BIG RIG JIG

CANON_Canon PowerShot ELPH 180_1255256-1294138_000Last year I was covering the Las Vegas Bike Fest for my magazine when I decided I needed a break from the bling. It was also that I wanted to find essential supplies (water, cigarettes, chocolate – the basic food groups) at a reasonable price and I had spotted a small convenience store outside the show. The trouble was there was a security guard and a large fence between me and said shop.

Apparently, no-one was being allowed out this way. I suspect this may have something to do with the event organisers not wanting their visitors to know that, this far south on Fremont Street, life gets real pretty quickly. On one side of the fencing, countless shiny big bucks motorcycles; on the other side, people pushing shopping carts – and not doing their weekly grocery run – or just hanging out in an unnerving way. But the guard hadn’t reckoned without a cheeky smile, a British accent and a determination not to give in. He opened the gate for me while pretending he wasn’t doing it and that he hadn’t seen me.

Sign, complete with naked climbing man near the top.

I don’t know what I’d expected from this end of Fremont Street – probably because I hadn’t even considered the question – but it certainly wasn’t Big Rig Jig. I spotted the sign for the defunct Ferguson’s Motel first, mainly because it had a sculpture of a naked man climbing up it and that’s not something you see every day, even in Vegas. Well, there’s another nekkid man on the sign of the Travelers Motel just down the street, so that’s not strictly accurate. Anyway, as I got closer to photograph the sign I was distracted by the sight of two massive entwined trucks in the motel’s courtyard. Doesn’t take much to distract me, and this definitely did the trick.

Big Rig Jig was originally constructed in 2007 for the Burning Man festival by Brooklyn-based artist Mike Ross. It was finished in time but not without running over budget. It’s made of two discarded tanker trucks, seemingly dancing, and rises over forty feet in the air. (Apparently there’s a viewing platform at the top.) After Burning Man, it was put into storage in California and then resurrected for street artist Banksy Dismaland exhibition-cum-Dystopian theme park in the UK in 2015. Now it appears to have found a permanent home in Fremont Street (it had only just been erected when I stumbled across it), part of entrepreneur Tony Hseih’s ongoing project to revitalise Fremont Street.

Another naked climbing man.

According to the now offline website for the sculpture, Big Rig Jig used the old trucks in ‘referencing a global oil industry at the nexus of our world’s political, social and environmental systems. By repurposing these symbolically rich objects, the artist conveys his admiration for and anxiety over humanity’s power.”

Ross himself says; “It’s just cool to see trucks in the air.” I prefer that explanation myself.

 

 

 

Big Rig Jig in the courtyard of the Fergusons Motel which is currently scheduled for redevelopment into apartments.

CATCHING THAT DREAM

September 2012

September 2012

For the last seven or eight years, every time I’ve visited the defunct Meteor City Trading Post on old Route 66 in Arizona I’ve taken the same photo; a big rig on I-40 ‘passing through’ the dream catcher outside the trading post. As you can see, the dream catcher has not fared well over the years.

September 2015

It has long been claimed as the world’s largest dream catcher, although the Guinness Book of Records accords that honour to one in Kalevala, Russia. This one is, at least, the largest dream catcher on Route 66!

 

April 2017

 

Now that Michael and Joann Brown of Jefferson, Indiana, have purchased Meteor City and plan to refurbish the site, I am hopefully that my next version of this photo may see the dream catcher back in its original glory.

THE BIGGEST SKULL IN ARIZONA

I’ll admit that I will drive a long way for a Big Something, and who wouldn’t drive down to the very south of Arizona to see a 30-foot-tall cow skull? Sadly, it’s not real although maybe that’s a good thing; Arizona can be lively enough without cattle the size of four story buildings roaring about.

 This particular skull stands just off Highway 90 on South Nogales Highway, around 25 miles south of Tucson. For years it welcomed diners to the Longhorn Grill although the skull was originally constructed for a bait shop which stood between two lakes, now long gone. Made of concrete, it was the work of Michael Kautza who was also responsible for other huge sculptures in Tucson.

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Over its life time, the building it dominated housed various different businesses including a clothing store and a roofing company, but for much of its life it was the Longhorn Grill (as well as featuring in several movies such as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore). In 1993, Ed Madril started the restaurant but, by 2012, business had dropped off so much that the building was in foreclosure. It went on the market with a price tag of $319.000, and then $299,000, but was sold at auction to a buyer from Patagonia, Jeff Ladage, for $155,000. However, that sale fell through.

