GHOST SCHOOL IN A GHOST TOWN

 

The front entrance still looks as spruce as it must have done in 1928.

Lela in Texas always struggled against the odds. Known to some people who travel Route 66 as the home of E Mike Allred’s Regal Reptile Ranch (see the Never Quite Lost post, Snakes on a Plain), it lost out all around to its more glamorous neighbour, Shamrock.

Lela was established in 1902 as a stop on the Chicago, Rock Island & Gulf Railway, when it was originally called Story. It then gained a newspaper – the Wheeler County Texan – and a small school. Then, the ultimate mark of a settlement came along; a post office. Folklore has it that the young postmaster, a young Texan by the name of Bedford Forrest Bowers, changed the town’s name to Lela in honour of his sister-in-law.. However, there’s a few holes in that story. The town was already called Lela when Bedford was appointed postmaster on 9th June 1903. He was 25 years old at the time and there is no record of him having a wife. He did have two older brothers, but David was married to Maud and Isaac to Anna Pearl, neither of which lead themselves to a contraction of Lela.

Whatever the origin of the name, there was a school in Lela (although the dedicated school wasn’t built until 1907), and the first teacher was the splendidly named Fannie (or Frances) Womble. Miss Womble was barely 20 years old when she assumed that position and was soon married to Lucian Purcell, a relative of John Purcell, one of the school’s trustees. Sadly, the marriage would be cut short. In 1903, Fannie suffered a miscarriage, but two years later she gave birth to a son, Farrel. Complications set in and just ten days after the birth, on 16th February 1905, Fannie died. It was a week after her twenty-third birthday. Little Farrel struggled on, but on 9th May 1905 he too succumbed.

Lela would suffer another loss the following year when Bedford Bowers died, aged just twenty-eight. But already the town was beginning to lose out to nearby Shamrock. Although the discovery of natural gas would bring short-lived renewed prosperity to Lela, gradually both trade and residents began to move to Shamrock. But it was while Lela was undergoing this brief boom that its school burned down. At the time, the town was large and prosperous enough to warrant the building of a fine brick school which would accommodate all grades. However, by the 1930s, it was catering only to the younger children, as the high school students decamped to – yes – Shamrock.

One of the gas stations which sprang up to serve Route 66. It limped on in its last years as JD’s Service Station before falling into disrepair.

Route 66 would bring another infusion of life into Lela, as two gas stations were opened. But it didn’t last. By 1947, there were only 50 people left in Lela; the school and the church staggered on but the remaining businesses gradually closed. Even the newspaper moved down to Shamrock.  In 1976, Shamrock took its final victory over its neighbour as the post office was transferred there from Lela. Fifteen years later, the school was closed and has stood shuttered ever since. There is no chance of it opening again; Lela has no businesses, no shops and little in the way of population. Today it stands empty, echoing to the sound of children’s shouts on a long ago wind.

Incidentally, Fannie’s widower, Lucian Purcell, did eventually marry again and had eight children with his second wife, Annie (he would given his eldest son the middle name of Bowers, presumably in memory of the late young postmaster). They made their home in Shamrock.

Although it has a historical marker, Lela High School is not yet on the National Register of Historic Places.

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BIG RIG JIG

CANON_Canon PowerShot ELPH 180_1255256-1294138_000Last year I was covering the Las Vegas Bike Fest for my magazine when I decided I needed a break from the bling. It was also that I wanted to find essential supplies (water, cigarettes, chocolate – the basic food groups) at a reasonable price and I had spotted a small convenience store outside the show. The trouble was there was a security guard and a large fence between me and said shop.

Apparently, no-one was being allowed out this way. I suspect this may have something to do with the event organisers not wanting their visitors to know that, this far south on Fremont Street, life gets real pretty quickly. On one side of the fencing, countless shiny big bucks motorcycles; on the other side, people pushing shopping carts – and not doing their weekly grocery run – or just hanging out in an unnerving way. But the guard hadn’t reckoned without a cheeky smile, a British accent and a determination not to give in. He opened the gate for me while pretending he wasn’t doing it and that he hadn’t seen me.

Sign, complete with naked climbing man near the top.

