Erick, Oklahoma is on the fast track to becoming a ghost town. The Route 66 corridor signed as Roger Miller Boulevard is lined with long shuttered motels, empty storefronts and century old brick buildings that hint of better times.
For fans of the double six Erick is internationally known for the Sandhills Curiosity Shop housed in the old meat market and the ribald vaudevillian performances of Harley Russell. This is rather fitting as Erick is the home of two celebrities.
Roger Dean Miller was born January 2, 1936, in Fort Worth, Texas. He was only a year old when his father, Jean, died. This was the era of the Dust Bowl and his mother, Laudene Holt Miller, was unable to provide for her boys. So, each of his fathers three brothers came and took one of the boys to live with them. And so Roger was raised by Armelia and Elmer Miller on a cotton farm outside Erick, Oklahoma. It was a hardscrabble life made even harder as Miller struggled with loneliness.
Even though more than twelve years separated them, Miller struck up a friendship with Shelby Fredrick “Sheb” Wooley, an Erick native. They worked together fixing fences, herding cattle and doing other farm chores. And they also talked of dreams about making it big in show business, and listened to the Grand Old Opry program on the radio. Wooley also taught Miller how to play the guitar, and bought him his first fiddle.
At the age of 15, with a talent for music, Wooley played in a popular regional band, the “Plainview Melody Boys,” that performed at area events and on radio station KASA in Erick. And later he became a professional rodeo rider. In 1940 he married Roger Miller’s cousin, Melva Miller. In 1946 the couple moved to Fort Worth, Wooley formed a band, and took the show on the road.
In 1950, Wooley moved to Hollywood with a hope of breaking into the movies by using his rodeo schools. It worked. Over the course of the next few decades he appeared in dozens of movies. In 1950, he appeared in Rocky Mountain Starring Erol Flynn and Slim Pickens. In 1952 he played the role of the outlaw Ben Miller in High Noon, a movie that starred Gary Cooper. He appeared in episodes of television programs including the Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Kit Carson, Cheyenne, and the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Wooley was cast as the drover Pete Nolan in the CBS western series Rawhide that aired from 1959 to 1966.
In the late 1950s, Wooley kicked off a recording career with a smash hit, “The Purple People Eater.” earning him considerable fame. He followed up with a series of novelty hits, a few pop recordings that climbed the charts, and then country and western tunes. Over the years Wooley’s work was honored with numerous awards including Comedian of the Year Award, Songwriter of the Year Award, and Western Heritage Award.
Miller also fulfilled his childhood dream but his road to fame was a rocky one. While he was still in high school, Roger began hitchhiking from town to town in Texas and Oklahoma and picking up day jobs as a laborer. And he spent the evenings in road houses and honky-tonks. His care free days as a drifter were brought an abrupt end after stealing a guitar from a music store in Texas and returning home to Oklahoma. Even though he was only seventeen, the judge gave the option of jail time or enlistment in the United States Army. And so he joined the army and served in Korea. The end of his tour was spent at Fort McPherson in Georgia where he was assigned to Special Services. It proved to be a fortuitous break as he had the opportunity to play the fiddle for the Circle A Wranglers, a band that had been started by Faron Young.
Miller would eventually become a renowned and award winning song writer and performer. He would even have a television program. But the road to stardom had detours, and a few dead ends.
In coming weeks I will be sharing more of Miller’s and Wooley’s story. And I will be sharing the stories of other celebrities such as Garth Brooks, who will be performing at the inaugural celebrations for President Joe Biden, Sammy Davis Jr. and Gene Autry. These will be published as exclusive content on our Patreon based Jim Hinckley’s Americacrowding site.
