THE TRAGEDY OF THE STATE LINE BAR, GLENRIO

Early days at the State Line Bar where you buy a glass of whiskey, a gallon of gas or a postage stamp. [Photo with very kind permission of Joe Sonderman]

The State Line Bar in Glenrio on the New Mexico/Texas border is today an unprepossessing building, but it’s actually one of the oldest commercial buildings in the town, along with the motel behind it and the neighbouring Broyle’s Mobil Gas Station. The State Line Bar was built in 1935 and some thirty eight years later, the bar would be the scene of a tragedy that saw it close forever.

Two men featured prominently in the history of both Glenrio and the bar; in 1939, Homer Ehresman – who would later build the ‘First and Last’ Texas Longhorn Motel – bought and ran the State Line Bar (which had been built by John Wesley Ferguson and boasted Texaco petrol pumps and a small post office on one side which Mrs Ehresman ran) before selling it to Joseph Brownlee. In 1960, the bar was remodelled and became a much plainer building with a concrete block veneer and narrow high windows.

The former Glenrio Post Office which was attached to the State Line Bar.

A few years later it was purchased by Albert Kenneth and Dessie Leach, a couple who had come to Glenrio in the late 1950s and made their living ranching before purchasing the bar. Married in 1945, Albert and Dessie never had children of their own, but they raised a son, Nolan, and a daughter, Margaret, from Dessie’s first marriage to Nolan Terrill. 10th July 1973 was probably much the same as any other day at the bar. No doubt the Leachs were concerned about the interstate which would cut Glenrio off in a few months, while they must also have been aware that any business was a target for criminals. Just a couple of months earlier, the Standard Service Station in Glenrio had been held up in an armed robbery – while hunting for the perpetrator near Vega, police got a little trigger happy with the result that they shot a hole in the door and the transmission of a Mazda pickup belonging to one Gene Putz, an innocent motorist who just happened to be passing.

But business is business and on that morning 58-year-old Dessie was tending the bar on her own. Her only customers had been a couple from Amarillo, passing through in their RV. While the couple chatted to Dessie, a blond young man in blue jeans and a flowered shirt came in and asked the husband to play pool. He then, as she said, ‘made eyes’ at the Amarillo woman and, thinking the young man was trouble, the couple left.

Did Dessie choose the carpet and booths? It’s quite likely.

Some minutes later, in an apartment behind the bar, Cornelia Tapia was getting ready to go to work when she heard a noise. To her horror, she saw Dessie Leach stagger out of the back door of the State Line Bar holding her stomach, her dress covered in blood. Mrs Leach gasped that she had been robbed and shot, although when she collapsed to the ground it was found she had been stabbed, not shot. She died before she could be transported to hospital in Tucumcari.

Her murderer was apprehended just a couple of hours later in Vega, where it was found that, as well as a long sharp knife, he also had two guns in his station wagon. He was covered in blood and, it seems, made little resistance to arrest. John Wayne Lee was 31 and gave his address as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, although he was actually from Tennessee. He never explained why he had stabbed Mrs Leach – she was a small woman and neighbours described her as crippled with arthritis and unable to put up any struggle. In fact, they thought she would probably have simply opened the till and yet Lee stabbed her four times.

The decaying interior of the bar, sun streaming through through narrow windows.

At that time, a new law in New Mexico allowed for homicide during the course of robbery to be charged as a capital offence. Yet Lee was charged with the lesser offence of second degree murder and, on 31st October 1973 he was found guilty. He was sentenced to two consecutive 10-50 year prison terms for the murder and armed robbery which, you could imagine, would have keep him behind bars for some considerable time. How long do you imagine Lee served for the murder of Dessie Leach? I can bet that you’re wrong. For stabbing to death Mrs Leach, John Wayne Lee served less than four years. In May 1977, he was granted parole although that meant he then had to begin his sentence of 10-50 years for armed robbery. How long he served is not on record but if Lee is still alive, he has been a free man for a long time.

Dessie Leach’s death meant the end of the State Line Bar after almost forty years. Her husband moved to San Jon and spent the years until his death in 2004 raising race horses. The State Line Bar is now derelict, a few shreds of the carpet and furniture that Dessie had no doubt picked herself now mouldering away, and the terrible crime that took place here now merely a whisper on the wind.

