On the evening of October 4, 1919, about twenty-five miles west of Seligman behind a small hill along the National Old Trails Road, predecessor to Route 66, a shepherd tending a flock made a startling discovery: the smoldering body of a man. Yavapai County sheriff department investigators determined that the victim had been shot in the back with a .38-caliber pistol, wrapped in a blanket, dragged about a hundred feet from where a car had been parked, doused with gasoline, and set afire. Though the body was badly charred, officers determined that the victim was wearing a military uniform with insignia indicating that he was a member of the Twentieth Canadian Battalion of Infantry. Tracing the serial number of the military insignia, Canadian authorities provided a clue that identified the deceased as Arthur De Steunder.
The focus of my work be it books, presentations or community education programs pertaining to tourism as a catalyst for economic development and community revitalization is to add depth and context to a subject. I wrote Checker Cab Manufacturing Company: An Illustrated History to introduce people to the fascinating story behind the ubiquitous Checker Cab that remains a fixture of the American landscape decades after the last one rolled from the factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The classes I was recently teaching at Mohave Community College were conceived as a means to foster a better understanding of Route 66 tourism and its potential for economic development. The death of Arthur De Steunder and the fascinating back story that included the investigation leading to the murderers arrest was will add depth to the story of Route 66 and its predecessor the National Old Trails Road.
In my new book Murder and Mayhem On The Main Street of America from Rio Nuevo Publishing the intent was to show Route 66 as more than America’s longest theme park. I had intended to show that this highway was once an artery of commerce traveled by families on vacation or seeking a better life as well as by truck drivers, gangsters, fugitives, and psychotic serial killers. As it so happened I was also able to show that the America of the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950 was very much like the America of today, a country where people worried about the future, tried to make a living and raise their families, and where death could come quickly and unexpectedly. There were gangsters and lawman, and senseless acts of violence.
It was a project unlike anything I had previously attempted. It was akin to writing a book about serial killers lurking in Disneyland. And, more often than not, the stories uncovered were, to say the very least, a bit disconcerting. Historic research is something I enjoy immensely, even if it is unraveling stories of unsolved murders, murderous hitchhikers and the death of celebrities on “bloody 66.”
What’s next, you may ask? Well, plans are well underway for a fall promotional tour that includes presentations about the dark side of this iconic highway. Confirmation was received yesterday that I will be speaking at the Miles of Possibility Conference in Normal, Illinois in October. If all goes as planned, the fall tour will also be the opening act for an exciting new project that has been in the worked for forty years, chronicling the fascinating automotive history in Jackson, Michigan.
During the dawning infancy of the America auto industry Jackson was vying for the title motor city. More than a dozen companies produced vehicles in this city, including Buick. There were a staggering number of ancillary companies that produced everything from specialty tools to car horns and radios. Ted O’Dell is on a mission to preserve that history and tell the city’s story. Stage one is restoration of the historic Hackett Automobile factory and its conversion into a museum and event center.
Last year I was privileged to make a presentation at a fund raiser for the museum. Another presentation is tentatively scheduled during the fall promotional tour. There are also discussions pertaining to me taking on a more active role in the museums development and related research. As it was a search for family history in Jackson more than forty years ago that led to my writing and career in historic research, this is project that would fit met like a well worn pair of boots. As they say, stay tuned for developments and details.