THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE APACHE DEATH CAVE

Gladwell Grady ‘Toney’ Richardson. Everything we know about the Apache Death Cave comes from this man.

In 1926 the tiny settlement of Two Guns, Arizona, was rocked by the killing of Earl Cundiff by Harry ‘Indian’ Miller. That episode is well documented but an enduring myth associated with Two Guns is far more nebulous and less easy to prove. That legend concerns the so-called Apache Death Cave.

As the story goes, in 1878, Apaches had raided two Navajo camps, killing everyone but three girls who were kidnapped. Other Navajo warriors attempted to follow the Apaches but were mystified when they appeared to vanish into thin air. Then, while scouting along the edge of Canyon Diablo, they noticed voices from beneath them and warm air coming up from a fissure in the ground. They quickly realised they were above a cave in which the Apaches, their horses and possibly the three Navajo girls were hidden.

Looking across to the famous cave.

They found the mouth of the cave and lit a fire intending to smoke out their enemies. Those who tried to escape were killed and when it was found that the Navajo girls were already dead, it was decided to kill all the Apaches in the cave in revenge. After those trapped in the cave had used all their water in an attempt to put out the flames, they cut the throats of their horses to use the blood to douse the fire. But, as the corpses of their horses piled up against the opening and the Navajo continued to fuel the flames with sagebrush, some forty-two Apaches are said to have died in the cave.

Harry ‘Indian’ Miller – unfairly blamed for the Apache Death Cave story?

Did it happen? At this length of time there is really no way of telling and there is considerable doubt as to how much the tale has been rewritten, exaggerated and embellished. What is clear is that Harry Indian Miller has been unfairly tarnished in many accounts and histories of Route 66 with starting and promulgating the myth of the ‘Apache Death Cave’. While it is true that Miller used the cave as a tourist attraction, he advertised it as ‘Underground Dwellings’ and probably fitted out the cave with suitable stage dressings to entertain visitors. However, there’s no evidence that the cave was ever used as a dwelling, which casts doubt on the idea of it being regular living quarters for the Apache.

A postcard of the Apache caves from the 1930s. Note no mention of death.

All photographs that exist of Two Guns during Miller’s tenure show the attraction advertised as the APACHE CAVES or the MYSTERY CAVE. Many accounts accuse Miller of clearing out the caves and selling Apache skulls but there is one fact which goes against this idea; Miller claimed to have Apache blood (whether full blood or half blood depends on which account you read) and while that claim is perhaps a little tenuous, as such he would have been unlikely to sell the bones of his ancestors. In late 1926, he and his friend and fellow trader Joe Secakuku announced a plan to build a dance floor in the cave, although this never came to pass. It would be forty feet by fifteen feet and for the use and entertainment of not only tourists but local Winslow residents. Had Miller believed – or even known – of the existence of the Death Cave story would he have turned the cave into first a tacky tourist attraction and secondly a dance hall? And even if he had been prepared to compromise his claimed heritage, would Chief Joe, a full blood Hopi, have gone along with the plan?

A later postcard, also with no mention of any death caves.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence towards the story of the Apache Death Cave being an exaggerated and embroidered (if not invented) story is that the facts emanate from one source; Gladwell Grady Richardson.

Thanks to the work of Marshall Trimble, Arizona’s state historian, one Richardson tale has already been debunked. For years, people have spoken in awe of Canyon Diablo, a town on the edge of the canyon from which it took its name and a mile or so from Two Guns.

Originally a railroad camp, Canyon Diablo had a main street called Hell Street, fourteen saloons, ten gambling houses, four brothels and two dance halls, many of which stayed open twenty-four hours a day. It was said to be a lawless and dangerous place with a Boot Hill cemetery which was filled within a year with those who had suffered a violent demise. Six town marshals died in quick succession, the first lasting just four hours, the longest serving surviving a month. It was a place that made Tombstone seem like the most sedentary of suburbs.

There’s only one problem with this picture of Canyon Diablo: It never existed.

It was virtually all the imagination of Gladwell Richardson. In a time where very few documents existed – there is, for example, no record of a Canyon Diablo newspaper in the railroad camp – Richardson somehow magically managed to not only know how many saloons and brothels there were in the town, but was able to name them, too. “Nearly everything you’ve read is fiction,” says George Shaw, an archivist at the Arizona State Railroad Museum. “Never happened.” Richardson was a prolific author of Western stories which he penned under a variety of pseudonyms and it’s all too likely that his ability for conjuring up stories spilled over into his so-called narrative of Canyon Diablo.

