The National Old Trails Highway at the dawning of Route 66 in Kingman, Arizona
It was mid summer 1966 when we followed the flow of traffic on Route 66 into Kingman, Arizona. Even though I was just a kid, I was no stranger to travel. My folks liked to tease that my toilet training had taken place along the highway and in service station rest rooms in more than a dozen states.
To date all of our road trips and related odysseys had been epic. The first trip west from Virginia into the great southwest had been in a circa 1950 Chevy convertible that pa had been able to purchase cheap since it had been submerged during a hurricane.
Counted among my earliest memories was a memorable trip from Port Huron, Michigan to see ma’s family that lived on a farm Near Dutton on Sand Mountain, Alabama. This would have been the summer of ’63 as my sister was only a few months old.
My pa had cobbled together a vehicle that he dubbed the gypsy wagon. I later learned from old family photos that this home made wooden camper that looked to be a cross between a miniature barn and a two hole outhouse had been built on 1946 or 1947 Ford truck chassis.
A visit to the family farm was always memorable. Still, what made this trip particularly unforgettable were the roadside repairs and resultant campouts along streams in Kentucky and Tennessee. In retrospect that might be where I first picked up a proclivity for being able to string together a series of descriptive four letter words.
The trip to Arizona in the summer of ’66 was unlike anything previously experienced. We were moving, again. But this time the new home seemed as foreign as a lunar colony. It was very hard not to think that Kingman might be the place warned about in Sunday school. With the luxury of hindsight I can see with clarity that it was life changing. The entire course of my life can be traced to that summer.
I had experienced the intense liquid heat of the Mississippi River Delta country. This was different. Yes, it was a dry heat but so is the oven or the furnace. And to compound the misery, in mid August, pa decided that we needed a family picnic – in Needles, California. That was my first trip to Oatman, in a ’64 Ford Fairlane without air-conditioning.
Suffice to say, I survived. And I became enamored with the desert, the colorful characters that pa referenced as dry roasted nuts, and the vast technicolor landscapes of the Grand canyon State.
In time there would be opportunity to expand my explorations throughout the southwest and the west. And I developed a deep affection for the Mojave Desert, for New Mexico, for Utah, for Colorado, for northern Mexico, for Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.
But it is Arizona that I consider home. This is where my roots are. I made memories everywhere lived and in all of my travels. But Arizona is really where it all began.
This Sunday morning (7:00 MST), on Coffee With Jim, our live stream program on the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page, it’s an Arizona adventure. It will be a bit of road trip inspiration, a mix of history, some personal reflection, and a few laughs. I will be sharing a few of my favorite places, and my favorite drives.
I hope that you will be able to join me. Invite your friends. Let’s make it a coffee party!
Few things in life serve as milestones to mark the passing of time better than a visit to the old homestead of my youth. The house is now empty. Its windows broken and the door is standing wide with sand dunes spread across the floor. The roof on the cavernous garage has collapsed, and the rest of the building isn’t far behind.
What a rush of memories! This past week while filming an episode of Legends of Route 66, a program on the Fast TV Network, about Route 66 in western Arizona a scene was shot at the old homestead.
Pa mustered out of the service in the late spring of 1966. After sailing the Pacific during a stint in the navy during WWII, and years spent on the Great Lakes while serving in the Coast Guard, he was obsessed with living in a drier climate. And so he set his sights on the southwest and was enticed to buy several acres in a planned community west of Kingman, Arizona.
As it turned out the only plan in the planned community was to fleece buyers. The wide paved streets, utilities, shopping center, recreation center, parks and even water department existed only in the colorful brochures. And the land company had no plans to provide any of these amenities. Their priority was to fill the pockets, and high tail it before the law or a lynch mob of angry buyers caught up with them.
I can only imagine pa’s surprise when he gazed upon his acquisition. On our initial search for the property he buried the ’64 Ford Fairlane in soft sand and it took most of the day to get the car back to the main road, Route 66. So, being rather resourceful, he went with plan “B” and rented a house in Kingman. Then at a tax sale he bought the “model home” for the proposed planned community which was located along a section of Route 66 that had been bypassed in 1952.
Filming an episode of the Fast TV network program Legends of Route 66 at the old homestead. Photo Mike Lee
The house was a shell. So, he set to work to make it livable. Suffice to say, as a kid from Michigan that had spent summers on family farms in Alabama and Tennessee my impression was that Kingman was the place warned about in Sunday school. As it turned out I was wrong. Our new house was the place warned about in Sunday school.
We had electricity but no running water, at least in our first few months. Pa soon rigged up an innovative system but it required hauling water from the site of the long abandoned Fig Springs Camp at the bottom of the valley. Not long afterwards, even though I was still years away from being old enough to qualify for a drivers license, one of my chores was to haul water every Saturday morning.
