SNAKES ON A PLAIN

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Travelers through McLean in the Texas Panhandle, may be a little bemused – not to say anxious – about a large sign declaiming RATTLESNAKES that stands by the side of the road in the town.

Once this sign stood just off Route 66 near what became the Lela exit of I-40. Ernest Michael ‘Mike’ Allred had operated snake attractions along Oklahoma’s stretch of 66 for several years before setting up shop in Texas at Alanreed with his sister Addie as the Regal Reptile Ranch (he had another sister and two brothers who seem not to have shared their siblings’ love of reptiles and, in fact, all three ended up in California to put a few miles between themselves and their brother’s creatures!). However, when he and his sister fell out, he decamped with his snakes down the road to Lela, which is the site that the sign originally advertised. He set up home in a gas station owned by Conald Cunningham*, a place which had a huge neon steer adorning its roof, and it was Cunningham who erected the reptiles sign. It was originally a tall sign with RATTLESNAKES at the top and EXIT NOW below.

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This image is of E Mike Allred, but of a time when the Regal Reptile Ranch was in Erick, Sayre. Given that the Smithsonian Institution and the photographer, Steve Fitch, date this photo as 1972 and Allred appears to be an old man in the picture, then it seems his reptile attraction in Lela was probably rather short-lived.

When Allred died in 1979 at the age of eighty, Addie, who was still running her snake attraction in Alanreed, apparently either moved to operate the Lela concern or moved the Allred’s snakes to Alanreed, depending on which story you read. However, Addie continued to run a reptile attraction right into the 1980s, one of the last of the old time snake pits on Route 66. Some of Allred and his sister’s snakes (now pickled!), along with the yellow cobra that lured people off the highway, can been seen in the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean

The old gas station was eventually dismantled, moved and became part of the Red River Steakhouse in McLean, although no-one seems to know what happened to the neon steer. The RATTLESNAKES sign continued to stand in its lonesome glory but was eventually blown down in 2007. It might have been lost forever without the work and determination of local writer, historian, carpenter, rancher, the guy who started the Texas Route 66 Museum (the first museum dedicated to the Mother Road) and all-round useful chap, Delbert Trew, who saw to its rescue. It’s now erected in a park on the north side of 1st Street between McCarty and Donley Streets, McLean.

*I’ve seen this gentleman’s name written as both ‘Conrad’ and ‘Conald’. I assumed the latter was a misprint of Donald or Ronald, but no, there is a Conald Cunningham buried in McLean and who was a member of the McLean Lions. However, according to his obituary, Conald Cunningham of Mclean worked in the USAF and then as a computer programmer.  The research goes on…

 

THE COURAGE THAT FAILED

The cheery children's attraction has a surprisingly forbidding appearance.

The cheery children’s attraction has a surprisingly forbidding appearance.

Of the many trading posts to be found along Route 66, it’s surprising to learn that less is known about one of the most recent than of those that ceased to exist decades ago, such as the Rattlesnake Trading Post and Bowlins in Bluewater, New Mexico. But, just across the border into Arizona, Fort Courage, which only finally closed a couple of years ago, is quickly falling into disrepair and obscurity.

The sign with its cheery F Troop cartoons and disregard for copyright!

The sign with its cheery F Troop cartoons and disregard for copyright!

The site of a trading post since 1924 when Joseph Grubbs opened the White Mound Trading Post, the tiny town of Houck – originally known as Houck’s Tank after the man who founded it and, yes, his water tank – served first one alignment of the Old Trails Highway and then Route 66. When Route 66 was rerouted in 1933, Grubbs moved his store to where Fort Courage now stands. The White Mound, which also acted as Houck’s post office, finally closed in 1948.

 

Then, in the late 1960s, Fort Courage was built as

Latterday Houck's tank.

Latterday Houck’s tank.

an unashamed tourist trap. It was an exercise in cashing in on the success of the short-lived but popular television series, F Troop. There was no actual link between the two and it certainly wasn’t the series’ location, but the owners tacitly encouraged the idea that this was where the TV programme had been filmed. There was also little note taken of copyright – postcards from the 1970s show signs that read ‘HOME OF F TROOP’ although they disappeared in later years. Thousands of parents over the years must have been nagged by kids to stop at Fort Courage, and those parents were catered to by the trading post which stocked the usual plethora of Indian goods along with tourist tat, as well as becoming a small supermarket and a post office towards the end of its life.

Pancakes, coffee, tacos - now all off the menu.

Pancakes, coffee, tacos – now all off the menu.

