The Joshua Motel, now gone although the palms survive.
And so more vestiges of Route 66 quietly disappear, abandoned so long that when they are finally no longer there barely anyone notices.
The Joshua Motel office.
Just south of the well-known MOTEL sign in Yucca, Arizona (all that remains of the Whiting Brothers motel which once stood there) was the Joshua Motel and Sandy’s Café. The Joshua was a small place, just eight rooms, but it had the advantage of being right on Route 66 – at least until Interstate 40 slashed through the middle of Yucca. It was probably built shortly after Route 66 first came through Yucca back in 1952.
The Joshua Motel office to the left and its first two rooms.
Next to the Joshua was Sandy’s Café which seated 38 people. It seems that life was a constant struggle for Sandy’s, its lease seemed to be constantly up for sale. In the 1960s it was modified to also serve as a drive-thru and to drum up trade. But when I-40 opened in the early 1970s it was the end of the road for the Joshua Motel and Sandy’s Café. Traffic rolled onto Kingman or Needles to find a bed or a meal. The motel staggered on for a while; in 1977 it was being marketed with a desperate air and a knock down price as a potential nursing home. When I first saw it, old petrol pumps were being stored in the office.
Sandy’s Cafe. The sign once boasted neon lighting but that was gone long ago.
A little way south, on the other side of Guthrie’s Service Center, stands Yucca’s most famous landmark (although it’s a toss up between that and the Dinesphere), the truck on a stick. It used to have buildings around it, a large roofless block building and an older wooden workshop, not to mention a house with various derelict cars and buses around it.
Ran when parked?
In the spring of 2022 the Joshua Motel and Sandy’s Café were demolished. The neighbouring land around the truck on a pole has been cleared and scraped, leaving the Peterbilt in not so splendid isolation and the entire acreage up for sale. It is, according to the realtor, ‘a great location for RV park, boat shop, restaurant, off road rental, and so much more’. But, although it’s only been on the market for two months, the price has already been dropped by $40,000. And so another little piece of Route 66 history disappears.
18 December 1947 was a cold winter’s morning like any other in Tucumcari. Bertha Eugene Wagnon Kappel had got up at 4.45am to prepare for her shift at the Home Café in the Vorenberg Hotel. (The Vorenberg was a grand hotel in downtown Tucumcari which boasted suites with private baths, a large lobby, dining room and barber shop as well as the Home Café. After the First World War it was owned by Floyd B Redman who built quite a property portfolio over the years. In the 1950s he bought another motel which was managed by a lady called Lillian Leigon; romance blossomed and he presented the motel to her as an engagement present. The motel was the famous Blue Swallow.)
The Vorenberg Hotel. The Home Cafe where Bertha Kappel was employed can be seen at the right.
Bertha had only been working at the Home Café for a couple of months while her husband Gus Adolph did various odd jobs. They had been married in Oklahoma in 1938 but several of the family – Bertha was one of 13 children – had moved to Tucumcari where Adolph also had links. They and their daughter were staying with Bertha’s brother, Roy, and his wife Catalina, in Roy’s home on North 1st Street, although the Kappels had purchased a lot nearby on which they intended to build a rudimentary house. To this end, Bertha had bought some lumber and, after finishing work on 17 December, she visited the lot to inspect progress. She found that the lumber was missing and this set into inexorable motion the events of the next few hours.
Bertha returned to her brother’s house and accused Adolph of selling the materials. He denied it but she discovered that he had, in fact, sold the lumber to a neighbour and, even worse, he hadn’t been paid for it. Bertha told him to get the lumber back within three days or “she would turn him in”. Now, the lumber may have been from a dubious source and Kappel did have a prior conviction for theft, so it might have been a well-aimed threat on her part. The quarrel continued into the evening although Adolph would later claim that the couple had been made up by the time they went to bed.
Even before the lumber incident it doesn’t appear to have been a happy marriage. Bertha had moved to Tucumcari some eight months before while her husband tried to find work in Oregon. When he returned to New Mexico she had sworn out a warrant on him for non-support of their 12-year-old daughter, Mary Frances.
Unsurprisingly next morning, the arguing flared up again when Adolph was slow to accompany Bertha on her walk to work. She left the house without him and when he called out to her to wait, she replied; “You dirty son-of-a-bitch, if you are going with me, come on.” It was an unfortunate choice of words and Bertha probably knew that it was a term that particularly offended her husband.
At around 6am, near an overpass, the body of Bertha Kappel was discovered just three blocks from her brother’s house. She lay in a pool of blood, her head cracked open by three blows from an axe and her left ear almost severed. When she was found, Kappel was taking a nap, having returned home, vomited and then taken two aspirins for a headache and then slept for an hour. When he woke up, he had a hearty breakfast and then went to the Home Café to say that his wife wouldn’t be coming to work that day. He was then arrested close to where Bertha’s body lay.
Adolph Kappel had a limited mental capacity but he knew enough to get rid of the axe, tossing it onto the roof of a neighbour’s house where it was later found. He signed a confession, saying that he had no recollection of killing his wife but remembered “I was standing over her and I struck a match and seen what I had done.” At his trial, he was charged with first degree murder and the jury took less than an hour to find him guilty. He was sentenced to be executed in New Mexico’s electric chair.
