THE MAN WHO KILLED THE BEST OF HOUCK

Jim Keeton came from a local police family. The 27-year-old had been married for just ten months.

As you head east, towards Houck, Arizona, there are the remains of several handpainted billboards along the frontage road, sun-bleached and slowly falling to pieces. It was by one of these billboards that one of the more tragic episodes in Houck’s history unfolded on a cold February night in 1971, starting on the road that superseded Route 66 and ending on the old road itself in New Mexico.

That evening police patrol dispatchers received two messages almost at the same time. Both were from Highway Patrolmen in desperate circumstances, but these were separate incidents a couple of miles apart. Just west of Houck on I-40, Patrolman James Lee Keaton stopped a car for a number plate discrepancy. For the 27-year-old officer, who lived in Sanders, it should have been nothing more than a routine traffic stop on his local patch. From a police family – his father Homer had retired the previous year from the Highway Patrol and his brother Dennis was a patrolman in Holbrook – Keeton had served six years in the Army Reserve and had completed a degree in police science in 1968.

Marylou should have been at home that day, her mother was in the hospital giving birth to twin daughters. But fatefully she decided to go to school.

But behind the wheel of the ’68 Pontiac with the gold and vinyl top was 38-year-old Bertram Greenberg. That he was on parole after serving a prison sentence for extortion and had crossed the state line from his home in California might have been enough to warrant a stop, but Greenberg was the subject of an all points bulletin for a very different reason. Issued just hours earlier – and unlikely to have come to the attention yet of Patrolman Keeton – the APB declared Greenberg a suspect in the rape and murder of 13-year-old Mary Louise ‘Marylou’ Hill in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, on the afternoon of 4th February. A hiker had seen him dragging the body of the young girl into undergrowth and had noted the license plate of his car which was swiftly traced back to relatives of Greenberg.

 

 

Bertram Greenberg, serial rapist and sexual psychopath, was out on parole when he went on a spree that left four people dead.

Greenberg had a history of violence and mental illness that stretched back years. At the age of 23 he had been charged with robbery and battery after a bloodstained car in his garage was linked to an assault on a woman. As soon as he was released from jail he was arraigned on charges of raping a UCLA coed and a West Los Angeles housewife. He served just a year before being released and was swiftly rearrested on charges that he posed as a policeman to lure a woman into his car and rape her. He was once more imprisoned and paroled in 1963. Four year later he was returned to state prison after being convicted of extortion, having blackmailed a woman of whom he took nude photos. During that time he spent time at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, a special institution for mentally disturbed inmates.

 

The house in West Covina where Greenberg lived and from where he began his flight after the murder of Marylou Hill.

After killing Marylou, Greenberg had returned to his home in West Covina where he was visited by his parole officer, Robert Conway. During that visit, Greenberg was telephoned by relatives notifying that the car he was used was being sought by the police. Conway was suspicious enough to ring the police himself and ask why they were looking for the Pontiac. When they told him, he immediately advised them to put out a bulletin for Greenberg. But, by then, Greenberg was on the run.

At 4.14pm the following day, Officer Keeton pulled the Pontiac over on I-40 just west of Houck. A passing motorist saw the officer and another man struggling in the front seat of Keeton’s patrol car but, by the time he was able to turn around and return to the scene, the man was driving off in the Pontiac. Officer Keeton had managed to radio a distress call but he died at the scene, shot with his own service revolver. A few minutes later the Pontiac was stopped by Patrolman Don Allen Beckstead, this time east of Houck. Beckstead was also familiar with the local area as he lived in Houck with his wife and two young sons. Again, this should have been a simple traffic stop but, as Beckstead approached the car, Greenberg pulled out the revolver he had taken from Officer Keeton and fired. Shot in the stomach, Beckstead too managed to radio for help as Greenberg sped away.

