THE THOREAU TRADING POST MYSTERY

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This is another example of how recent history can vanish so quickly. This trading post stands to the west of Thoreau in New Mexico and is rapidly falling apart. Yet even its name is already lost, or so it seemed.

Part of the problem with identifying the building is that Thoreau was a town which, despite its tiny size, thrived on trading posts (at least six to my knowledge). But, putting my faith in Jack Rittenhouse and his 1946 guide, I figured that this place must have been either the Thoreau Trading Post or the Beautiful Mountain Trading Post, both of which Rittenhouse mentions as being on Route 66.

To be honest, I really hoped this place would be the Beautiful Mountain Trading Post, if only because it seemed that someone had at least made an effort with the name. The Thoreau Trading Post was, well, just a little short on imagination. For a while, that seemed likely. Even the Northern Arizona University digital archive had a modern-day picture of the building which it titled ‘Beautiful Mountain Trading Post’. But it had then attached a question mark to that title which didn’t inspire confidence.

Then, tucked away on an inside page of a 1945 edition of the Gallup Independent I found a single mention of the Beautiful Mountain Trading Post in which it was described as at the intersection of Route 66 and the road into Thoreau. That, of course, is where the now closed Red Mountain Market and Deli stands … and ‘Red Mountain’ is close to the original name, if a little more economic on paint.

The reason why the place was even mentioned in the paper was because it had just been sold to Mr TM Lane by one Jake Atkinson, member of one of the two famous trading post families of this part of New Mexico. If you read the post on the Atkinsons on this blog, you’ll see that the timing matches – 1945 was the year that he and his wife Maxine bought the Brock Trading Post in Bluewater and turned it into the famous Rattlesnake Trading Post. Even more intriguing, by the mid-1950s, the Beautiful Mountain was owned by Blake Bowlin, from the other famous trading post family, and brother of the remarkable Claude Bowlin.

So, that seems to solve the mystery of the Beautiful Mountain Trading Post, but it leaves me little the wiser about the history of this sad place. As well as the Atkinsons and Bowlins, John H ‘Bill’ Bass operated a trading post in Thoreau as well as opening the Thunderbird Bar in Thoreau on 4th July 1964. Bill Bass and his wife Lorene had moved to New Mexico in the 1940s and Bass ran the Top of the World Cocktail Lounge at Continental Divide. In 1948, he was charged with ‘operating a confidence game’ at Willard Neal’s zoo, although it doesn’t seem to have hurt his future career. For many years he was either the McKinley County Sheriff or Under Sheriff (once working for his son amid calls of nepotism). Was this his business? And did it ever have a name to call its own? Given how I have watched this building deteriorate over the last few years, that may soon not even matter.

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THE MAN WHO WALKED TO GLENRIO

John Heardon, a remarkable man.

The snow started falling over the Texas Panhandle on 1st February 1956. Within hours it would herald one of the worst blizzards in American history as snow fell for four straight days over Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico; by the time it began to thaw, at least eighteen people and hundreds of cattle were dead. The little town of Vega bore the brunt of the storm, recording a staggering 61 inches of snow, but everywhere was affected. But life had to, somehow, go on and that meant Route 66 had to keep rolling.

If the road was open for business, then so were the companies that used it, among them the bus line, Continental Trailways. At 5.30am, John Hearon, 38, pulled his Vista-Liner out of Amarillo, heading to Tucumcari. He knew that the conditions were dire, having already done a run in the opposite direction, arriving in Amarillo two hours behind schedule. There are varying estimates as to how passengers he had on board for that return trip – contemporary accounts state between 14 and 35 (although the lower figure is probably the correct one) but all agree that among the passengers was 21-month-old Patricia Henderson, travelling with her mother, Ruth.

Ohio company Flxible built just 208 Vista-Liners between 1954 and 1958. Continental Trailways purchased 126 of them and it was one of these buses John Heardon was driving on the Amarillo-Tucumcari run.

