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.

SANTA CLARITA SIGNAL

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?

 

 

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THE SADDEST TRADING POST ON 66

One of the earliest known photos of the Toonerville Trading Post, then selling Texaco fuel and with a bright mural around the top of the building.

Even in its heyday, Route 66 was not the continuous benign bright ribbon that some might imagine. Almost without exception, life was as hard as anywhere else – sometimes harder – and that highway traffic was comprised not only of the military, the commercial traveller and the tourist, but of darker elements. Some places seemed to attract sadness and tragedy more than others, and one such place was Toonerville in Arizona.

Toonerville in the 1960s, now a Shell station and concentrating on the cafe and beer rather than Indian curios.

The Toonerville Trading Post, one of four along a short stretch of Route 66, was built and opened by Earl Tinnin in 1935. He and his wife, Elsie, ran the post and raised two children there, Helen and George Earl. Then, in August 1947, tragedy struck. Apparently, while playing with toy guns, the 14-year-old George picked up a real weapon; the .32 pistol went off and shot him in the left side of his face, killing the boy. In these days of health and safety, the incident raises questions – why was a real gun mixed in with toys? Why didn’t a boy of almost fifteen who had been raised in an isolated area and thus presumably around firearms recognise the difference? It was recorded as an accident, and the Tinnins continue to operate the trading post for a further seven years until, in 1954, Earl sold Toonerville to Merritt Dow ‘Slick’ McAlister and moved to Flagstaff to run the Nor Star and Ben Franklin motels.

The interior of the Toonerville Trading Post [Coconino County Sheriff’s Department]

McAlister had previously run the Vermilion Cliff Lodge on Route 89 for six years, but as manager rather than owner, and so he must have jumped at the chance to be his own boss with the purchase of Toonerville. Born in 1911, McAlister was, by some accounts, a feisty character for much of his life, the subject of numerous reports of threatening people with his pistol and getting into fights. Indeed, as a 21-year-old, he was involved in a dance hall brawl in which a young man was shot and almost died, although there’s no indication McAlister was at fault. However, by 1971, McAlister was 60 and apparently a changed character who rarely even carried a gun. He had run the post for over sixteen years with his third wife, Pearl, who he had married in 1947. She then had a 14-year-old son, Bronson ‘Buster’ Lamoure (a daughter, Rita Mae, had died while a baby) who appears to be the closest to a child that McAlister had, despite his three trips down the aisle.

As the couple approached retirement age they were preparing to wind down. They’d made attempts to sell the trading post with possibly more enthusiasm they had in keeping it going. As Route 66 was realigned and then I-40 opened, the trading post stood apart from the road with just a single GASOLINE sign to promote it. (The trading post did have the only local alcohol licence in the area which brought in local trade.) It may have been this loneliness that, on the afternoon of 30th August 1971, attracted three young people to stop; contemporary newspaper reports first said it was two black couples in two cars, but it appears to have actually been two males and a woman in a small blue sports car and a light coloured sedan.

Within moments of their arrival, Slick McAlister lay dead and his wife desperately injured with a gunshot wound. She had been shot in the back of the head as she cooked hamburgers for the trio, one of whom then shot McAlister in the chest before they ransacked the shop and living quarters, stealing $70 but missing a larger stash of money. However, while they may have assumed the couple were both dead, Pearl later regained consciousness and managed to ring their friends, the Greys, who ran the Twin Arrows trading post a mile down the road. The Greys arrived to find Pearl in a pool of blood, Slick dead and the hamburgers still frying on the stove top.

The Coroner’s Jury examine the murder scene and the open cash register. [Arizona Daily Sun]

Police initially thought they had a major lead when they believed that Slick wrote down the license plates of any cars stopping for gas. They would later discover that he only did so when the customer was paying by credit card (and it appears that the trio stopped for fuel at Twin Arrows after the robbery), but not before a gentleman from Tucson whose number plate was on that pad was well and truly scared and forced to prove his car had been in the garage for several days.

Slick McAlister’s gravestone in Pinal Cemetery, Central Heights, Arizona.