Crossing into New Mexico on Route 66, Greenberg flagged down a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, telling the occupants he had a problem with his generator and that he needed a lift to Gallup. Once in the car, he produced the gun and then ordered them to drive up a dirt road towards an abandoned mine. Realising the peril they were in, James Brown and his wife, Karen Dianne, respectively a law student and school teacher on holiday from Missouri, lunged at the hitchhiker but were unable to disarm him. Greenberg forced Brown to strip to his underpants before sexually molesting his wife. Then he shot Brown in the back of the head before shooting Dianne in the head, too. James Brown died but Dianne was able to escape and would recover.

Aftermath in Gallup. Greenberg was shot down in a hail of bullets and trying to flee his car.

Stealing the yellow VW, Greenberg headed for Grants where he was finally stopped by local police and a barrage of handgun, carbine and shotgun fire at the junction of Highway 117 and I-40. The VW was virtually cut in half and skidded off the road. Greenberg tried to make a run but was cut down by police fire, some nine or ten bullets finding their target in his body and killing him on the spot. It transpired he had tried to stab himself with a pocket knife before the shooting, stabbing himself in the chest and wrist, almost severed his left hand.

 

Back in Arizona, help had arrived for Don Beckstead who was transported to McKinley Hospital in Gallup, New Mexico. Although his wound was extremely grave – a bullet from his fellow patrolman’s gun had punched through his small intestine, destroyed his left kidney and buried itself in the muscles of his back – Beckstead, against the odds, made it through the night and the following day was able to laugh and joke with his wife, Betty, and his boss, Lt Bert Zamborini, telling the latter there was no way he wanted a desk job. Betty spoke of her sorrow for Connie Keeton – the Keetons had been married just ten months – and how they’d all planned to have dinner together the following Wednesday.

Betty Beckstead (left) comforts Dianne Brown, the only survivor of that terrible night.

Beckstead was conscious enough to make a statement saying that he had only stopped Greenberg for an unsafe pass, not realising his colleague had been shot, as well speak briefly to a reporter. A story ran in the Arizona Republic on Sunday 7th February 1971 headlined ‘Wounded officer winning his fight for life’.

But later that day he went into renal failure. Although McKinley was a good hospital, the one thing it didn’t possess was an artificial kidney machine, so Officer Don Beckstead would have to be transported to Albuquerque. He died on the way. He was 28 years old.

A few months after his death, Officer Keeton’s widow, Connie (centre), and family set up a scholarship fund in his memory. Today the Northern Arizona University still awards the James L Keeton Police Science Memorial scholarship.

Both Betty Beckstead and James Keeton’s widow, Connie, would later take up positions as police dispatchers. Betty later said; “I’m pro-police, pro-patrol, so it was natural for me to come and work for the Highway Patrol and I love it. This is what keeps me occupied. Without this job I think I would have ended up in the state hospital.”

There was a poignant little coda to this story. A couple of days after Beckstead’s death, Reverend A.L. Dominy, the chaplain at Port Hueneme Naval Base in California received a package in the mail. Inside was a 15-inch wrench worth only a few dollars that was US Navy property. The writer of the note explained that the wrench had already been posted to his old Seabee outfit but had been returned to him because the unit had been decommissioned. He continued; “I am now a Christian and a highway patrolman and I just have to return this.” The note was signed Don Beckstead.

James L Keeton

Don A Beckstead

End of Watch – Friday 5th February 1971.

Don Allen Beckstead, father of two young boys, had no idea the minor traffic stop he would make would end his life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A WILD HONEYMOON ON ROUTE 66

The only photo thought to exist of Evelyn Mayer Blake and Donald Blake.

On 2nd June 1937, a Plymouth coupe with Ohio plates rolled up to the Lupton Port of Entry, the Arizona border checkpoint made famous in the film of The Grapes of Wrath. Inside were a teenage boy and girl. An inspector noticed that there were gun shells in the car and asked the pair to step out and hand over the gun to which the ammunition belonged. They did so – but then they each produced a pistol with which they threatened the checkpoint staff. Gordon Bartell and his wife, an elderly couple on holiday from Chicago, had the misfortune to be at the inspection station at the same time and soon found they would be continuing their trip to Los Angeles by bus when the teenagers stole their car.