The State Line Bar, Glenrio, NM. 2018.

THE MURDER OF LUCILLE HAMONS’ BOY

Lucille and Carl Hamons, reunited in death, along with their only son.

I recently visited the Oklahoma grave of ‘The Mother of the Mother Road’, Lucille Hamons, not expecting that visit to be the start of another quest into times gone by. I was intrigued by the fact that she is reunited in the Hydro Masonic Cemetery with the husband from whom she had been divorced for over a quarter of a century. Of course, it could be that the plots had been purchased while they were still together and Lucille didn’t see the point of selling hers, but a nearby headstone made me wonder whether, even after death, they wanted to be in the same place. The stone reads simply, ‘CARL HAMONS JR, 1935-1962’.

Carl Jr’s headstone in the Masonic Cemetery in Hydro, Oklahoma.

Lucille and Carl Sr’s two daughters are quite often mentioned in articles about the Provine Service Station; it was the late Cheryl Hamons Nowka who persuaded her mother to write her memoirs, not only preserving those memories for posterity, but making enough money to bring the gas tanks underneath the station up to EPA standards and ensuring that Lucille could keep the place she had run since 1941, while oldest daughter, Delpha Dene Martin has operated a music store in Grants, New Mexico, for over 50 years. But, other than one comment that he was an ‘excellent mechanic’, few histories mention Carl Jr and not one explains his death at the age of just 27. When I started out, I thought the cause of his demise would be a car crash or perhaps illness. The truth was far more startling and dramatic. Unlike his father who was born and died in Hydro, Carl was almost a thousand miles from home when he met his death.

In this photo by an Arizona Republic photographer, Gila County Sheriff Jack Jones (left) and Coroner Clyde Shute bend over the body of Carl Hamons Jr. He was asleep on the bar stool when his ex-wife shot him nine times.

In his early twenties, Carl moved from Oklahoma to Globe, Arizona, where he found employment with the Magma Copper Co. Then he met Yetta Jean Aragon, a petite brunette who had four children and had run through three husbands by her mid-20s – by the time she was 16, she was on her second husband. If two people should have been kept far apart from each other, it was Carl and Jean. But they fell for each other and were married in August 1961. The marriage lasted just seven months and they were divorced in February 1962. Jean moved to New Mexico where she married her fifth husband in short order, but returned to live with Carl in the middle of 1962 because, she said later, “I couldn’t live without him”.

Yetta Jean Aragon had shot her ex-husband just minutes before an Arizona Republic newspaper man took this photograph in the Double-N bar.

Carl, who also had four children by a previous marriage, wasn’t the easiest man to live with; he’d been undergoing psychiatric treatment while married to Jean but he seems to have turned to alcohol as a cure. In the summer of 1962 the couple embarked on an epic two day drinking spree that ended at the Double-N Tavern in Globe on 29th August. Carl had passed out on a bar stool when his ex-wife drew a .22 calibre revolver and shot him – nine times. Eight of the bullets found their target and, with entry, exit and re-entry wounds, coroner Clyde Shute would find 13 gunshot wounds in Carl Hamons’ body.

Jean Aragon made no effort to escape. She told officers that night that she had decided to kill him because she was scared of threats he had allegedly made towards her and that that fear was, she said, “like a blue-flame whirlwind that kept getting bigger and bigger until the moment I shot him.” She added that she had been thinking about killing her ex-husband for some twenty minutes, and had drunk four glasses of beer very quickly in order to get up the courage. As she stood beside him, “he lifted his head from the bar, looked at me, then passed out again. That’s when I shot him.”

Jean Aragon behind bars following her trial. The photo was taken by Arizona Republic photographer Wade Cavanaugh who had also taken the image of Jean just after she had shot Carl.

