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 BRITISH AIRMEN OF MIAMI

Frantie Mae ‘Frances’ Hill tending to the graves of her boys, marked then by white wooden crosses.

In Miami, Oklahoma, there is a stop of which many Route 66 travellers are unaware, even the British tourist to whom it would be of most significance. On the side of Route 66 to the north side of town is the Grand Army of the Republic cemetery, which dates back to 1899. Among the thousands of graves spread over 18 acres are 15 sombre headstones in a row, each one signifying the resting place of a young British airman.

One of only six training schools in the USA at the time, the No 3 Spartan School of Aeronautics opened in Miami on 31st July 1941 to train air crew. Great Britain’s Royal Air Force decided that, America having not entered the Second World War at that point and being thousands of miles from the theatres of war, it would be an ideal place to train its airmen. Over the next four years, some 2124 RAF cadets would train in Oklahoma (some under the initial impression that they were actually heading for Florida). Peter McCallum was one of the first cadets and wrote home, ‘You could just imagine what a wonderful place [this] is… All the food is fancy. We fly from 7am till 12.’ Sadly, McCallum was one of the first Miami cadets to be killed when his plane crashed; he is among the British flyers buried in the GAR cemetery.

The Union Jack flying above the RAF airmen’s graves.

Many of the young British cadets were just teenagers, many homesick, and Miami residents took these boys to its heart, but none more so than Frantie Mae ‘Frances’ Hill. She was old enough to be the mother of many of the boys – ten of those fifteen airmen who lie in the GAR Cemetery were 21 or younger – and one of the many Miami folk who welcomed them to the town. Her daughter Rosie, said that her parents’ friendship with the cadets began in the early 1940s when a Miami country club hosted a dance for the young trainee pilots and Frances and her husband, Claude, particularly hit it off with one Jack Taylor. Jack did not survive the war, and when Frances noticed that two of the graves in the GAR cemetery were looking shabby (one of which belonged to Peter McCallum), she decided she had to ‘do something for Jack’s countrymen’.

For the next forty years she regularly walked three miles from her home to tend the graves and plant them with roses and irises. Every holiday she decorated the graves and their simple wooden crosses (these were replaced with stone markers in 2014). She did this without show, but simply because she regarded them as ‘her boys’. She also kept in touch with many of the families, sending them photographs of the decorated graves.

The King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom; Mrs Hill’s medal was one of 2539 awarded.

In June 1947, George VI presented Frances with the King’s Medal of Service in the Cause of Freedom, but most people in Miami had no idea she had been accorded this honour until after her death. In 1989, the Number 3 British Flying Training School Association erected a monument in her honor with the following tribute: “Mrs. F.M. Hill of Miami, buried alongside, voluntarily tended these fifteen British airman’s graves and helped their loved ones from 1941-1982. These selfless human actions were unknown to most. She was awarded ‘The King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom’ by King George VI. Thanks to Mrs. Hill from the graduates of Number 3 British Flying Training School Association.”

The marker erected to the memory of Frances Hill from the training school graduates.

She tended the graves without fanfare because she was determined that someone would always care about these young airmen. Until she was too frail, shortly before her death in 1982 at the age of 84 (she had been a widow for over twenty years by then), she made sure the boys always looked smart. Her wish was to be buried alongside the fifteen airmen and that is where she rests.

 

 

The British Commonwealth headstones of the British air cadets.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

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On a lonely stretch of Route 66 east of Newberry Springs, California stands a sign. It’s not much of a sign and, as the years go by, it’s becoming even less of one. It sags in the middle as if one good gust of wind would destroy it forever but it’s still just possible to read CAFE MOTEL with an arrow beneath. Now that arrow points to nothing but desert and the remains of an old trailer, but once this was quite literally a Desert Oasis.

In his A Guide Book to Highway 66, Jack Rittenhouse notes two gas stations at this point within a half mile of each other, one ‘with cafe, few cabins and garage’ and the other ‘similar but lacking a garage’. Rather frustratingly, at a time when every clutch of houses merited its own name, Mr Rittenhouse doesn’t cite place names but in 1939, seven years before his book, the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration produced a guide to California in which it names two places, Mojave Water Camp and Guyman (‘each has its small knot of sun-bleached buildings’) which are very likely the sites of Rittenhouse’s two stations.