The State Inspection point as the Blakes would have seen it.

When the car was searched, a marriage licence was found and the couple were named as Donald Blake, 16, and Evelyn Mayer, 15, both from Painesville, Ohio. Donald was a slender, cleancut youth who wore glasses, while his new bride was a sullen girl carrying several pounds of puppy fat. For the next two days, the search was concentrated on Arizona where it believed the honeymooners – they had been married in Greeley, Colorado, a few days before – were hiding out on reservation land. However, on 5th June they were caught in Valentine, Nebraska, after holding up a filling station attendant at gunpoint and stealing $80.96. They were still driving the Bartells’ vehicle when it slid off the road into a ditch. Theodore Witt, a passing trucker, went to their help but became suspicious of the pair and called the police instead. While they were being arrested, Evelyn shot at one of the police officers, grazing his hand.

The Cherry County Courthouse where the Blakes pled guilty in front of Judge EL Meyer. This is how it would have looked to the honeymooners; three years later it was remodelled and the tower removed.

Once in custody, the police found that they had four pistols, while Blake was carrying a rabbit’s foot and a billfold containing Evelyn’s picture, on the back of which was written ‘Evelyn Mayer, the girl I love’. Rather hopefully, Donald said; “I’m sorry this happened. I hope they won’t be too tough on us.” But the story had made headlines across the country and it was a misplaced hope.

As the pair confessed to filling station robberies in Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska and New Mexico, their families were shocked. “Evelyn is a good girl, she’s a church member, too,” said her mother. “I never dreamed that she would have done such a thing.” As Evelyn had stolen $100 from her mother and taken her father’s car as they left Ohio, one might have thought Mrs Mayer would have an inkling that Evelyn wasn’t quite the perfect daughter…

Their capture and subsequent confessions came as a relief to more than just law enforcement officers. In Bernalillo, New Mexico, one Herbert Campbell had been lanquishing in the county jail, protesting his innocence on a charge of robbing the Phillips gas station at 4th and Marquette in Albuquerque (he’d been arrested when visiting a friend in jail). It wasn’t until the District Attorney received a telegram from the Sheriff in Valentine that identified Donald Blake as the real perpetrator of the crime that Campbell was released. His friend, Walter Duerr, was however the real deal and pled guilty to armed robbery.

The Nebraska State Reformatory for Women in York would be Evelyn’s home for four years.

Five days after their capture, Donald and Evelyn were both sentenced to seven years in the reformatory. It was Evelyn’s 16th birthday. They both applied for parole in 1940 with each family blaming the other. Evelyn, by now 18, told the parole board that Donald was going to run away and she wouldn’t let him go without her. She also blamed that pulp novels and movies about the West were partly responsible for her running away, a tactic also used by Donald at his parole hearing where he said, “At the time I read a lot of trash books, detective stuff. When we ran out of money we had a couple of guns and started to get it the easy way.” Although no mention was ever made in reports of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow who had been shot to death just three years before the couple’s wild honeymoon, it seems quite likely that the pair may have taken them as inspiration.

The Nebraska Men’s Reformatory where Donald Blake spent six years.

At the parole hearing, Donald’s father put the blame squarely on Evelyn, saying that Donald had been doing fine in school until Evelyn, his first girlfriend, had come along, which was conveniently overlooking the fact that Donald had broken into several cars in the months before he went on his mad flight with his bride to be.

Both Donald and Evelyn had their sentences reduced to five and a half years which, with time removed for good behaviour, would see them released in early 1941. That wasn’t soon enough for young Donald. On 10th August 1940 he escaped from the Nebraska Men’s Reformatory, stealing a truck and a .22 calibre revolver. He used the gun to force Ronald Anderson to drive him

Briefly escaping in 1940, Blake carjacked Ronald Anderson and had him drive him to the Hill Hotel in Omaha.

to Omaha and then robbed him of $8.60. However, police later spotted Blake and, thinking he was acting suspiciously, arrested him. As he was taken into custody, a police broadcast came over the radio about the reformatory escape and he was identified. He had been free for just a few hours, but that escape and the armed robbery of Ronald Anderson would add another ten years to his sentence.