Kappel appealed and was granted a second trial on the grounds that the jury had not been given the option of convicting him of second degree murder. This jury decided that the murder had been conducted in the heat of the moment and was not planned or deliberate. He was once again found guilty but this time the sentence was 90-99 years rather than death. Kappel proved to be a model prisoner – for at least a year…
Gus Adolph Kappel
Assigned to a prison work gang at the penitentiary’s clay pits, on the last day of October 1950, Adolph Kappel made his escape aboard a black mule called Pete (one newspaper reported the beast was called Pegasus which seems a little fanciful). For five days he managed to stay ahead of police and prison guards in freezing cold weather until he was finally captured 35 miles south east of Las Vegas, New Mexico. He gave various reasons for his escape, saying that he had wanted to find out why he hadn’t heard from his daughter and believed that his brother was preventing her from writing to him. He also said he wanted to see his sister-in-law who had been involved in a road accident and then intended on going to Oklahoma to visit his mother and other relatives. But he also told reporters that “I am not the man who killed my wife” and that had he been able to get to Tucumcari he “could have cleaned up the whole mess”. Given that he had signed a confession which formed the basis of his first trial and pleaded guilty to second degree murder at the second trial it’s difficult to see how anyone else might have killed Bertha.
In 1953, Governor Edwin Mechem commuted Kappel’s sentence to a flat 70 years while the Warden commented, perhaps a little tongue in cheek, that Kappel was “now a plumber. He does not have access to a mule”.
Governor Erwin L Mechem who commuted Adolph Kappel’s 90-99 sentence to 70 years.
Adolph Kappel applied for parole at every chance and was denied for many years. When was he released? The short answer; I don’t know. He died in 1978 at the age of 63 and is buried in the Santa Fe National Cemetery. However, he was also incarcerated in the Penitentiary of New Mexico which is just 15 miles from Santa Fe but I found that he had won a newspaper competition in 1976 when living in Ojo Caliente near Taos so it appeared he stayed in the area after his release. Perhaps he just had nowhere else to go.
John Frederick Kappel whose bound body was found in a Sayre lake in an unsolved homicide.
It is perhaps a little ironic that, with one brother behind bars for homicide, another brother should also meet his end by murder. In September 1963, the youngest Kappel son, John Frederick, was found floating in a pond in Sayre, Oklahoma. This was no natural drowning; John’s hands and feet were tied and he had also suffered a blow on the head before being thrown into the lake to drown. He had previously been working as a union picket for the International Hod Carriers, Building and Common Laborers Union protesting at the construction site for a grocery store in Elk City. Police stated that his job had nothing to do with his death, although they were bemused at the lack of signs of a struggle as John was a large man – 6’4” and 240lbs as well as being a karate expert – and throwing him in the pond had required lifting him over a barbed wire fence. The case was never solved.
The lower walls are all that remains of the Vorenberg Hotel after a fire in the 1970s. The house where Bertha and Adolph were living with her brother is also long gone.
Ed’s Camp, east of Oatman, Arizona, at the foot of the Sitgreaves Pass, is fascinating for the man who was the only owner; Lowell ‘Ed’ Edgerton, a man of both enigma and mystery who has left behind him one final puzzle.
Edgerton was born in Michigan in 1894 and headed west as a young man on the advice of his doctor. Edgerton had suffered from tuberculosis which, at the turn of the 20th century, was the leading cause of death in the United States – he claimed exemption from the draft in World War I as a consumptive. Initially moving to southern California, he found the climate of Arizona more to his liking and he would spend the next sixty years of his life in Mohave County.
Little is known about Edgerton’s early years in the West and many of the stories he told throughout the years should probably be taken with a healthy dose of salt. Later he would claim that he had begun to train as a doctor (he did study for a short time at the University of Michigan although that was in engineering) and had, while working for a mining company in Mexico, amputated a man’s leg during the Mexico revolution of 1910-1920. He told stories of how he had owned a mansion in Los Angeles but had lost it in a property deal that went bad. He also claimed that, while tracking a mountain lion, he followed the beast into Nevada and became so engrossed in the hunt that he forgot about his wife and five children and figured there was no point in going back. There’s actually no record of Edgerton ever having been married, let alone having a brood of five children!
When he moved to the Oatman area, he was able to pick up the lease on the tailings dump of the Oatman works, tailings being the by-product of the mineral recovery process, the material left over after the valuable ore has been separated from the uneconomic material. Within months, his operation was making more money than the whole mine and he was then hired by the Tom Reed Mine as foreman of recovery. Around 1919, Edgerton bought a parcel of land at Little Meadows in the foothills of the Black Mountains in north west Arizona. The site had been known to Europeans since 1776 when Father Francisco Garcés, a Spanish missionary and explorer, paused here on his expedition across the south west of America, while it became a staging posting for future treks, including that of Lieutenant Beale. The attraction of Little Meadows was that it had that commodity which could be worth as much as gold: water.
Initially, like so many who rushed to the area at this time, Edgerton’s intention was to make his fortune through a gold strike. With his older brother, Tibor, he took on a number of mining jobs until he realised that he could make a steady (and easier) living catering to travellers and miners than digging into the mountains. His trading post was little more than an open space with a tin roof – he later said that, with the inauguration of Route 66 in 1926, traffic became so busy so quickly that he never had time to add walls! As Tibor returned to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to open a tea rooms, Edgerton added the Kactus Kafe (this time a proper building) and a gas station and called the place ‘Ed’s Camp’.
At first Ed’s Camp had no tourist cabins or rooms. Instead, travellers could pitch a tent or sleep in their cars. For those who wanted a little luxury and had a little more cash, there was a screened porch where they might sleep on a cot. Just as NR Dunton did at Cool Springs, Ed charged for water on a per bucket basis although that fee was waived if people paid to stay. As the place grew, a grocery store and souvenir shop were added and Ed’s Camp became a stop for Pickwick Stage Lines, a coach company that would become part of the Greyhound bus empire.