The garage was an interesting project. Pa an I tore down the old Episcopal church on Spring Street, and two houses, one on Maple Street and one on Grandview Avenue. The lumber and other components including sinks, toilets and bathtub were recycled and used in building the homestead.
I helped hand mix the concrete for the garage footing. As it turned out my pa would have saved a lot of trouble if he had hired a surveyor. The footing extended five feet into neighboring property. It remains as mute testimony to pa’s stubbornness and his steadfast refusal to pay anyone for something he felt he could do himself.
Well, we got the footing right and built the garage, the same one that is, one strong wind from falling down. And we finished the interior of the house, sort of. Chances are that circa 1890 it would have been considered luxurious. In 1970 not so much.
We heated with wood. We had concrete floors. For cooling we had fans and wet strips of burlap. And then later a small evaporative cooler in the living room. The unit required the hauling of water twice per week. It kept the living room moderately comfortable, and the rest of the house about 15 degrees cooler than outdoors. That meant during the months of summer it was often 90 degrees in the kitchen or bedroom.
I learned to ride a bicycle on the broken asphalt out front of this house. I learned to drive on that road. My little sister broke her arm climbing on the pile of used building materials. The first time I killed a rattlesnake was on the back porch. My first encounters with scorpions were in my bedroom. The first time I helped my pa bleed the brakes and tune up the ’53 Chevy truck were in that garage. I learned to saddle a horse at the homestead.
Sharing a bit of this story during filming unleashed a flood of memories. Some were good, and some were bad. And some were simple reflections on the passing of time, of age, and of changing times. There were thoughts of my little sister who passed away in the winter of 2010, just ten days after ma. And of course there were thoughts of my pa who passed away last February.
In the blink of an eye almost sixty years of life has zipped past. And that thought alone brought me up short. I now have to squint hard to see sixty in the rear view mirror, and seventy is looming at the top of the hill.
It was a very odd story. On the evening of October 4, 1919, about twenty-five miles west of Seligman behind a small hill along the National Old Trails Road, 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 of the head 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 helped identify the deceased as Arthur De Steunder.
Nostalgia and the perception of simpler times may underlie the popularity of Route 66, but for many enthusiasts there is also an interest in its history. Occasionally that interest is tinged with a bit of morbid curiosity.
In the era of Route 66 renaissance where the old road is viewed as America’s longest attraction there is a myopic view that often centers on neon lit nights, tail fins, and I Like Ike buttons. It is easy to forget that this highway was marketed as the Main Street of America for more than five decades. Even more obscure is the origins of that moniker. Judge Lowe of the National Old Trails Road Association penned that slogan in about 1913 to promote that pioneering coast to coast road.
Today iconic Route 66 may be a living, breathing time capsule, a destination for tens of thousands of enthusiasts seeking the romanticized image of an authentic American experience. But before being replaced by the interstate highway system it was a corridor of commerce, legal and illicit. It was traveled by vagabonds and vagrants, vacationing families and serial killers, movie stars and murderers, escaped convicts and people simply seeking a better life in the promised land that was sunny California. It was known as bloody 66, and not just because of the staggering number of traffic fatalities.
Route 66 also served as the backdrop for countless headline grabbing tragedies, disasters, and industrial accidents. Even though Nat King Cole crooned about getting your kicks on Route 66, Todd and Buzz cruised it in search of adventure, and Lucy and Desi followed it west to California in a series of comedic episodes on their popular television program America’s most well known highway had a dark side.
Blink and you will miss Budville, located a few miles west of Laguna, New Mexico. Budville never amounted to more than a garage, service station, and store complex with a roadhouse across the highway, the Dixie Tavern & Café—but this tiny service center is linked to several murders. Many enthusiasts are aware of the story about the murder to the trading posts founder and owner. But there was another bloody incident a few miles to the west.
On January 10, 1956, Ralph Henderson Rainey, a forty-six-year-old butcher from Santa Monica, was found dead along Route 66 just west of Budville. He had been shot twice in the head, and his body run over by a car. Weeks later an incident in Las Vegas, Nevada led to the arrest of Rainey’s killer and unveiled a string of murders along Route 66 and in Nevada.
Shortly before dawn on January 23, 1956, Police Sergeant Dick Barber was on duty in North Las Vegas near the Nellis Air Force Base and stopped a Buick with California plates. He estimated that the car had been traveling at more than seventy miles per hour. The driver, a man of about thirty-five with wavy brown hair, responded politely when asked for his driver’s license, which identified him as Kenneth Short of Burbank, California. Unbeknownst to Officer Barber, Kenneth Short was listed as a missing person last seen in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Then, without warning, the driver of the Buick fled the scene, and Barber pursued at high speed.