20170415163817090464000000-oBack on the market, the Longhorn Grill was purchased by John Gourley for a knockdown $130,000 who turned the place into part events centre, part gallery. Gourley, a metal sculptor and retired real estate broker, intended to add large murals and palm trees and spent thousands of dollars on cleaning the place up. The idea was that it would host weddings, parties and community events. However, Amado is a tiny town with a population of less than 300 people. The Longhorn Grill could accommodate most of them at once (and cook for a third of them at time thanks to its barbecue pit on which could be grilled a hundred burgers at a time) and it seems that the area just didn’t have that much call for an events venue.

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Today the Longhorn Grill and its famous skull are silent and up for sale again for a substantial $325,000. People stop for a photo of the massive head and then themselves head across the road to the Cow Palace for a burger.

 

 

ONLY ON A SATURDAY NIGHT

On a lonely stretch of Arizona’s Route 66, between Seligman and Kingman, where the loudest sound is the wind or a lonesome train horn or the skitter-skatter of tumbleweed across the tarmac, stands a tiny bar where once Saturday nights echoed to the sound of fiddle and guitar and boots tapping on a wooden floor.

Now the music has fallen quiet, but the sign in Valentine still remains, attracting and perplexing passers-by as to what exactly was Bert’s Country Dancing. Bert’s Country Dancing was a legend, but a small and modest legend in the way that people do things out here in a big country. Back when Bert Denton opened his little bar once a week on the side of Route 66, Valentine still had a population in three figures. In fact, in the 1970s, around 200 people lived in this tiny community. And then, of course, the interstate took the traffic away – and out here that meant it took the traffic miles away, not just a few yards away on the other side of a frontage road – but, for a while the people stayed and, on a Saturday night, they danced.

Bert Denton was born Elbert Riggs Denton on 28th February 1915 in Grants, New Mexico, the middle son of Elbert Sr and Ora Denton. The family would move to southern Arizona when all three boys, Edward, Elbert – or Bert – and Robert, were still small. Bert was 19 when his father, a cowpuncher, was bucked from a wild horse and died of a fractured skull the following day. But it didn’t deter the young man from becoming a cowboy and rancher himself and, for most of his life, he was involved in cattle ranching. While living in Gila County, Bert met Marjorie Myrtle Lan (always known as ‘Margie’). Margie had been previously married in 1930 when, at the age of 16, she wed Benjamin J Hinds who worked for the Inspiration Copper Co and lodged with her family. They had three children, Benjamin, Felix and Ruth, but the marriage didn’t work out and, by the time Benjamin was married in 1956, Bert was named in the announcement of the wedding as his father.

Mr Elbert Denton in 1987

A tough man at work, and one who served in the US Navy for over three years, Bert had a softer side, demonstrated in 1956 when the Arizona Republic published a photo of a litter of ten puppies housed at the city pound. The next day, the Denton household had one dog extra…

Both Bert and Margie were keen horsespeople and both qualified as Arizona 4-H horse show judges in the 1960s. Sadly, it wasn’t to be a long retirement, for Margie died at their home in Valentine in October 1976 at the age of just 63 years. It seems that Bert’s Country Dancing came into being shortly after this and it’s tempting to think that it was a way for the retired rancher to fill his time, as well as playing fiddle, guitar and harmonica in the band. He only ever wanted it to be a small country bar and the dancing was, dare I say it, more important than the dollar beer.

Closed, but the building is still hanging in there

But Valentine struggled in the modern day and tragedy beset the tiny settlement when post mistress Jacqueline Griggs was murdered in 1990. Two years later, the Arizona Republic newspaper carried a small piece on Valentine which, unsurprisingly, featured Bert, by then one of just 14 residents. He joked then that they were ‘dropping like flies’. Less than two years later, on New Year’s Day 1994, Bert himself died at the age of 78.

For a short time, Bert’s Country Dancing occasionally opened – for special events such as the 2002 Fun Run – but the little bar has been closed for many years now. But perhaps, sometimes, if you listen very hard you might just hear a few bars of fiddle music disappearing on the wind.

Visiting Bert’s Country Dancing at Bert’s Country Dancing Place

SLEEP IN A WIGWAM!

 

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One of the most novel stays on all of Route 66 is, of course, the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Arizona. To be accurate, they’re more teepees than wigwams, although teepees were technically portable and a construction of concrete and steel isn’t really all that mobile. But semantics aside, Wigwam Village #6, as it was originally known, offers not just a chance to sleep in a unique room, but to capture a little of the essence of travelling the Mother Road in its heyday.

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The Tee Pee Barbecue in California which sparked Frank Redford’s imagination.