Next to the trading post is the abandoned Pancake House which was originally built as a restaurant by Van de Kamp’s Holland Dutch Bakery of Los Angeles. The company had a chain of windmill-styled bakeries around LA and plans to extend across the country with a distinctive windmill building design. The concrete building had sixteen sides to give the appearance of being round, while the roof would have once supported a giant windmill, although no photographs appear to exist of this. Van de Kamp intended to build 40 of these quirky buildings by 1970, but never came close to that figure. The Houck Pancake House is one of only two of the designs to survive; the other is in Arcadia, California, where the building is now a Denny’s (and that company had wanted to demolish it in 1999 before a local outcry forced a change of mind). The Pancake House also housed a coffee shop and, if you believe the signs, a Taco Bell. Personally, I would treat that with a pinch of salt and a Fort Courage type of disregard for legalities. It’s far more likely that it was an Ortega’s Tacos, named after Armand Ortega who ran the trading post for some years.

This would have originally had a windmill rather than the sign, but there's no proof it was ever erected.

This would have originally had a windmill rather than the sign, but there’s no proof it was ever erected.

Today the trading post, gas station and restaurant are shuttered and fenced off, but it’s still possible to walk around Fort Courage. Some of the buildings were converted into apartments but they lie open and derelict, personal belongings strewn knee deep.

The interior of an abandoned apartment in the 'fort'.

The interior of an abandoned apartment in the ‘fort’.

History has not been kind to Fort Courage. Opened less than fifty years ago, there seems to be no record of even when it actually opened, let alone any details of what is likely to become of it. Faded billboards along the interstate still exhort the traveller to stop, but there’s no longer any genial welcome at Fort Courage. Its single legacy seems to be in the late night reruns of F Troop when viewers of a certain age might pause and think, ‘Didn’t we stop on the film set in Arizona when I was a kid…?’

The tower is boarded up but still in good order.

The tower is boarded up but still in good order.

ARROWS OF TIME

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This image is what brought me to Route 66

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The well-stocked interior of the Twin Arrows Trading Post

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

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

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

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

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The diner and the trading post in the 1970s

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

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

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

 

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The interior of the Valentine diner

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The rear of the trading post where there was living accommodation

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The decaying interior of the trading post

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

 

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

METEOR CITY – POPULATION TWO

IMG_2029On the long stretch of I-40 that crosses Arizona, a clay-coloured dome breaks up the monotony of the landscape. To the south of the interstate, on what was old Route 66, sits the remains of the Meteor City Trading Post.

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The Newsums outside the original trading post when it still has gas pumps. Probably early 1950s

Six miles from the Barringer or Meteor Crater, the post took its name from the landmark when it was originally built by Joseph Sharber in 1938. Like the other five trading posts between Winona and Winslow (Twin Arrows, Toonerville, Two Guns, Rimmy Jim’s and Hopi House), Meteor City sold the usual mix of Indian souvenirs and also, for the first few years of its life, had a gas station. But Meteor City outlived all its rivals and was also the only one to ever re-open. The fact that Meteor City exists at all is down to one couple, Jack and Goldie Newsum.

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Jack and Goldie Newsum – the happy newly-weds…

Jack Newsum was born in Iowa in 1900. For several years he worked for the Hammond police department in Indiana before, like so many, lighting out for California, in his case Santa Monica. For whatever reason, he then moved east again, this time as far as Winslow, Arizona, and, in 1941, he bought the Meteor City Trading Post. He said that he had always wanted to live in a city and, in July 1942, the state highway department obliged him by erecting a Meteor City sign.

For the next few years he ran the post alone and then, rather to everyone’s surprise, he went off to Alabama and returned in January 1946 with a new bride, 41-year-old Goldie. Sadly, several revered works on Route 66 consistently misname her as Gloria. However, she was born Goldie Pearl Moman and was never, to my knowledge, known as Gloria. Even when she later became a Justice of the Peace, council records always list her as Goldie Newsum.

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Goldie and Hattie removed the population number because you just never can tell…

Perhaps the biggest mystery is how Jack and Goldie came to be married. Although her family lived in Florida when she was young, Goldie was born in Alabama – a state to which Jack had no known links – and returned there in her 20s, working as a stenographer for a local textile factory and boarding with the Sport family in Baker Street, Covington. It was a short-lived independence and by the time of the 1940 census the 36-year-old spinster was back living with her parents, the Reverend Arthur Clarence and Hattie Moman, in Covington.

