THE LITTLE ORPHANS OF ROUTE 66

The Welch boys. L-R: Tommy, Billy, Jimmy, Johnny.

There are many stories born on Route 66 that tug at the heart, but perhaps one more than any other when, in June 1961, the lives of four little boys were changed forever.

James Dolphus (‘JD’) and Utha Marie Welch were a typical American couple in their early thirties. JD, a burly six-footer and 200lbs, was a truck driver for Trans-Con, while Utha was a housewife and stay at home mother for their four sons. Jimmy, 12; Billy, 9: Tommy, 8 and 5-year-old Johnny. (There had been another son, born between Jimmy and Billy, but Noble – named after Utha’s father – was a sickly child from birth and died in infancy.) This, however, didn’t stop both parents being involved in many local activities in their hometown of Spencer, Oklahoma.

JD and Utha Marie Welch.

Most of JD’s family lived in California and, in June 1961, the family set out from Oklahoma to drive to Tulare, California to see JD’s mother before she went in for surgery. Then they intended to return to Oklahoma via Colorado Springs. The boys were keen to camp during the trip and JD and Utha agreed they could take their Boy Scouts pup tent. On Thursday 8th June, a day into the trip, the family left Amarillo in the morning. It was late at night by the time they stopped for gas in Ash Fork, Arizona and enquired about a motel room. The owner would tell police that JD had thought the room too expensive and left. As the motel owner never spoke about the incident publicly (despite being the last person outside of the family and their murderer to see the Welches alive), one wonders whether, glancing at the family’s shiny two-year-old Oldsmobile – JD had only bought it two weeks earlier – and calculating the lateness of the hour and the small boys, quoted a price higher than normal.

Looking north-east across the Aubrey valley, close to where the Welch family made camp. [Image courtesy of Google Maps]

No-one will ever know why the family didn’t then stop in Seligman where there were more motels. It may have been cost or it may have been that the boys were nagging their parents to camp. But eventually, around midnight, JD pulled into the side of the road around 13 miles west of Seligman. Even now, it’s a bleak and barren stretch of road, the plain of the Aubrey Valley stretching for miles around. The only cover were two large piles of rubble and it was beside one of these that JD pitched his sons’ tent while he and his wife slept in the Oldsmobile.

The next morning, little Johnny was the first boy awake. He went over to the car where his parents were sleeping and tried to wake them. Confused, he ran back to his brothers, saying there was something on mommy’s face. Going to check, Jimmy found his mother’s face covered with blood. He lifted his father’s head and found that he too had been shot several times in the head. The little boys tried desperately to flag down help, but several cars would speed past before salesmen and race drivers, Jere Eagle and Dan Cramer from California, stopped and realised the horror of the situation.

The boys’ pup tent beside the Oldsmobile. Despite being so close, none of the boys heard the shots that killed their parents.

Highway Patrolman Dan Birdino and Deputy Sheriff Perry Blankenship were first to arrive on the scene, Blankenship having been notified by his wife, Bertie Lee, after a driver stopped at Johnson’s Café on the east end of Seligman where she worked as a waitress. Bertie would have a bigger role in this story than she could have imagined at the time. 

Although around $60 had been taken from JD’s wallet, Utha’s purse, which contained $147, and her expensive jewellery was untouched. Despite a few promising leads – a Greyhound bus had stopped at the same place although this turned out to be some hours after the murders – clues quickly dried up. The best that the local police had was a statement from Bertie Blankenship about a young man she had served late the previous night. He only had a nickel on him, not enough for a cup of coffee, but there was something about him that spooked Bertie so much she gave him the coffee for free. A few hours later, the same man returned to the all-night diner and this time ordered a full meal with tomato juice, paying for it with a $20 note and professing not to recognise Bertie.

However, a suspect did flag up on the law enforcement radar almost immediately. James Abner Bentley lived in Gilbert, Arizona. However, his mother and estranged wife claimed that he had been in Fresno, California, with them on the night of the murders. Arrested for the robbery and attempted murder of a Phoenix gas station attendant in late June, it transpired that Bentley had been in Fresno – but a month earlier, when he had killed the owner of a liquor store.

Shown a photo of Bentley by Sheriff Jim Cramer, Bertie Blankenship identifies him as the man who visited the diner twice. [Photo by Bill Nixon, Arizona Republic]

So, James Abner Bentley was already suspected of the Welches’ murders just days after they happened and local Seligman police had a mug shot of Bentley. For whatever reason, no-one thought to show that photo to Bertie Blankenship. Bertie didn’t see a photo of Bentley until a year later after a cellmate of the condemned prisoner had revealed that Bentley alluded to the murders, proudly saying he’d left the children alive. When Bertie was shown an image of Bentley, she immediately identified him as the stranger who had come to the diner – once poor and once with money in his pocket – the night of the murders.

James Abner Bentley. he would be described as a ‘mad dog’ by a boy who witnessed his attempted murder of a Phoenix gas station worker.

James Abner Bentley was charged with the murders of JD and Utha Welch while on death row in San Quentin, convicted of the murder of the Fresno liquor store owner. Had his death sentence been commuted – and that was a definite possibility at the time as Pat Brown, then Governor of California, was a firm opponent of the death penalty – then Arizona would have proceeded with the prosecution for both the Welch murders and the robbery and attempted murder charge in Phoenix. But, on 23rd January 1963, just after 10am, Bentley went to the gas chamber. It was little consolation to the four small boys (although Jim was, unsurprisingly, a lifelong supporter of the death penalty) whose childhood ended so brutally on the side of Route 66.