All was well until around 9am when, John Hearon related; “I was going about 25 miles an hour when I hit this drift in a deep cut. Snow was about waist high and we couldn’t move the bus. No-one got excited, though. We had about a half tank of fuel, so there was no immediate worry about heat. We figured we’d just sit tight until help arrived.” But more than five hours passed with not a single vehicle in sight – the blizzard had closed down Route 66 and even snow clearing machinery couldn’t get through – and Mr Hearon started to worry that the bus was running low on fuel. Once that ran out, the bus would become a freezing metal box – and possibly a tomb. The only food on the bus was two sandwiches which the passengers gave to the little girl. Mr Hearon decided that he had to go for help. Norris Turner, a passenger from Houston, offered to go with him, but Mr Hearon urged him to stay behind and help keep up the morale of the other passengers. John Hearon opened the door and set off into the storm.

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Plainview, to the south of Amarillo, at the end of the five-day storm.

Adrian was the closest town, but John Hearon realised that he would be walking uphill and into the freezing wind and blowing snow, so he headed west for Glenrio. He was wearing only his bus driver’s uniform of low cut shoes, unlined gloves, woollen trousers and a light regulation jacket and within minutes he had to return to the bus to find a piece of cloth to wind around his head to protect his ears and neck. Then he set off again, finding his way by the telephone poles along the now hidden road, often slipping and falling. He came across a couple stranded in their car who tried to persuade him to seek refuge with them, but Mr Hearon was adamant his passengers, especially the little girl, needed help and he pushed on.

The Brownlee Diner rallied around to feed the stranded bus passengers.

He would later tell John Phillips of the Reader’s Digest, “About nine o’clock my eyes felt strange. There was a beacon north of Glenrio I’d been using as a guide, but suddenly I stopped seeing it … my right eye had gone blind.” Not long after, his left eye began to cloud up as he began to succumb to snow blindness. Slapping his face to keep himself awake, he finally saw distant spots of light just after 10pm; he had been pushing himself forward for hours with thoughts of steaming hot coffee and he passed Joseph Brownlee’s gas station, stumbling towards the diner next door. But his strength finally failed him and he fell to his knees in the snow. He managed to whistle a couple of times and this saved his life. A young man in the diner heard him and found him in the dark, dragging him into the gas station. Joe Brownlee said; “He looked nearly dead. His face was blue, his eyes closed, his lips swollen. I’ve never seen anyone look like that.

The Brownlee gas station where John Heardon was taken when he reached Glenrio.

John Hearon had staggered through the storm for almost nine hours. Frostbitten and snowblind, he could barely speak, but he managed to tell his rescuers exactly where the bus was, how many passengers were on it, how long they had been without food and how much gas had been in the tank when he left. Joe Brownlee loaded up his Power Wagon with food and blankets and, putting chains on the wheels, fought his way to the bus, arriving at 2am. Thanks to John Hearon’s incredible bravery, everyone was well and in good spirits and the engine was still running, although they were no doubt pleased to see Joe Brownlee. Over several trips, all the passengers were ferried back to the diner where the town donated food for all of them.

Mr Hearon spent just four days in hospital. After six more days at home, he resumed his Tucumcari-Amarillo route. His courage was recognised with an all-expenses paid holiday to Treasure Island in Florida (Continental Trailways let him have the extra week off, which was mighty big of it) where he was feted and presented with an engraved medallion and his wife, Winnie, with an orchid and a pendant. Other gifts were a little odder; as well as money, the town of Sudan, Texas, presented him with a bale of cotton.

However, there was no long happy ending for John Hearon. On 12th March 1965 he passed away from pneumonia while suffering from lung cancer. He was just 47 years old. But to his four children, the oldest of whom was just 12 when he died, to the passengers of that bus and to the people of Glenrio he was and always will be a hero.

The diner (the place was built to resemble a Valentine Diner) and the idea of steaming hot coffee kept John Hearon going during his courageous trek.

 

 

 

 

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.

BALLARAT AND THE MYSTERY POWER WAGON

 

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Ballarat, at the base of the Panamint Mountain Range in southern California, was founded in 1897 and named after a gold camp in Australia by an Australian immigrant called George Riggins. However, Ballarat wasn’t a gold strike itself; instead, it was a supply town serving the mines in the Panamints.