The Mojave Water Camp service station. Note the cabins to the left of the main building.

It’s also likely that, by the time the Guide Book to Route 66 was published, the Mojave Water Camp no longer existed. The last tangible evidence of its existence is in a 1939 photograph by Burton Frasher which shows a Shell station and cafe with a small row of cabins beside it. Some sources say that two service stations were incorporated into one, but contemporary reports speak of two separate establishments a half mile apart.

Poe’s Cafe in 1949.

Down the road from the Mojave Water Camp, the gas station at Guyman was bought and redeveloped by Ed Poe, who built a new modern cafe building which proclaimed POE’S CAFE in a square sign and advertised chicken dinners on the front of the cafe. From there on, the place was always known as Poe’s Cafe and the area became generally known as Poe or Poe Town. By 1949, it was ‘Poe’s Cafe and Continental Bus Stop’ and sold Shell fuel although, according to a legal notice in the Bakersfield Californian the following spring, it was by then a Texaco station. A few cabins – or the motel – were added on the side of Route 66.

The Desert Oasis Cafe in the 1950s, to judge by the gas pumps. The Poe’s Cafe sign has been replaced and awnings fixed over the windows, while the gas station now retails Richfield fuel.

Poe sold the business in the early 1950s and it was renamed the Desert Oasis, although the name never really took. To the end of its days, the place was known as Poe’s Cafe. Once again, it changed brands, becoming a Richfield station. However, as with other places along the busy highway, not all travellers were filled with good intentions and a desire for a piece of home-cooked pie. In September 1952, a waitress at Poe’s Cafe fell to talking with 33-year-old Robert Elmer Jensen. He persuaded her into his car with the promise of a better job and then took her on a 24-hour ride during which he raped her twice. The waitress managed to escape although she would never have to testify against Jensen who was shot dead by Pennsylvania state police a month later.

Five years later, Poe’s service station – the name Desert Oasis didn’t catch on with the San Bernadino County Sun newspaper – was destroyed by fire after all three pumps caught fire on the evening of 17th April 1957. Fire department units from the nearby Marine Base and the California Department of Forestry at Hesperia found the service station engulfed by fire but they managed to save the cafe, which the San Bernardino County Sun was still calling Poe’s Cafe when, in 1974, it reported on two Daggett juveniles breaking in and stealing food stuff.

From then, Poe’s Cafe quietly disappears into history. Except for that crumbling and broken sign on the side of the highway, for that very sign was intended to entice travellers off Route 66. And then, of course, there was no more Route 66 and no-one wanting to stop for a bed or pie, but the sign still carries on doing its job, long after Poe’s Cafe had vanished into the desert.

All that’s left of Poe’s Cafe, service station and motel.

THE FINEST DRUG STORE IN CREEK COUNTY

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For years, the Coppedge Drug Store has been just a roofless shell. Just behind, on the left, can be seen Dr Coppedge’s house.

Depew in Creek County, Oklahoma, is a small town with one main claim to fame. It was, by all accounts, the first town on Route 66 to be bypassed by a later alignment. In fact, Route 66 ran through the main street of Depew for just two years; by 1928, a realignment meant that traffic now flowed three blocks north of the town’s main thoroughfare. The town’s population began to decline shortly afterwards and now stands at little more than 400 people.

The town was established in the first decade of the 20th century and almost died completely in May 1909 when a tornado wiped it off the map. However, two years later, Depew boomed after an oil field in nearby Salpulpa saw the Salpulpa & Oil Fields Railroad construct a line from Depew to Shamrock in Texas. Within ten years, Depew had three grocery stores, two barbers, three service stations, four hotels, two theatres, a Ford dealership, a funeral home, three lumberyards and as many churches. It also had the Coppedge Drug Store, one of the best drug stores in the area (and certainly in Creek County), thanks to Dr Oscar Sterling Coppedge.

In the 1920s, the large plate glass windows must have been an impressive sight on Main Street.