Two brothers and a girl were arrested shortly afterwards in Las Vegas, but Mrs McAlister couldn’t identify them and their fingerprints didn’t match those found at the scene. And from that point on the trail went cold. No-one has ever been arrested for the crime and Pearl died in 1999, still not knowing who had slain her husband and almost killed her. In 2014, the Toonerville murder was reopened by the cold case officers of the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department. No new evidence or leads have yet come to light.

Toonerville around a month before Mary Smeal’s death. I haven’t had the heart to photograph it since.

But it wasn’t to be the last tragedy at Toonerville. In recent years, the trading post was converted to a private residence and occupied by Mary Smeal, a leading member of the Historic Route 66 Association of Arizona and chief financial officer for the Hopi Tribe Economic Development Cooperation. Mary had campaigned to save and refurbish the Twin Arrows trading post nearby; many people knew that she had been one of the volunteers involved in preserving and repainting the iconic arrows in 2009, fewer knew that she had paid for all the materials herself. Her next project was to restore the Toonerville property but that all ended a year ago this week. On 16th November 2016, colleagues became concerned that the normally conscientious Mary hadn’t turned up for work. A police welfare check discovered that she had been shot dead by her partner, Jeffrey Jones, who had then turned the gun on himself.

Now Toonerville stands abandoned again, the scene of three deaths wrapped in mystery and about which we will probably never know the full truth.

Toonerville in the 1960s, now a Shell station and concentrating on the cafe and beer rather than Indian curios.

THE SLOW DEATH OF THE LUDLOW CAFE

The Ludlow cafe in the late 1940s. The freestanding lettering at the front and the LUDLOW CAFE sign survived into the 1990s.

Out in the Mojave desert, on the side of Route 66, the Ludlow Cafe was once a welcome stop to travellers across California. But, over the last ten years, I’ve watched the building that once housed the cafe become ever more dilapidated until, one day, it was gone.

Not to be confused with the A-frame Ludlow Cafe further west and that, thanks to its position at the top of the off ramp for junction 50 of Interstate 40, still thrives, this Ludlow Cafe was a plain box-like building beside the canopied gas station and was built of lumber salvaged from the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad (the same place from where Mother Preston ‘borrowed’ timber!). Run for over twenty years by Rex and Lillian Warnix, it was sold in the 1960s to Laurel and Cameron Friend who owned other properties on the east side of Ludlow, including the next door 76 gas station.

Versions of this wanted ad would run regularly in the San Bernardino County Sun for almost 20 years

It was clearly always difficult to get good staff – and then to get them to stay in the middle of nowhere – and, from 1948 an advertisement ran in the classifieds section of the San Bernardino County Sun asking for women staff. That ad would run several times a year for the next twenty years (although, by 1956, the cafe had apparently got a telephone – perhaps they weren’t willing to give the number out to prospective employees before, although as it was Ludlow 3, any waitress keen enough could have made an educated guess).

The Ludlow Cafe in 2007, boarded up and the signage gone, but still in reasonable shape.

The Friends moved in 1975 and it’s likely that the cafe closed then. For some years it retained its streamlined lettering and, in 1990, when Troy Paiva (a man responsible for so many of the trips I have made in the last few years) used it for one of his ‘light painting’ photographs, the cafe was still open to the elements, the glass gone from the windows, but the counter still in place. If you look at the ‘1959 Cadillac on Route 66‘ channel on Youtube, you will find (among many of Anthony Reichardt’s other wonderful films) a video from August 1992, by which time the cafe was boarded up. When  I first saw the cafe fifteen years later in 2007, the freestanding lettering and the cafe sign were long gone, but the building was still in reasonable shape.

This was October 2008, probably not long after its first fire.

That all changed when I passed by a year later. Winter in the Mojave is cold at nights and apparently transients sheltering in the building had lost control of a fire. I hope that was the case. If the cafe had to burn, then better it was because it was giving shelter and comfort, if in reduced circumstances, as it had all its working life than because it was the victim of kids with too much time on their hands or a casual arsonist.

2010, the fire still evident, and the boarding falling away.

The gutted building was eventually boarded up again in a somewhat half-hearted way, but, by the last time I saw the Ludlow Cafe in 2014, the building was an open, dead-eyed shell.

