cheryl Hamons Nowka who persuaded her mother to write her memoirs, not only preserving those memories for posterity, but making enough money to bring the gas tanks underneath the station up to EPA standards and ensuring that Lucille could keep the place she had run since 1941, while oldest daughter, Delpha Dene Martin has operated a music store in Grants, New Mexico, for over 50 years. But, other than one comment that he was an ‘excellent mechanic’, few histories mention Carl Jr and not one explains his death at the age of just 27. When I started out, I thought the cause of his demise would be a car crash or perhaps illness. The truth was far more startling and dramatic. Unlike his father who was born and died in Hydro, Carl was almost a thousand miles from home when he met his death.

In this photo by an Arizona Republic photographer, Gila County Sheriff Jack Jones (left) and Coroner Clyde Shute bend over the body of Carl Hamons Jr. He was asleep on the bar stool when his ex-wife shot him nine times.

In his early twenties, Carl moved from Oklahoma to Globe, Arizona, where he found employment with the Magma Copper Co. Then he met Yetta Jean Aragon, a petite brunette who had four children and had run through three husbands by her mid-20s – by the time she was 16, she was on her second husband. If two people should have been kept far apart from each other, it was Carl and Jean. But they fell for each other and were married in August 1961. The marriage lasted just seven months and they were divorced in February 1962. Jean moved to New Mexico where she married her fifth husband in short order, but returned to live with Carl in the middle of 1962 because, she said later, “I couldn’t live without him”.

Yetta Jean Aragon had shot her ex-husband just minutes before an Arizona Republic newspaper man took this photograph in the Double-N bar.

Carl, who also had four children by a previous marriage, wasn’t the easiest man to live with; he’d been undergoing psychiatric treatment while married to Jean but he seems to have turned to alcohol as a cure. In the summer of 1962 the couple embarked on an epic two day drinking spree that ended at the Double-N Tavern in Globe on 29th August. Carl had passed out on a bar stool when his ex-wife drew a .22 calibre revolver and shot him – nine times. Eight of the bullets found their target and, with entry, exit and re-entry wounds, coroner Clyde Shute would find 13 gunshot wounds in Carl Hamons’ body.

Jean Aragon made no effort to escape. She told officers that night that she had decided to kill him because she was scared of threats he had allegedly made towards her and that that fear was, she said, “like a blue-flame whirlwind that kept getting bigger and bigger until the moment I shot him.” She added that she had been thinking about killing her ex-husband for some twenty minutes, and had drunk four glasses of beer very quickly in order to get up the courage. As she stood beside him, “he lifted his head from the bar, looked at me, then passed out again. That’s when I shot him.”

Jean Aragon behind bars following her trial. The photo was taken by Arizona Republic photographer Wade Cavanaugh who had also taken the image of Jean just after she had shot Carl.

Although it constituted premeditated murder, Jean’s defence counsel built his case on a plea of temporary insanity and that his client had been forced to this breaking point by Carl Hamon’s violent behaviour, claims against which, of course, Carl could not defend himself. This, along with the fact that Jean was, as one contemporary newspaper described her, ‘a trim, attractive brunette’, seems to have swayed the jury which, after deliberating for just six hours, convicted her of second degree murder, rather than the first degree murder with which she was charged. On 19th January 1963, she was sentenced to 12-20 years in the Arizona State Prison. On hearing the verdict, 29-year-old Jean said; “I’m glad it’s over. Now maybe when I get out of here I can live the life like I’ve always wanted.” For Lucille Hamons’ only son, that wasn’t an option.

 

 

Carl Jr was only six years old when his parents bought the Provine Service Station and he would grow up here.

THE MYSTERY OF MYSTERY CASTLE

IMG_0295

In Phoenix is a building remarkable in itself, but even more interesting is the story behind it. Mystery Castle stands in the foothills of South Mountain Park; once alone in the desert, Phoenix is now rushing up to meet it.

IMG_0217It was the work of Seattle advertising man, Boyce Luther Gulley, who, in 1929, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The best hope of a cure then relied upon being in a warm, dry climate, so he moved to Arizona. The only problem was, he didn’t tell his wife, Frances, or his 5-year-old daughter, Mary Lou, where he was going. He simply said he wanted to pursue a life as an artist and drove off in his new Stutz Bearcat. They would never see him again.