The whole idea of a wigwam complex was that of Frank A Redford from Horse Cave, Kentucky. Where the idea came from is open to debate – some say Frank was influenced by dwellingS on a Sioux reservation in South Dakota, although the preferred story is that, on a trip to California in 1931, he saw a concrete building called the Tee Pee Barbecue, a drive in built by James H Estes in Long Beach in 1927.  Back in Horse Cave he built a copy of the Tee Pee barbecue, operating it as a gas station and café. In 1935 he added six tourist cabins, also in the shape of teepees. The idea of the Wigwam Village – Frank thought didn’t like the sound of ‘tee pee’ – was born and patented in 1936.

 

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Postcard showing the large teepee at the front which was demolished at some point, although the two smaller wigwams remain.

The following year, he built Wigwam Village #2 (which still exists) in Cave City, Kentucky, and it was this motel which was seen by Chester E Lewis, a businessman who operated a number of motels along Route 66 and elsewhere in Arizona. He was so captivated by the oddly-shaped cabins that he decided to build a village of his own and came to an arrangement with Frank Redford. Instead of a now traditional franchise idea, they agreed that radios would be placed in each room of the new motel that would play for a half hour upon payment of a dime. Frank would then receive the dimes from the radios in exchange for allowing Chester Lewis to build his wigwams.

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The Motel in the late 1950s/early 1960s when it had a gas station out front.

The Wigwam Motel in Holbrook opened in 1950 with 15 teepees on three sides and, on the fourth, the office which, along with two smaller wigwams, originally operated as both office and Texaco gas station. Each tepee houses a round bedroom, tiny bathroom and shower, although the ceiling is normal height rather than extending to the tip 32 feet above. That same year, the seventh and final Wigwam Motel opened in San Bernadino, California, the project overseen by Frank Redford who would die there some seven years later. (Incidentally, the year that the last two motels opened was also the same year that the inspiration for it all, the Tee Pee Barbecue, was demolished).

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What traveller could refuse!

For the next twenty-four years, the Wigwam welcomed visitors with its exhortation of SLEEP IN A WIGWAM until Holbrook and Route 66 was bypassed in 1974. Chester closed the motel and it stood sadly by the side of the highway as Interstate 40 and time passed it by. Chester passed away in 1986, after which his widow and children – sons Paul and Clifton and daughter Elinor – decided to renovate the motel and reopen it, which they did in 1988. They restored the original hickory furniture and fittings; to suit the modern traveller, cable TV and air conditioning units were fitted, there are no phones and the rooms are comfortable if basic, although they do now have wifi. Classic vehicles decorate the parking lot, including Mr Lewis’s own Studebaker.

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In one of the single bed teepees.

The Lewis family continues to run the Wigwam Motel which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in May 2002. It remains as popular now as it was in the 1950s and booking is always advisable. Alas, the rooms no longer have the dime-operated radios and I can only assume that agreement between Mr Redford and Mr Lewis lapsed long ago.

 

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Some of the original hickory furniture.

 

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This 1955 Buick Special would have been almost new when the Wigwam Motel opened.

 

 

 

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Gas pumps originally stood where the cars are parked.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Welcome to your wigwam.

SNAKES ON A PLAIN

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Travelers through McLean in the Texas Panhandle, may be a little bemused – not to say anxious – about a large sign declaiming RATTLESNAKES that stands by the side of the road in the town.

Once this sign stood just off Route 66 near what became the Lela exit of I-40. Ernest Michael ‘Mike’ Allred had operated snake attractions along Oklahoma’s stretch of 66 for several years before setting up shop in Texas at Alanreed with his sister Addie as the Regal Reptile Ranch (he had another sister and two brothers who seem not to have shared their siblings’ love of reptiles and, in fact, all three ended up in California to put a few miles between themselves and their brother’s creatures!). However, when he and his sister fell out, he decamped with his snakes down the road to Lela, which is the site that the sign originally advertised. He set up home in a gas station owned by Conald Cunningham*, a place which had a huge neon steer adorning its roof, and it was Cunningham who erected the reptiles sign. It was originally a tall sign with RATTLESNAKES at the top and EXIT NOW below.

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This image is of E Mike Allred, but of a time when the Regal Reptile Ranch was in Erick, Sayre. Given that the Smithsonian Institution and the photographer, Steve Fitch, date this photo as 1972 and Allred appears to be an old man in the picture, then it seems his reptile attraction in Lela was probably rather short-lived.