But Ed Edgerton was far more than just a store and gas station attendant. Over the years, he studied the rocks of Arizona and became an expert geologist who could identify any Mohave County rock and say, to within a few miles, from where it had come. He proudly told people how he had met Marie Curie, the French-Polish physicist – a claim which is quite possible as Curie toured the United States in both 1921 and 1929.
Edgerton owned and mined a rare earth mine from which he extracted ore that was shipped to a variety of companies, providing some thirty different minerals that were used in alloy steels, electronic components, ceramics, plastics, atomic devices and even cosmetics. He even, if only briefly, had a mineral named after him, although Edgertonite, an oxide of oxide of iron, yttrium uranium, calcium, columbium, tantalum, zirconium, tin, and other minerals was quickly renamed Yttrotantalite when it was realised it had already been discovered in Sweden in 1802. It is, however, quite likely that Edgerton was the first man to find Yttrotantalite in the United States and he would say that he had provided the material for the first atomic bomb. Truth or fiction? We shall probably never know.
Edgerton credited Yttrotantalite with saving his life. According to him, on 17th April 1957, doctors told him he had cancer. They gave him thirty days to live unless he had major surgery. Edgerton declined the operation and returned to Ed’s Camp where he decided he would treat himself. The story changed in some details on each retelling, but this is probably the most comprehensive description to survive: “I put on two suits of heavy woollen underclothes and put these swatches [of Yttrotantalite] in between, all around, and then I put three big electric pads around that. I cooked myself for about seventy-two hours at one hundred and thirty degrees. I didn’t eat anything, I drank warm water. At the end of seventy hours stuff began to loosen inside me … Rotten goddamn stuff, it couldn’t take the heat. I commenced to bleed internally and for up to ninety hours I bled inside – rotten blood first and then fresh blood – and then that quit.”
After that, Ed Edgerton nursed himself back to health on a diet of goat’s milk, raw eggs and avocadoes. Two months later, his doctor declared there was no sign of cancer in his body and it was a miracle. Although it’s tempting to believe that it would be difficult for anyone to survive such extremes of temperature for so long, not to mention four days of internal bleeding, Edgerton believed that he had cured a cancer and instead of having just a month left on this planet, he lived for another thirty years. He claimed that he was studied intensively by the Veterans Administration Hospital in Fort Whipple, near Prescott, although there are no records of Edgerton having been a patient until he died there in 1978. He also told people he had worked with one of the foremost cancer experts in the world – although he declined to name the scientist – as well as claiming that he could predict where in a person’s body a cancer might be just by the colour of their hair.
It would be tempting to dismiss Ed Edgerton as a crazy old desert rat, telling tall tales in the best tradition of a hermit. But Edgerton was far from that. While some of his stories may have been embellished – and others, quite frankly, tongue-in-cheek fabrications created to entertain visitors – he was much respected in the fields of geology and mineralogy, despite his lack of formal training. He took on consultancy work for companies, taught in the local college and wrote and presented papers on minerals. Edgerton was certainly not a hermit although much about his life remained a mystery. In 1948 he ran for the office of state senator in Mohave County on a Republican ticket (although he was beaten by the Democratic candidate, C Clyde Bollinger) and he trained to be a census enumerator for the 1960 US Census, a job his father had also done in Michigan sixty years earlier.
Thanks in part to the natural springs and in part of the improvements that Edgerton made over the years to the water flow, Ed’s Camp truly became an oasis in the desert. Late into his seventies, Edgerton kept Kingman supplied with pears, as well as growing apricots, tomatoes, quinces, strawberries, peppers, corn and grapevines. His pomegranates were so good that they won four ribbons at the Arizona State Fair! He even managed to keep alive a huge saguaro cactus which stood for years just by the gas pumps. It eventually attained an impressive height and several arms before dying around thirty years ago.
On 7th September 1978 Ed Edgerton died at the age of 83, not as he would have surely wished at the place he had called home for most of his life, but in the VA Hospital in Fort Whipple. His obituary mentioned only that he was a ‘retired miner’ but Lowell Edgerton was so much more than that. Today Ed’s Camp is gently decaying although the rigid enforcement of those NO TRESPASSING signs mean that he would still recognise the place. The gas pumps and cactus are long gone but the makeshift trading post and the café remain, while you can catch a glimpse from Route 66 of the basic tourist cabins he built. Squint hard at the hillside opposite and you might just make out the few remaining white stones that once spelled out Ed’s Camp. Now it seems a bleak spot in the desert but for much of the last century it was paradise for Ed Edgerton.
But Lowell Leighton Edgerton leaves behind one last mystery. Just where is his final resting place?
The Findagrave web site has him listed being buried in the Mountain View cemetery in Kingman, which would seem logical. So just a few weeks ago I took a walk around to see if I could find his grave. When I had no luck, I wondered whether it was unmarked, so I sought the assistance of the cemetery staff. They were very helpful and hauled out large leatherbound ledgers which list all of Mountain View’s ‘residents’. Finally they looked up and said, “He’s not here.”
As Ed died in a VA hospital I considered whether he would been buried by the Veterans Administration in Prescott. But, after combing through VA records for all of its Arizona cemeteries and burials, I drew a blank. I widened it to a nationwide search (although it seemed supremely unlikely he had been taken back to his home state of Michigan) and the end result? He wasn’t there.