Evelyn seemed to have quietly made her parole in 1941 as her husband prepared to serve another decade behind bars. However, it was less than three years later that Blake walked out of the prison – this time legally – and immediately registered for the military, giving his current employer as the Gooch Milling Company in Lincoln, Nebraska. A few months later he enlisted at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana, by which time he and Evelyn were divorced.

 

The Gooch Mill in Lincoln, Nebraska, which Blake gave as his workplace on leaving the reformatory

Little is known of Donald and Evelyn in later life. By the time that Evelyn died in 1997, she had also been known as Evelyn Otte and Evelyn Kramer. After his military service, Donald returned to his home town of Painesville where he lived for the rest of his life, marrying twice, both times to women more than ten years older than he and both of whom he outlived, dying in 2009. His wild honeymoon must have been a very distant memory by then.

 

Northern Arizona may have greeted the renegade honeymooners but it would soon regret that.

 

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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GOODBYE TO THE WAYSIDE MOTEL

Soon the sun will go down over the Wayside Motel for the last time.

The Wayside Motel, with its sad lightbulb arrow, is one of the familiar sights on the east side of Grants, New Mexico. But not, it would seem, for much longer. In September 2018, City of Grants code enforcer Robert Windhorst announced that the Wayside Motel was on its hitlist for demolition – or, at least, what remains of it. The motel itself is long gone, what is left is the two-storey white building that served as motel office and living quarters for the owners.

If this did represent the original Grants Motor Lodge, the office and living accommodation building had yet to be built. [Postcard by very kind permission of Joe Sonderman and his splendid 66postcards.com web site]

It originally started life as the Grants Motor Lodge in 1945 and is said to be the first motel that wasn’t a campground on the east side of Grants, although that seems quite a late date for such a claim. Over its lifetime it appears to have been a relatively run of the mill place; nothing made it stand out, no murders, no fires or the excitements that various other motels seem to attract. The one postcard I have been able to find is a generic drawing that could depict a motel in any town – and probably did.

In more prosperous times, the motel would even advertise – this was in the Gallup Independent of 1959.

The Grants Motor Lodge ran through a number of owners and managers with one of the most memorable being the Lesters in the early 1960s. Clint Lester and his wife stood out in Grants because of their size. They were little people. That’s not an insult; Clint, at just 4 foot 8 inches tall (his wife was two inches shorter) was the Director for District 10 of The Little People, an organisation founded in 1958 by Billy Barty.

Perhaps its slow decline started with the change of name to the It’ll Do Inn. However quirky or amusing it might mean to be, that really doesn’t show a lot of pride in your establishment… It was still the It’ll Do Inn in 1974 when the owner was clearly keen to sell, even offering to take a house in Albuquerque as payment. By the time it was rechristened the Wayside Inn, the place was firmly going downhill.

Here in its It’ll Do Inn incarnation, the building in the middle is readily identifiable as the last surviving part of the Wayside Motel. [Photo from unknown source]

The 15-room motel accommodation was eventually torn down, leaving the main building marooned. Anyone passing by might notice the collection of cars that nuzzle up to the building – an old Mercedes, a 1950s Jaguar Mk2, an MG Midget and some older vehicles. It was these cars that recently gave the Grants Police Department one of its less glorious moments.

The motel office.

On the morning of Wednesday 26th September 2018, just days after the City announced it wanted to tear down the house, some enterprising thieves rolled up in broad daylight and made away with a two door 1933 Ford, a 1927 Packard and a 1929 Model T. It seems they did this in quite a leisurely manner – if I recall rightly, the ’33 Ford and the Packard were parked on trailers, so the thieves took those too – no-one took any notice. Someone did eventually call the police and Lt Jeff Marez made his way down to East Santa Fe to enquire what the gentlemen were doing. They assured the Grants Police Department officer that they were moving the vehicles for the owner. They then reeled off the owner’s name and details and Lt Marez went away satisfied. The three cars, the trailers and the thieves were long gone by the time that the Grants Police realised that those details were all on the zoning notice that the City Council had pasted to the Wayside Motel’s door and all the thieves had had to do was memorise them…

The rear of the building where the owners could sit on their hacienda-style balcony and gaze out over the railroad just feet away.