In my short time here on planet earth I have survived a couple of hurricanes and tornados, an ill advised attempt to earn my pay on the rodeo circuit, several car accidents, an epic desert dust storm or two, a few blizzards in the north country, a couple of wild monsoon storms, appendicitis, pneumonia, a kayaking trip on the Colorado River (in a leaking kayak), a few broken bones and a couple of good wallops to the head. In a few weeks, Lord be willing and if the creek doesn’t rise, to this list of tragedies that I have survived will be added 2020, the year of the apocalypse. And that takes us to celebrating the holidays in a time of pandemic, a never ending election, two headed sharks, poisonous earth worms invading Georgia, face masks, overwhelmed food banks, unprecedented opportunity, Zoom meetings, and virtual Christmas parties.
Needless to say, the holiday season this year will be different. Travel is questionable. Family gatherings via Zoom is just downright odd. Employees at the post office, Fed Ex and UPS are being buried as people break all records with on line ordering. Walmart is, well, Walmart. Restaurants are closed, or open, maybe.
As you may have noticed I am being a bit facetious today. It is my feeble way of injecting a bit of levity into a tense situation, to try to get people to smile a bit, to make the best of a bad situation, and to find some humor in a generally humorless year. But on more serious note, for your Christmas shopping I would like to suggest that you consider thinking outside of the box this year. With that said, let me give you a few ideas.
Let’s start with One Stop 66. Consider this a virtual flea market for Route 66 businesses, artists, photographers and authors. You will find lots of interesting and unique gift ideas on this site. As a bonus you will be giving small businesses a much needed helping hand, and ensuring that authors or artists don’t become starving artists or authors. Did I mention that the owners of the website have created an array of colorful Route 66 centennial merchandise?
Next, how about handcrafted wooden bowls from a Dutch artisan? These might strain the budget a bit, especially with the cost of shipping from the Netherlands, but they are more than a mere gift. These would be heirlooms shared for generations to come.
Even though we now use our phones as calendars, as well as a device to watch videos about cats and the people of Walmart, and on occasion make calls, the old fashioned wall calendar is a gift that keeps on giving for at least twelvemonths. This is especially true if it is a fine art calendar from internationally acclaimed photographer Jim Livingston based in Amarillo, Texas. His prints depicting scenes from Route 66, the Texas Panhandle and the great Plains are on display in banks, prestigious offices and homes.
Treat yourself or the adventurer in your family with a road trip inspiring book or a series of true crime stories that reads as a novel. Both books, 100 Things To Do On Route 66 Before You Die or Murder And Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66. Both books written by yours truly are available at a special discounted rate on the Jim Hinckley’s Americawebsite. As a bonus, I will deface them with my signature. This will not lower the value of the books. Just kidding. Murder and Mayhem was the recipient of the Independent Publisher silver medal award. Unfortunately I can only offer domestic shipping resultant of prohibitive costs for international mailings.
And of course, if you would prefer putting your holiday funds to something that provides a service there is always our crowdfunding initiative on the Patreon platform. By committing to support you would have access to exclusive content. And you would be supporting our work to develop educational programs such as the forthcoming presentation about Route 66 for the Rotary Club in El Paso, Texas. This year we have used crowdfunding to subsidize discounted advertising on the Jim Hinckley’s America travel network for struggling businesses. It has also made it possible for us to offer free promotional programs such as the coffee cup sponsor initiative on the weekly Coffee With Jim live streamed program, the free weekly travel planning newsletter that includes event promotion, and the creation of other live stream programs.
Bottom line, the folks who own Amazon and Walmart have done rather well this year. Now it’s time to lend a bit of support to the small businesses that add color, vibrancy and life to small town America. This whole year has been unusual and different. Let’s carry that into the holiday season and think about buying gifts that have character, and that are as unique as the person you are buying them for.
Marty and one of the horses that trailed us as we sought out remnants of the National Old Trails Road
What do you call a day that includes a Route 66 road trip, an awesome possum breakfast at a classic Route 66 restaurant, exploring not one but three historic highways and seeking out Arizona railroad history, and a shared adventure with an old friend? Well, in normal times you would call it a great day. In the era of COVID 19 you call it a very rare treat.