And then the next year it was gone, another fire, one which, this time, had reduced it to a pile of rubble and charred wood.

 

Spring 2014, the last time I would see the Ludlow Cafe. It was open wide and graffiti artists had found it by now. A year later ti

That was the Ludlow Cafe. As far as I’m aware, only a handful of photos – or possibly just one – exist of it when it was a working, busy cafe. Sadly, there are many more thousands that, like mine, record its slow death in the desert.

 

 

 

THE PERILS OF TRAVELLING ALONE

Sometimes I still wake up in the night terrified of this old-timer. It’s not natural to have glowing eyes, even in Oklahoma.

There are Good Things and Bad Things about travelling on your own. The Good Things include eating rubbish for days on end and being able to drive 50 miles off route because you spotted a sign saying ‘World’s Biggest Ball of String’ without having to have a lengthy discussion with your co-pilot as to whether you have time, whether you need to see the World’s Biggest Ball of String (for me that goes without saying, although I am constantly surprised when I find myself to be in a minority of one on this matter) and if it will actually be the World’s Biggest (unlikely, but do you want to take the chance on that?).

Although knitted hair may never make a comeback, this chap will be delighted to know that his big painted on eyebrows are all the vogue with young ladies.

The Bad Things include eating rubbish for days on end and going a little bit strange. Talking to yourself is acceptable; having full-blown conversations in two different voices perhaps not so. I know I’ve been out there on my own too long when I get fits of giggles about things. And so it was at the National Route 66 & Transportation Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma.

Now, before I go any further, I cannot recommend the museum highly enough; not only does it have an excellent museum devoted to Route 66, complete with copious paraphernalia and classic vehicles (including a recreation of the Joads’ truck), but the extremely reasonable price of your entry ticket also allows you to roam around the Farm & Ranch Museum, the Blacksmith’s Shop Museum and the Old Town Museum.

It was in the latter that things started to go a little awry. Like the rest of the place, the Old Town Museum is an excellent and loving recreation of times past, with shops, houses and a school. To add verisimilitude, the creators had installed mannequins.

Why a trilby rather than a Stetson? My theory is the creators used all their hair up on his luxurious moustaches and sideburns and had nothing left for his head.

Just like the people they were intended to represent, these were a mixed crew; there were a few who had clearly started their careers in the windows of department stores, the passing of the years marked by the changing of their wigs, while others were more ambitious and may even have been salvaged from an out of business waxworks museum. They were all, well, slightly odd and while if I had had someone to point this out to, the matter might have dropped there. But I didn’t. All I had was a rising hysteria that increased with each new tableau. Fortunately it was early and the museum wasn’t yet busy, but people did begin to look. That didn’t make matters any better. There were other photos, but by now I was giggling so much everything was destined to be out of focus, including myself.

Half surfer dude, half baker.

Please do visit the National Route 66 & Transportation Museum and don’t just stop and take a photo of the big 66 shield and Myrtle, the Giant Kahina, and pass on, because the whole place is really quite wonderful. Even the mannequins which, in their oddness and homemade quality, somehow capture the essence of roadside Route 66. Just behave with a bit more decorum than I did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As if it wasn’t enough to make him wear a hat several sizes too small, what indignities have been committed on this poor man’s ears?

THE HIDDEN SIDE OF HACKBERRY

With its Mission-style architecture, the school was the grandest building in town.

Almost every traveller on the section of Route 66 between Seligman and Kingman, Arizona, stops at the famous Hackberry General Store. But few realise that there is more to Hackberry than a cold soda and some picturesque photo opportunities with old cars. Just to the south of the General Store and Route 66 lies the remains of what was, from 1874 until shortly after the Great War, a thriving town.

Originally a mining camp at the foot of the Peacock Mountains, Hackberry supported the twin trades of ranching and mining – indeed, it was the former that brought the railroad to Hackberry in 1882, as much to transport cattle as to carry ore from the Hackberry Silver Mine. By the time the mine closed, some $3 million of gold and silver had been dug out and perhaps one of the obvious indications of the temporary prosperity of the town can be seen in its now disused elementary school.