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On East College Street, the driver of the Buick lost control, rolled the sedan, crawled from the wreckage, and vanished into the residential neighborhood. Soon a massive manhunt was underway, but the driver had taken shelter—and a hostage—in the home of Loren E. Tracy. For several days the driver eluded police, but on January 24, the man who had identified himself as Kenneth Short was apprehended in Caliente, Nevada. By this time police had learned that the real Kenneth Short was an electrical engineer who had purchased a new Buick in Michigan in early January and headed west to meet his wife, Mira, in San Francisco. He had been due to arrive on January 21.
In Caliente, the mysterious driver introduced himself as Samuel Stuart and claimed that he suffered from amnesia. When pressed during interrogation in Las Vegas, he said, “I got this darned amnesia. Now I recall finding this car of Short’s parked in the hamlet of Santa Rosa in New Mexico. Any papers you found in it must have been there when I drove it off.”
On January 26, the FBI reported that Samuel Stuart was actually David Cooper Nelson, whose lengthy record included six years served in the Montana State Prison for armed robbery. Additionally, his fingerprints matched those found in Ralph H. Rainey’s blood-spattered, abandoned car. Agents then discovered that Nelson had cashed travelers’ checks belonging to Short in Lowe, Utah, and Santa Rosa, New Mexico. Nelson steadfastly stuck to his claim of amnesia until February 6. Though he would later recant the confession, Nelson outlined a trail of murder through several states.
Rainey had picked him up hitchhiking near Flagstaff, Arizona, on January 9. They later argued, according to Nelson’s testimony, over his refusal to drive, and Rainey ordered him from the car near Grants, New Mexico. Nelson said, “Then I reached in the back seat and took my gun from my suitcase. Then I took over the wheel and put the gun between my legs. At one point Rainey reached over for the gun and I hit him in the wrist with a judo blow. I told him not to goof off again. Later he reached for the gun again and I used a judo blow and hit him across the nose with the edge of my hand. Then I got a little mad and shot him in the head. I guess I had driven about fifteen miles when Rainey moaned, ‘Why did you do it?’ It was then that I fired the second shot.”
It was more than horrendous car wrecks that gave U.S. 66 its recognition as Bloody 66. Photo courtesy Joe Sonderman
While making the confession, Nelson was unaware that police had recovered the .38-caliber revolver used to murder Rainey. When confronted with evidence of his involvement with the murder of Short, Nelson again claimed amnesia. Then, as with Rainey, a few days later he launched into a rambling confession about killing Short west of Tucumcari and dumping the body in an arroyo along US 66. Nelson said, “Kenneth Short picked me up up hitchhiking near Sapulpa. Oklahoma. Some twenty-five miles west of Amarillo he parked the car on a farm road. I slept in the front seat, Short in the back. I overpowered Short while he was sleeping. I tied his hands in front of him. He opened his eyes and asked what I was doing. I told him I needed the car and if he did what I said nothing would happen to him. Then I thought, they can’t hang me any higher for two than they can for one. So, I shot him in the back of the head with the .38.”
Then Nelson dropped another bombshell: “And I also killed a fellow named John Valente on January 4.” Police listened intently to his story, as Valente had been found in the bathroom of his home at Pioche, Nevada, on January 5. Investigators had been working to determine if his death was a murder or suicide.
Before the trial for the Rainey murder, Nelson disavowed his confessions. Then, at his first trial, Nelson maintained an insanity defense, but after evaluation was found sane and guilty. At the second trial, the confessions were disallowed, but he was again found guilty. After his conviction, before pronouncement of a death sentence, Nelson tried to escape from prison. Prior to his execution, he requested that Warden Cox provide two prisoners in the cells next to his with special meals after his death. Nelson was executed in the gas chamber at 12:20 on August 11, 1960.
Truck wreck on Route 66 near Sullivan, Missouri. Photo Joe Sonderman collection
On August 11,1955 a horrendous accident along Route 66 a few miles west of Clines Corner, New Mexico claimed the lives six men. In May 1957 at a highway junction near Cuba, Missouri a two car collision killed five members of a Chicago family. Two weeks prior on Route 66 in western Missouri another wreck took the lives of five people from Indiana. The Indiana Gazette carried the story as filler as wrecks along Route 66 were a common but tragic occurrence. ,
Dateline Springfield, Missouri – Five persons died in an automobile accident about 15 miles northeast of here Saturday night. Sergeant Al Leslie of the Missouri Highway Patrol said the brand new hardtop apparently was doing between 100 and 110 miles per hour when it ran of U.S.66. Four of five occupants thrown from the vehicle died instantly. The fifth succumbed to injuries before he could be extricated from the wreckage. He had been pinned in the vehicle by the engine and impaled by the steering column.