KODAK Digital Still CameraFor its first few years, Ballarat thrived. Some 500 people made their homes in this desolate part of California and the town had seven saloons, a post office, school, jail, morgue, three hotels and a Wells Fargo station. But, apparently, no church.

Then, towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century, mining began to decline. The Ratcliff Mine in Pleasant Canyon, which had been one of the biggest markets for Ballarat, closed in 1903 and the town was soon dying. In 1917 came that final death knell, the closure of the post office. A few hardy characters – including the famous Shorty Harris and ‘Seldom Seen’ Slim hung on, but Ballarat is today most renowned for ‘residents’ who never lived there: the Manson Family.

KODAK Digital Still CameraIn the 1960s, Charles Manson and his followers moved into the Barker Ranch south of Ballarat, travelling through what was left of the town to get there. In October 1969, he and others were arrested at the Barker Ranch, Ballarat being the last place Manson was a free man. Today Ballarat has a small store run by Rocky Novak with irregular opening hours, the remaining building are mostly in ruins (a plan in the 1960s to make an RV park here failed miserably and finally petered out in the 1990s) and the only reminder of the Manson Family connection is an old Dodge Power Wagon.

There’s argument over exactly who this belonged to – although it definitely wasn’t Manson himself. Some believe it belonged to Charles ‘Tex’ Watson who broke down in Ballarat trying to escape. While Watson did own one of the two Power Wagons the Family needed to drive up Goler Wash to the ranch (they did get a Chevy school bus up to the ranch, although no-one’s too sure how they did it), and it did indeed stay in Ballarat for a while, it was eventually traded off to Leon Griffin, caretaker at Briggs’ Redlands Camp. Leon took the Power Wagon to pieces and then died.

KODAK Digital Still CameraSo, where did the Power Wagon now in Ballarat come from? One theory is that it belonged to Bobby Beausoleil and had been left at the ranch. When the arrests and trials were over, Kirk Barker, owner of the Barker Ranch, moved that Dodge down to Ballarat as a runaround. But no-one seems to know for sure.

Ballarat does have one other claim to a place in popular culture. At the beginning of Easy Rider, when Peter Fonda throws away his Rolex, he did so in Ballarat.

 

 

 

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THE BIRDS HAVE FLOWN VULTURE CITY

Arizona has many ghost towns, but among the finest is Vulture City near Wickenburg. It began life in 1863 after Henry Wickenburg discovered the Vulture mine (supposedly he was retrieving a vulture he’d shot when he found it). Gold fever would lead to a town of some 5000 people with a school, post office, saloon, stores, brothel, assay office (and, in later years, a gas station) becoming, at the time, one of the richest towns in Arizona. In order to feed a town of this size, Jack Swilling reopened irrigation channels in the Phoenix Valley that had been dug by Hohokam Native Americans and established a grain route; Wickenburg was directly responsible for the development and growth of Phoenix.

KODAK Digital Still CameraOver the years, the Vulture Mine produced $200 million of gold, although it’s likely almost as much simply disappeared into various pockets. The assay office was particularly prone to being burgled and thousands of dollars of gold was stolen over the years. 18 men are supposed to have been hung from the Ironwood tree which still stands (next to Henry Wickenburg’s cabins), all of them guilty of stealing gold or ore, although there’s no record of any such hangings actually taking place. It’s a good story though.

Henry Wickenburg sold the mine in 1866 for $85,000 but was swindled out of all but $20,000 after the owners claimed he didn’t have clear title to the mine. He spent years trying to sue the owners, running through every penny he had. On 14 May 1905, ill, tired and destitute, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Vulture City lasted until 1942 when the mine was closed on order of the government. Production had slowed considerably years before and the job had become ever more dangerous. In 1923, seven men were killed when the ceiling of a large underground chamber collapsed in on them, burying them and their twelve burros in the Glory Hole. Although the mine did reopen in the 1940s, it wasn’t for long and it soon closed permanently. Today Vulture City and the Vulture mine is privately owned and private property, although it does offer tours on weekends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHERE THE FRONTIER ENDED

To the right, the shell of the Trading Post and behind it, the Wilson’ house.

