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 right, 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

THE LITTLES OF HINTON JUNCTION

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In its prime, Hinton Junction could sell you gasoline, a meal, a night’s sleep and even a bus ticket.

These days, old Route 66 between Bridgeport and Hinton is a lonesome place. True, you know that Interstate-40 is rumbling away somewhere to the south, but here you’re on your own, your reverie on the old straight rolling concrete broken only by the glimpse of an occasional farmhouse or the moo of a curious cow.

But it wasn’t always so. Once this was a busy highway and the service station, cafe and motel belonging to the Littles of Hinton was a welcome sight for many travellers. Leon Little was born in 1911, the youngest of five children of James and Jennie Little. The Littles had something of a casual attitude to names, it seems. Leon was named Wilbur Leon, but, by the time his name was entered on the 1930 census, he had become simply Leon, while his brother went by the name of Robert or Boone, depending what form he was filling in.

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Leon and Ann start married life.

From the time he finished the 12th grade – and probably before – Leon worked in a service station, moving to Booker, Texas, in 1929 where he met a young lady by the name of Anna Louise Ondracek (although she was always known as Ann). When they married on 27th October 1932 in Booker, Texas, he had just turned 21 and Ann was 18. But, starting a business was important to them and, within months, they had bought an old gas station next to the swing bridge at Bridgeport on Route 66. Leon clearly realised just how vital an artery Route 66 was and, when it was realigned, he took the line that if the traffic wouldn’t come to him, then he would go to the traffic.

In 1934, a new bridge was opened over the South Canadian and Route 66 was rerouted. The Littles were already ahead of the game, building a new gas station at the west end of the bridge where Route 66 and Highway 281 met and opening it at the same time as the new alignment.

Leon (standing) oversees the construction of his new service station.

In 1940, the same year that his father died, Leon built a third station and added a cafe and a small motel. A larger house too was essential as by now the Littles had started a family. Bobby Dean was born in 1936 (puzzlingly he is referred to in the 1940 census as Baffie D), followed by Larry in 1944 and Charles the following year. For a short time they also had a young teacher, Pearl Delores Kerlick, boarding with the family before she got married, while, following ‘Jim’s’ death, Jennie Little would come to live with the family until she died in 1969.

The Littles had established that third station and motel when, in 1943, Leon received his draft papers. He was granted a 6-month deferment to get his affairs in order and so he leased the gas station, motel and cafe to EB Enze. Enze immediately shut Leon’s business down and opened his own in a new building. Ironically, by the time the six months were up, the US Government had set the upper limit of the draft at 30 years old. Leon was two years older than that and so he should have immediately picked his life and business up again. But he had made a contract with Enze and he honoured that. Instead, he spent the next couple of years working as a mechanic and tow truck driver in Texas. When the lease was up in 1945, he returned to Hinton and he and Ann began the job of rebuilding their business.

In his 50s, foreseeing the end of Route 66 and his business, Leon retrained as a US Postmaster,

This they did with determination and hard work. They also had a keen eye to providing good service for travellers. But Leon also knew that times were moving on and that the plans for the new interstate would make his business impossible to sustain. A year before I-40 bypassed Hinton, Leon had already made plans for his next career, training as a postmaster. He began work at the Hinton post office while Ann continued to run the business and then, in 1962, the interstate opened and Route 66 stopped. The Littles had opened their main business on the day that Route 66 took on its new alignment across the new bridge in 1934 and, with fitting symmetry, they closed it 26 years later on the very day that the interstate opened.

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This centre section is all that remains today of the gas station and cafe. There would have been a clock in the hole in the centre roofline, while the EAT sign was lost many years ago. The propane tanker hasn’t moved in at least 35 years.

However, hard work over those years had meant that Leon and Ann could put their boys through college as well as buy a house in Hinton. Until he retired, Leon worked at the post office and Ann worked as a receptionist for the Hinton Clinic. With sons and, later, grandchildren, Leon was involved in the local community, coaching Little League baseball and becoming a 32nd degree Mason. He died on 3rd February 1994 and Ann passed away at the end of 2006. They are both buried in the town they loved and served for so long.

Oh, and Leon clearly hated his given name all his life. Even on his gravestone in Hinton Cemetery he is listed only as W. LEON LITTLE!

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The gas station is falling down these days, but you can still see the old shelving and how it was back in the day.

LAST TOLL OF THE BELL’S MOTEL

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In its heyday, the Bell’s Motel (named after its original owners – but also called the Bells and the Bell) on Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona, was a ‘fully modern, fire-proof, air-cooled motel’. Built in 1945, it had 13 rooms and boasted that it had rooms with both cooling and heat, tiled baths, tubs and showers, ‘Beauty Rest mattresses’, television and a playground and patio. Later, as it fell on harder times, it became the Desert Lodge Apartments.

06_10_012928In 2012, a state-wide survey for the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office recommended that the by now boarded up Desert Lodge Apartments should be put forward for entry onto the National Register of Historic Places with ‘High Priority’, this rating means it filled one or more of the following criteria: an excellent example of its property type and strong Route 66 character; particularly rare property due to age, type of construction or architectural style; good intact properties which appear endangered due to deterioration or redevelopment and/or being sited in a high priority historic district. Even in its sad state, with its ‘giraffe’ stone façade, the motel ticked at least two of those boxes.

AZ079280 In April 2015, the Californian owners announced they would be gutting the property, leaving the stonework standing and it would then be redeveloped as living accommodation. The interiors were indeed gutted and all the woodwork ripped out, and then nothing else happened. For a year, the Desert Lodge Apartments have stood, denuded and fenced off, and I’ve hoped against hope that the planned renovation would take place.

Yesterday bidding closed for the complete demolition of the Desert Lodge Apartments and the clearance of the site.

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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.