IMG_0251It’s thought that Gulley did indeed believe that he had just six months to live and didn’t want to put his family though any suffering (although simply deserting them doesn’t seem to be much of an alternative). Six months passed and then another and he hadn’t died. So it was then that he started upon his life’s work; staking a claim on land close to the South Mountains, he began building what would become an incredible, meandering house with 18 rooms, 13 fireplaces, a chapel and a dungeon. It was built of all types of recycled material – adobe, stone, railroad tracks, telegraph poles, even parts of the Stutz Bearcat when it ceased to be of use – held together with cement, mortar, calcum and goat milk. Gulley, who had had basic architectural training, bartered for materials and also laboured and sold shoes when he needed cash.

IMG_0284And for the next 16 years the house grew and grew. However, even with his tuberculosis cured, at no point did Gulley send for his family. Some stories say they believed he was dead, but it seems likely that he did send the occasional letter to Seattle in later years, although without saying exactly where he was (other family members, however, did visit the house, as did many of Gulley’s friends). Then, in 1945, Boyce Gulley died, not of TB but cancer. He left the house to his wife and daughter, along with a mysterious locked trap door and the stipulation that they had to live there for three years before it could be opened.

IMG_0271Life magazine covered the opening of the locked compartment, as well as dubbing the place Mystery Castle, although it contained just two $500 bills, some gold nuggets and a Valentine’s card Mary Lou had made for her father when she was a child. Mary Lou stayed on and in fact lived in the house until her death in 2010, although it had no plumbing or electricity until 1992. The accepted story is that this was a labour of love for her on her father’s part, to build her the castle she had always wanted as a little girl. However, I suspect much of this may have been embroidered by Mary Lou to excuse why her father had deserted her; Boyce Gulley seems to have been a selfish albeit talented man who, even after his death, continued to manipulate his family. Mystery Castle is an amazing place, but also a rather sad one; that Mary Lou continued to live in the building seems to be the act of a sad little girl clinging onto an idealised image of her father. I can’t help thinking that, rather than some fantasy building in the desert, she would have much preferred to have her father in her life.

IMG_0291

IMG_0222

IMG_0241

IMG_0214

CHARLIE LUM: THE PRIDE OF 66

Fine food and cocktails – this was the place to go in Kingman in the 1960s.

Kingman’s Chinese community has been part of the town for as long as it has existed. But perhaps one man more than other was influential in the growth of this Arizona town.

‘China Jack’ Lum with, on the right, Charlie, and on the left, Wong, in around 1920. Photo (c) The Lum Family

Charlie Hing Lum was born in Canton in 1912 and, at the age of ten, emigrated to the United States with his father Lum Sing Yow – known as Jack – and brother Wong Lum. They settled in Kingman where his grandfather had moved in 1884 and Jack subsequently bought the Boston Cafe on what would become Route 66 and now Andy Devine Avenue. This was a time when every restaurant in town, with the exception of the Beale Hotel and the Harvey House, were owned and run by the Chinese. Charlie left school after the eighth grade to work as a dishwasher at his father’s cafe as well as working another job at the Mohave Cafe near the Beale Hotel. It was at the Mohave Cafe on October 20th 1926 a 14-year-old Charlie would see his boss, Tom King, killed by members of the San Francisco Bing Kong Tong.

In 1931, Charlie returned to China to look after his sick mother and, while there, he married his first wife, Jan Gum Foon and their daughter, Mary, was born. Although he loved Kingman and knew virtually everyone who lived there, Charlie was upset when his father decided to hand the café over to his brother, feeling his father had no faith in his abilities. So, when his wife died in 1938, he returned to America but opened his first restaurant in Williams; however, the Great Depression was in full swing and it failed.

1961 and the Jade is a blaze of neon.

Charlie moved to San Francisco and worked in the shipyards before starting a restaurant and bar called the Shanghai Lil Club. He also married again to Jeane Jang, the sister of his late wife but, while he proved to be a natural in the restaurant business, the big city also had the lure of alcohol and gambling. Jeane, along with his uncle, persuaded him that, with busy Route 66 running through it, it would be a good time to return to Kingman. In 1951, Charlie sold the Shanghai Lil and decided to open a Chinese restaurant in Kingman (where his brother was successful running the Boston, now renamed the White House Cafe). No-one else in town – or for that matter in north west Arizona – was serving Chinese food, but Charlie was certain he could make a success of the venture.

Charlie Lum tells his chef, Hubert Woo, how to cook the Jade’s famous Cantonese cuisine!