When Allred died in 1979 at the age of eighty, Addie, who was still running her snake attraction in Alanreed, apparently either moved to operate the Lela concern or moved the Allred’s snakes to Alanreed, depending on which story you read. However, Addie continued to run a reptile attraction right into the 1980s, one of the last of the old time snake pits on Route 66. Some of Allred and his sister’s snakes (now pickled!), along with the yellow cobra that lured people off the highway, can been seen in the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean

The old gas station was eventually dismantled, moved and became part of the Red River Steakhouse in McLean, although no-one seems to know what happened to the neon steer. The RATTLESNAKES sign continued to stand in its lonesome glory but was eventually blown down in 2007. It might have been lost forever without the work and determination of local writer, historian, carpenter, rancher, the guy who started the Texas Route 66 Museum (the first museum dedicated to the Mother Road) and all-round useful chap, Delbert Trew, who saw to its rescue. It’s now erected in a park on the north side of 1st Street between McCarty and Donley Streets, McLean.

*I’ve seen this gentleman’s name written as both ‘Conrad’ and ‘Conald’. I assumed the latter was a misprint of Donald or Ronald, but no, there is a Conald Cunningham buried in McLean and who was a member of the McLean Lions. However, according to his obituary, Conald Cunningham of Mclean worked in the USAF and then as a computer programmer.  The research goes on…

 

THE COURAGE THAT FAILED

The cheery children's attraction has a surprisingly forbidding appearance.

The cheery children’s attraction has a surprisingly forbidding appearance.

Of the many trading posts to be found along Route 66, it’s surprising to learn that less is known about one of the most recent than of those that ceased to exist decades ago, such as the Rattlesnake Trading Post and Bowlins in Bluewater, New Mexico. But, just across the border into Arizona, Fort Courage, which only finally closed a couple of years ago, is quickly falling into disrepair and obscurity.

The sign with its cheery F Troop cartoons and disregard for copyright!

The sign with its cheery F Troop cartoons and disregard for copyright!

The site of a trading post since 1924 when Joseph Grubbs opened the White Mound Trading Post, the tiny town of Houck – originally known as Houck’s Tank after the man who founded it and, yes, his water tank – served first one alignment of the Old Trails Highway and then Route 66. When Route 66 was rerouted in 1933, Grubbs moved his store to where Fort Courage now stands. The White Mound, which also acted as Houck’s post office, finally closed in 1948.

 

Then, in the late 1960s, Fort Courage was built as

Latterday Houck's tank.

Latterday Houck’s tank.

an unashamed tourist trap. It was an exercise in cashing in on the success of the short-lived but popular television series, F Troop. There was no actual link between the two and it certainly wasn’t the series’ location, but the owners tacitly encouraged the idea that this was where the TV programme had been filmed. There was also little note taken of copyright – postcards from the 1970s show signs that read ‘HOME OF F TROOP’ although they disappeared in later years. Thousands of parents over the years must have been nagged by kids to stop at Fort Courage, and those parents were catered to by the trading post which stocked the usual plethora of Indian goods along with tourist tat, as well as becoming a small supermarket and a post office towards the end of its life.

Pancakes, coffee, tacos - now all off the menu.

Pancakes, coffee, tacos – now all off the menu.

Next to the trading post is the abandoned Pancake House which was originally built as a restaurant by Van de Kamp’s Holland Dutch Bakery of Los Angeles. The company had a chain of windmill-styled bakeries around LA and plans to extend across the country with a distinctive windmill building design. The concrete building had sixteen sides to give the appearance of being round, while the roof would have once supported a giant windmill, although no photographs appear to exist of this. Van de Kamp intended to build 40 of these quirky buildings by 1970, but never came close to that figure. The Houck Pancake House is one of only two of the designs to survive; the other is in Arcadia, California, where the building is now a Denny’s (and that company had wanted to demolish it in 1999 before a local outcry forced a change of mind). The Pancake House also housed a coffee shop and, if you believe the signs, a Taco Bell. Personally, I would treat that with a pinch of salt and a Fort Courage type of disregard for legalities. It’s far more likely that it was an Ortega’s Tacos, named after Armand Ortega who ran the trading post for some years.

This would have originally had a windmill rather than the sign, but there's no proof it was ever erected.

This would have originally had a windmill rather than the sign, but there’s no proof it was ever erected.

Today the trading post, gas station and restaurant are shuttered and fenced off, but it’s still possible to walk around Fort Courage. Some of the buildings were converted into apartments but they lie open and derelict, personal belongings strewn knee deep.

The interior of an abandoned apartment in the 'fort'.

The interior of an abandoned apartment in the ‘fort’.

History has not been kind to Fort Courage. Opened less than fifty years ago, there seems to be no record of even when it actually opened, let alone any details of what is likely to become of it. Faded billboards along the interstate still exhort the traveller to stop, but there’s no longer any genial welcome at Fort Courage. Its single legacy seems to be in the late night reruns of F Troop when viewers of a certain age might pause and think, ‘Didn’t we stop on the film set in Arizona when I was a kid…?’

The tower is boarded up but still in good order.

The tower is boarded up but still in good order.