The Wayside Motel isn’t a grand building. To be honest, it’s not even a really very interesting one. But it is part of the history Route 66 through Grants and the chances are that the next time you pass this way it will probably be gone.

 

 

 

 

Well, for $12 a night, you’d want free cable and HBO!

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THE MAN WHO WALKED TO GLENRIO

John D Hearon, 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 D 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 Hearon 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 Broyle’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.

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 TRADING ATKINSONS OF ROUTE 66

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THE REMAINS OF THE RATTLE SNAKE TRADING POST, BLUEWATER, NM, 2015

In a time when almost every town along Route 66 had a trading post, one small place spawned two families who would not only establish networks of stores but who would, in the 21st century, still be in business.

In the 1940s, Bluewater in New Mexico was home to trading posts owned by Claude Bowlin, the man behind what would become Bowlin’s Travel Centers of which there are 10 across New Mexico and Arizona, but also to the Atkinson family. The Atkinsons were from Texas and during the Great Depression, Leroy Atkinson, the oldest brother of three, headed to New Mexico with his wife and just $18 dollars in his pocket. Leroy was a high school football star when he met Wilmerine Bollin and they had been married in 1935; he was 19 and his wife 17. Leroy found work at the Three Hogans Trading Post in west of Lupton and was later joined by his two young brothers, Herman and Jake.

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LEROY ATKINSON’S BOX CANYON TRADING POST WHICH WAS DEMOLISHED IN A REALIGNMENT OF ROUTE 66 IN 1953

In 1943, Leroy started the Box Canyon Trading Post on the Arizona/New Mexico state line on land leased from Harry Miller, the man who had developed Two Guns. (This was shortly after Miller had been being tried for murder – but that’s another story). The Box Canyon Trading Post prospered; it had a gas station, auto court, store and café. Oh, and live buffalo. However the growth in traffic that ensured its short-term success was also its downfall. The increasing traffic on Route 66 resulted in the road being realigned and running straight through the trading post. In 1953 the Box Canyon Trading Post was demolished and Leroy and Wilmerine moved to Arizona.

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JAKE ATKINSON’S RATTLE SNAKE TRADING POST, BLUEWATER, NM, IN ITS PRIME

In the meantime, the other two brothers had also moved into the retail trade. In 1945, middle brother Jake and his wife Maxine bought the Brock Trading Post from Victor Holmes after briefly running the Stateline Trading Post a mile west of Leroy’s emporium. In order to attract passing trade, they tied burros to the gas pumps, staged cockfights and, most spectacularly, renamed it the Rattlesnake Trading Post. It did indeed have rattlesnakes as well as a café and a night club. Billboards along the highway also advertised that you could see the skeleton of a 48-foot long prehistoric reptile. Anyone who looked closely at that marvel might have wondered why it was made out of a cow skull, cow vertebrae and a good quantity of plaster.

JAKE ATKINSON'S RATTLE SNAKE TRADING POST AT BLUEWATER, NEW MEXICO. C.1952

In 1951, Jake and Maxine sold the trading post to her sister and brother-in-law who kept the name, if not the reptile gardens. But it had clearly given Herman, the youngest brother, an idea. Arriving home from the services, he decided to start his own reptile-inspired ranch. On 1st May 1946, 26-year-old Herman and his 24-year-old wife, Phyllis, opened the Lost Canyon Trading Post a mile and a half east of Grants near what is now Airport Road. To attract trade, they bought two baby boa constrictors which they advertised as the ‘Den of Death’. When the pair of snakes brought in more customers than the souvenirs, he decided to build a large reptile house and charge admission. By the early 1950s, Atkinson’s Cobra Gardens had around 300-400 snakes, including rattlesnakes, anacondas, pythons and cobras. It was the collection of cobras in the USA and attracted thousands of visitors from both home and abroad.