Wherever Lowell Edgerton was laid to rest, he’s keeping it to himself – and I think he would rather have liked that.
Of the many abandoned trading posts along the various alignments of Route 66, perhaps one of the most poignant is the Minnetonka Trading Post to the east of Winslow, Arizona, because its decline has been so rapid and so relatively recent.
Because it sits on a short piece of Route 66 that was dead ended when Interstate 40 bypassed Winslow in 1979, it’s frequently missed by tourists travelling the Mother Road and, even if they did stop by, they might well think “Just another old derelict building”. But little more than 15 years ago the Minnetonka was still a thriving place where cowboys drank their wages and wedding breakfasts and wakes were held. But that seems like a long time ago…
No-one is too sure when the Minnetonka was built. The Motley Design Group, in its Historic Resource Survey of Arizona, published in 2012, believes it to have been built in 1939 which seems quite a reasonable suggestion. Little is known about the early owners, but perhaps an advert that appeared in the Winslow Mail in February 1952 might give a clue to who was then running the Minnetonka.
In its life, the Minnetonka has been trading post, post office, feed store, curio shop and bar.
It advertised for sale a ‘curio store, service station and café between Flagstaff and Winslow’, including 320 acres of land. Prospective buyers were to apply to the Minnetonka Trading Post where they would have found Phillip and Louise Hesch in residence. Mrs Hesch had been, in what she probably hoped was now a past life, Mrs Earl Marion Cundiff and, in 1926 she and her then husband had owned that barren 320 acres known as Two Guns when Cundiff was shot dead by Harry ‘Indian’ Miller. Her character was suggested to be less than pristine when, during the trial, it was alleged she had had affairs with several men and, indeed, it was reported that during the proceedings she had taken up with one of the defence witnesses who took poison over the whole sorry episode (he survived).
Louise Hesch (her real name was Mary Evelyn but she always used the name Louise) remarried, this time to a mechanic called Fred Hayes, but the marriage didn’t last and in December 1934 (still only 29) she married Phillip E Hesch, her third and final husband. Although the pair ran Two Guns and the second incarnation of its famous zoo for a number of years, perhaps they finally decided on a change due to the the rerouting of Route 66 and the place’s isolation and so, by 1951, they were running the Minnetonka. After an attempt to sell it in 1956, they leased it two years later to sisters Irene B Scott and Hazel Weaver Jordan who had also run a store close to Two Guns. Within a year the sisters had moved out of the Minnetonka to take over a florist in Winslow.
By now the Hesches had started a coffee shop called La Siesta on East 2nd Street in Winslow, so were still keen to sell the Minnetonka. This they did in the autumn of 1962, selling the place lock, stock and liquor license to Mr and Mrs Robert Shaw. The Shaws operated the Minnetonka until September 1971 when Bob Shaw died, aged just 49. His widow, Patricia, kept hold of the Minnetonka and, with her second husband, Harvey Rogers, they ran it through the 1980s.
In 1991, it was bought by Julia (‘Julie’) Johnson who brought new life to the old place. The roof was replaced and the interior remodelled, complete with a raunchy picture of a naked lady on the petrified wood wall! A small rodeo arena was carved out behind the building and the Minnetonka played host to a number of events, including the annual ‘Bull Sunday’, part of Winslow’s Heritage Days. Despite being on a cut off piece of road, its proximity to I-40, Highway 87 and many ranches made it a favourite of local cowboys. Occasionally it would be flooded when the Cottonwood Wash broke its banks, but even that never seemed to worry Julie.
But, on 23 June 2007, aged only 56 years, Julie passed away and the Minnetonka Trading Post died with her. The place was put up for sale and, back in 2009, someone could have acquired quite the going concern for $100,000, complete with its unique petrified wood façade, all of the bar appliances (including the original plank-cedar bar top), handmade southwestern furniture and an Arizona Series 6 liquor license allowing it to sell liquor, beer and wine both in the bar and to take away.
There were no takers. Perhaps anyone interested was scared off by the rumours of pollutions from the elderly underground fuel tanks out front. Those were removed in 2010 and replaced by compacted soil. A year later, the Minnetonka was back on the market but at a reduced price. It still stands empty.
Now the Minnetonka doesn’t look like quite such a promising concern. The glass behind the security grills is long gone and two large holes disfigure the façade, perhaps vandalism, perhaps deterioration, perhaps to liberate some of the petrified wood. Who knows? If anyone knows what happened to the big wooden bar and the handmade furniture, they’re not saying even. In fact, no-one is saying anything any more at the Minnetonka Trading Post.
Away from the satellite dishes wrapped with copies of Native American basket paintings and the tourist trap of a drive through Route 66 arch, travellers heading west through Grants could be forgiven for thinking there is little of interest in the wide open sandy lots on each side of the road, home to the odd struggling business and a gas station.
But on the north side of Route 66 are some abandoned buildings which many people fly past, unaware that they represent what a town like Grants was all about – what, in fact, the American dream is all about. It was here a young man carved out a business for himself and for his family, where that man had the foresight to take advantage of his surroundings and to create a business which prospered for decades. This is where Charley Diaz had his eponymous radiator shop.
Charley was born in 1914 and married Dorela Cordova in 1935. He worked for the Red Ball Garage and the Chevrolet dealership in Grants and, during the Second World War, as a mechanic at Fort Wingate. During this time he saved enough money to buy a small piece of land and it was there, in 1943, that he opened a service station with Dorela keeping the gas pump books. Born Carlos, he was always known as Charley although the spelling wandered around a little. Most histories spell it as ‘Charley’, but Mr Diaz signed his World War II draft card as ‘Charlie’, while he would spell it both ways on his garage over the years, settling for ‘Charlie’ when he started his radiator shop.
