THE CAMELS OF ARIZONA

Hi Jolly and his bride, Gertrudis Serna. She refused to take him back after his decade-long disappearance to prospect.

In 1855, US Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, came up with an idea to use camels for military purposes in Arizona. The idea was logical, given the heat and terrain of the Arizona desert, and over the next two years some 77 camels and 6 handlers were imported into the West.

Although an initial expedition with half those camels led by Edward Fitzgerald Beale across southern California was deemed a success, the experiment proved pretty much a disaster. The camels didn’t get on with the horses and mules on the trek; the handlers had trouble getting paid and three of them demanded to go home to Syria; the businesses supplying mules to the military were, unsurprisingly, very vocal in their opposition to the experiment; despite their desert environment, the camels suffered with stones and goat heads in their hooves. But the final death knell for the US Camel Cavalry was the Civil War. Most of the camels were kept at Camp Verde and when it was seized by Confederate forces, the animals were allowed to wander away.

The best known of the camel handlers was a Turkish-Greek Muslim called Hadji Ali, who, when soldiers had trouble with his name, became known as Hi Jolly. After the failure of the camel experiment, Hi Jolly kept a couple of animals to pull a wagon while he was trying his hand as a prospector. He later returned to the Army as a mule handler where he worked until 1886, but the lure of gold (or silver or copper) was too much and, in 1889, with the few camels he had left, he left his family and returned to being a wandering desert prospector. Ten years later, and with his health declining, he came back to Tucson and begged his wife to take him back. She refused, and one can hardly blame her.

For the last few years of his life, he lived in Quartzsite, Arizona, and in 1934, 32 years after his death, a pyramid monument topped with a camel was placed on his grave by order of the Arizona State Highway department, a more elaborate version of the wooden pyramid his friends had constructed for him after he died.

And the camels? Some of those released from Camp Verde were rounded up and acquired by circuses and zoos, but those that had been turned loose continued to roam across Arizona for years, small herds spreading to Nevada, California and New Mexico. Legend has it that Hi Jolly died while hunting the legendary ‘Red Ghost’, a red camel which had trampled a woman to death. If so, he was several years too late – the Red Ghost had been shot in 1898.

Hi Jolly’s memorial in Quartzsite.

A BODY IN ARCADIA

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

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

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

Max Klettke awaiting trial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WORLD FAMOUS TAGUS RANCH

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For almost a century the Tagus Ranch, north of Tulare, was an institution in central California. A 7000-acre ranch developed by Hulett C Merritt, it was at the time the largest fruit farm in the world and a destination for migrant workers in the 1930s and, with 11 camps, a general store, post office and a school, entire families lived and grew up at Tagus Ranch; descendants of those workers still meet for an annual reunion. During the Second World War, it also served as a Prisoner of War camp, while it’s said that John Steinbeck began writing The Grapes of Wrath in a little restaurant next to the Tagus Ranch

In 1950, the Tagus Ranch restaurant was opened although it would be gutted by fire in 1958 and have to be rebuilt a year later. By now, both Merritt and his son had died and the ranch land was beginning to be sold off; the last 315 acres would go in 1966. A 60-room motel was built in 1962 to take advantage of the traffic on Highway 99. Three years later the restaurant was destroyed in a blaze once more and then rebuilt again. New owners established the Tagus Country Theater which played host to popular musicians, including Ricky Nelson, The Platters, Merle Haggard and Ray Charles (who played here in 1983).

But, as time went by and franchise restaurants appeared, the Targus complex began to struggle, particularly from 1972 when much of its passing traffic started to use Interstate 5. It became a Basque restaurant in the 1970s, a bar, a nightclub and finally spiralled down until all that was left was the motel occupied by longterm residents. It was bought in 2000 by Tulare dentist Sarjit Malli who entertained ideas of restoring the Targus Restaurant and, when that didn’t come to pass, tried to sell it, but the only buyers interested wanted to turn it into an adult-only gentlemen’s club. Mind you, the Targus Ranch Motel had something of a history in this area – in 1964 it advertised in the local newspapers for its nightly ‘fashion shows’ featuring ‘bikinis, baby dolls, lingerie’ with an ad headlined ‘Attention: TRAVELING SALESMEN’.

Finally, in 2014, local authorities deemed the World Famous Targus Ranch to be an undesirable eyesore and nuisance and, in December of that year, the bulldozers moved in. Mr Malli paid the demolition crew extra to lower the 100-foot sign in one piece although he said at the time he would only be saving the TR top piece and the ‘World Famous’ section. He also added that the sign might be restored, should the site be developed for commercial purposes, but now it seems likely that even the land where the sign and restaurant stood will be lost in widening plans for Highway 99.

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MONTICELLO SCHOOL AND THE FORGOTTEN FIRE

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The impressive ruin of the Public School in Monticello, New Mexico, is another example of how quickly history can be forgotten. Built in 1935 by the WPA, it’s a reminder of a time when Monticello was a thriving town with hundreds of families. But, just twenty years later, the school was closed due to a decrease in students. And, at some point, it burned down, but no-one seems to quite know when.

