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’s 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 were 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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