Richardson also had a personal connection with Two Guns. He had worked in trading posts since he was a young boy and, in 1950, when his father SI Richardson, bought Two Guns, Gladwell and his wife Millie ran the place for several years and it was while living and working at the trading post that Richardson began writing a small book called Two Guns, Arizona. Published in 1968 and long out of print, this small tome appears to be from where the legend of Canyon Diablo and the embellished story of the cave originate. In his book, Richardson writes of Canyon Diablo; ‘For the brief span of its vicious life, more famous places like Abilene, Virginia City and Tombstone could not hold a candle to the evil of this end-of-the-railroad’s depravity. Murder on the street was common. Holdups were almost hourly occurrences, newcomers being slugged on mere suspicion that they carried valuables.’

The truth was that the town, like most railroad camps, was a place where people worked hard, perhaps had a little too much to drink on a Saturday night, but were too careful of their jobs to participate in much mayhem or murder. However, that doesn’t make for quite such an exciting story! By the time that Richardson wrote his version of history, the town had been gone for almost eighty years, meaning that there would have been very few people who had experienced Canyon Diablo first-hand, and so his account became universally accepted.

Richardson’s book also appears to be the source for the much-repeated story that, during the winter of 1879, the canyon was a hideout for Billy the Kid and his gang. Once again, it’s a great tale but the likelihood of it being true is extremely low. Robert M Uttley in his definitive biography of William H Bonney has The Kid in his home territory of Fort Sumner, New Mexico, throughout the time that Richardson claimed he was hiding stolen horses in the canyon.

Two Guns, Arizona also provides an exciting and entertaining narrative of the events of the Apache Death Cave, containing facts that can be found nowhere else. Indeed, it appears to be the sole history of the events of June 1878 for every subsequent retelling has drawn upon either the facts published in this book or in a longer article which appeared in Big West Magazine in 1967. The author of this piece was Maurice Kildare – and Maurice Kildare was one of Richardson’s many pseudonyms.

Although he was regarded as an expert on Western history – a notion promulgated by his many Western novels and by Richardson himself – Two Guns, Arizona was only one of two works of non-fiction that he wrote in his lifetime. The other was a work which Richardson clearly preferred to forget.

On 23rd April 1923, special officer JS Sullivan of the Arizona Eastern railroad arrested a young man in a boxcar at the Phoenix railroad yards early in the morning. It was a common enough incident and Sullivan had no cause to suspect the man of anything other than vagrancy. But a search at the police station of the man’s meagre possessions uncovered a diary in which the vagrant, who was identified as Gladwell Grady Richardson, had written a vivid first hand narrative of how he had killed a rabbi in a San Francisco hotel and then deserted the navy.

Richardson claimed it was simply a story he had been writing to keep himself amused which might have been more believable had Phoenix officers, upon investigation, not discovered that, on 3rd April 1923, a Rabbi Alfred G Lafee had indeed been beaten to death in the Gates Hotel on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. The details of the slaying corresponded to Richardson’s account in every way.

The Gates Hotel where Richardson killed Rabbi Lafee.

Nonetheless, Phoenix officers appear to have believed Richardson’s explanation that the diary was just a story. He stuck so consistently to this that Phoenix Chief of Police, Oscar Roberts, publicly stated that he felt the diary was a figment of the nineteen-year-old deserter’s imagination and he was an unfortunate victim of circumstance. It must have been embarrassing for the police chief when, the following day after this statement, Richardson changed his tune and made a full confession, waiving his right to be extradited to California.

Two days later he told his story before a grand jury. On 3rd April, Richardson had gone ashore from the USS Vigilante to Golden Gate Park where he had met a stranger to whom he referred to his diary as “the Jew”. His diary spoke of the man as “kind of nervous for some unknown cause”; the young Richardson may have been very naïve – or wished to appear so – for he accepted the stranger’s invite to take in a show and then spend the night at a local hotel.

The Gates Hotel today, renamed as the Fusion although basically unchanged on the exterior.