And he did just that. The Jade Restaurant on Route 66, just west of the Arcadia Lodge, was a huge success and, in the small community of Kingman, Charlie really found his home. He would go on to become the first Chinese member of the Kingman Elks Lodge, of the Rotary Club and an honorary member of the Lions. He sponsored local softball and baseball teams, worked with the Chamber of Commerce and sponsored radio broadcasts. Every year before school began, and again at Christmas, Charlie rented out the movie theatre and threw a movie party for all the kids in town.

One of Charlie’s final ventures – he always loved running a bar and lounge.

Everyone ate at the Jade – couples, families, business colleagues, ladies lunch clubs. It was, as Charlie claimed on his business cards and match boxes, ‘The Pride of Highway 66’. But Charlie didn’t content himself with the restaurant. In 1964 he built Kingman’s first coin-operated laundromat and a ten-unit apartment building called Lum’s Apartments. He was so taken by these new ventures that, in 1965, he sold the Jade to Tommy Choy who gave it something of a makeover, with flaming torches outside and the Bora-Bora room where American, Chinese and Polynesian food was served while Jess Parker tinkled on the organ.

Charlie stands in front of his KFC store on Route 66. Photo (c) The Lum Family.

Charlie, meanwhile, capitalised once more on Route 66 when he opened a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. He made it a popular stop for tour buses on their way to and from the Grand Canyon by providing bus drivers with a free meal. In 1977, he received the Franchise Service Award from KFC head office for ten years of quality service. But fried chicken and soap suds weren’t enough for the indefatigable Mr Lum. In 1973, he built Lum’s Cocktail Lounge which offered cocktails, dancing and pool tables, as well as a package goods section for off-sales.

He finally retired in 1978 and moved to Hawaii with his third wife (Jeane died in 1957 and Charlie remarried in 1961 to May Yin Chow), although he often returned to Kingman. Mary, his only daughter had spent her first few years in China but was finally able to join her father after the war. For many years, she and her husband also ran a Chinese restaurant in Kingman, the House of Chan.

The interior of the Jade Restaurant today.

When he left for Hawaii, Charlie’s Rotarian friends wrote him a warm and affectionate farewell, part of which read; ‘He has stood in the fore of civic affairs here, always willing to give of his time and money, never failing to lend a helping hand when it was needed … It will be a long, long time before a character of such proportions walks the stage of Kingman life again. He is one of the most profoundly happy, sincere and caring people we’ve ever know.Charlie kept his links up with Kingman until his death in 1996; in 1983 he donated $6500 for a flagpole at the Veterans Centennial Recreation Complex and attended the dedication.

The Jade Restaurant as it is today.

The Jade Restaurant now stands empty, a nondescript building on Route 66 that’s overlooked by most who pass and which has been up for sale for several years. But once this was the place to be in Kingman; Charlie Lum and his restaurant really were the pride of 66.

9

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

P1050373

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 Tagus 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 Tagus 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 Tagus 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.

312939_282289188478122_1182521949_n

MONTICELLO SCHOOL AND THE FORGOTTEN FIRE

IMG_0352

The impressive ruin of the Public School in Monticello, New Mexico, is another example of how quickly history can be forgotten. Built in 1935 by the WPA, it’s a reminder of a time when Monticello was a thriving town with hundreds of families. But, just twenty years later, the school was closed due to a decrease in students. And, at some point, it burned down, but no-one seems to quite know when.

IMG_0395There is a rumour that the blaze was the result of an experiment in a chemistry class, but that’s clearly untrue for two reasons. Firstly, the school was closed due to failing attendances (along with another two local schools in the same year, 1956) not because it burned down, so it clearly didn’t happen while the school was open, and secondly, such a conflagration at a working school would surely have made the local newspapers – which reported just about everything back then. Yet there is nothing in any of those newspapers.

Nor is there any later report, so it seems that by then the school had stood empty for such a long time that a fire wasn’t even a news story. Monticello is mentioned in many books on ghost towns (although people still live there), but the school is usually vaguely referred to as ‘burning down decades ago’. So, what really did happen – or has that already been lost forever?

IMG_0363IMG_0379IMG_0387

BALLARAT AND THE MYSTERY POWER WAGON

 

KODAK Digital Still Camera

Ballarat, at the base of the Panamint Mountain Range in southern California, was founded in 1897 and named after a gold camp in Australia by an Australian immigrant called George Riggins. However, Ballarat wasn’t a gold strike itself; instead, it was a supply town serving the mines in the Panamints.

KODAK Digital Still CameraFor its first few years, Ballarat thrived. Some 500 people made their homes in this desolate part of California and the town had seven saloons, a post office, school, jail, morgue, three hotels and a Wells Fargo station. But, apparently, no church.