Charley and his maternal grandfather, Joseph Capelli, an Italian stonemason who had emigrated to the USA in 1904, built a garage and a house out of local material – not, in this case, adobe, but the harder wearing and lighter pumice. (Capelli was a noted craftsman and was responsible for many of the early houses in Grants). At the time that Charley first opened the doors to his service station, the area was undergoing a remarkable boom. The soil was ideal for growing root crops and Grants became the carrot capital of the world, while it’s estimated that, between 1940 and 1950, the population of Grants increased by 270%.
Following the death of his wife in childbirth and his son drowning a few weeks later, Charley’s great uncle, Salome Saiz, came to live with the family in Grants with the newborn baby and his teenage daughter. Charley gave him the opportunity to build a business and Salome constructed the Star Café, a small building to the east of the garage, in 1949. By 1950, uranium mining had overtaken carrots as Grants’ main industry and the Star Café happened to be near a bus stop where men waited to go to the uranium mines. When Salome sold the place, the new owner, the appropriately named Mr Moon, came up with the idea of offering these workers pre-packaged sandwiches to take to their job. While we take for granted that we can buy a readymade sandwich anywhere, this was quite a revolutionary move. The Star later became the Star Drive-In and Moon would run it until he was beaten and robbed one night, something that rather put him off the restaurant business although the Star would stay open in new hands until 1985.
By the mid-1950s Charley had removed the gas pumps from the front of his garage, unable to compete with the new filling stations at the west end of town. It turned out to be a blessing; Route 66 was widened through Gallup in 1956. It was around now that he decided to specialise, concentrating on radiator servicing. Radiators on contemporary cars frequently became clogged by hard water and so Charley moved into undertaking most of the radiator work for local businesses. (He would offer them a 25% discount if the garage removed the radiator from a car and delivered it to him; the garage passed the charge onto the customer and everyone – in the motor trade at least! – was happy). He also capitalised on the local boom in uranium mining, contracting to local mining companies, a job which often required working through the night so a truck could be ready for use the following day. Being on the side of Route 66, he also found a healthy trade in fixing the cars of tourists whose vehicles had overheated and was at one point, it’s believed, the only radiator shop between Albuquerque and Gallup, a distance of over 120 miles.
Things were going well for Charley, so well in fact that, in 1959, he could buy Dorela a brand-new Chevrolet Impala. She would barely have time to run it in before suddenly dying of a stroke three months later. She was just 43. The Impala sat in front of the Diaz house until 2015. But Charley soldiered on, supported by his family and by the need to look after his son Joe. In the late 1980s, with Charley now in his 70s, someone made an offer to lease the shop which he accepted. But the new lessee proved to be inefficient and Charley evicted him and carried on working for the next few years, dying of a heart attack in 1995. He was 80.
Charley Diaz was a man who worked hard to better himself and to improve life for both him and his family. But he still retained a touching faith in people as his son Joe, told John Murphey of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Programme in 2010. One winter’s night a man knocked on the garage door. He said that his car had broken down and he had no money for repairs, but would work off the debt. Charley told him he didn’t need any help but told him to get a sandwich and then sleep in the garage overnight and they’d talk about a job in the morning. Joe was horrified – he thought the stranger would rob them blind and steal all their tools. But his father was adamant that the man could sleep on the premises. The next day he tried the man out. Joe Bounds would work for him for the next 33 years.
The Moonlight Motel shortly after it opened in 1952.
The Moonlight Motel opened in 1952 and, to all intents and purposes, it was a well-equipped place to stay, but just like a thousand other motels. But it was to have a curious history, for, just a few months after it opened, the Moonlight Motel was at the centre of a fascinating story.
Ernest Whitworth Marland served as Oklahoma’s governor from 1935-1939.
In the early years of the 20th century, a fabulously wealthy oilman and his wife decided to adopt the son and daughter of the wife’s sister. Eventually Ernest Whitworth and Virginia Marland adopted the pair and Lyde (Lydie) and George Roberts grew up with the best of everything. Mrs Marland died in 1926 and two years later Ernest Marland annulled the adoption in order to marry 28-year-old Lydie. In 1934 Marland was elected as the 10th Governor of Oklahoma but, after one term the couple returned to Ponca City where, Marland having lost his fortune in a hostile takeover of his company by JP Morgan, they had to sell their huge mansion and move into a small cottage on the estate. EW Marland died in 1941 and Lydie became something of a recluse.
Lydie Marland, the disappearing socialite.
Then, in 1953, she got into her green 1949 Studebaker convertible and disappeared. It was a mystery of the time – the Saturday Evening Post ran a story called ‘Where is Lydie Marland?’ – although she continued to pay the bills on the cottage. Where was she? Well, for three or four months she lived in unit #1 of the Moonlight Motel in Independence. There she even asked to help owner Chester Andes’ wife with cleaning because, as she said, she’d never had a job before. And then one day she was gone. A year later the Andes realised who their guest had been. 22 years later she returned to Ponca City and lived in the cottage until she died in 1987.
Raithby Roosevelt Husted, kidnapped by the FBI. Allegedly.