Richardson wrote in his account: “After the show we went to the Gates Hotel but he registered as Mr Lane. About 3.30am I was suddenly awakened by the Jew, my hand fell off the bed coming into contact with a cuspidor. I turned it on its side and emptied it. I swung the cuspidor and struck the Jew on the head. The Jew swung with his fist and hit me on the jaw. I then swung the cuspidor twice in rapid succession. The blood on my hands was bloody. I got up and turned the lights on. As I did my left hand left a print on a wall. The Jew was unconscious. At first I thought he was dead. He was breathing heavily and his head was between the bars of the head of the bedstead. I washed the blood from my arms and hands, put on my clothes, opened the door and walked out. The clerk was there so I lit a cigarette and asked him something about the weather. My voice sounded kind of queer, that was the only emotion I had

Back on the USS Vigilante, Richardson learned two days later that not only was the man a rabbi, but he was now a dead rabbi. He told a couple of people what he had done, a friend called Frank and a woman called Alice with whom he had had dinner two nights later and then he decided to go on the run from Goat Island Naval Training Station. As his diary relates, this action caused him more angst than the murder. In the entry of April 7th, he wrote: “The rabbi is dead. So now in the eyes of the law I am a murderer. Can’t say I feel like one. I’m also a deserter from the navy, that’s what I’m worried about. Wired dad to send $75. Discarded my bright, new uniform yesterday for a pair of overalls, shirt and sweater. I look like a bum now.”

Pleading self-defence as the victim of an ‘unnatural attack’, Richardson went through his story again in front of the grand jury and, on 15th May 1923, that grand jury refused to indict him on a charge of murder, holding that he was justified in defending himself under the circumstances. This should have automatically closed the case but Richardson was referred to the Superior Court which, on 29th June 1923, confirmed the grand jury’s decision and dismissed the charge of murder on the grounds, quite amazingly, of insufficient evidence.

As a deserter, Richardson should have been placed under immediate arrest by a naval guard but, according to contemporary newspaper reports he was allowed to leave the court on his own and voluntarily surrender to a naval assembling station on Yerba Buena island. It’s to be presumed that he did this; although that naval career appears to have ended a few months later, the foreword of Navajo Trader stating that he remained on active duty until 1924 and then was recalled into military service after Pearl Harbour, serving in Arizona, Indiana and the South Pacific. Then again, that same foreword also contains no whisper of his troubles in San Francisco in 1923.

In fact, Richardson appears to have successfully expunged any mention of the murder of Rabbi Lafee from his subsequent life, going on to be an organiser of the Flagstaff Indian Pow Wow and author of almost three hundred works of fiction. The tourists that he did welcome to Two Guns were generally those who were seeking out their favourite author and he continued to run the trading post until 1962 when he sold the business to Ida Ferne Jacobs Rawlinson who, just a year later, sold up to Benjamin F Dreher. Richardson dedicated his book to Dreher; it may have been a genuine desire on Richardson’s part to record the history of the place as he saw it, or it may have been commissioned by Dreher as publicity for the redevelopment of Two Guns. The fact is that book published in 1968 and an article written under one of his many pseudonyms, are the sole source of information on the now much-repeated story. And the first time that anyone had heard of the Apache Death Cave…

Gladwell Grady ‘Toney’ Richardson. Unreliable witness?

WHEN HAWAII CAME TO ROUTE 66

The Hopi House Trading Post. This is from an advert in 1955 although the couple may have separated by the time it appeared.

On the edge of Joseph City, Arizona, on an orphaned stretch of Route 66, stands a ruined trading post. Until last year, the remains of a sign announced that this was once Ella’s Frontier. When people speak of this place, they mention Ella Blackwell and her eccentricities, but her husband (from whom she won the trading post in a divorce settlement) is generally just referred to as a ‘bandleader’. Ray Meany was far more than that.

Born to an Irish father and Spanish mother, Ray Meany was a sailor, musician, composer, teacher, publisher, author and motel owner. Oh, so many motels! He hadn’t even reached his teenage years before he lost his father in the Great War; however, as soon as he was old enough, Ray joined the Merchant Marine and for twelve years he travelled the world. While in Hawaii he fell for a hula dancer. The romance quickly fizzled out but Ray had fallen in love with the island. On board ship, he talked constantly of Hawaii and of its music until one of his shipmates gave him a cheap guitar and bet him that he couldn’t learn to play it.

Ray Meany in 1932. He may well have still been in the Merchant Marine at this point.

Not only did Ray learn to play that guitar, he learned to play it well. When he left the Merchant Marine, he started a steel guitar school in Oakland, California, where he introduced the lilting sound of Hawaiian music to pupils. Eventually the Honolulu Conservatory of Music of which he was the Director had some 70 branches and over 5000 pupils. In addition to the school, Ray had his own recording studio, music publishing company (which included many of his own compositions), organised large events, had his own band and produced the Music Studio News magazine. Even a brief sojourn to serve in the Second World War didn’t get in the way of his music – while serving at Camp Fannin, Texas, he continued to write a column for a national music magazine and was popular with all at the base.