By the time this photo was taken in 1924, the school had been open for 7 years. Sadly, I don’t know whether the teacher is the ‘pleasant young Miss Jones’. Photo courtesy of the Mohave Museum of History and Arts

At a time when most schools were little more than wooden shacks or barns (for example, the Red School in Valentine to the west), the community of Hackberry commissioned a rather grandiose stone building. In May 1917, the School’s Board of Trustees called for bids for the erection of ‘a one-story public school building, to accommodate at least 80 pupils and cost not to exceed Seven Thousand Dollars; building to include all necessary wardrobe closest, teacher’s room, library room, etc, and to have chimney and fresh air vents for heating and ventilating purposes and to be as nearly fire-proof as the sum to be expended will permit.” You have to love that ‘nearly fire-proof’, but clearly not if it was going to cost more money!

The design that was accepted turned out to be a quite ornate Mission-style building with red roof tiles, two tiny decorative towers and even a Spanish-style bell. Nor did the Trustees hang about once having made a decision. At the end of August 1917, the Mohave County Miner reported that contractor Axel Ericson was completing the cornice work on the school (incidentally, Mr Ericson had just won the contract for his next job, which would be installing radiators and steam heating in the Hotel Brunswick in Kingman).

The bell still seems operational, but I decided not to try…

The school had two classrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and living quarters for a teacher, one of the first of whom was a Miss Jones who, a visit to Kingman being enough of an occasion to make the local newspaper, was described as ‘a pleasant young teacher’. To the young children who attended Hackberry Elementary School – they ranged from kindergarten age to the 8th grade – the building must have seemed almost like a castle. Teachers came and went; children grew up but often stayed in the town. Many of them were Griggs and several generations of that family were taught in the school. In fact, virtually everyone in Hackberry now (although that’s only around 20 people) is either a Griggs or related to the family.

An abandoned basketball hoop beside the school.

But, by 1994, the Board of Trustees (all of them, by the way, retired and without children in the school) decided that the little school should be closed. The parents of the 22 remaining pupils fought the decision but without success, even though the reasoning seems in hindsight a little vague. Joseph Averna, one of the three Trustees called the school ‘inefficient and ineffective’ (it quite possibly was, the tendency to follow the curriculum was, by all accounts, less than enthusiastic) and, on the eve of the meeting to decide the future of the Hackberry Elementary school, proclaimed; “We are going to drag [the parents] kicking and screaming in the 20th century. The people who pay the bills want the school closed.” He then went on to admit that no-one had actually looked at a budget, nor did they know how much money would be saved by the closure. Nonetheless, the decision to shut the school was made the following day.

Today children are bussed to schools miles away, leaving Hackberry as more of a ghost town than ever, while the school – which is owned by the Griggs family – stays resolutely shut and fenced off. The family hopes one day to refurbish, but no new generation of Griggs will ever be taught there.

Hackberry Elementary School, still as if the children had just left for the day.

THE KELLEYS OF KINGMAN

Mr and Mrs Kelley on the occasion of their 66th wedding anniversary.

There are stories in every town on Route 66 and, a few years ago, I was lucky enough to have a brief glimpse of one. In 2010, almost exactly seven years ago, Kenneth and Kathleen Kelley of Kingman celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary, appropriately enough on Route 66 where they had lived much of their married life and that was marked with a small gathering of classic cars at the Powerhouse in Kingman to which we were invited.

Kathleen shows off the commemorative plaque given to her by the Route 66 Cruizers Club.

The history of the Kelleys was a quiet but enduring love story. Kenneth grew up in New Mexico and joined the Army at the age of 20. In April 1943, he sailed on the USS Monterey from San Francisco to spend the next 28 months in Europe as a member of the 505 Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne (he chose the Airborne Unit because it paid more money which, as the youngest of eight children, he could send home to his family).

Kenneth and Kathleen on their wedding day on 26th August 1944.

As a paratrooper he saw action, but his biggest battle was to get the girl he met while stationed in England to marry him. The first time he saw Kathleen Denton, Kenneth thought she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. They dated for several months although Kathleen admits to standing him up several times. Kenneth proposed half a dozen times. Kathleen said no six times before finally relenting. They were married on August 26th 1944 in Leicester, England, and a year later, Kenneth was discharged from the Army and returned home. By now, they had a son, John, and Kathleen and John sailed to New York and then took a long train ride to join him; they settled in Deming, New Mexico, where Kenneth started his career in copper mining.

