THE SLOW DEATH OF THE LUDLOW CAFE

The Ludlow cafe in the late 1940s. The freestanding lettering at the front and the LUDLOW CAFE sign survived into the 1990s.

Out in the Mojave desert, on the side of Route 66, the Ludlow Cafe was once a welcome stop to travellers across California. But, over the last ten years, I’ve watched the building that once housed the cafe become ever more dilapidated until, one day, it was gone.

Not to be confused with the A-frame Ludlow Cafe further west and that, thanks to its position at the top of the off ramp for junction 50 of Interstate 40, still thrives, this Ludlow Cafe was a plain box-like building beside the canopied gas station and was built of lumber salvaged from the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad (the same place from where Mother Preston ‘borrowed’ timber!). Run for over twenty years by Rex and Lillian Warnix, it was sold in the 1960s to Laurel and Cameron Friend who owned other properties on the east side of Ludlow, including the next door 76 gas station.

Versions of this wanted ad would run regularly in the San Bernardino County Sun for almost 20 years

It was clearly always difficult to get good staff – and then to get them to stay in the middle of nowhere – and, from 1948 an advertisement ran in the classifieds section of the San Bernardino County Sun asking for women staff. That ad would run several times a year for the next twenty years (although, by 1956, the cafe had apparently got a telephone – perhaps they weren’t willing to give the number out to prospective employees before, although as it was Ludlow 3, any waitress keen enough could have made an educated guess).

The Ludlow Cafe in 2007, boarded up and the signage gone, but still in reasonable shape.

The Friends moved in 1975 and it’s likely that the cafe closed then. For some years it retained its streamlined lettering and, in 1990, when Troy Paiva (a man responsible for so many of the trips I have made in the last few years) used it for one of his ‘light painting’ photographs, the cafe was still open to the elements, the glass gone from the windows, but the counter still in place. If you look at the ‘1959 Cadillac on Route 66‘ channel on Youtube, you will find (among many of Anthony Reichardt’s other wonderful films) a video from August 1992, by which time the cafe was boarded up. When  I first saw the cafe fifteen years later in 2007, the freestanding lettering and the cafe sign were long gone, but the building was still in reasonable shape.

This was October 2008, probably not long after its first fire.

That all changed when I passed by a year later. Winter in the Mojave is cold at nights and apparently transients sheltering in the building had lost control of a fire. I hope that was the case. If the cafe had to burn, then better it was because it was giving shelter and comfort, if in reduced circumstances, as it had all its working life than because it was the victim of kids with too much time on their hands or a casual arsonist.

2010, the fire still evident, and the boarding falling away.

The gutted building was eventually boarded up again in a somewhat half-hearted way, but, by the last time I saw the Ludlow Cafe in 2014, the building was an open, dead-eyed shell.

And then the next year it was gone, another fire, one which, this time, had reduced it to a pile of rubble and charred wood.

 

Spring 2014, the last time I would see the Ludlow Cafe. It was open wide and graffiti artists had found it by now. A year later ti

That was the Ludlow Cafe. As far as I’m aware, only a handful of photos – or possibly just one – exist of it when it was a working, busy cafe. Sadly, there are many more thousands that, like mine, record its slow death in the desert.

 

 

 

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NOT QUITE SUCH A SHORE THING

Half close your eyes, ignore the smell of rotting fish and you could see why this was such a popular place in the 1960s. The pilings to the left are the remains of the boat jetty.

The North Shore Beach and Yacht Club began construction in 1958 at a time when that accidental sea, the Salton Sea, was an up-and-coming destination and not the dead fish-ridden wasteland that much of it has become today.

Back when it looked like the resort would last forever.

Back in the 1950s, there was a multi-million dollar plan for what would become California’s largest marina and the jewel in the crown was the yacht club, designed by architect Albert Frey who was responsible for ‘desert modernism’ and whose influence on Palm Springs remains to this day. Frey delighted in the idea of creating a ship in the middle of a desert by a sea that shouldn’t exist, and his design is evocative of a boat with a curved prow, mast, crow’s nest lounge and porthole windows. It soon became popular, promoted as ‘The Glamour Capital of the Salton Sea’, and Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, the Beach Boys and the Marx Brothers all visited the club.

Bereft of its nautical flags and Albert Frey’s signature yellow fibre glass panels.

One of the developers who built the yacht club was Ray Ryan, who had been responsible for the restoration of the El Mirador Hotel in Palm Springs and later opened the Bermuda Dunes Country Club. Ryan was a flamboyant character who, it was whispered, had connections to the Mob. Stepping out of the Olympia health club in Evansville, Indiana on 18th October 1977, he got into his new Lincoln Continental Mark V coupe and turned the key. The car exploded. Ryan was killed immediately, the power was knocked out over the south part of Evansville and it took two days to find all the pieces of the Lincoln.

From a LA Time supplement of April 1963. The yacht club is in the middle left, with the pool clearly visible. The jetty was destroyed in 1981, and the motel at the top of the picture in late 2008.

Without Ryan, it’s unlikely that North Shore would have been the destination spot that it became in the 1960s, but even he could do little about the twin forces of a recession and environmental problems, both of which ensured the resort’s downfall. As the development boom went bust in the 1970s, countless lots were simply abandoned, while water pollution saw the number of visitors fall. Flooding compounded the area’s problems and, in 1981, a flood destroyed the North Shore Marina’s jetty. If people couldn’t dock their boats, they wouldn’t visit. Many took their boats away from the Salton Sea entirely as they found the increased salinity clogging expensive marine engines.

By 1984, the yacht club was forced to shut its doors. Eventually it fell prey to vandals who exacerbated the interior damage caused by its use as a film location in 2005 (the front was also painted with the name ‘Aces & Spades’ for the movie The Island and the inside gutted) and to skateboarders who treasured the yacht club’s now-empty swooping pool.

The North Shore Motel close to the yacht club. The motel was torn down a few months after this photo was taken.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. The North Shore Yacht Club looked like this when I first visited in 2008. There was a large motel nearby, albeit also boarded up. When I returned three years later, the motel had been razed to the ground but, to my surprise, the yacht club had been restored to its former glory. It was, apparently, intended for use as a community centre and home to the Salton Sea History Museum. But here’s the rub; the owners of the property terminated the museum’s lease after a handful of years, forcing the museum into (hopefully temporary) closure, while every time I’ve been there, the place has been firmly shut up with no indication of any future community events to be held there.

If a club designed to look like a ship in the desert was incongruous, the site of a restored and repainted disused building at North Shore is even odder still.

The North Shore Beach & Yacht Club in 2008.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The North Shore Beach & Yacht Club in 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The famous pool, now gone.

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.