It was to be a short run of just 200 miles round trip but being seasoned desert adventurers, and as the Jeep is now 23 years old with an unknown number of miles (a story for another day), we packed a shovel, water, a few edibles, cameras, a few quarts of oil and basic tools. And as the quest was to find remnants of the National Old Trails Road west of Seligman, Arizona, I also carried a copy of the Arizona Good Roads Association guide book to roads in Arizona and southern California that was published in 1914.
After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and berries, we hit the road at first light before the sun had chased the shadows from the Hualapai Valley east of Kingman. The conversation was lively as we are both story tellers, hadn’t had a visit for a spell and have aged a bit, and we both had desert adventures to share. The pace was slow as there were things to point to in the brush and desert along Route 66.
A link that enabled dating the car shell.
The first stop was just east of Grand Canyon Caverns. Some years ago Marty had found traces of what may have been an early alignment of the National Old Trails Road, the fast fading remnants of a building that had most likely once served as a garage and livery stable, and the picked bones of an old car. On a previous stop at the site Marty had found an ancient piece of iron with ornate Cadillac script. This and some of the trash at the site enabled us to pin down a rough date for the car as well as the former business – pre 1910. I suppose some of us never out grow the childhood excitement that comes with a search for lost treasure, and discoveries that spark the imagination.
The next stop was a few miles to the east. As we followed the faintest trace of old road through the dry grass and the junipers, confirmation that we were on the right track appeared in the form of a stone masonry culvert. That quickened the spirt as I reflected on Edsel Ford’s travel journal from July 16, 1915 and the notes he had made after driving this very road. Here was a tangible link to more than a century of transportation. Was this the alignment followed by Louis Chevrolet and Barney Oldfield during the 1914 Desert Classic automobile race that had followed the National Old Trails Road east from Los Angles to Ash Fork, Arizona?
The second breakfast, a brunch of sorts, at the one and only Road Kill Café in Seligman included a visit with Debbie and her husband, the owners. The awesome possum breakfast was delicious and the conversation lively as they had spent most of their lives in Seligman or the immediate area. They were able to fill a few holes, point us in the right direction, and inspire plans for the next adventure before even completing the first one. And after breakfast we explored the back streets of Seligman in search of automotive treasures.
We continued east along Route 66 past the old Crookton railroad overpass, and then followed an older alignment to a long forgotten rest area. From here we set off on foot to follow the earliest alignment of Route 66, and segments of the National Old Trails Road. As an added bonus we found an even older road and vague hints that this was most likely a trace of the 1850s Beale Wagon Road. By this time the temperature was closing in on 100 degrees and the sweat was rolling into our eyes, but we pressed on speculating, sharing discoveries found under the junipers or among the rocks and discussing plans for a return excursion when the weather cooled during the fall.
On the return trip we made a couple more stops. One was to explore an interesting section of old road bordered by two concrete curbs near the Crookton overpass. Route 66? National Old Trails Road? Little discoveries raised more questions than they answered; remnants of a telegraph pole with threaded wooden dowel for the insulator, a weathered railroad tie with 1948 date nail, a broken Coca Cola bottle with Needles, California stamp. A herd of horses let curiosity overcome concerns and became our travel companions as we followed the old road across the high desert prairie of dried grass.
The last stop was at the 19th century railroad siding at Pica. The depot gave every indication that it would soon be little more than a forgotten relic and a pile of dried lumber amongst the grass. The big steam driven pumps and pump house that was hereon the last visit are gone. The towering water tanks that dated to the late 19th century and the era of steam engines still stood tall. Surprisingly, a graffiti artist of extraordinary talent had used them as his canvas creating a masterpiece or two. The things you find in the most remote of places, amazing.
The drive home was a leisurely discussion of discoveries made, tall tales heard and shared, and savoring the vast landscapes that have soothed my soul for nearly sixty years. Even in these trying times, the best medicine is still a road trip, or even better a road trip on Route 66, old friends, good food, a desert adventure and discoveries that provide a tangible link to another time.