However they may have met and wed, Jack took the opportunity to gain some publicity for the trading post by having the local newspaper photograph the newly-weds by the city limits sign, now with the addition of ‘POPULATION 2’. At the time, Jack told the reporter; “We have left room on the sign for further changes. Maybe we’ll even get a bigger sign.” With the couple both in their 40s, it was a hopeful statement and indeed they never had children. The population did increase to three in 1955 when they were joined by Goldie’s mother, Hattie, after the death of the Reverend Moman.

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This is the interior of a building that acted as the Justice of the Peace office in the Newsums’ time

By now, Jack was in ill-health. He resigned his position as a Justice of the Peace and his wife took up the reins. Urban legend has Goldie known as ‘the wicked witch of Route 66’ for her apparent hard line on speeding offenders, but it’s just as likely bitterness on the part of those caught! Life couldn’t have been easy for Goldie; Jack died in December 1960 and shortly afterwards the trading post caught fire and was moved into another building. The oldest Moman child, Goldie had seen three younger brothers, Chester, Clarence and Porter Lee, die before she was 10 years old herself.

Goldie and Hattie continued to live at and run the trading post until Goldie’s death in 1967. Shortly before her death she said, “We had the population of Meteor City on the city limits sign but we rubbed it out. Can’t ever tell about people these days. Might try something funny if they knew there’s only two people living here, both women.” She was buried with Jack in the Desert View Cemetery in Winslow and Hattie moved to Dallas where her surviving child, Burny, lived and would spend the last four years of her life in Texas.

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Bob Waldmire’s map, so much lumber on the ground

But it wasn’t quite the end for the Meteor City Trading Post. For most of its life it had been housed in a conventional building but, in 1979, that building was replaced with a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. It even had 15 seconds of fame when the dome was featured as a restaurant in the 1984 film, ‘Starman’. It may well have been during this period that the noted Route 66 artist Bob Waldmire created the ‘world’s Longest Route 66 Map’ – curiously, no-one seems to know just when it appeared.

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This is how the World’s Longest Map of Route 66 looked in 2010

Then, in 1990, the dome burned down. It was rebuilt – the structure that still stands – and changed ownership. In July 2001, Meteor City closed. But that still wasn’t the end. Richard and Ermila Benton bought the place and reopened it. With the help of volunteers from the Hampton Inn hotel chain, the map and six tepees were restored, albeit with more enthusiasm than accuracy. For another ten years, the Trading Post staggered on, people stopping to look at moccasins and the ‘World’s Biggest Dreamcatcher’. But, for the most part, the traffic just kept moving.

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Everything inside the trading post has been trashed

In 2012, Meteor City was offered for sale for $150,000. There were no takers and, in December of that year, the doors closed for good. Now, two years on, those doors stand wide open and the interior of the trading post has been destroyed by vandals. Every display cabinet

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Nothing remains except broken glass and debris

has been smashed, the remains of the map smashed and graffiti sprayed over the ersatz Indian murals. The dreamcatcher, intact and proud when I first visited Meteor City when it was still open, is tattered and probably won’t last another winter. I understand the owners will now take $50,000 for the buildings and its surrounding four acres. Even so, who would be prepared to follow in the footsteps of Jack and Goldie?

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This massive lump of petrified wood has proved too heavy for vandals or thieves. In the background, the tattered dreamcatcher

A COUNTERFEIT STORY

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The former Conoco station between Arcadia and Luther, Oklahoma.

Just between Arcadia and Luther, Oklahoma, on Route 66, is a small stone ruin on the side of the road. There’s a homemade sign which says ‘HISTORICAL BUILDING “RT 66”’ but no further explanation.

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The front of the Conoco station where the pumps would have once stood.

This was once a Conoco gas station, one of the earliest in this part of the country, and one of the few of which anything remains. Despite its age – it was probably built around the early 1920s and certainly pre-dates Route 66 – there would be little to mark it from any other stone ruin were it not for the fact this little place has a story. But is it story or myth?

 

This place doesn’t even appear to have had a name – I’ve seen it referred to as the Old Rock station, but that might simply be a handy description rather than an actual title. However, as it stands on the edge of land belonging to the Rock of Ages Farm, it seems as useful a shorthand as any. The gas station had two fuel pumps, one for regular gas and one for ethyl, as well as dispensing drums for oil and kerosene. The latter was necessary because electricity was a long way from making it out to this remote spot and most homes and buildings used kerosene lamps. So far it was no different from the dozens of little gas stations that sprang up to service the growing wave of motorists.