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HERMAN ATKINSON’S COBRA GARDENS NEAR GRANTS. c 1952

However the heyday of the Cobra Gardens lasted less than ten years. Although it made Herman a very successful man, he sold the trading post in 1953, quietly selling his collection of snakes through the classified ads of Billboard in an ad that began GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. He listed a ’13 foot, heavy’ African python for $300, down to ‘assorted small rattlesnakes, $1’ from his home at 51 East Congress Street in Tucson.

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HERMAN ATKINSON, THE COBRA KING. 1953

Herman had seen which way the wind was blowing. The area was moving towards mining and not tourism and there was talk that an interstate highway was planned that would bypass Route 66. He sold the Cobra Gardens and it became the somewhat less threatening Cactus Garden Trading Post. Herman and Phyllis moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he established Atkinson’s Trading Post, which he ran until his death in 2009 at the age of 89. His wife, Phyllis, passed away three years later but their daughter Marilyn continues to operate the store. After he sold the Cobra Gardens, Herman never had anything else to do with reptiles.

Leroy opened the Indian Village company in Tucson with Jake, with Jake eventually taking it over. The company is still in the Atkinson family, now run by Jake’s son, John. Jake and Leroy both passed away in the late 1980s and little remains of the Atkinson’s early roots. The Box Canyon Trading Post disappeared underneath Route 66; the Cobra Gardens was demolished in 2011 and the only building that remains is Jake’s store in Bluewater. Look closely and you can see, across the front of a crumbling building, faded paint that reads RATTLESNAKES. Listen hard and you might just hear on the wind the excited chatter of travellers, pulling off 66 to stroke a burro and see a real live rattlesnake…

 

GOODBYE TO THE CLUB CAFE

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On a grey and overcast October afternoon, I stopped by at the remains of the Club Cafe in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. I didn’t take much notice of the guy with a tape measure wandering around, but I decided not to clamber through the window opening and have a last walk round the skeleton of the building. Sometimes you meet people as intrigued by a building as you and sometimes you skulk past them, eyes not meeting, knowing they don’t see what you see.

The Club Café opened in 1935, five years after the Santa Rosa stretch of Route 66 was completed; its blue-tiled frontage and smiling ‘Fat Man’ logo, a happy gent wearing a polka dot tie and looking delighted after, presumably, dining on the Club Café’s home cooking, became well-known to thousands of travellers on Route 66.

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But, by the time I-40 bypassed the New Mexico town, people didn’t want home cooking. They wanted a quick stop at one of the generic fast food places just off the interstate. The Fat Man looked dated in the face of the ubiquitous clown and southern gentleman. In 1992, the Club Café closed its doors forever. It was bought by Joseph and Christiana Campos who planned to reopen it, but the building had suffered too much

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over the years. They couldn’t save the Club Café, but they got permission to use the Fat Man logo at their restaurant, Joseph’s Bar and Grill, down the road.

On the low retaining wall in the parking lot were painted signs from a happier time, commemorating ratings in the Mobil Travel Guide as well as Chef Ron Chavez, who owned the restaurants for over twenty years. He’d been a cook here in the 1950s and then bought the café in the 1970s. Moving to Taos, he wrote poetry until his death last October, never seeing the final demise of the café he loved. The Club Café’s sign still stands (others were taken down and left on the site – they are now gone) for now, although its fate seems uncertain. The guy with the tape measure gave it a cursory glance and moved on.

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The Club Café has always been there every time I’ve passed through Santa Rosa. I thought it always would be. But, for once, I stopped and took a few photos. Had I known that the bulldozers would be moving in the next morning, I would have run the camera red hot. I guess these may be some of the last photos ever taken of the Club Cafe.

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