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 Boyle’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.

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 WORLD FAMOUS TAGUS RANCH

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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 Targus 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 Targus 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 Targus 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.

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THE SADDEST TRADING POST ON 66

One of the earliest known photos of the Toonerville Trading Post, then selling Texaco fuel and with a bright mural around the top of the building.

Even in its heyday, Route 66 was not the continuous benign bright ribbon that some might imagine. Almost without exception, life was as hard as anywhere else – sometimes harder – and that highway traffic was comprised not only of the military, the commercial traveller and the tourist, but of darker elements. Some places seemed to attract sadness and tragedy more than others, and one such place was Toonerville in Arizona.

Toonerville in the 1960s, now a Shell station and concentrating on the cafe and beer rather than Indian curios.

The Toonerville Trading Post, one of four along a short stretch of Route 66, was built and opened by Earl Tinnin in 1935. He and his wife, Elsie, ran the post and raised two children there, Helen and George Earl. Then, in August 1947, tragedy struck. Apparently, while playing with toy guns, the 14-year-old George picked up a real weapon; the .32 pistol went off and shot him in the left side of his face, killing the boy. In these days of health and safety, the incident raises questions – why was a real gun mixed in with toys? Why didn’t a boy of almost fifteen who had been raised in an isolated area and thus presumably around firearms recognise the difference? It was recorded as an accident, and the Tinnins continue to operate the trading post for a further seven years until, in 1954, Earl sold Toonerville to Merritt Dow ‘Slick’ McAlister and moved to Flagstaff to run the Nor Star and Ben Franklin motels.

The interior of the Toonerville Trading Post [Coconino County Sheriff’s Department]

McAlister had previously run the Vermilion Cliff Lodge on Route 89 for six years, but as manager rather than owner, and so he must have jumped at the chance to be his own boss with the purchase of Toonerville. Born in 1911, McAlister was, by some accounts, a feisty character for much of his life, the subject of numerous reports of threatening people with his pistol and getting into fights. Indeed, as a 21-year-old, he was involved in a dance hall brawl in which a young man was shot and almost died, although there’s no indication McAlister was at fault. However, by 1971, McAlister was 60 and apparently a changed character who rarely even carried a gun. He had run the post for over sixteen years with his third wife, Pearl, who he had married in 1947. She then had a 14-year-old son, Bronson ‘Buster’ Lamoure (a daughter, Rita Mae, had died while a baby) who appears to be the closest to a child that McAlister had, despite his three trips down the aisle.

As the couple approached retirement age they were preparing to wind down. They’d made attempts to sell the trading post with possibly more enthusiasm they had in keeping it going. As Route 66 was realigned and then I-40 opened, the trading post stood apart from the road with just a single GASOLINE sign to promote it. (The trading post did have the only local alcohol licence in the area which brought in local trade.) It may have been this loneliness that, on the afternoon of 30th August 1971, attracted three young people to stop; contemporary newspaper reports first said it was two black couples in two cars, but it appears to have actually been two males and a woman in a small blue sports car and a light coloured sedan.

Within moments of their arrival, Slick McAlister lay dead and his wife desperately injured with a gunshot wound. She had been shot in the back of the head as she cooked hamburgers for the trio, one of whom then shot McAlister in the chest before they ransacked the shop and living quarters, stealing $70 but missing a larger stash of money. However, while they may have assumed the couple were both dead, Pearl later regained consciousness and managed to ring their friends, the Greys, who ran the Twin Arrows trading post a mile down the road. The Greys arrived to find Pearl in a pool of blood, Slick dead and the hamburgers still frying on the stove top.

The Coroner’s Jury examine the murder scene and the open cash register. [Arizona Daily Sun]

Police initially thought they had a major lead when they believed that Slick wrote down the license plates of any cars stopping for gas. They would later discover that he only did so when the customer was paying by credit card (and it appears that the trio stopped for fuel at Twin Arrows after the robbery), but not before a gentleman from Tucson whose number plate was on that pad was well and truly scared and forced to prove his car had been in the garage for several days.

Slick McAlister’s gravestone in Pinal Cemetery, Central Heights, Arizona.

Two brothers and a girl were arrested shortly afterwards in Las Vegas, but Mrs McAlister couldn’t identify them and their fingerprints didn’t match those found at the scene. And from that point on the trail went cold. No-one has ever been arrested for the crime and Pearl died in 1999, still not knowing who had slain her husband and almost killed her. In 2014, the Toonerville murder was reopened by the cold case officers of the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department. No new evidence or leads have yet come to light.

Toonerville around a month before Mary Smeal’s death. I haven’t had the heart to photograph it since.

But it wasn’t to be the last tragedy at Toonerville. In recent years, the trading post was converted to a private residence and occupied by Mary Smeal, a leading member of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona and chief financial officer for the Hopi Tribe Economic Development Cooperation. Mary had campaigned to save and refurbish the Twin Arrows trading post nearby; many people knew that she had been one of the volunteers involved in preserving and repainting the iconic arrows in 2009, fewer knew that she had paid for all the materials herself. Her next project was to restore the Toonerville property but that all ended a year ago this week. On 16th November 2016, colleagues became concerned that the normally conscientious Mary hadn’t turned up for work. A police welfare check discovered that she had been shot dead by her partner, Jeffrey Jones, who had then turned the gun on himself.

Now Toonerville stands abandoned again, the scene of three deaths wrapped in mystery and about which we will probably never know the full truth.

Toonerville in the 1960s, now a Shell station and concentrating on the cafe and beer rather than Indian curios.

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.