Ray during a radio recording in 1936.

After the war, his music schools went from strength to strength and Ray might indeed have built a musical empire but for a fateful meeting with a woman who changed his life. Polish-born Ella Lenkova (who had come to the USA as a small child under her original name of Aniela Lenosyk) was a musician in her own right. She would claim later that she had trained at the Julliard School of Music and there’s probably no reason to doubt that. She wrote and arranged her own songs, among them Aloha Lei, My Hula Sweetheart and Goodnight And My Aloha To You and, as Ella Maile Blackwell (Blackwell was her first married name) she was the New York correspondent for Ray’s Music Studio News. She is still mentioned under that name in a Hawaii newspaper in April 1950, but by October of that year, as she descended the steps of a Pan-Am air plane at Honolulu airport, she was Mrs Ray Meany. Interestingly, although Ray was a regular name in his local newspapers which he courted and that followed his career and achievements keenly, there was no mention of his marriage, nor of Mrs Meany.

One of the few photos of Ella and the first in which she and Ray appeared together, taken in October 1950 in Honolulu.

Ray may not have known it then, but his life was about to change forever. It was still full steam ahead with his business and in 1951 he opened a new $100,000 Hawaiian music centre on Foothill Boulevard in Oakland where the building still stands. So it was a huge shock to all of his friends and pupils when he announced that he and Ella would be moving to Arizona to run a trading post. Ray explained that he felt he had a calling to help the Native Indians, saying, “I got tired of the hoopla of entertainment. I felt that there was so much I could do in Arizona among the Indians.” While Ray did indeed work hard on behalf of the locals, instigating a school and roads for the Indian tribes, the real reason was more prosaic. A jealous Ella didn’t want him mixing with the musical crowd or going off to Hawaii with his band. He would admit later in life: “Hawaiians are very affectionate people. They hug and kiss you at the slightest provocation. My wife was jealous, so I gave up the music business to keep my wife. But she didn’t like Indians either, so we separated.”

By 1952, Ella was already jealous of Ray’s career and his regular trips to Hawaii. This may have been the last time she accompanied him to the island.

For a couple of years, Ray and Ella ran the Hopi House Trading Post at Leupps Junction on Route 66. It was several cuts above the average trading post with a motel, trailer park, café and curio shop with murals by local artists. The grand opening of the refurbished Hopi House was on 20th March 1954, but, within a couple of years, the Meanys would be divorced. They may already have owned the Joseph City trading post (then called the Last Frontier) or Ella may have purchased it with a divorce settlement, but it seems dubious that they bought it in 1947 as several books claim. It’s very unlikely that they were married then and Ray was still expanding his music career at that time.

It was at this point that Ray embarked on an almost manic buying and swapping of motels that would continue for years. It was if, adrift from his beloved music, he couldn’t find anything to give him roots. After running the Hopi House on his own, he exchanged it for a motel in California in 1957. By January 1958 he had swapped that for the Rancho del Quivari, 65 miles south west of Tucson. He was there for less than a year, selling up and buying the Copperland Motel in Miami, Arizona in November 1958. A few months later he swapped that for the Shangri-La Motel in San Diego, but by the end of December 1959 he was in the La Casita Motel in Twenty Nine Palms. He didn’t settle there either, buying the Desert Vista Motel in Benson, Arizona, where he told a local newspaper, “I think this is it. I intend to stay in Benson.”

The Desert Vista Motel Trailer Park, Tucson, AZ. It couldn’t keep Ray rooted.

But just weeks later, in June 1960 he had sold up and bought the Sun Set Motel in Sedona where he managed to stay for two years, moving to a motel in Texas in July 1962. There were probably others in between, but in 1969 he was in Arkansas, desperately trying to sell the Riverside Motel in Lake Greesonak. Eventually he did, but at a loss. During this time, he had kept his contacts with the music industry and every once in a while might compose another song, but the glory days were over, although one of his songs, Hula Lady, was a big hit in Japan in the early 1980s. He tried his hand at writing once more, publishing Fasting and Nutrition, Vital Health, a book of the philosophical musings of Chang, his Lhasa Apso dog (who, by now, had been dead for twenty years) and a title called Vacation Land.