The international popularity of Route 66, a highway that no longer officially exists, is rooted in the work of Cyrus Avery and his team of firmly grounded visionaries. U.S. 66 is not our most historic highway or its most scenic but from its inception it has always had the best publicity. That provides the communities and the businesses along the highway corridor with a tremendous marketing advantage. Still, in this the era of renaissance what is lacking is a sense of community, a sense of unified purpose. This has hindered preservation and marketing. It has blunted its potential. This was a very serious issue before the COVID-19 crisis. Now it is a critical issue.
Before the advent of the federal highway system in the mid 1920s organizations had been established to promote the Dixie Highway, the Lincoln Highway, the National Old Trails Road and the myriad of named “highways” that traversed America. They all had a commonality. The organizations were self serving in that the promotion of a specific road was linked with business interests. The organizations realized the importance of promoting a linear corridor rather than a single destination. The organizations realized that travelers had options and marketing was key if one road was to become more popular than another.
Photo Joe Sonderman collection
Cyrus Avery of Tulsa was well versed in the development and promotion of a road or highway as he had assisted with the organization of an Oklahoma branch of the Ozark Trail Association (OTA) in 1914, and had been instrumental in organization of related conventions. In 1927 Avery was a leader in the organization of the U.S. Highway 66 Association for the promotion of tourism along the newly minted highway, and lobby for its paving from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Avery had a vested interest in the success of Route 66 as he had business interests along the highway in Tulsa. Still, he knew that his interest, those of fellow business owners and the City of Tulsa would be best served by promoting the highway in its entirety. Author Michael Wallis summed up the concept nicely when he once quipped that Route 66 was linear community. From this perspective Kingman or Tulsa or Claremore are the neighborhoods that add diversity and color to the Route 66 community.
There is little doubt that some communities, some sections of the highway corridor will survive and even thrive during the crisis as well as into the centennial and beyond. However, without the unified sense of purpose and of community made manifest in the U.S. Highway 66 Association, Route 66 itself can not survive. Simply put, we can no longer afford the luxury of myopia or a self serving focus.
I have long been hoping for a reincarnation of the U.S. Highway 66 Association, a chamber of commerce for the Route 66 community. There have been a number of initiatives in recent years. However, while each has made contributions to the Route 66 community all have fallen short. So until that organization is reborn we must work together at the grassroots level; the community organizers, the tour company owners, local tourism offices and business owners, the authors, artists, and photographers.
And we must realize that this grassroots network is not just American in nature. As with the travelers that contribute so mightily to the economy of the Route 66 community, the grassroots network of business owners and event organizers is also international in nature. This is made manifest in the European Route 66 festivals (canceled for 2020) the Route 66 Navigationapp and Mother Road Route 66 Passport developed by Touch Media based in Bratislava, Slovakia and the Route 66 associations in Europe, Japan, Australia, Brazil and Canada.
The gift shop at Route 66 Navigation
It is imperative that we build cooperative partnerships. It is imperative that we pool resources for marketing. It is imperative that we harness modern technologies – social media, live stream programs, Zoom, etc. for promotion as well as for streamlining communication. It is important that we build networks.
Now, with all of this said I would like to share a bit about Jim Hinckley’s America, the services we can offer, and how you can help ensure that this travel network continues with the promotion of the Route 66 community. First a short overview.
Jim Hinckley’s America is an expansive website, a multifaceted social media network (almost 6,000 followers on Facebook), live stream programs, presentations, audio podcast, feature articles, YouTube channel, consultation service (for communities as well as groups), and guide service. The network is in a near constant state of growth and transition to ensure that we provide the best value for advertising sponsors, the best service for the traveler and that we can contribute to the building of a stronger Route 66 community.