In 1966, the Moonlight hit the headlines again after Raithby Roosevelt Husted made a statement in room #9 that three months earlier the FBI had kidnapped him, put him into a padded cell and drugged him after he had given them evidence against the Minutemen. While giving evidence in a firearms trials against Minutemen members he admitted his statement had been false. Husted appears to have been something of a fantasist who wanted to be a spy, even taking correspondence courses on how to become a criminal investigator.
But that wasn’t the last time the Moonlight would court notoriety. For many years the Moonlight was owned by property developer Paul O Johnson who, despite owning five motels, claimed not to have a bank account. Johnson had a reputation for litigation, failing to keep up maintenance on his properties and would eventually be sentenced to a jail term for filing a false claim. As the 1970s rolled around, the motel slid downhill, becoming the regular scene of drug busts. Then the owner had the grand idea to start showing adult movies with a day rate of $10. A month later the place was raided and the manager, Steven Ballew, charged with showing indecent films – and he was showing them 24 hours a day. The case was dismissed due to incorrect search and seizure procedures.
There was little subtlety in the Moonlight’s advertising. It ran countless ads like this in the local newspaper.
Some months later the motel started showing X-rated films again and, almost a year to the day since the first raid, officers descended on the motel again, arresting the new manager. This time they had all their ducks in a row, two plain clothes officers had even rented a room beforehand to watch some naughty movies. A case went to court to ascertain whether one film, ‘The Opening of Misty Beethoven’ was obscene. Apparently, it was. The problem was that each film had to be judged as obscene individually – and the Moonlight had as many as 30 films available every day. Independence prosecutor Charles Sandage threatened to file charges every day against the motel.
Where the adult movie centre of Independence stood is now a hardware store. You can make your own jokes up!
The owner of the Moonlight, Bob Haskell (who conveniently lived outside the jurisdiction of the court as so couldn’t be prosecuted), pitched the whole affair as the Moonlight Motel taking a stand for personal liberties and against obscenity laws. In the end there was no need. In July 1980 a Missouri health official visited to order the motel to be closed for violating health and safety codes but found the place abandoned. A month later the Moonlight Motel burned to the ground. Today a hardware store stands on the site that once hosted a missing socialite, a would-be spy and an adult movie empire.
Jim Keeton came from a local police family. The 27-year-old had been married for just ten months.
As you head east, towards Houck, Arizona, there are the remains of several handpainted billboards along the frontage road, sun-bleached and slowly falling to pieces. It was by one of these billboards that one of the more tragic episodes in Houck’s history unfolded on a cold February night in 1971, starting on the road that superseded Route 66 and ending on the old road itself in New Mexico.
That evening police patrol dispatchers received two messages almost at the same time. Both were from Highway Patrolmen in desperate circumstances, but these were separate incidents a couple of miles apart. Just west of Houck on I-40, Patrolman James Lee Keaton stopped a car for a number plate discrepancy. For the 27-year-old officer, who lived in Sanders, it should have been nothing more than a routine traffic stop on his local patch. From a police family – his father Homer had retired the previous year from the Highway Patrol and his brother Dennis was a patrolman in Holbrook – Keeton had served six years in the Army Reserve and had completed a degree in police science in 1968.
Marylou should have been at home that day, her mother was in the hospital giving birth to twin daughters. But fatefully she decided to go to school.
But behind the wheel of the ’68 Pontiac with the gold and vinyl top was 38-year-old Bertram Greenberg. That he was on parole after serving a prison sentence for extortion and had crossed the state line from his home in California might have been enough to warrant a stop, but Greenberg was the subject of an all points bulletin for a very different reason. Issued just hours earlier – and unlikely to have come to the attention yet of Patrolman Keeton – the APB declared Greenberg a suspect in the rape and murder of 13-year-old Mary Louise ‘Marylou’ Hill in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, on the afternoon of 4th February. A hiker had seen him dragging the body of the young girl into undergrowth and had noted the license plate of his car which was swiftly traced back to relatives of Greenberg.
Bertram Greenberg, serial rapist and sexual psychopath, was out on parole when he went on a spree that left four people dead.
Greenberg had a history of violence and mental illness that stretched back years. At the age of 23 he had been charged with robbery and battery after a bloodstained car in his garage was linked to an assault on a woman. As soon as he was released from jail he was arraigned on charges of raping a UCLA coed and a West Los Angeles housewife. He served just a year before being released and was swiftly rearrested on charges that he posed as a policeman to lure a woman into his car and rape her. He was once more imprisoned and paroled in 1963. Four year later he was returned to state prison after being convicted of extortion, having blackmailed a woman of whom he took nude photos. During that time he spent time at the California Medical Facility at Vacaville, a special institution for mentally disturbed inmates.
The house in West Covina where Greenberg lived and from where he began his flight after the murder of Marylou Hill.
After killing Marylou, Greenberg had returned to his home in West Covina where he was visited by his parole officer, Robert Conway. During that visit, Greenberg was telephoned by relatives notifying that the car he was used was being sought by the police. Conway was suspicious enough to ring the police himself and ask why they were looking for the Pontiac. When they told him, he immediately advised them to put out a bulletin for Greenberg. But, by then, Greenberg was on the run.
At 4.14pm the following day, Officer Keeton pulled the Pontiac over on I-40 just west of Houck. A passing motorist saw the officer and another man struggling in the front seat of Keeton’s patrol car but, by the time he was able to turn around and return to the scene, the man was driving off in the Pontiac. Officer Keeton had managed to radio a distress call but he died at the scene, shot with his own service revolver. A few minutes later the Pontiac was stopped by Patrolman Don Allen Beckstead, this time east of Houck. Beckstead was also familiar with the local area as he lived in Houck with his wife and two young sons. Again, this should have been a simple traffic stop but, as Beckstead approached the car, Greenberg pulled out the revolver he had taken from Officer Keeton and fired. Shot in the stomach, Beckstead too managed to radio for help as Greenberg sped away.