They moved to Kingman in 1962 where Kenneth eventually became the mine superintendent for Duval Mining Corp at Mineral Park and he always said it was the saddest day of his life when the Mineral Park mine closed in 1981. Since moving to Kingman, the Kelleys had lived in a house on Route 66 and so it was appropriate that a local car club should mark their 66th wedding anniversary at the Powerhouse. We found that, despite having lived in America for most of her life, Kathleen’s British accent soon began to return as she talked to us!

Kenneth passed away on 24th December 2016 after 72 years of marriage with his beautiful girl. Not a showy life, not a remarkable life, but a life well lived. It was a pleasure to have met you, sir.

Just minutes after the celebration, the skies opened and this was where we’d been standing!

GHOST SCHOOL IN A GHOST TOWN

 

The front entrance still looks as spruce as it must have done in 1928.

Lela in Texas always struggled against the odds. Known to some people who travel Route 66 as the home of E Mike Allred’s Regal Reptile Ranch (see the Never Quite Lost post, Snakes on a Plain), it lost out all around to its more glamorous neighbour, Shamrock.

Lela was established in 1902 as a stop on the Chicago, Rock Island & Gulf Railway, when it was originally called Story. It then gained a newspaper – the Wheeler County Texan – and a small school. Then, the ultimate mark of a settlement came along; a post office. Folklore has it that the young postmaster, a young Texan by the name of Bedford Forrest Bowers, changed the town’s name to Lela in honour of his sister-in-law.. However, there’s a few holes in that story. The town was already called Lela when Bedford was appointed postmaster on 9th June 1903. He was 25 years old at the time and there is no record of him having a wife. He did have two older brothers, but David was married to Maud and Isaac to Anna Pearl, neither of which lead themselves to a contraction of Lela.

Whatever the origin of the name, there was a school in Lela (although the dedicated school wasn’t built until 1907), and the first teacher was the splendidly named Fannie (or Frances) Womble. Miss Womble was barely 20 years old when she assumed that position and was soon married to Lucian Purcell, a relative of John Purcell, one of the school’s trustees. Sadly, the marriage would be cut short. In 1903, Fannie suffered a miscarriage, but two years later she gave birth to a son, Farrel. Complications set in and just ten days after the birth, on 16th February 1905, Fannie died. It was a week after her twenty-third birthday. Little Farrel struggled on, but on 9th May 1905 he too succumbed.

Lela would suffer another loss the following year when Bedford Bowers died, aged just twenty-eight. But already the town was beginning to lose out to nearby Shamrock. Although the discovery of natural gas would bring short-lived renewed prosperity to Lela, gradually both trade and residents began to move to Shamrock. But it was while Lela was undergoing this brief boom that its school burned down. At the time, the town was large and prosperous enough to warrant the building of a fine brick school which would accommodate all grades. However, by the 1930s, it was catering only to the younger children, as the high school students decamped to – yes – Shamrock.

One of the gas stations which sprang up to serve Route 66. It limped on in its last years as JD’s Service Station before falling into disrepair.

Route 66 would bring another infusion of life into Lela, as two gas stations were opened. But it didn’t last. By 1947, there were only 50 people left in Lela; the school and the church staggered on but the remaining businesses gradually closed. Even the newspaper moved down to Shamrock.  In 1976, Shamrock took its final victory over its neighbour as the post office was transferred there from Lela. Fifteen years later, the school was closed and has stood shuttered ever since. There is no chance of it opening again; Lela has no businesses, no shops and little in the way of population. Today it stands empty, echoing to the sound of children’s shouts on a long ago wind.

Incidentally, Fannie’s widower, Lucian Purcell, did eventually marry again and had eight children with his second wife, Annie (he would given his eldest son the middle name of Bowers, presumably in memory of the late young postmaster). They made their home in Shamrock.

Although it has a historical marker, Lela High School is not yet on the National Register of Historic Places.