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The fireplace at the rear of the store which would have been the only source of heat.

But, so the story will have it, despite bearing the Conoco name, the place fell upon hard times, and sometime in the 1930s, a passing salesman offered to sell the owners printing plates for making counterfeit $10 bills. It was, apparently, too good an opportunity to miss. A small room was built on the back of the already tiny building, the entrance to this hideaway through a rear window which was kept boarded up. The bills were printed one side at a time but clearly they weren’t quite the key to fortune the station’s owners had hoped; when one of them was arrested while trying to pass one of the phony bills, the police searched the fuel station and found the printing plates. The gas station closed and never re-opened.

It’s a great story. The trouble is there is no evidence that it ever happened.

Back in the 1930s, the newspaper was king and Oklahoma possessed several lively papers that covered every scrap of news available. Yet there is no mention of any counterfeiting ring at the Old Rock or, for that matter, anyone from Luther being arrested for just about anything. Counterfeiting was a popular crime during the 1930s and the newspapers of the time covered many such police investigations and trials in huge detail, but not one mentioned anywhere or anything that could be conceivably linked to the Conoco station.

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Lyle Dean Melton (left) and Red Abbott. Probably not hardened counterfeiters…

There is no trace of the hidden room at the ruin or even any indication of how it might have been constructed, while the only known photograph of the operating gas station is not only clearly marked ‘1940’ – after the supposedly crime and closure. It also names the two men in the photo as ‘Red Abbott’ and ‘Lyle Melton’ and it’s a reasonable supposition that they either owned or worked there. Red Abbott seems lost to time, but Lyle, 29 years old when the photograph was taken, was from a large family which had settled in Luther. There’s no evidence that he was ever in trouble (least of all for counterfeiting) and, although he and his wife Mary later moved away, they are both buried in Luther Cemetery, along with his parents and four of his ten siblings. None of the family were born in the little town; they were from Christian, Missouri, but clearly they were sufficiently attached to Luther to make it their place of eternal rest, which might not necessarily have been the case if one member of the family had been a notorious local criminal.

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The window in the rear wall was, apparently, the entrance to the hidden room where $10 bills were printed.

It’s not the only dubious but unsubstantiated claim to criminal fame given to Luther. Several notable books on Route 66 state that it was near the gas station that, a few days after Christmas 1950, serial killer Billy Cook abducted and killed the Mosser family from Illinois. However, the unfortunate Mossers didn’t get as far as Luther; when they stopped for a hitchhiker it was between Claremore and Tulsa, some way further east. But sometimes the story is just better than the truth…

THE ELIZALDE CEMENT WORKS

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Just south of Beatty, Nevada, is the Elizalde Cement Factory which was built by the Carrara Portland Cement Company at the beginning of the 1940s.

ooAlthough officially known as the Carrara Portland Cement Company Plant, it was usually referred to as the Elizalde works after Angel M Elizalde, a major investor in the plant and director of the company. At the time, it was intended to be one of the most advanced plants of its kind in the USA with houses for the workers. It would produce commercial grey cement and also a fancy high quality cement made from the crushed marble and clay from the nearby Carrara quarry.

oooooooHowever, the factory never went into operation. The popular notion is that it provided to be too costly and logistically difficult to move the cement. Whether that’s true or not, just a month before production was due to start in July 1941, a fire completely destroyed the machine shop, storehouse, blacksmith shop and an office. A few weeks later, the Carrara Portland Cement Company at Carrara closed down, apparently unable to find parts to replace those lost in the fire.

oooThe company, however, announced its intention to continue, and then Pearl Harbor happened. The advent of fuel rationing in the following spring made it impossible for the company to run its machinery and transport its goods, even if it had been able to get the plant back up and running, which, without sufficient diesel was impossible. It was abandoned, although some of the machinery remained for several years. Today, the only visitors are those wielding aerosol cans or those who’ve glanced up from Highway 95 and been curious to drive the deteriorating track.

 

THE TRADING ATKINSONS OF ROUTE 66

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THE REMAINS OF THE RATTLE SNAKE TRADING POST, BLUEWATER, NM, 2015

In a time when almost every town along Route 66 had a trading post, one small place spawned two families who would not only establish networks of stores but who would, in the 21st century, still be in business.

