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.

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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.