Although it constituted premeditated murder, Jean’s defence counsel built his case on a plea of temporary insanity and that his client had been forced to this breaking point by Carl Hamon’s violent behaviour, claims against which, of course, Carl could not defend himself. This, along with the fact that Jean was, as one contemporary newspaper described her, ‘a trim, attractive brunette’, seems to have swayed the jury which, after deliberating for just six hours, convicted her of second degree murder, rather than the first degree murder with which she was charged. On 19th January 1963, she was sentenced to 12-20 years in the Arizona State Prison. On hearing the verdict, 29-year-old Jean said; “I’m glad it’s over. Now maybe when I get out of here I can live the life like I’ve always wanted.” For Lucille Hamons’ only son, that wasn’t an option.

 

 

Carl Jr was only six years old when his parents bought the Provine Service Station and he would grow up here.

CHARLIE LUM: THE PRIDE OF 66

Fine food and cocktails – this was the place to go in Kingman in the 1960s.

Kingman’s Chinese community has been part of the town for as long as it has existed. But perhaps one man more than other was influential in the growth of this Arizona town.

‘China Jack’ Lum with, on the right, Charlie, and on the left, Wong, in around 1920. Photo (c) The Lum Family

Charlie Hing Lum was born in Canton in 1912 and, at the age of ten, emigrated to the United States with his father Lum Sing Yow – known as Jack – and brother Wong Lum. They settled in Kingman where his grandfather had moved in 1884 and Jack subsequently bought the Boston Cafe on what would become Route 66 and now Andy Devine Avenue. This was a time when every restaurant in town, with the exception of the Beale Hotel and the Harvey House, were owned and run by the Chinese. Charlie left school after the eighth grade to work as a dishwasher at his father’s cafe as well as working another job at the Mohave Cafe near the Beale Hotel. It was at the Mohave Cafe on October 20th 1926 a 14-year-old Charlie would see his boss, Tom King, killed by members of the San Francisco Bing Kong Tong.

In 1931, Charlie returned to China to look after his sick mother and, while there, he married his first wife, Jan Gum Foon and their daughter, Mary, was born. Although he loved Kingman and knew virtually everyone who lived there, Charlie was upset when his father decided to hand the café over to his brother, feeling his father had no faith in his abilities. So, when his wife died in 1938, he returned to America but opened his first restaurant in Williams; however, the Great Depression was in full swing and it failed.

1961 and the Jade is a blaze of neon.

Charlie moved to San Francisco and worked in the shipyards before starting a restaurant and bar called the Shanghai Lil Club. He also married again to Jeane Jang, the sister of his late wife but, while he proved to be a natural in the restaurant business, the big city also had the lure of alcohol and gambling. Jeane, along with his uncle, persuaded him that, with busy Route 66 running through it, it would be a good time to return to Kingman. In 1951, Charlie sold the Shanghai Lil and decided to open a Chinese restaurant in Kingman (where his brother was successful running the Boston, now renamed the White House Cafe). No-one else in town – or for that matter in north west Arizona – was serving Chinese food, but Charlie was certain he could make a success of the venture.

Charlie Lum tells his chef, Hubert Woo, how to cook the Jade’s famous Cantonese cuisine!

And he did just that. The Jade Restaurant on Route 66, just west of the Arcadia Lodge, was a huge success and, in the small community of Kingman, Charlie really found his home. He would go on to become the first Chinese member of the Kingman Elks Lodge, of the Rotary Club and an honorary member of the Lions. He sponsored local softball and baseball teams, worked with the Chamber of Commerce and sponsored radio broadcasts. Every year before school began, and again at Christmas, Charlie rented out the movie theatre and threw a movie party for all the kids in town.

One of Charlie’s final ventures – he always loved running a bar and lounge.

Everyone ate at the Jade – couples, families, business colleagues, ladies lunch clubs. It was, as Charlie claimed on his business cards and match boxes, ‘The Pride of Highway 66’. But Charlie didn’t content himself with the restaurant. In 1964 he built Kingman’s first coin-operated laundromat and a ten-unit apartment building called Lum’s Apartments. He was so taken by these new ventures that, in 1965, he sold the Jade to Tommy Choy who gave it something of a makeover, with flaming torches outside and the Bora-Bora room where American, Chinese and Polynesian food was served while Jess Parker tinkled on the organ.