Then, towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century, mining began to decline. The Ratcliff Mine in Pleasant Canyon, which had been one of the biggest markets for Ballarat, closed in 1903 and the town was soon dying. In 1917 came that final death knell, the closure of the post office. A few hardy characters – including the famous Shorty Harris and ‘Seldom Seen’ Slim hung on, but Ballarat is today most renowned for ‘residents’ who never lived there: the Manson Family.

KODAK Digital Still CameraIn the 1960s, Charles Manson and his followers moved into the Barker Ranch south of Ballarat, travelling through what was left of the town to get there. In October 1969, he and others were arrested at the Barker Ranch, Ballarat being the last place Manson was a free man. Today Ballarat has a small store run by Rocky Novak with irregular opening hours, the remaining building are mostly in ruins (a plan in the 1960s to make an RV park here failed miserably and finally petered out in the 1990s) and the only reminder of the Manson Family connection is an old Dodge Power Wagon.

There’s argument over exactly who this belonged to – although it definitely wasn’t Manson himself. Some believe it belonged to Charles ‘Tex’ Watson who broke down in Ballarat trying to escape. While Watson did own one of the two Power Wagons the Family needed to drive up Goler Wash to the ranch (they did get a Chevy school bus up to the ranch, although no-one’s too sure how they did it), and it did indeed stay in Ballarat for a while, it was eventually traded off to Leon Griffin, caretaker at Briggs’ Redlands Camp. Leon took the Power Wagon to pieces and then died.

KODAK Digital Still CameraSo, where did the Power Wagon now in Ballarat come from? One theory is that it belonged to Bobby Beausoleil and had been left at the ranch. When the arrests and trials were over, Kirk Barker, owner of the Barker Ranch, moved that Dodge down to Ballarat as a runaround. But no-one seems to know for sure.

Ballarat does have one other claim to a place in popular culture. At the beginning of Easy Rider, when Peter Fonda throws away his Rolex, he did so in Ballarat.

 

 

 

KODAK Digital Still Camera

THE MAN WHO LOVED CARS AND TRAINS

The old Route 66 bridge on Crookton Road.

There is a fluidity to Route 66 that those who love the road come to expect, to fear and sometimes to cherish. Like any living organism – and despite popular opinion it is still living – each year the road loses something, gains something…

‘Boxcar’ Billy Richey’s trackside cross.

In the autumn of 2016 I stopped at Crookton Overpass between Ash Fork and Seligman in Arizona. Leaning over the side of the 1930s bridge I spotted something that hadn’t been there a few months previously. While travelling, roadside crosses (or descanso as they’re sometimes called in the South West) are a familiar sight; memorials beside railroads less so. But clearly someone had cared enough to craft a homemade cross and then scramble down the embankment to set it up. The cross bore only the name ‘Boxcar’ Billy Richey and the words ‘ETERNAL SERVITUDE OF GREASE AND SPEED’ which sounded to me more like a car club saying than that of the railroad.

 

It was both. William Max ‘Billy’ Richey was born on 25 April 1978 in Winslow, Arizona and started his career for the BNSF in July 1997 when he was just 19 years old, following in the footsteps of his father. Seven years later he became a conductor and then, in 2012 he was promoted to locomotive engineer, a job he loved.

The smile that lit up a room.

Outside of his family of six children, his main passion was old cars and he was a proud member of the Highway Horrors Car Club (who gave him the nickname ‘Boxcar’) although he found time for fishing, camping and just about anything outdoors. His friends described him as the light of any party and say that, if Billy was smiling, then so was everyone else. That light was extinguished when, on 25 August 2015, Billy died suddenly in Surprise, Arizona. He was just 37 years old.

Billy’s final wishes were to have his ashes scattered in Sycamore Canyon, but, the following summer, fellow members of his car club decided to erect a permanent marker to their friend. On a bright July day, they put up a handmade cross on the side of the tracks at Crookton Overpass, overlooked by Route 66, combining both his job and his love of cars.

Members of the Highway Horrors CC setting up Billy’s memorial.

This is recent history. This is a memorial on Route 66 to a young man, hardly gone, who we can almost see out of the corner of our eye. It’s a timely reminder that Route 66 is not a museum for us to simply ramble through, peering curiously at things as if they were exhibits behind glass. It’s a living entity and there is a human story behind every building, every turn of the road and every roadside memorial.

Safe home, Billy Richey, safe home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cross sits just to the left side of the rails out of shot.

Train rolling on down the line.