Crossing into New Mexico on Route 66, Greenberg flagged down a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, telling the occupants he had a problem with his generator and that he needed a lift to Gallup. Once in the car, he produced the gun and then ordered them to drive up a dirt road towards an abandoned mine. Realising the peril they were in, James Brown and his wife, Karen Dianne, respectively a law student and school teacher on holiday from Missouri, lunged at the hitchhiker but were unable to disarm him. Greenberg forced Brown to strip to his underpants before sexually molesting his wife. Then he shot Brown in the back of the head before shooting Dianne in the head, too. James Brown died but Dianne was able to escape and would recover.
Aftermath in Gallup. Greenberg was shot down in a hail of bullets and trying to flee his car.
Stealing the yellow VW, Greenberg headed for Grants where he was finally stopped by local police and a barrage of handgun, carbine and shotgun fire at the junction of Highway 117 and I-40. The VW was virtually cut in half and skidded off the road. Greenberg tried to make a run but was cut down by police fire, some nine or ten bullets finding their target in his body and killing him on the spot. It transpired he had tried to stab himself with a pocket knife before the shooting, stabbing himself in the chest and wrist, almost severed his left hand.
Back in Arizona, help had arrived for Don Beckstead who was transported to McKinley Hospital in Gallup, New Mexico. Although his wound was extremely grave – a bullet from his fellow patrolman’s gun had punched through his small intestine, destroyed his left kidney and buried itself in the muscles of his back – Beckstead, against the odds, made it through the night and the following day was able to laugh and joke with his wife, Betty, and his boss, Lt Bert Zamborini, telling the latter there was no way he wanted a desk job. Betty spoke of her sorrow for Connie Keeton – the Keetons had been married just ten months – and how they’d all planned to have dinner together the following Wednesday.
Betty Beckstead (left) comforts Dianne Brown, the only survivor of that terrible night.
Beckstead was conscious enough to make a statement saying that he had only stopped Greenberg for an unsafe pass, not realising his colleague had been shot, as well speak briefly to a reporter. A story ran in the Arizona Republic on Sunday 7th February 1971 headlined ‘Wounded officer winning his fight for life’.
But later that day he went into renal failure. Although McKinley was a good hospital, the one thing it didn’t possess was an artificial kidney machine, so Officer Don Beckstead would have to be transported to Albuquerque. He died on the way. He was 28 years old.
A few months after his death, Officer Keeton’s widow, Connie (centre), and family set up a scholarship fund in his memory. Today the Northern Arizona University still awards the James L Keeton Police Science Memorial scholarship.
Both Betty Beckstead and James Keeton’s widow, Connie, would later take up positions as police dispatchers. Betty later said; “I’m pro-police, pro-patrol, so it was natural for me to come and work for the Highway Patrol and I love it. This is what keeps me occupied. Without this job I think I would have ended up in the state hospital.”
There was a poignant little coda to this story. A couple of days after Beckstead’s death, Reverend A.L. Dominy, the chaplain at Port Hueneme Naval Base in California received a package in the mail. Inside was a 15-inch wrench worth only a few dollars that was US Navy property. The writer of the note explained that the wrench had already been posted to his old Seabee outfit but had been returned to him because the unit had been decommissioned. He continued; “I am now a Christian and a highway patrolman and I just have to return this.” The note was signed Don Beckstead.
James L Keeton
Don A Beckstead
End of Watch – Friday 5th February 1971.
Don Allen Beckstead, father of two young boys, had no idea the minor traffic stop he would make would end his life.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
The café and service station in Desert Center has
long been one of my favourite stops, although it’s been shut up for years. The café
has remained just as it did on the last day of business in 2012, with
condiments on the tables and coffee mugs on the counter. For years a note on
the door informed customers it was temporarily closed for building maintenance.
The only food place for 50 miles, the café and service station was built by town founder Stephen A Ragsdale in 1921 and his advertising for the café claimed ‘We lost our keys – we can’t close!’, a boast that the café had been open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year since it opened. Desert Center went onto become the birthplace from which Kaiser Permanente, the world’s largest managed health care system, would rise. Despite being a noted businessman, Ragsdale’s reputation was shot down in 1950 when he was accused of a dalliance with one of his employees and he retreated to a log cabin in the mountains where he lived out his days. The café, meanwhile, featured in films and adverts and even a video game, but it never reopened after that final day seven years ago, I-10 rushing by just yards from its back door.
Last weekend, almost all the contents of the Desert Center Café and Service Station (not to mention the farm equipment and the cars in the junkyard which also belonged to the late owner of the town, ‘Desert Dave’ Ragsdale, grandson of Stanley) were auctioned off in an online estate sale, including the old cars and replica of a train that you could only previously see by peering through the dusty windows or holding a camera up to the window. The classic cars or the American LaFrance fire engine didn’t make much money, although the porcelain Eagle Mine Mountain sign that has been outside for years raised $3300 and four Texaco hand cloths printed with the Desert Center address made $250. The seven gas pumps which stood outside the service station made a reasonable $3300, but the wonderful old neon sign sold for a seemingly paltry $7400. You could have bought a a full-size wood and fibreglass replica of a Southern Pacific GS-4 steam locomotive, built as a prop for the film Tough Guys, for just $130. A Coke vending machine went for a mere $10, but a Los Angeles Times newspaper rack for $270. The nine bar stools which, the last time I was there, still butted up to the counter, fetched $300. Behind the counter, the whole backline of stainless steel tables, cupboards, Kelvinator freezer, soda fountain and coffee maker made $300, the whole kitchen set-up including the stove, fryer, griddle and prep stations just $375. Another lot consisting of deep friers, ovens, refrigerators, various cooking utensils, steamers and a deep freezer fetched just $40.