Charlie stands in front of his KFC store on Route 66. Photo (c) The Lum Family.

Charlie, meanwhile, capitalised once more on Route 66 when he opened a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. He made it a popular stop for tour buses on their way to and from the Grand Canyon by providing bus drivers with a free meal. In 1977, he received the Franchise Service Award from KFC head office for ten years of quality service. But fried chicken and soap suds weren’t enough for the indefatigable Mr Lum. In 1973, he built Lum’s Cocktail Lounge which offered cocktails, dancing and pool tables, as well as a package goods section for off-sales.

He finally retired in 1978 and moved to Hawaii with his third wife (Jeane died in 1957 and Charlie remarried in 1961 to May Yin Chow), although he often returned to Kingman. Mary, his only daughter had spent her first few years in China but was finally able to join her father after the war. For many years, she and her husband also ran a Chinese restaurant in Kingman, the House of Chan.

The interior of the Jade Restaurant today.

When he left for Hawaii, Charlie’s Rotarian friends wrote him a warm and affectionate farewell, part of which read; ‘He has stood in the fore of civic affairs here, always willing to give of his time and money, never failing to lend a helping hand when it was needed … It will be a long, long time before a character of such proportions walks the stage of Kingman life again. He is one of the most profoundly happy, sincere and caring people we’ve ever know.Charlie kept his links up with Kingman until his death in 1996; in 1983 he donated $6500 for a flagpole at the Veterans Centennial Recreation Complex and attended the dedication.

The Jade Restaurant as it is today.

The Jade Restaurant now stands empty, a nondescript building on Route 66 that’s overlooked by most who pass and which has been up for sale for several years. But once this was the place to be in Kingman; Charlie Lum and his restaurant really were the pride of 66.

9

A BODY IN ARCADIA

The last stop Carl Beach would ever make – the Threatt Filling Station in Luther, Oklahoma.

Murder was all too common along Route 66 when it was one of the arteries of America. Unfortunately, some were an easy target for those who felt that the contents of travellers’ wallets should be in their pockets and sometimes weren’t too discerning how they achieved that. This is one of those forgotten stories.

In 1948, former New York railway worker, Carl Beach, was driving west to Amarillo, Texas. Just outside Indianapolis on 1st November he picked up two young hitchhikers, Max Eugene Klettke, 23, and Harry Riskin, 18, both from Lansing, Michigan. It was a terrible mistake.

Max Klettke awaiting trial.

While Beach stopped in Miami, Oklahoma, to have a windshield wiper fixed, Klettke and Riskin were already talking about ‘knocking the old man on the head and taking his money’ as Klettke admitted later. Klettke was set upon a delinquent path; brought up in children’s home after his father deserted the family and his mother died of tuberculosis, he had first been arrested for car theft when he was 17 and then had served 15 days in jail in 1946 for reckless driving and using ‘indecent language’ to the sheriff when he was arrested. The year before taking off with Riskin, he had been paroled from a sentence of 6 months to 5 years in the Ionia reformatory for stealing a car. Now, for whatever reasons, he was about to take a huge leap from car theft to murder.

Ulysses Threatt, of Threatt’s Filling Station (the first black-owned service station on Route 66) near Luther, Oklahoma, testified that the trio in Beach’s 1937 Buick had stopped at the station where Klettke had complained that Beach wouldn’t buy him a cup of coffee or even offer him a cigarette, and that Beach had seemed very nervous as he paid for his gas.

The Threatt Filling Station. Maurice L Threatt thinks this might be his uncle Ulysses who gave a comprehensive statement about the stop Beach and his murderers made minutes before he was slain.

Sometime after dark, probably only minutes after leaving Luther, and while on US Highway 66 northeast of Oklahoma City, Klettke – who was in the rear seat – fired four bullets into the back of Mr Beach’s head. Somehow the first shot missed and the other bullets were fired as Beach was turning around in his seat. The pair dumped the body under a bridge in Arcadia and fled with the car.

Harry Riskin in the photo taken by a press reporter after his arrest. He would plead guilty and put all the blame on Klettke.