In the 1940s, Bluewater in New Mexico was home to trading posts owned by Claude Bowlin, the man behind what would become Bowlin’s Travel Centers of which there are 10 across New Mexico and Arizona, but also to the Atkinson family. The Atkinsons were from Texas and during the Great Depression, Leroy Atkinson, the oldest brother of three, headed to New Mexico with his wife and just $18 dollars in his pocket. Leroy was a high school football star when he met Wilmerine Bollin and they had been married in 1935; he was 19 and his wife 17. Leroy found work at the Three Hogans Trading Post in west of Lupton and was later joined by his two young brothers, Herman and Jake.

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LEROY ATKINSON’S BOX CANYON TRADING POST WHICH WAS DEMOLISHED IN A REALIGNMENT OF ROUTE 66 IN 1953

In 1943, Leroy started the Box Canyon Trading Post on the Arizona/New Mexico state line on land leased from Harry Miller, the man who had developed Two Guns. (This was shortly after Miller had been being tried for murder – but that’s another story). The Box Canyon Trading Post prospered; it had a gas station, auto court, store and café. Oh, and live buffalo. However the growth in traffic that ensured its short-term success was also its downfall. The increasing traffic on Route 66 resulted in the road being realigned and running straight through the trading post. In 1953 the Box Canyon Trading Post was demolished and Leroy and Wilmerine moved to Arizona.

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JAKE ATKINSON’S RATTLE SNAKE TRADING POST, BLUEWATER, NM, IN ITS PRIME

In the meantime, the other two brothers had also moved into the retail trade. In 1945, middle brother Jake and his wife Maxine bought the Brock Trading Post from Victor Holmes after briefly running the Stateline Trading Post a mile west of Leroy’s emporium. In order to attract passing trade, they tied burros to the gas pumps, staged cockfights and, most spectacularly, renamed it the Rattlesnake Trading Post. It did indeed have rattlesnakes as well as a café and a night club. Billboards along the highway also advertised that you could see the skeleton of a 48-foot long prehistoric reptile. Anyone who looked closely at that marvel might have wondered why it was made out of a cow skull, cow vertebrae and a good quantity of plaster.

JAKE ATKINSON'S RATTLE SNAKE TRADING POST AT BLUEWATER, NEW MEXICO. C.1952

In 1951, Jake and Maxine sold the trading post to her sister and brother-in-law who kept the name, if not the reptile gardens. But it had clearly given Herman, the youngest brother, an idea. Arriving home from the services, he decided to start his own reptile-inspired ranch. On 1st May 1946, 26-year-old Herman and his 24-year-old wife, Phyllis, opened the Lost Canyon Trading Post a mile and a half east of Grants near what is now Airport Road. To attract trade, they bought two baby boa constrictors which they advertised as the ‘Den of Death’. When the pair of snakes brought in more customers than the souvenirs, he decided to build a large reptile house and charge admission. By the early 1950s, Atkinson’s Cobra Gardens had around 300-400 snakes, including rattlesnakes, anacondas, pythons and cobras. It was the collection of cobras in the USA and attracted thousands of visitors from both home and abroad.

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HERMAN ATKINSON’S COBRA GARDENS NEAR GRANTS. c 1952

However the heyday of the Cobra Gardens lasted less than ten years. Although it made Herman a very successful man, he sold the trading post in 1953, quietly selling his collection of snakes through the classified ads of Billboard in an ad that began GOING OUT OF BUSINESS. He listed a ’13 foot, heavy’ African python for $300, down to ‘assorted small rattlesnakes, $1’ from his home at 51 East Congress Street in Tucson.

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HERMAN ATKINSON, THE COBRA KING. 1953

Herman had seen which way the wind was blowing. The area was moving towards mining and not tourism and there was talk that an interstate highway was planned that would bypass Route 66. He sold the Cobra Gardens and it became the somewhat less threatening Cactus Garden Trading Post. Herman and Phyllis moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he established Atkinson’s Trading Post, which he ran until his death in 2009 at the age of 89. His wife, Phyllis, passed away three years later but their daughter Marilyn continues to operate the store. After he sold the Cobra Gardens, Herman never had anything else to do with reptiles.

Leroy opened the Indian Village company in Tucson with Jake, with Jake eventually taking it over. The company is still in the Atkinson family, now run by Jake’s son, John. Jake and Leroy both passed away in the late 1980s and little remains of the Atkinson’s early roots. The Box Canyon Trading Post disappeared underneath Route 66; the Cobra Gardens was demolished in 2011 and the only building that remains is Jake’s store in Bluewater. Look closely and you can see, across the front of a crumbling building, faded paint that reads RATTLESNAKES. Listen hard and you might just hear on the wind the excited chatter of travellers, pulling off 66 to stroke a burro and see a real live rattlesnake…