I don’t know what I’d expected from this end of Fremont Street – probably because I hadn’t even considered the question – but it certainly wasn’t Big Rig Jig. I spotted the sign for the defunct Ferguson’s Motel first, mainly because it had a sculpture of a naked man climbing up it and that’s not something you see every day, even in Vegas. Well, there’s another nekkid man on the sign of the Travelers Motel just down the street, so that’s not strictly accurate. Anyway, as I got closer to photograph the sign I was distracted by the sight of two massive entwined trucks in the motel’s courtyard. Doesn’t take much to distract me, and this definitely did the trick.

Big Rig Jig was originally constructed in 2007 for the Burning Man festival by Brooklyn-based artist Mike Ross. It was finished in time but not without running over budget. It’s made of two discarded tanker trucks, seemingly dancing, and rises over forty feet in the air. (Apparently there’s a viewing platform at the top.) After Burning Man, it was put into storage in California and then resurrected for street artist Banksy Dismaland exhibition-cum-Dystopian theme park in the UK in 2015. Now it appears to have found a permanent home in Fremont Street (it had only just been erected when I stumbled across it), part of entrepreneur Tony Hseih’s ongoing project to revitalise Fremont Street.

Another naked climbing man.

According to the now offline website for the sculpture, Big Rig Jig used the old trucks in ‘referencing a global oil industry at the nexus of our world’s political, social and environmental systems. By repurposing these symbolically rich objects, the artist conveys his admiration for and anxiety over humanity’s power.”

Ross himself says; “It’s just cool to see trucks in the air.” I prefer that explanation myself.

 

 

 

Big Rig Jig in the courtyard of the Fergusons Motel which is currently scheduled for redevelopment into apartments.

THE TOWN WHERE DINOSAURS LIVED

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Ran when parked.

Dinosaurs and a ghost town in one place? Does it get any better? Welcome to the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in the middle of Nevada.

Interior of Berlin’s 1898 30 stamp mill

Like most ghost towns in the west, Berlin owed its life to mining. The first recorded mining activity in the area was in 1863 when a small group of prospectors discovered silver in Union Canyon. A small camp called Union was established, followed by Ione, Grantsville and, in 1897, Berlin. Berlin soon had a population of around 300 people, including the miners, woodcutters and charcoal makers needed to mine the ore and process it in the huge 30 stamp mill, a doctor, a nurse and one prostitute. Yes, one, apparently. That’s what you call a monopoly on the market.

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The interior of one of the surviving cabins.

But, like so many similar places, that heyday was short-lived. However, in the case of Berlin, its decline wasn’t caused by the depletion of ore, but by the workforce itself. In 1907, miners struck for higher wages. The Austin-Nevada Consolidated Mining Company refused to pay and the mine closed in 1909. With no work, people moved away; despite two short-lived resurgences, by 1914, Berlin was a virtual ghost town. You know a town is all over when even the resident lady of the night has moved on.

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Former workshop

The abandoned town might well have disappeared back into the ground had it not been for the discovery of dinosaur bones in the 1920s, or to be precise, the remains of the Ichthyosaur, an ancient marine reptile that swam in a warm ocean that covered central Nevada 225 million years ago. The find was considered of such importance that the University of California spent much of the 1950s conducting archaeological digs in the area which, in 1957, was declared a state park by the state of Nevada. Twenty years later, the reptile would become Nevada’s state fossil too. Some 40 fossilised Ichthyosaurs were found, and you can see several complete, unexcavated fossils in a cliff face around two miles from Berlin. The find was close to Union which, due to time, weather and vandals, no longer exists.

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Home on the range.

Today there are around 13 buildings left in Berlin, maintained in a state of arrested decay by the park rangers, as well as some awesome views over what was once a vast sea.

 

 

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Looking out over the sea.

CATCHING THAT DREAM

September 2012

September 2012

For the last seven or eight years, every time I’ve visited the defunct Meteor City Trading Post on old Route 66 in Arizona I’ve taken the same photo; a big rig on I-40 ‘passing through’ the dream catcher outside the trading post. As you can see, the dream catcher has not fared well over the years.

September 2015

It has long been claimed as the world’s largest dream catcher, although the Guinness Book of Records accords that honour to one in Kalevala, Russia. This one is, at least, the largest dream catcher on Route 66!

 

April 2017

 

Now that Michael and Joann Brown of Jefferson, Indiana, have purchased Meteor City and plan to refurbish the site, I am hopefully that my next version of this photo may see the dream catcher back in its original glory.

THE BRITISH AIRMEN OF MIAMI

Frantie Mae ‘Frances’ Hill tending to the graves of her boys, marked then by white wooden crosses.

