SIGN OF THE TIMES

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On a lonely stretch of Route 66 east of Newberry Springs, California stands a sign. It’s not much of a sign and, as the years go by, it’s becoming even less of one. It sags in the middle as if one good gust of wind would destroy it forever but it’s still just possible to read CAFE MOTEL with an arrow beneath. Now that arrow points to nothing but desert and the remains of an old trailer, but once this was quite literally a Desert Oasis.

In his A Guide Book to Highway 66, Jack Rittenhouse notes two gas stations at this point within a half mile of each other, one ‘with cafe, few cabins and garage’ and the other ‘similar but lacking a garage’. Rather frustratingly, at a time when every clutch of houses merited its own name, Mr Rittenhouse doesn’t cite place names but in 1939, seven years before his book, the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration produced a guide to California in which it names two places, Mojave Water Camp and Guyman (‘each has its small knot of sun-bleached buildings’) which are very likely the sites of Rittenhouse’s two stations.

The Mojave Water Camp service station. Note the cabins to the left of the main building.

It’s also likely that, by the time the Guide Book to Route 66 was published, the Mojave Water Camp no longer existed. The last tangible evidence of its existence is in a 1939 photograph by Burton Frasher which shows a Shell station and cafe with a small row of cabins beside it. Some sources say that two service stations were incorporated into one, but contemporary reports speak of two separate establishments a half mile apart.

Poe’s Cafe in 1949.

Down the road from the Mojave Water Camp, the gas station at Guyman was bought and redeveloped by Ed Poe, who built a new modern cafe building which proclaimed POE’S CAFE in a square sign and advertised chicken dinners on the front of the cafe. From there on, the place was always known as Poe’s Cafe and the area became generally known as Poe or Poe Town. By 1949, it was ‘Poe’s Cafe and Continental Bus Stop’ and sold Shell fuel although, according to a legal notice in the Bakersfield Californian the following spring, it was by then a Texaco station. A few cabins – or the motel – were added on the side of Route 66.

The Desert Oasis Cafe in the 1950s, to judge by the gas pumps. The Poe’s Cafe sign has been replaced and awnings fixed over the windows, while the gas station now retails Richfield fuel.

Poe sold the business in the early 1950s and it was renamed the Desert Oasis, although the name never really took. To the end of its days, the place was known as Poe’s Cafe. Once again, it changed brands, becoming a Richfield station. However, as with other places along the busy highway, not all travellers were filled with good intentions and a desire for a piece of home-cooked pie. In September 1952, a waitress at Poe’s Cafe fell to talking with 33-year-old Robert Elmer Jensen. He persuaded her into his car with the promise of a better job and then took her on a 24-hour ride during which he raped her twice. The waitress managed to escape although she would never have to testify against Jensen who was shot dead by Pennsylvania state police a month later.

Five years later, Poe’s service station – the name Desert Oasis didn’t catch on with the San Bernadino County Sun newspaper – was destroyed by fire after all three pumps caught fire on the evening of 17th April 1957. Fire department units from the nearby Marine Base and the California Department of Forestry at Hesperia found the service station engulfed by fire but they managed to save the cafe, which the San Bernardino County Sun was still calling Poe’s Cafe when, in 1974, it reported on two Daggett juveniles breaking in and stealing food stuff.

From then, Poe’s Cafe quietly disappears into history. Except for that crumbling and broken sign on the side of the highway, for that very sign was intended to entice travellers off Route 66. And then, of course, there was no more Route 66 and no-one wanting to stop for a bed or pie, but the sign still carries on doing its job, long after Poe’s Cafe had vanished into the desert.

All that’s left of Poe’s Cafe, service station and motel.

MOTHER PRESTON AND THE LUDLOW WAR

One of the earliest photographs known of the Ludlow Mercantile Company Building. At the time, there were a number of other stores and buildings beside it.

The Wild West, feuds, violence, a mysterious French woman with a temper and hot-headed Irish brothers – it’s a story which could have come straight out of Hollywood, but Hollywood was still very much in its infancy as this tale played out 175 miles away in Ludlow, California.

Today Ludlow is little more than a brief stop on Route 66, the largest remaining building the Ludlow Mercantile building which was decaying long before it was damaged in an earthquake in 2006. But, almost a century ago, that very store was the centre of a feud between an Irish family and a large feisty French lady that rolled on for years.

The Ludlow Mercantile Company Building, still standing – at the moment.

Mathilde Pascaline Vigneron was born in Oise, east of Paris, in France in 1850. Very little is known of her early life except that she was married to Gustave Jacques Masquelier, despite the fact that Monsieur Masquelier was already married to someone else. He and Mathilde moved to London and then to America where Gustave became manager of the Los Angeles Steam Dyeing & Cleaning Company. However, shortly after, Mathilde had moved to a mining town where she became a ‘widow’ – despite the fact that Gustave didn’t die until 1919 (although he too had been calling himself a widower for many years previously!). In 1888, Mathilde married a Calico miner, one Thomas Jefferson ‘TJ’ Preston, and took his name.

By now, Mathilde had established herself as a successful saloon owner, always willing to provide a glass of whiskey and a hand of poker, a game at which she excelled. The couple moved to Daggett and then, around 1900, on to the prosperous railroad town of Ludlow. There TJ started a delivery service but the couple’s money came from the saloon which his wife started. She had been known in the mining towns as ‘Big Mary’, an epithet which reflected both her build and her general demeanour, although I’m not sure whether people would have used that name to her face. Described in accounts of the time as ‘a physical giant’, she thought nothing of helping herself to the odd wooden tie stored by the railroad opposite her saloon, carrying one back to her place on her shoulder. The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad never billed her for the wood; it did, however, move its ties…

The Mercantile Building showing the earthquake damage of 2006.