And there it is, everything gone from Desert Center, every last glass, every bit of scrap metal, every sign the café and service station ever existed. I guess they found those keys after all.
There are many stories born on Route 66 that tug at the heart, but perhaps one more than any other when, in June 1961, the lives of four little boys were changed forever.
James Dolphus (‘JD’) and Utha Marie
Welch were a typical American couple in their early thirties. JD, a burly
six-footer and 200lbs, was a truck driver for Trans-Con, while Utha was a
housewife and stay at home mother for their four sons. Jimmy, 12; Billy, 9: Tommy,
8 and 5-year-old Johnny. (There had been another son, born between Jimmy and Billy,
but Noble – named after Utha’s father – was a sickly child from birth and died
in infancy.) This, however, didn’t stop both parents being involved in many
local activities in their hometown of Spencer, Oklahoma.
Most of JD’s family lived in California and, in June 1961, the family set out from Oklahoma to drive to Tulare, California to see JD’s mother before she went in for surgery. Then they intended to return to Oklahoma via Colorado Springs. The boys were keen to camp during the trip and JD and Utha agreed they could take their Boy Scouts pup tent. On Thursday 8th June, a day into the trip, the family left Amarillo in the morning. It was late at night by the time they stopped for gas in Ash Fork, Arizona and enquired about a motel room. The owner would tell police that JD had thought the room too expensive and left. As the motel owner never spoke about the incident publicly (despite being the last person outside of the family and their murderer to see the Welches alive), one wonders whether, glancing at the family’s shiny two-year-old Oldsmobile – JD had only bought it two weeks earlier – and calculating the lateness of the hour and the small boys, quoted a price higher than normal.
No-one will ever know why the family
didn’t then stop in Seligman where there were more motels. It may have been
cost or it may have been that the boys were nagging their parents to camp. But
eventually, around midnight, JD pulled into the side of the road around 13
miles west of Seligman. Even now, it’s a bleak and barren stretch of road, the
plain of the Aubrey Valley stretching for miles around. The only cover were two
large piles of rubble and it was beside one of these that JD pitched his sons’
tent while he and his wife slept in the Oldsmobile.
The next morning, little Johnny was the first boy awake. He went over to the car where his parents were sleeping and tried to wake them. Confused, he ran back to his brothers, saying there was something on mommy’s face. Going to check, Jimmy found his mother’s face covered with blood. He lifted his father’s head and found that he too had been shot several times in the head. The little boys tried desperately to flag down help, but several cars would speed past before salesmen and race drivers, Jere Eagle and Dan Cramer from California, stopped and realised the horror of the situation.
Highway Patrolman Dan Birdino and Deputy
Sheriff Perry Blankenship were first to arrive on the scene, Blankenship having
been notified by his wife, Bertie Lee, after a driver stopped at Johnson’s Café
on the east end of Seligman where she worked as a waitress. Bertie would have a
bigger role in this story than she could have imagined at the time.
Although around $60 had been taken from
JD’s wallet, Utha’s purse, which contained $147, and her expensive jewellery
was untouched. Despite a few promising leads – a Greyhound bus had stopped at
the same place although this turned out to be some hours after the murders –
clues quickly dried up. The best that the local police had was a statement from
Bertie Blankenship about a young man she had served late the previous night. He
only had a nickel on him, not enough for a cup of coffee, but there was
something about him that spooked Bertie so much she gave him the coffee for free.
A few hours later, the same man returned to the all-night diner and this time
ordered a full meal with tomato juice, paying for it with a $20 note and
professing not to recognise Bertie.
However, a suspect did flag up on the law enforcement radar almost immediately. James Abner Bentley lived in Gilbert, Arizona. However, his mother and estranged wife claimed that he had been in Fresno, California, with them on the night of the murders. Arrested for the robbery and attempted murder of a Phoenix gas station attendant in late June, it transpired that Bentley had been in Fresno – but a month earlier, when he had killed the owner of a liquor store.
So, James Abner Bentley was already suspected of the Welches’ murders just days after they happened and local Seligman police had a mug shot of Bentley. For whatever reason, no-one thought to show that photo to Bertie Blankenship. Bertie didn’t see a photo of Bentley until a year later after a cellmate of the condemned prisoner had revealed that Bentley alluded to the murders, proudly saying he’d left the children alive. When Bertie was shown an image of Bentley, she immediately identified him as the stranger who had come to the diner – once poor and once with money in his pocket – the night of the murders.
James Abner Bentley was charged with the murders of JD and Utha Welch while on death row in San Quentin, convicted of the murder of the Fresno liquor store owner. Had his death sentence been commuted – and that was a definite possibility at the time as Pat Brown, then Governor of California, was a firm opponent of the death penalty – then Arizona would have proceeded with the prosecution for both the Welch murders and the robbery and attempted murder charge in Phoenix. But, on 23rd January 1963, just after 10am, Bentley went to the gas chamber. It was little consolation to the four small boys (although Jim was, unsurprisingly, a lifelong supporter of the death penalty) whose childhood ended so brutally on the side of Route 66.