Today in the era of Route 66 renaissance we can have our cake and eat it as well. We can enjoy the essence of the historic Route 66 by cruising the shade dappled highway through the Ozarks, spending a restful night at the time capsule that is the Wagon Wheel Motel, and enjoying a hearty breakfast at Shelly’s. And if we are in a hurry, the interstate highway is an option.
We tend to see Route 66 in the context of neon and tail fins. It is easy to forget that the highway was know as bloody 66 for good reason. And we also forget that the highway was more than a linear theme park. It was an artery of commerce, both legal and illicit.
It was a highway of commerce traveled by truckers and salesman. Vacationing families traveled the well promoted highway on trips to the Grand Canyon, to California, to the newly opened Disneyland and to see the scenic wonders of the southwest. Gangsters and outlaws traveled the highway in flight from the law. And serial killers and grifters drove the highway in search of victims.
Wreck on Route 66 from the Joe Sonderman collection
It was also a segregated highway. The accident at Clines Corners sparked an investigation by the NAACP, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In article published by the Albuquerque Tribune on August 16, 1955, Edward L. Boyd, special assistant with the NAACP said that the accident was not surprising. Neither was the determination that fatigue had been the cause of the accident. He noted that the men killed, African-Americans, “…could not have found a welcome at any of the courts, motels, or hotels on Route 66 from Amarillo to Albuquerque.” He also noted that the investigation had determined that less than eight percent of the more than one hundred motels and auto courts along Central Avenue (Route 66) in Albuquerque would provide lodging to “Negro travelers.”
Like tens of thousands of Route 66 enthusiasts I derive a great deal of enjoyment from traveling this storied old highway. But knowing its history enhances the sense of time travel. Being aware of the stories of tragedy and disaster blur the line between past and present seamlessly.
A collage of illustrations from the authors collection for an episode of Coffee With Jim.
I had prepared the script with rich detail about Ludlow, Daggett, Newberry Springs and other outposts of civilization along the Route 66 corridor in the Mojave Desert. For illustrations I had combed my archives and created a well designed presentation. There was a blend of rare historic photos, award winning photography from several of our adventures along Route 66 in California and historic maps. As the program was going to close out our series that profiled each of the eight states that constitute the Route 66 corridor, this episode of Coffee With Jim had to really shine.
Well, that didn’t work. For reasons unknown, I was unable to get the screen share function to work. And so I went live on the Jim Hinckley’s AmericaFacebook page with just the script and a smile. At least I had pants. I am confident that most folks can relate. In this past year we have had to adapt to a world of Zoom meetings hindered by internet interruptions and odd filters. And we have learned to roll with the punches and to come up with quick fixes and bluffs while maintaining a modicum of dignity.
Then after the program I went with plan “B” and made lemonade out of lemons. I took each slide of the presentation and created a series of scheduled posts on the Jim Hinckley’s America Facebook page. It wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t I had planned. But it worked.
The audience for Coffee With Jim, our live stream program, was understanding, cordial and even supportive. And so far the series of posts on the Facebook page are performing well. The reach and engagement is exceeding most of the posts this month. Is it possible that I have stumbled (or been tossed) into a formula to enhance the Jim Hinckley’s America network?
Every day is a new experience, a new opportunity for teaching this old dog new tricks and new levels of frustration. It is a grand adventure, to say the very least.
Let’s see how next Sunday’s episode of Coffee With Jim goes. The program will be a fun filled, informative fast paced bit of time travel. I have created the presentation and am rather pleased with the result. The program is entitled Bathtubs, Birdcages & Chevrolet and will highlight what each of these has to do with the formation of the American auto industry. I will also be delving into the origins of the great American road trip and sharing some interesting stories about people like David Buick and companies such as Pierce Arrow, Jackson and Chrysler.
Two areas of focus in coming weeks pertain to the development of revenue streams needed to fund proposed Jim Hinckley’s America projects. I have a core of loyal partners that support our crowdfunding initiative on the Patreon platform, and for that I am humbled and grateful.
I have tested the waters of pay per view programs using Facebook live. There has been moderate success, and I was able to repay crowdfunding partners by providing the programs at no cost to them. But the Facebook platform is limited and restrictive.
And so I have set up an Eventbrite account. In the next few weeks, if all goes according to plan, I will host another pay per view presentation using Zoom and Eventbrite. There is still a bit of learning curve but that too seems be a component of the new normal.
On this program I will draw from my latest book Murder and Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66. It will be a rich tapestry of stories about serial killers, gangsters, race riots, robberies turned deadly encounter, and shootouts. The dates for this event as well as for episodes of Coffee with Jim, and On The Road With Jim are posted here on the Jim Hinckley’s America page as well as on the event section of the Facebook page.