Roadside attractions on Route 66 came and went with varying degrees of success and durability but perhaps one which has been comprehensively forgotten and about which little history survives was the Frontier Museum between Santa Rosa and Cuervo in New Mexico.

There looks to be a certain amount of artistic licence with this postcard. The Museum never advertised its herds of cattle or horses and the countryside certainly doesn’t look like this bit of New Mexico!

But, back in the 1950s, when people would stop at almost anything to break a tedious journey, the Frontier Museum, around 10 miles east of Santa Rosa, welcomed countless visitors. The kids were attracted by the exhibits, the ‘real’ cowboys and the Wild West trading post, the adults probably more so by the cafe and the chance of a cold beer.

The Frontier was a complex which included the museum, complete with not very well painted murals on the side, the Trading Post, a service station, the Old Gay 90s Frontier Bar and three residential houses, all constructed in Western style. It was run by William S and Lucy Pearl Wilson; Lucy had been born in Pratt, Kansas, but moved to her husband’s home town of Texline in Texas when she was 18. William was a car mechanic and railroad worker and they lived in Texas with their two children, Charles and Jaunita (known as Nita) until buying the Frontier.

The Frontier Museum, now mostly collapsed, but still with the skeleton work of the original signs.

The museum was, as is the case with these places, a mixture of the old and the faux. Albuquerque carpenter, Roy Mattson, spent a year building a full scale exact replica of a Concord stagecoach in which retired rodeo rider, Hondo Marchand, would give rides to tourists. (Either this wasn’t a huge success or he fell out with the Wilsons because, by 1959, he was over in Anderson, Indiana, giving rides to shoppers at the Hoosier Supermarket.) Hondo, incidentally, was, as a young man, taught rope tricks by Will Rogers at the 101 Ranch in Bliss, Oklahoma and travelled with Will Rogers’ Wild West Show. He – and the stagecoach – would later retire to Texas with his wife, Dot.

The Museum complex – along the front would have been the cafe and the Old Gay 90s Frontier Bar.

Why the Wilsons chose to move in middle age to New Mexico to run a tourist attraction and cafe is unknown, but by 1960 they had clearly had enough. The complex was advertised for sale or trade in the Clovis News-Journal of 11th December 1960 and, at the bottom of the advert, Mr Wilson plaintively wrote; ‘I would like to retire’. Eventually the Wilsons did retire – although no-one was interesting in buying the property – and then Lucy died suddenly in 1977.

The service station on the Frontier Museum’s 76 acres.

It was finally the end for the Frontier Museum which had been shut up for years. The contents were sold to an orthodontist in southern California; Dr Alan Barbakow bought everything from sets of false teeth to ten horse-drawn wagons, much of which he used to decorate his offices. There was so much stuff that he hired 10 volunteers to each rent a car and trailer and transport the artifacts from Santa Rosa to Santa Clarita where the wagons were all restored before being put on display.

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Dr Alan Barbakow and some of his Frontier Museum collection. Photo by the Santa Clarita Signal.

Dr Barabakow retired around five years ago but he continues to cherish his collection of Western paraphernalia. The Frontier Museum and its buildings have not fared as well. After William Wilson’s death in 1983, the place was abandoned. Little remains of the buildings which housed the museum and cafe, while the Trading Post and service station are mere shells. Where people stopped to see cowboys and stagecoaches, the traffic thunders by on I-40 with few people even realising that was ever anything there.

The service station on the Frontier Museum’s 76 acres.

This was once the Trading Post although little now remains of its original Wild West-style wooden cladding.

The CAFE sign, gradually falling into the undergrowth.

For photos from 2003 before the place became completely derelict, I recommend http://www.lightrainproductions.com/Trip%20Reports/Frontier1.htm

The Frontier in its heyday – cowboys, Indians and beer, what more did the traveller need?

 

 

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 Earl 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.