As with most every tourism centered business in the world we have been adversely affected. All presentations scheduled through October have been canceled. The classes on the economics of heritage tourism developed for the local community college were canceled. More than 95% of advertising sponsors have had to temporarily suspend advertising. Support for the crowdfunding initiative has been curtailed. All work as a tour development consultant and as a step on guide have been canceled.
Still, our work continues. We have launched a new series of live stream programs that are added to the YouTube channel after broadcast. Uranus General Store & Fudge Company has signed on as a partial sponsor. Connie Echols of the historic Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, Missouri has continued with her support even though her business was severely curtailed. This and continued support from the City of Cubahave enabled development of the Coffee With Jim program scheduled for Saturday mornings and continuation of the 5 Minutes With Jim audio podcast. Still the dramatic decline has greatly restricted our program schedule as well as plans for development of other initiatives.
The National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma, a stop on our fall tour.
So, we are offering advertising opportunities that will fit any marketing budget. We are also offering exclusive content for contributors to the crowdfunding initiative. The entire travel journal from Edsel Ford’s 1915 odyssey along the National Old Trails Road was published in serial format. A short time ago I began writing my autobiography in serial format as well. And we are also planning for the future by scheduling speaking engagements.
So, I do hope that you will consider lending support to Jim Hinckley’s America. And I sincerely hope that you will find ways to build a sense of community as well as community purpose, and to build a network of cooperative partnerships.
If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all. That old adage underlines the primary reason that I haven’t written a post in the last week or so. There are other factors as well; being so sick that I felt like one foot was in the grave and the other on a roller skate, navigating the labyrinth in a quest for unemployment compensation, work to steer Jim Hinckley’s America in a new direction and a quest for income to name but a few.
By nature I am an optimistic pessimist that can find humor in most any situation but in recent weeks it has been a challenge to maintain my signature dry wit and quirky since of humor. This isn’t to say that there isn’t much to laugh at. Just flip through the news programs in the morning, cruise Facebook and read a few of the posts from people passionately defending the latest conspiracy theory or spend a few minutes trying to decipher the us versus them political soap opera. But the daily dose of gallows humor has worn thin.
So, aside from recovery, I have been spending as much as time as possible salvaging Jim Hinckley’s America and ensuring that we continue telling people where to go for years to come. I have revamped the weekly newsletter and am offering authors an opportunity to promote their books and restaurants that offer carry out service a marketing platform as well as encouraging people to keep dreaming of road trips. I have also launched the weekly live stream program Coffee With Jim on Saturday mornings. The idea is to avoid the daily dose of bad news and instead give folks a reason to smile. Aside from a few technical difficulties, such as internet issues, the program has been well received. As a bonus it is something I enjoy doing and it helps lift the spirits, mine as well as the audience.
And I have returned to my roots. For the first ten years of my career as an author writing centered on the American auto industry between the years 1885 and 1940, and the corresponding societal evolution. This past week I began writing a weekly feature for Motoring NZ, an online automotive publication based in New Zealand. In addition to a weekly column on automotive history I am also recording an audio podcast. This is in addition to the weekly 5 Minutes With Jim audio podcast that is published on Sunday morning.
A few months ago I embarked on a rather strange odyssey, the writing of my autobiography. I have been providing this as exclusive content on the Patreon based crowdfunding site. I feel a bit awkward about this as by nature I am a private person. And some of the stories are hard to share as the guilty parties are still among us. And as with some of my other projects I am amazed by the comments and response. It never ceases to amaze me that people find me interesting and even fascinating. That is an odd sensation that I have trouble getting used to.
Another endeavor is short live stream programs from sites such as Fort Beale Springs. Aside from giving advertising sponsors a bang for their buck, I want to inspire people to get out, to explore, and to find a bit of solace in troubling times. This is going to be a challenging year. We have all gotten used to road trips and the occasional international adventure. It looks like 2020 will be the year that we discover or rediscover wonders in our neighborhood.
Stay tuned. Jim Hinckley’s America is here to stay. Jim Hinckley’s America will keep telling people where to go, we will just be doing it in a different way.