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.

ARROWS OF TIME

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This image is what brought me to Route 66

 

The old Twin Arrows Trading Post, east of Flagstaff, is a place for which I hold a particular affection. It wasn’t the first Route 66 landmark that I visited, but it was the one that seemed the most familiar. I’d seen the pair of striking red and yellow 20-foot arrows in countless photos and on the front of Route 66 guides. They were a Mother Road icon.

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The exterior was repainted a few years ago, but that just provided a blank canvas for rattle cans

And then, one day in 2006, I rolled up at Twin Arrows. I was prepared for the fact that the trading post and café would be derelict, but not the arrows. Not those wonderful, iconic symbols of Route 66. But there they were, barely more than two telegraph poles slanted into the ground, feathers missing, unloved and abandoned. For me, it was as if someone had put in all the windows of Buckingham Palace and no-one had noticed. Or cared.

Three years later, the arrows were restored to their former glory by volunteers and a group from the Hopi tribe and brought back a glimpse of the forty or so years in which this was a popular stop for travellers through Arizona. The trading post started life in around 1950 as the Canyon Padre Trading Post, established by FR ‘Ted’ and Jewel Griffiths. However, while working outside the post, Ted was hit by a passing

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WH ‘Trox’ and Jean Troxell [Photo copyright of the Troxell Family]

motorist and his injuries meant he had to sell the business. On 15th April 1955, ownership passed to William Harland ‘Trox’ Troxell and his wife Margaret Jean (who was known by her middle name).

Trox and Jean were already established in the area, running a photographic studio in Flagstaff. While serving in the Navy in the South Seas, Trox was appointed ship’s photographer on the Rocky Mount. He decided to capitalise on his skills in this area and, on 8th March 1947, he and Jean opened their shop in downtown Flagstaff. When they purchased the trading post, responsibility for running the remote business fell on the shoulders of Jean and her parents, Edna and Levi ‘Max’ Maxwell. The Maxwells lived at the post while Jean commuted each day. For almost thirty years, she drove the 22 miles along the two-lane Route 66 from Flagstaff to Twin Arrows, seven days a week.

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The infamous anatomically correct statues – alas, no photo seems to exist to prove this!

The Troxells changed the name to Twin Arrows, a rejoinder at the nearby Two Guns, and installed the famous arrows, along with two giant statues in loin clothes (apparently, anatomically correct underneath, as many travellers checked!) and a coin-operated telescope which offered views of the San Francisco Peaks. The store stocked a vast range of souvenirs and Indian goods, while gas was pumped outside. There was already a Valentine’s diner – one of the readymade buildings that was delivered, ready to roll, complete with furnishings – on the site, but the Troxells decided to lease this out.

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The Twin Arrows Trading Post in 1955 when the Troxells bought it

The store was run as a family business, with all three children working at the shop and gas station, something which, daughter April says, gave them all the chance to save for their college education. The whole family knew about hard work; as well as running and expanding the original photographic business, Trox managed to record a three-minute radio programme every day for 30 years, expounding on political commerce, travel, economic matters and what he called just ‘plain horsesense’. He was also a Scout leader for a quarter of a century, a respected member of the local business community and photographed the local area and events, including the building of the Glen Canyon Dam, while both he and Jean were deeply involved in the Happy Farm Orphanage in Sonoita, Mexico.

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The well-stocked interior of the Twin Arrows Trading Post

Being in a remote spot, Twin Arrows saw its share of drama, and not all of it involved traffic accidents, although there were a number of accidents on the old two-lane road, some fatal. In 1952, 54-year-old Virginia McNabb was killed outside the post when she rolled her ’59 green Plymouth. In 1960, 19-year-old Robert Stone was jailed for a year and a day in the state prison in Florence for robbing the coin-operated telescope of $68 (either that was one expensive telescope or it wasn’t emptied very often!) If that seems a harsh sentence, then it may be because young Stone had something of a record. In the few months since he’d moved from North Carolina to Winslow he had been arrested for burglary, liquor offences and was a passenger in a car in which Carol Wickham, the teenage daughter of a Winslow councilman, had been killed.

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Toonerville, where Slick McAlister was shot to death. It’s still a cold case.

In 1959, Ary J Best, a 66-year-old tourist who had made his last stop at Twin Arrows, was stabbed to death and his body dumped east of the trading post; a couple was later arrested in Pasadena after abandoning the victim’s car and charged with his murder (Patrick MacGee went to the gas chamber for the crime in 1963, his girlfriend, Millie Fain, was sentenced to 14-20 years in prison). But crime came far closer to home on 30th August 1971. Shortly after a car had stopped for gas at Twin Arrows, the trading post received a panicked phone call from Mrs Pearl McAlister at the Toonerville post a mile away. Those motorists had also stopped there, and while she was cooking them hamburgers, they had shot her and her husband and ransacked the place. Merrett ‘Slick’ McAlister died at the scene. The murder has never been solved.

This may be the reason why, for the next few years, the Twin Arrows diner found it difficult to get staff, advertising regularly in the local paper, raising the hourly wage offered from $1.25 to $1.60 over the months.

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The diner and the trading post in the 1970s

After Max retired and their son Jim went into the Navy, the Troxells hired a couple to manage the trading post but when they finally retired, Trox and Jean found it difficult to find good help. The trading post stood on state-owned land and, despite countless attempts by the Troxells, the state of Arizona refused to sell them the 10 acres. In 1971, Interstate opened on this section, although Twin Arrows fared better than other places. The initial scheme would have seen it bypassed by an overpass, but, thanks to a Troxell family member who was a civil engineer and submitted an alternative – and cheaper – design which was accepted, Twin Arrows was given its own exit. However, trade still dropped off.

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Still distinctly a Valentine diner, the 65-year-old manufactured building has held up surprising well against the weather and vandalism, but is probably beyond saving

In 1995, Spencer and Virginia Riedel took over the trading post and attempted to revive it. Virginia had wanted to restore the Valentines diner in 1950s style but it was economically unviable to bring it up to county code. The Twin Arrows Trading Post closed for the last time in 1998. It was finally the end for the famous Route 66 stop. The trading post is now owned by the Hopi and, despite plans to restore it, it continues to fall into decay and ruin. The arrows still stand, but even they, like the glory of the Twin Arrows Trading Post, are now fading away.

 

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The interior of the Valentine diner

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The rear of the trading post where there was living accommodation

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The decaying interior of the trading post

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The pumps in the background would, I assume, have been for trucks rather than cars

 

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The CAFE sign is untouched by graffiti, possibly because they couldn’t reach…