RETURN TO BERT’S COUNTRY DANCING

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There are many places on Route 66 that are better known, more flamboyant, historically more important, but my heart has always taken by Bert’s Country Dancing in Valentine, Arizona. I’ve written about it elsewhere on this blog and I never pass up an opportunity to stop, just to reassure myself it’s still there.

I never knew Bert’s Country Dancing when it was open – Bert Denton, the eponymous owner, was gone a decade before I started travelling Route 66 and I’ve missed the very rare occasion on which the bar has re-opened briefly, although even that hasn’t been for years now. But I think Bert would still recognise it all as his place. He wouldn’t approve of the dust gathering on the bar top or the grass growing over the benches out back, but it has changed little since his death nearly a quarter of a century ago. Not much changes around these parts and when it does, it does it very slowly. Why would anyone clear out the bar? It’s not as if the space is needed out here where you never see another soul. And who knows, one day there might be a call for a bit of country dancing in Valentine again.

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AN EXTRAORDINARY MURDER ON ROUTE 66

Jacob Nicklos ‘Ray’ Krentz

On a snowy afternoon in February 1960 a truck driver travelling the lonely stretch of Route 66 near Hyde Park, Arizona, spotted something out of place some yards off to the side of the road. He pulled over to investigate and what he found saw him heading to Seligman to call the police. Slumped against a fence was the body of a man resting in a pool of blood, his face covered in mud. Papers on the corpse identified it as Jacob Nicklos Krentz, late of Phoenix.

However, police had already been looking for Krentz after the 1958 Oldsmobile registered to his wife, Ila, had been found parked on a car lot in Roswell, New Mexico. It was unlikely to find any buyers due to the bullet holes in the windscreen and the interior being saturated in blood, along with a human tooth on the floor. It was clear that something had gone very wrong in this car and two days later the discovery of Krentz’s body proved that. Ila, who was initially thought to have gone missing with her husband, told Phoenix police that he had left a week earlier with “two old men” to find work on the Glen Canyon Dam construction project and had failed to telephone her at the end of the week as planned.

Jacob Krentz, who also went by the name of Ray (and indeed was referred to during subsequent trials as ‘Jacob Ray Krentz’) had only lived in Phoenix for a few months, moving there from California with Ila and his two stepsons to look after the children of his wife’s deceased sister. This wasn’t as straight forward as it might have been for Krentz’s parole officer had to agree to the move. Krentz had a record which went back to 1943 when he was charged with transporting 500 cases of whiskey in violation of internal revenue codes. In 1951 he was sent to jail for robbing a tavern in California and then placed on four years’ probation. The following year he skipped the state and it was three years before he was arrested in Las Vegas, Nevada, on vagrancy charges and charged with parole violation. His protests of innocence were shot down when the judge produced a photo of Krentz as a pallbearer at a funeral in one of his previous hometowns in Montana. Captain Peter Starasinic of the Alameda County Sheriff’s department described Krentz as “the best safecracker in the West” although there seems little to indicate that he was any more than a common or garden burglar. Because he had been fraternizing with criminals, the judge dismissed the idea of county jail and sent Krentz to San Quentin to serve his original 1-5 year sentence. While he was in prison, Ila filed for divorce although the couple were later reconciled.

Krentz may well have wanted to find a job as a bulldozer driver at the dam project in Page (he might equally have just wanted to get away from the small Phoenix trailer he was sharing with his wife and five children) but it seems that he never actually made it there. What is known is that he spent the last three days of his life drinking with his two companions in bars in Ash Fork and Williams before winding up dead on the side of Route 66.

There the trail might have gone as cold as Krentz’s frozen body had not a plump dishevelled 53-year-old man called Charles Francis Caldwell walked into the FBI office in San Antonio, Texas, the day after the grim discovery and said he had been with Krentz when he was killed. But he hadn’t done it. He had been driving on Route 66 when the killer, sitting in the back seat, pulled out a pistol and shot Krentz (who was in the passenger seat) three times, causing Krentz to collapse into his lap. He eventually named the killer as a Joe Brown. The authorities didn’t hold up much hope of finding ‘Joe Brown’, but just a few days later the FBI arrested Joe Brown – his real name – in his home city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Both Caldwell and Brown were charged with murder.

What elevated this incident from a sordid drunken killing to an extraordinary murder are two things; it was the first murder case to be tried in Yavapai County in eleven years and, despite the evidence, no-one was ever convicted of Jacob Krentz’s murder.

Brown, 57, went on trial first, with Caldwell due to be tried a week later. Caldwell – who had insisted on taking a lie detector test to prove his story – was the prosecution’s main witness, amid cries of “Liar, liar!” from Brown. But, although the judge gave the jury the options of either first or second degree murder, the court was stunned when, after eighteen hours of deliberation, it returned a verdict of innocent. The following day the murder charge against Caldwell was dropped. Brown was immediately rearrested and charged with being an accessory to a felony. Tried in October 1960 there was a dramatic twist when the jury had to deliberate in darkness due to a power cut, but they found him guilty. He served two and a half years in the state prison at Florence and then, released in April 1963, disappeared. Caldwell moved to Flagstaff and the following year was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. In April 1971 he was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died a year later.

In retrospect, it appears that Joe Brown was indeed the murderer. As well as Caldwell’s testimony, the trio had been seen leaving Seligman with Caldwell driving and Brown in the back seat. Brown’s landlady had watched him pack a pistol in his case before leaving Phoenix, the teenage son of a Seligman service station owner had seen Brown move the same case from the trunk to the rear seat of the car probably just moments before Krentz was killed and Caldwell even produced the blood-stained trousers he had been wearing at the time that backed up his story that Krentz had been shot in the head and neck before slumping into his lap. It seems that the good jury of Prescott considered that an ex-con had simply got his just desserts.

THE MYSTERY OF MYSTERY CASTLE

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.