Dr Coppedge had moved to the area from St Louis, Missouri, as a young man; his father Benjamin Thomas Coppedge was a dentist who had opened a drug store in neighbouring Bristow in 1903. But Oscar Coppedge had bigger plans. In 1920 he started construction of a modern brick building on Main Street, Depew, to house his drug store. In May of that year, the local newspaper, the Depew Independent, proclaimed; ‘The walls are about completed on the Coppedge building. This is a dandy brick and when the Doctor gets his new $4,000 soda fountain and other new fixtures installed he will have one of the finest drug stores in this part of the country.’ By August, it was almost ready to open and the Independent gushed; ‘Dr. Coppedge has been having a tile floor put in his new building this week. It is the finest floor in town and has been the cause of much favorable comment.’

The coming of Route 66 in 1926 brought not only the first paved highway to run through Depew, but an increase in patients. Across the street from the drug store Dr Coppedge built a hospital which he ran with his older brother, Omer – also a physician – while he lived behind the drug store in a Gordon Van Tine Roberts house bought from the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalogue. (This particular model of kit home was popular in Oklahoma. In 1916, the two storey, three bedroom home could be purchased for $1260.)

Dr Coppedge’s Sears, Roebuck house which also stood in disrepair for years but has now been refurbished.

However, it’s said that, despite being a pillar of the local community, Dr Coppedge had a soft spot for outlaws and was the ‘go-to’ doctor for anyone who had sustained a gunshot wound that they couldn’t – or didn’t care to – explain. Dr Oscar was known as a medic who would treat the injury without involving the local forces of law and order. In fact, it’s said that Charles ‘Pretty’ Floyd was one of his patients. There’s no evidence one way or the other, but as Pretty Boy did live in Oklahoma and was regarded and protected by many locals as the ‘Robin Hood of Cookson Hills’, it’s quite possible.

Following the Great Depression, Depew slid into a terminal decline. By the time of the Second World War, only two grocery stores, a bank, a hardware store and two service stations survived – along with Dr Coppedge’s practice. He died in 1960 with, it seems, no children to carry on his legacy, his brother having died four years previously.

The Coppedge Hospital stood across the street and was built in the same style. It’s in better shape than the drug store, but for how long?

The Coppedge Drug Store itself has been a derelict shell for years, a few remaining letters on the front and part of ‘the finest floor in town’ the remnants of its former self. I last saw it in the second week of April 2017 when it looked the same as ever, beyond restoration but a part of Depew’s history. And then, two weeks later, it was gone. One night the old building took its last breath, perhaps remembered its past glories and then gently collapsed into a pile of rubble.

Main Street, Depew. Nowadays, 93% of the residents work in other towns. The road in front is the original surface of Route 66, it’s never been overlaid with asphalt since 66 moved almost 90 years ago.

MOTHER PRESTON AND THE LUDLOW WAR

One of the earliest photographs known of the Ludlow Mercantile Company Building. At the time, there were a number of other stores and buildings beside it.

The Wild West, feuds, violence, a mysterious French woman with a temper and hot-headed Irish brothers – it’s a story which could have come straight out of Hollywood, but Hollywood was still very much in its infancy as this tale played out 175 miles away in Ludlow, California.

Today Ludlow is little more than a brief stop on Route 66, the largest remaining building the Ludlow Mercantile building which was decaying long before it was damaged in an earthquake in 2006. But, almost a century ago, that very store was the centre of a feud between an Irish family and a large feisty French lady that rolled on for years.

The Ludlow Mercantile Company Building, still standing – at the moment.

Mathilde Pascaline Vigneron was born in Oise, east of Paris, in France in 1850. Very little is known of her early life except that she was married to Gustave Jacques Masquelier, despite the fact that Monsieur Masquelier was already married to someone else. He and Mathilde moved to London and then to America where Gustave became manager of the Los Angeles Steam Dyeing & Cleaning Company. However, shortly after, Mathilde had moved to a mining town where she became a ‘widow’ – despite the fact that Gustave didn’t die until 1919 (although he too had been calling himself a widower for many years previously!). In 1888, Mathilde married a Calico miner, one Thomas Jefferson ‘TJ’ Preston, and took his name.