In Miami, Oklahoma, there is a stop of which many Route 66 travellers are unaware, even the British tourist to whom it would be of most significance. On the side of Route 66 to the north side of town is the Grand Army of the Republic cemetery, which dates back to 1899. Among the thousands of graves spread over 18 acres are 15 sombre headstones in a row, each one signifying the resting place of a young British airman.

One of only six training schools in the USA at the time, the No 3 Spartan School of Aeronautics opened in Miami on 31st July 1941 to train air crew. Great Britain’s Royal Air Force decided that, America having not entered the Second World War at that point and being thousands of miles from the theatres of war, it would be an ideal place to train its airmen. Over the next four years, some 2124 RAF cadets would train in Oklahoma (some under the initial impression that they were actually heading for Florida). Peter McCallum was one of the first cadets and wrote home, ‘You could just imagine what a wonderful place [this] is… All the food is fancy. We fly from 7am till 12.’ Sadly, McCallum was one of the first Miami cadets to be killed when his plane crashed; he is among the British flyers buried in the GAR cemetery.

The Union Jack flying above the RAF airmen’s graves.

Many of the young British cadets were just teenagers, many homesick, and Miami residents took these boys to its heart, but none more so than Frantie Mae ‘Frances’ Hill. She was old enough to be the mother of many of the boys – ten of those fifteen airmen who lie in the GAR Cemetery were 21 or younger – and one of the many Miami folk who welcomed them to the town. Her daughter Rosie, said that her parents’ friendship with the cadets began in the early 1940s when a Miami country club hosted a dance for the young trainee pilots and Frances and her husband, Claude, particularly hit it off with one Jack Taylor. Jack did not survive the war, and when Frances noticed that two of the graves in the GAR cemetery were looking shabby (one of which belonged to Peter McCallum), she decided she had to ‘do something for Jack’s countrymen’.

For the next forty years she regularly walked three miles from her home to tend the graves and plant them with roses and irises. Every holiday she decorated the graves and their simple wooden crosses (these were replaced with stone markers in 2014). She did this without show, but simply because she regarded them as ‘her boys’. She also kept in touch with many of the families, sending them photographs of the decorated graves.

The King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom; Mrs Hill’s medal was one of 2539 awarded.

In June 1947, George VI presented Frances with the King’s Medal of Service in the Cause of Freedom, but most people in Miami had no idea she had been accorded this honour until after her death. In 1989, the Number 3 British Flying Training School Association erected a monument in her honor with the following tribute: “Mrs. F.M. Hill of Miami, buried alongside, voluntarily tended these fifteen British airman’s graves and helped their loved ones from 1941-1982. These selfless human actions were unknown to most. She was awarded ‘The King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom’ by King George VI. Thanks to Mrs. Hill from the graduates of Number 3 British Flying Training School Association.”

The marker erected to the memory of Frances Hill from the training school graduates.

She tended the graves without fanfare because she was determined that someone would always care about these young airmen. Until she was too frail, shortly before her death in 1982 at the age of 84 (she had been a widow for over twenty years by then), she made sure the boys always looked smart. Her wish was to be buried alongside the fifteen airmen and that is where she rests.

 

 

The British Commonwealth headstones of the British air cadets.

A LITTLE PLACE IN THE DESERT

Collapsing mine processing building.

A ghost town in Nye County, Bonnie Claire is now little more than haphazard timbers clinging together in the semblance of buildings and old mine workings.

It didn’t seem wiser to get any closer to what seemed like quite a deep shaft.

North of what is now Nevada State Route 267, Bonnie Claire began in 1906 as a tiny settlement, originally to service nearby mines (although there had been a camp, Thorp or Thorp’s Wells, out here since the 1880s) with mills owned by the Bonnie Clare Bullfrog Mining Company. In September of that year, the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad was extended and the new station was named the Montana Station. However, when the townsite was established, it was known as Bonnie Claire. The Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad soon also laid lines to the new town.

The Bonnie Claire Mine, now private property and fenced off.

Within eight years, mining was virtually played out in the area and Bonnie Claire might have disappeared at that point, But, when Albert Mussey decided to build a holiday home in Death Valley, Bonnie Claire had a brief resurgence. For three years from 1925 to 1928, all the construction materials for Scotty’s Castle were delivered to Bonnie Claire station. However, when that project ground to a halt in 1928, the railroad closed, the tracks removed in 1931, the post office closed, and Bonnie Claire’s fate was sealed. There was a small flurry of activity during the 1940s and early ’50s, but since then the town has gradually fallen apart.