Carl Beach’s body was found by school bus driver, Robert Traylor, on the morning of 3 November 1948. The pair got as far as Fort Worth, Texas, where Herman Edgar, an attendant, at the Allbright Parking Lot became suspicious of the blood spatter and bullet holes in the car and called the police. Klettke and Riskin were arrested at the Slebold Hotel after returning from a clothes buying spree and Riskin was quick to blame his friend for the murder. They had taken $474 from Mr Beach but missed another $900 in the trunk which was found by police.

After two reprieves, Klettke went to the electric chair on 4 January 1951 at McAlester State Penitentiary, Oklahoma. He was buried beside his mother in Oak Hill Cemetery, Owosso, Michigan. Riskin, who pled guilty, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Klettke would say that he too had wanted to plead guilty but hadn’t been allowed to do so by the prosecuting attorney.

Life imprisonment didn’t mean life even then, but it ended up being longer than Harry Riskin imagined. Riskin was paroled in the 1950s while still in his mid-20s but was returned to prison with psychiatric problems. He was paroled again in 1959 but three years later suffered a nervous breakdown and went back to prison for treatment. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and was later the subject for prison authorities seeking a review of how mentally ill prisoners were assessed for parole. In October 1974 Governor David Hall signed a parole, but Riskin who was then in the Eastern Oklahoma State Hospital for the Insane in Vinita never signed the necessary parole certificate. Parole was again denied in 1979. Harry Riskin is no longer in the Oklahoma prison system.

There was a campaign for clemency for Klettke which failed. First the electrodes were fitted the wrong way and then the blindfold that Klettke had asked for during his execution slipped off.

THE MAN WHO LOVED CARS AND TRAINS

The old Route 66 bridge on Crookton Road.

There is a fluidity to Route 66 that those who love the road come to expect, to fear and sometimes to cherish. Like any living organism – and despite popular opinion it is still living – each year the road loses something, gains something…

‘Boxcar’ Billy Richey’s trackside cross.

In the autumn of 2016 I stopped at Crookton Overpass between Ash Fork and Seligman in Arizona. Leaning over the side of the 1930s bridge I spotted something that hadn’t been there a few months previously. While travelling, roadside crosses (or descanso as they’re sometimes called in the South West) are a familiar sight; memorials beside railroads less so. But clearly someone had cared enough to craft a homemade cross and then scramble down the embankment to set it up. The cross bore only the name ‘Boxcar’ Billy Richey and the words ‘ETERNAL SERVITUDE OF GREASE AND SPEED’ which sounded to me more like a car club saying than that of the railroad.

 

It was both. William Max ‘Billy’ Richey was born on 25 April 1978 in Winslow, Arizona and started his career for the BNSF in July 1997 when he was just 19 years old, following in the footsteps of his father. Seven years later he became a conductor and then, in 2012 he was promoted to locomotive engineer, a job he loved.

The smile that lit up a room.

Outside of his family of six children, his main passion was old cars and he was a proud member of the Highway Horrors Car Club (who gave him the nickname ‘Boxcar’) although he found time for fishing, camping and just about anything outdoors. His friends described him as the light of any party and say that, if Billy was smiling, then so was everyone else. That light was extinguished when, on 25 August 2015, Billy died suddenly in Surprise, Arizona. He was just 37 years old.

Billy’s final wishes were to have his ashes scattered in Sycamore Canyon, but, the following summer, fellow members of his car club decided to erect a permanent marker to their friend. On a bright July day, they put up a handmade cross on the side of the tracks at Crookton Overpass, overlooked by Route 66, combining both his job and his love of cars.

Members of the Highway Horrors CC setting up Billy’s memorial.

This is recent history. This is a memorial on Route 66 to a young man, hardly gone, who we can almost see out of the corner of our eye. It’s a timely reminder that Route 66 is not a museum for us to simply ramble through, peering curiously at things as if they were exhibits behind glass. It’s a living entity and there is a human story behind every building, every turn of the road and every roadside memorial.

Safe home, Billy Richey, safe home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cross sits just to the left side of the rails out of shot.

Train rolling on down the line.

 

 

 

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?

 

 

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 Earl 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 Grigg 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 Grigg 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.