IMG_0395There is a rumour that the blaze was the result of an experiment in a chemistry class, but that’s clearly untrue for two reasons. Firstly, the school was closed due to failing attendances (along with another two local schools in the same year, 1956) not because it burned down, so it clearly didn’t happen while the school was open, and secondly, such a conflagration at a working school would surely have made the local newspapers – which reported just about everything back then. Yet there is nothing in any of those newspapers.

Nor is there any later report, so it seems that by then the school had stood empty for such a long time that a fire wasn’t even a news story. Monticello is mentioned in many books on ghost towns (although people still live there), but the school is usually vaguely referred to as ‘burning down decades ago’. So, what really did happen – or has that already been lost forever?

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BALLARAT AND THE MYSTERY POWER WAGON

 

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Ballarat, at the base of the Panamint Mountain Range in southern California, was founded in 1897 and named after a gold camp in Australia by an Australian immigrant called George Riggins. However, Ballarat wasn’t a gold strike itself; instead, it was a supply town serving the mines in the Panamints.

KODAK Digital Still CameraFor its first few years, Ballarat thrived. Some 500 people made their homes in this desolate part of California and the town had seven saloons, a post office, school, jail, morgue, three hotels and a Wells Fargo station. But, apparently, no church.

Then, towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century, mining began to decline. The Ratcliff Mine in Pleasant Canyon, which had been one of the biggest markets for Ballarat, closed in 1903 and the town was soon dying. In 1917 came that final death knell, the closure of the post office. A few hardy characters – including the famous Shorty Harris and ‘Seldom Seen’ Slim hung on, but Ballarat is today most renowned for ‘residents’ who never lived there: the Manson Family.

KODAK Digital Still CameraIn the 1960s, Charles Manson and his followers moved into the Barker Ranch south of Ballarat, travelling through what was left of the town to get there. In October 1969, he and others were arrested at the Barker Ranch, Ballarat being the last place Manson was a free man. Today Ballarat has a small store run by Rocky Novak with irregular opening hours, the remaining building are mostly in ruins (a plan in the 1960s to make an RV park here failed miserably and finally petered out in the 1990s) and the only reminder of the Manson Family connection is an old Dodge Power Wagon.

There’s argument over exactly who this belonged to – although it definitely wasn’t Manson himself. Some believe it belonged to Charles ‘Tex’ Watson who broke down in Ballarat trying to escape. While Watson did own one of the two Power Wagons the Family needed to drive up Goler Wash to the ranch (they did get a Chevy school bus up to the ranch, although no-one’s too sure how they did it), and it did indeed stay in Ballarat for a while, it was eventually traded off to Leon Griffin, caretaker at Briggs’ Redlands Camp. Leon took the Power Wagon to pieces and then died.

KODAK Digital Still CameraSo, where did the Power Wagon now in Ballarat come from? One theory is that it belonged to Bobby Beausoleil and had been left at the ranch. When the arrests and trials were over, Kirk Barker, owner of the Barker Ranch, moved that Dodge down to Ballarat as a runaround. But no-one seems to know for sure.

Ballarat does have one other claim to a place in popular culture. At the beginning of Easy Rider, when Peter Fonda throws away his Rolex, he did so in Ballarat.

 

 

 

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THE MAN WHO LOVED CARS AND TRAINS

The old Route 66 bridge on Crookton Road.

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

‘Boxcar’ Billy Richey’s trackside cross.

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

 

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

The smile that lit up a room.

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

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

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

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

Safe home, Billy Richey, safe home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Train rolling on down the line.

 

 

 

THE BIRDS HAVE FLOWN VULTURE CITY

Arizona has many ghost towns, but among the finest is Vulture City near Wickenburg. It began life in 1863 after Henry Wickenburg discovered the Vulture mine (supposedly he was retrieving a vulture he’d shot when he found it). Gold fever would lead to a town of some 5000 people with a school, post office, saloon, stores, brothel, assay office (and, in later years, a gas station) becoming, at the time, one of the richest towns in Arizona. In order to feed a town of this size, Jack Swilling reopened irrigation channels in the Phoenix Valley that had been dug by Hohokam Native Americans and established a grain route; Wickenburg was directly responsible for the development and growth of Phoenix.

KODAK Digital Still CameraOver the years, the Vulture Mine produced $200 million of gold, although it’s likely almost as much simply disappeared into various pockets. The assay office was particularly prone to being burgled and thousands of dollars of gold was stolen over the years. 18 men are supposed to have been hung from the Ironwood tree which still stands (next to Henry Wickenburg’s cabins), all of them guilty of stealing gold or ore, although there’s no record of any such hangings actually taking place. It’s a good story though.

Henry Wickenburg sold the mine in 1866 for $85,000 but was swindled out of all but $20,000 after the owners claimed he didn’t have clear title to the mine. He spent years trying to sue the owners, running through every penny he had. On 14 May 1905, ill, tired and destitute, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Vulture City lasted until 1942 when the mine was closed on order of the government. Production had slowed considerably years before and the job had become ever more dangerous. In 1923, seven men were killed when the ceiling of a large underground chamber collapsed in on them, burying them and their twelve burros in the Glory Hole. Although the mine did reopen in the 1940s, it wasn’t for long and it soon closed permanently. Today Vulture City and the Vulture mine is privately owned and private property, although it does offer tours on weekends.