Vacation Land magazine, one of Ray’s last ventures.

But he still seems a man who was never able to settle down again. In autumn of 1975 Dr Elva S Acer offered him a job managing her Vita Del Spa in Desert Hot Springs, California. He was initially enthusiastic, even attending courses on the spa’s treatments, but by January 1976 he had taken off again. His last years were spent in various country clubs in Florida although he came back to California at the very end of his life, dying in Napa on 29th July 1987. His ex-wife had preceded him in death three years before, having never moved from the Joseph City trading post. Her headstone reads ‘Ella Meany Blackwell’; Ray Meany’s grave in St Helena Cemetery, Napa County, has no marker.

Ray’s grave in St Helena Cemetery, marked only by the plot number.

A dapper Ray Meany, returning from his time as an enlisted solder.

THE THOREAU TRADING POST MYSTERY

a

This is another example of how recent history can vanish so quickly. This trading post stands to the west of Thoreau in New Mexico and is rapidly falling apart. Yet even its name is already lost, or so it seemed.

Part of the problem with identifying the building is that Thoreau was a town which, despite its tiny size, thrived on trading posts (at least six to my knowledge). But, putting my faith in Jack Rittenhouse and his 1946 guide, I figured that this place must have been either the Thoreau Trading Post or the Beautiful Mountain Trading Post, both of which Rittenhouse mentions as being on Route 66.

To be honest, I really hoped this place would be the Beautiful Mountain Trading Post, if only because it seemed that someone had at least made an effort with the name. The Thoreau Trading Post was, well, just a little short on imagination. For a while, that seemed likely. Even the Northern Arizona University digital archive had a modern-day picture of the building which it titled ‘Beautiful Mountain Trading Post’. But it had then attached a question mark to that title which didn’t inspire confidence.

Then, tucked away on an inside page of a 1945 edition of the Gallup Independent I found a single mention of the Beautiful Mountain Trading Post in which it was described as at the intersection of Route 66 and the road into Thoreau. That, of course, is where the now closed Red Mountain Market and Deli stands … and ‘Red Mountain’ is close to the original name, if a little more economic on paint.

The reason why the place was even mentioned in the paper was because it had just been sold to Mr TM Lane by one Jake Atkinson, member of one of the two famous trading post families of this part of New Mexico. If you read the post on the Atkinsons on this blog, you’ll see that the timing matches – 1945 was the year that he and his wife Maxine bought the Brock Trading Post in Bluewater and turned it into the famous Rattlesnake Trading Post. Even more intriguing, by the mid-1950s, the Beautiful Mountain was owned by Blake Bowlin, from the other famous trading post family, and brother of the remarkable Claude Bowlin.

So, that seems to solve the mystery of the Beautiful Mountain Trading Post, but it leaves me little the wiser about the history of this sad place. As well as the Atkinsons and Bowlins, John H ‘Bill’ Bass operated a trading post in Thoreau as well as opening the Thunderbird Bar in Thoreau on 4th July 1964. Bill Bass and his wife Lorene had moved to New Mexico in the 1940s and Bass ran the Top of the World Cocktail Lounge at Continental Divide. In 1948, he was charged with ‘operating a confidence game’ at Willard Neal’s zoo, although it doesn’t seem to have hurt his future career. For many years he was either the McKinley County Sheriff or Under Sheriff (once working for his son amid calls of nepotism). Was this his business? And did it ever have a name to call its own? Given how I have watched this building deteriorate over the last few years, that may soon not even matter.

kjihcdg

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.

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 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

KODAK Digital Still Camera

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.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

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

jean and trox

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.

10600569_801422526583632_7339421586833918800_n

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.

1955

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.

11406313_934378933287990_9044643327867150532_o

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.

52cf0466148d3.preview-620

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.

11402837_934387003287183_4737129520550510652_o

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 40 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.

KODAK Digital Still Camera

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.

 

KODAK Digital Still Camera

The interior of the Valentine diner

KODAK Digital Still Camera

The rear of the trading post where there was living accommodation

KODAK Digital Still Camera

The decaying interior of the trading post

KODAK Digital Still Camera

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

 

KODAK Digital Still Camera

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

UPDATE: Sadly after writing this article, the grafitti idiots finally got to the CAFE sign as well as painting over part of the TWIN ARROWS TRADING POST signage. In the last two years, the place has become increasingly vandalized and much of the interior cladding has been ripped away. Unfortunately, I predict that one day I will pass by here and it will have been burned to the ground.