Within a short time, ‘Ma’ or ‘Mother’ Preston (as she had become known in the town) owned a saloon, pool room, hotel, restaurant and store. Although she was a tough businesswoman, she was also famous for her generosity in helping people, if often on a business footing. She loaned money to John Denair to build the Ludlow Mercantile Company building in 1908 but foreclosed on the store when he was unable to meet the payments, and then continued to operate it herself. For a few years, Ma Preston was very much the queen of Ludlow … and then the Murphy brothers came to town. They opened their own store, which was a bearable situation for Mathilde – until Thomas and Mike Murphy bought the building right next door to the Mercantile. From that moment, a feud began which would erupt into violence and end in court.

Mathilde resented the newcomers’ store and they, for their part, had no love for this large foreign woman. She was accustomed to bathing in a large barrel in her yard and, according to one story, one night a group of youths turned over the barrel, tipping out Ma Preston in all her glory. She blamed the Murphys and loudly harangued them outside their store, calling them every name under the sun. Mike’s Irish temper snapped and, Ma Preston alleged, he ran out and whipped her with a length of rubber hose. She didn’t wear drawers in summer and was happy to lift up her long dress and show the resulting welts to just about anyone. Then she sued for $10,000, although the resulting settlement was a fraction of that sum.

The Murphy Brothers General Store in the Mercantile Building in the 1920s.

Things went from bad to worse. In 1915, hearing that someone had jumped her claim upon a valuable mine east of Ludlow, Ma Preston rode her horse out to the claim where a tent had been erected. She later said that she had tripped on a guy rope, propelling her into the tent, whereupon a man – who just happened to be Thomas Murphy – leapt up and beat her severely with a railroad air coupler around the head and body. She immediately issued a claim for damages of $20,000, which included $10,000 for what she said was a permanently crippled right leg, stating that Murphy, who was almost half her age (she was then 66 years old), intended to kill her. The case kept the newspapers busy through the winter of 1915 but, rather disappointingly, appears to have been settled before it reached a courtroom. It would have made quite a case.

So, where was Thomas Preston while his wife was off fighting hand to hand with local rivals? Well, he might have been locked in the chicken coop behind her hotel as she was known to do when he stepped out of line. It was in TJ’s interests to toe whatever line his wife set; the money all belonged to Ma Preston; every building was in her name and she was registered as a sole trader. TJ was, it seems, kept busy running errands and chores for his wife. He was named as ‘head of household’ in the regular state census, but he was anything but.

The only known photograph of Mother Preston, clearly taken without her knowledge!

Peace seemed to descend for a few years and then, out of the blue, Mother Preston announced in 1920 that she and TJ were moving to France to see her relatives – and, more remarkably, she had sold her store, cottages and real estate for $18,000 to her hated rival, Thomas Murphy. It seems that TJ didn’t have much say in this decision – as he had his photograph taken for the very first time in his life, he said wistfully that they were only applying for passports for a year, adding “but I don’t hardly think we will stay that long … I don’t imagine how long ‘Ma’ will want to stay in France, but I imagine that she won’t care for it in a year. She will want to see the folks and look around, but then we’ll probably be coming home.”

It wasn’t to be. Ma Preston bought a small tobacconist shop which the couple ran for a handful of years before TJ died in 1926. Mathilde followed him to the grave just four months later, dying at the age of 76, of heart disease in the American Hospital in Paris. Her closest relative, a nephew, was informed by mail. She left an estate of $70,000 which was dispersed among nieces and nephews who, no doubt, had never heard of Ludlow. Ironically, her arch rival, Thomas Murphy, only survived her by less than five years, dying of cancer in Los Angeles. He had married less than a year before. His widow’s name? Matilda.

Still with the faintest of sign writing down the side.

NO ROOM AT THE HENNING

This is another salutary tale of how you should never presume that things will be forever. Perhaps, in Europe, we tend to think of Route 66 as preserved in aspic. But, even if a building is on the National Register of Historic Places, it offers little protection, unlike the UK’s own listing of historic buildings. Many never even make it as far as the register.

And the Henning Motel in Newberry Springs on the California stretch of Route 66 wasn’t particularly noteworthy. If it were not for the sign, then most people would have taken a photo of the Bagdad Café next door and probably not bothered to raise their cameras for the single storey white motel. No-one knows much about the Henning, least of all why it had an impressive neon sign for what was a tiny motel with just a handful of rooms. Unusually, it was constructed as one building, unlike the cabins of a similar vintage in Amboy and Chambless down the road; as Jack Rittenhouse only spoke of tourist cabins at Newberry Springs in his 1946 guide, it’s fair to assume the motel was built in the 1950s. I found a matchbook that appears to be from the 1930s or 40s which advertises ‘The Henning Motel, 400 East Main Street, Barstow’. It’s possible that the owners moved out here in the 1950s – the Barstow address is now an empty lot, so no clues there.

Look closely at one of the photos of the decaying motel and you will see the reason for its death. Interstate 40 bypassed Route 60 in 1973, running a few yards behind the motel, although it might as well be a hundred miles away. The Henning struggled on for a while – hell, it was even famous for a moment when the film ‘Bagdad Café’ was filmed at what was then called the Sidewinder Café in 1987.

For years, the building has been quietly mouldering away. A hand painted sign outside with a Flagstaff telephone number invited offers of $25,000 for the building and three and a half acres of land. But the motel moved beyond economic repair years ago, while land is not in short supply out here. I passed it fairly regularly, sometimes taking a photo, sometimes not.

And then this summer it was gone. Cleared, the concrete pad the only sign something was once here. The sign is clinging on, overseeing an empty lot and lost memories.