Dusty Gems

The White Rock Court on Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona is a manifestation of Conrad Minka seizing the day.

Dusty gems abound along the Route 66 corridor (Andy Devine Avenue) in Kingman, Arizona. Each is a tangible link to the glory days of this storied highway. Each tantalizes the imagination. With thought given to the fast approaching Route 66 centennial, each quickens the spirit as one envisions the town beoming a living time capsule where the past, present, and future blend seamlessly.

As with Route 66 and the automobiles that traveled that highway, the motel evolved with the passing of time. In the era of the National Old Trails Road and the infancy of Route 66 railroad hotels remained a popular option. Free public campgrounds and primitive cabin camps were also popular lodging choices. In spite of the Great Depression by the mid-1930s many travelers wanted modern amenities such as hot and cold water in the room and radios.

This was the era of the auto court, motels with garages between the rooms. In the post war years as traffic on Route 66 grew exponentially, and larger cars become more popular, the garages were viewed as wasted space. And so, motel owners often transformed them into additional rooms or used them to enlarge existing rooms.

Then in the 1950s chains such as Holiday Inn, Ramada, and Hiway House increasingly made it difficult for the mom-and-pop motel to compete. With a decline in profits, maintenance was deferred, the property was abandoned, or the motel complex was converted into low rent apartments.

The World Monuments Fund recently listed Route 66 motels as some of, quote, “America’s Most Endangered Historic Places.” Counted among the rarest of surviving motels are those with their prewar auto courts. But the rarest of all are the auto courts that were listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book. 

The White Rock Court is counted among the rarest of Route 66 motels. It is a prewar auto court. And it was the only motel in Kingman to be listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book. There was at least one other motel, Hoods Auto Court, that would provide lodging to African American travelers. But for reasons unknown it was not listed in the guidebook.

The White Rock Court in Kingman is counted among the rarest of historic buildings with a direct Route 66 connection.

The White Rock Court with owners’ home was built of locally quarried stone by Conrad Minka in 1935. Purportedly he was a former hard rock miner. That would explain his innovative approach to besting the competition.

On the hill below the Sleeping Dutchman rock formation behind the motel he dug an air shaft, and then a tunnel connecting it to the utility corridors carved from the rock under the complex. At the bottom of the shaft, he installed a tank that he kept filled with water. Sheets of burlap hung in the water acted as a wick. Fans pulled the cooled air into the rooms.

As a result, while other motels suffered a lower occupancy rate in the moths of summer due to heat, the White Rock Court was always full. This and the provision of service to African Americans fueled rumors. Decades later there were legends that Minka had run a still under the parking lot and engaged in voyeuristic activities.

The White Rock Court was listed in A Guide Book to Highway 66 published in 1946. The 1952 edition of the American Motel Association Guide with a logo of Sleeprite, Eatrite, Travelrite provided a detailed summary of the motel. Quote, on Highway 66 east end of Main Street, 15 modern cottages, conveniently located. Short distance to ideal fishing and hunting. Seventy miles to Boulder Dam. Our motto is always courteous. Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Minka. The motel remained operational into the 1970s.


Adding A Touch of Spice

Adding A Touch of Spice

The use of spices and salt are what separates the cook from the chef. Likewise, finding joy in the surprise discoveries are what separates the traveler from the adventurer. About ten days ago, before most of a week was spent without internet service, I noted the discovery of Valenzuela’s, a charming little restaurant in Needles, California. So, let’s start with a review of this delightful little restaurant before sharing other discoveries made recently.

In most any town the old cafe would appear to be a faded relic, a weathered old place that was a tangible link to better times. Needles is a town that is dominated by faded and weathered relics but something about this little cafe seemed quite charming and inviting. I wasn’t disappointed.

It opened in 1952 as a small neighborhood store and cafe in a town that was prosperous and busy.  Route 66 was just a couple of blocks away and the flashing bulb arrow sign served as a beacon for travelers. So business was brisk. Times change. By 1980 the cafe and Needles were on hard times. Route 66 was on the cusp of becoming an historic footnote, the railroad was in the midst of restructuring, another blow for Needles, and in 1978 a bridge connecting Mohave Valley, Arizona and Needles opened at the site of the ferry that had once carried National Old Trails Road Traffic.

For just a bit the cafe closed. But it was a family tradition. Jerry Limon, the current manager, had begun working in the cafe as a child. His mother, the daughter of the founder, had worked at the restaurant most of her life. So, together they decided to forego the store and just open an expanded version of the old cafe, and I am so glad they did. What a rarity!

The food was excellent and reasonably priced. Jerry waited tables, and mother cooked on a stove that was purchased in 1952. The old place was faded and a bit worn at the heel, but I will be returning. This is a true gem, a real mom and pop business from a time when Studebaker cars still rolled from the factory in South Bend that has survived into the modern era.

The heat in Needles is extreme, even for a desert rat like me. In the summer temperatures often soar past 120 degrees Fahrenheit. As the old restaurant lacks air conditioning, and as the owners/employees are not exactly spring chickens, it is closed from mid June until mid September.

Needles is filled with surprises, and little treasures, such as Fender’s River Resort, the only motel that is located on Route 66 and the banks of the Colorado River. The motel and RV park is surprisingly popular and I attribute to the ever smiling Rosie Ramos, the proprietor. Over the course of the past few years she has renovated the motel, improved the grounds, and is now having the neon signage restored at Legacy Signs in Kingman. The relighting of the historic sign is scheduled tentatively for the 8th or 9th of June. I will keep you posted and there are plans for an Adventurers Club program during the ceremony.

One of the more intriguing places in Needles is Mystic Maze Honey. It is simply a vintage 1950’s travel trailer along the road with an ample display of local honey in various sized jars inside on neat shelves. The oddity is this, there is no one there. It is run on the honor system! Simply put the money in one of the envelopes that is provided and drop it in the slot. How refreshing to see such trust.

I have a few more discoveries to share but those will be the subject of another post.