By now, Mathilde had established herself as a successful saloon owner, always willing to provide a glass of whiskey and a hand of poker, a game at which she excelled. The couple moved to Daggett and then, around 1900, on to the prosperous railroad town of Ludlow. There TJ started a delivery service but the couple’s money came from the saloon which his wife started. She had been known in the mining towns as ‘Big Mary’, an epithet which reflected both her build and her general demeanour, although I’m not sure whether people would have used that name to her face. Described in accounts of the time as ‘a physical giant’, she thought nothing of helping herself to the odd wooden tie stored by the railroad opposite her saloon, carrying one back to her place on her shoulder. The Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad never billed her for the wood; it did, however, move its ties…

The Mercantile Building showing the earthquake damage of 2006.

Within a short time, ‘Ma’ or ‘Mother’ Preston (as she had become known in the town) owned a saloon, pool room, hotel, restaurant and store. Although she was a tough businesswoman, she was also famous for her generosity in helping people, if often on a business footing. She loaned money to John Denair to build the Ludlow Mercantile Company building in 1908 but foreclosed on the store when he was unable to meet the payments, and then continued to operate it herself. For a few years, Ma Preston was very much the queen of Ludlow … and then the Murphy brothers came to town. They opened their own store, which was a bearable situation for Mathilde – until Thomas and Mike Murphy bought the building right next door to the Mercantile. From that moment, a feud began which would erupt into violence and end in court.

Mathilde resented the newcomers’ store and they, for their part, had no love for this large foreign woman. She was accustomed to bathing in a large barrel in her yard and, according to one story, one night a group of youths turned over the barrel, tipping out Ma Preston in all her glory. She blamed the Murphys and loudly harangued them outside their store, calling them every name under the sun. Mike’s Irish temper snapped and, Ma Preston alleged, he ran out and whipped her with a length of rubber hose. She didn’t wear drawers in summer and was happy to lift up her long dress and show the resulting welts to just about anyone. Then she sued for $10,000, although the resulting settlement was a fraction of that sum.

The Murphy Brothers General Store in the Mercantile Building in the 1920s.

Things went from bad to worse. In 1915, hearing that someone had jumped her claim upon a valuable mine east of Ludlow, Ma Preston rode her horse out to the claim where a tent had been erected. She later said that she had tripped on a guy rope, propelling her into the tent, whereupon a man – who just happened to be Thomas Murphy – leapt up and beat her severely with a railroad air coupler around the head and body. She immediately issued a claim for damages of $20,000, which included $10,000 for what she said was a permanently crippled right leg, stating that Murphy, who was almost half her age (she was then 66 years old), intended to kill her. The case kept the newspapers busy through the winter of 1915 but, rather disappointingly, appears to have been settled before it reached a courtroom. It would have made quite a case.

So, where was Thomas Preston while his wife was off fighting hand to hand with local rivals? Well, he might have been locked in the chicken coop behind her hotel as she was known to do when he stepped out of line. It was in TJ’s interests to toe whatever line his wife set; the money all belonged to Ma Preston; every building was in her name and she was registered as a sole trader. TJ was, it seems, kept busy running errands and chores for his wife. He was named as ‘head of household’ in the regular state census, but he was anything but.

The only known photograph of Mother Preston, clearly taken without her knowledge!

Peace seemed to descend for a few years and then, out of the blue, Mother Preston announced in 1920 that she and TJ were moving to France to see her relatives – and, more remarkably, she had sold her store, cottages and real estate for $18,000 to her hated rival, Thomas Murphy. It seems that TJ didn’t have much say in this decision – as he had his photograph taken for the very first time in his life, he said wistfully that they were only applying for passports for a year, adding “but I don’t hardly think we will stay that long … I don’t imagine how long ‘Ma’ will want to stay in France, but I imagine that she won’t care for it in a year. She will want to see the folks and look around, but then we’ll probably be coming home.”