 

 

 

The Huson House, with an extension in the form of a vintage trailer.

One of the last official residents of Bonnie Claire was A Victor Huson, a local miner, who lived here in the 1950s with his wife, Mellie. Vic Huson died in 1961 and is buried in nearby Beatty. In complete contrast to Bonnie Claire, Mellie saw her years out in Las Vegas, living to the age of 92.

 

 

Rapidly deteriorating mine building; six years ago this still had the roof framework.

That speaker probably doesn’t date back to the 1940s…

Interior of one of the mine buildings.

The Huson House.

 

SIGN OF THE TIMES

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On a lonely stretch of Route 66 east of Newberry Springs, California stands a sign. It’s not much of a sign and, as the years go by, it’s becoming even less of one. It sags in the middle as if one good gust of wind would destroy it forever but it’s still just possible to read CAFE MOTEL with an arrow beneath. Now that arrow points to nothing but desert and the remains of an old trailer, but once this was quite literally a Desert Oasis.

In his A Guide Book to Highway 66, Jack Rittenhouse notes two gas stations at this point within a half mile of each other, one ‘with cafe, few cabins and garage’ and the other ‘similar but lacking a garage’. Rather frustratingly, at a time when every clutch of houses merited its own name, Mr Rittenhouse doesn’t cite place names but in 1939, seven years before his book, the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration produced a guide to California in which it names two places, Mojave Water Camp and Guyman (‘each has its small knot of sun-bleached buildings’) which are very likely the sites of Rittenhouse’s two stations.

The Mojave Water Camp service station. Note the cabins to the left of the main building.

It’s also likely that, by the time the Guide Book to Route 66 was published, the Mojave Water Camp no longer existed. The last tangible evidence of its existence is in a 1939 photograph by Burton Frasher which shows a Shell station and cafe with a small row of cabins beside it. Some sources say that two service stations were incorporated into one, but contemporary reports speak of two separate establishments a half mile apart.

Poe’s Cafe in 1949.

Down the road from the Mojave Water Camp, the gas station at Guyman was bought and redeveloped by Ed Poe, who built a new modern cafe building which proclaimed POE’S CAFE in a square sign and advertised chicken dinners on the front of the cafe. From there on, the place was always known as Poe’s Cafe and the area became generally known as Poe or Poe Town. By 1949, it was ‘Poe’s Cafe and Continental Bus Stop’ and sold Shell fuel although, according to a legal notice in the Bakersfield Californian the following spring, it was by then a Texaco station. A few cabins – or the motel – were added on the side of Route 66.

The Desert Oasis Cafe in the 1950s, to judge by the gas pumps. The Poe’s Cafe sign has been replaced and awnings fixed over the windows, while the gas station now retails Richfield fuel.

Poe sold the business in the early 1950s and it was renamed the Desert Oasis, although the name never really took. To the end of its days, the place was known as Poe’s Cafe. Once again, it changed brands, becoming a Richfield station. However, as with other places along the busy highway, not all travellers were filled with good intentions and a desire for a piece of home-cooked pie. In September 1952, a waitress at Poe’s Cafe fell to talking with 33-year-old Robert Elmer Jensen. He persuaded her into his car with the promise of a better job and then took her on a 24-hour ride during which he raped her twice. The waitress managed to escape although she would never have to testify against Jensen who was shot dead by Pennsylvania state police a month later.

Five years later, Poe’s service station – the name Desert Oasis didn’t catch on with the San Bernadino County Sun newspaper – was destroyed by fire after all three pumps caught fire on the evening of 17th April 1957. Fire department units from the nearby Marine Base and the California Department of Forestry at Hesperia found the service station engulfed by fire but they managed to save the cafe, which the San Bernardino County Sun was still calling Poe’s Cafe when, in 1974, it reported on two Daggett juveniles breaking in and stealing food stuff.

From then, Poe’s Cafe quietly disappears into history. Except for that crumbling and broken sign on the side of the highway, for that very sign was intended to entice travellers off Route 66. And then, of course, there was no more Route 66 and no-one wanting to stop for a bed or pie, but the sign still carries on doing its job, long after Poe’s Cafe had vanished into the desert.

All that’s left of Poe’s Cafe, service station and motel.