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.
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.