It wasn’t to be. Ma Preston bought a small tobacconist shop which the couple ran for a handful of years before TJ died in 1926. Mathilde followed him to the grave just four months later, dying at the age of 76, of heart disease in the American Hospital in Paris. Her closest relative, a nephew, was informed by mail. She left an estate of $70,000 which was dispersed among nieces and nephews who, no doubt, had never heard of Ludlow. Ironically, her arch rival, Thomas Murphy, only survived her by less than five years, dying of cancer in Los Angeles. He had married less than a year before. His widow’s name? Matilda.

Still with the faintest of sign writing down the side.

THE GLENRIO PONTIAC

Larry Travis’s Pontiac Catalina.

Of the many cars along Route 66, probably one of the most photographed and instantly recognizable is the white Pontiac in Glenrio, Texas. Everyone who visits the town takes a photo of it and, while they might congratulate themselves on identifying it as a 1968 Pontiac Catalina, very few will even give a second thought to how it ended up on the forecourt of a derelict gas station.  But there is a reason why the Pontiac is there.

The Texaco station forecourt on which it sits was built by Joseph (Joe) Brownlee in 1950, while the diner to the side – often known as the Little Juarez Diner – was originally called the Brownlee Diner and opened in 1952. Behind the gas station is the Joseph Brownlee house which was first built in 1930 in Amarillo and was then moved to Glenrio when Joe bought land there. It now houses Mrs Ruth Roxann Travis, Joe’s daughter and the one remaining resident of Glenrio; the dogs whose barking welcomes you to Glenrio belong to Roxann.

Roxann grew up in Glenrio, helping her father, along with her six brothers and sisters, at his two gas stations at a time when Route 66 was often nose-to-tail traffic. It all came to a grinding halt when Interstate 40 opened in 1973. Three years before, when she was just 19 and he three years older, Roxann had married Larry Lee Travis, a quiet young man from Darrouzzett. By 1975, however, everything was just about closed in Glenrio and Roxann and Larry now had a family, a little son called Michael Joe. So Larry approached a former employer, Don Morgan, and asked if he could rent the Standard Service Station on the east side of Adrian. Mr Morgan had closed the gas station a few months before and didn’t expect it to reopen. But he knew Larry was a hard worker and, after some persuasion, he agreed to rent the garage to him.

So, each day, Larry got in his white 1968 Pontiac Catalina and drove the 25 miles to Adrian to run the gas station. It wasn’t a job without risks – just the previous year a group of gas, shop and service station owners had banded together as a vigilante force to patrol the streets of Vega and Adrian. They never caught any criminals but nor were there any burglaries and robberies while they were on watch. By the beginning of 1976 the patrols had fizzled out and so there was no-one around but Larry when, after driving the Pontiac to work for the last time on the evening of 7th March, a 23-year-old Texan called Lewis Steven Powell entered the Standard Service Station. No-one knows what happened in those few minutes, whether Larry – proud of his hard work – refused to hand over his takings, but Powell made him kneel down and shot him in the back of the head before robbing the till.

The Pontiac Catalina in front of Joe Brownlee’s old Texaco gas station with, to the left, the Brownlee Diner which became the Little Juarez Diner.

Powell was a high school graduate who had served four years in the Navy and never been arrested, received a speeding ticket or been suspected of any mental disorder. But Larry was the second man he had killed in 36 hours. The police were already hunting the killer of Clyde Franklin Helton near Dallas and just the next day Powell was apprehended after a shoot-out in Colorado. In a plea bargain, he pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison. Life, in this case, meant just seven years before he was eligible for parole, although there would be a 40-year sentence waiting for him in Colorado as a result of firing at police during his arrest. But again, 40 years was a vague figure. Powell has been a free man for some time, although I am pleased to say that, as of May 2017, he was back in custody due to parole violations.

Despite sitting for 40 years, the Pontiac still looks like the car Larry loved.

Larry never came home again, but his Pontiac Catalina did, and it keeps silent sentinel in Glenrio, perhaps looking after Roxann as much as her dogs and her son, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Please remember, it’s not just another junk car parked for a Route 66 photo opportunity, respect the Private Property signs, it’s not for sale. It’s as much a part of Glenrio as Roxann Travis, and that is where it belongs.

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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