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Fran Houser puts her Sunflower Station up for sale July 30, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Businesses, Gas stations, People, Restaurants.
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Fran Houser, former owner of the Route 66 landmark Midpoint Cafe and Gift Shop in Adrian, Texas, has put her western-themed antiques and crafts store, Sunflower Station, up for sale so she can spend more time with family members out west.

Houser started Sunflower Station two years ago after she sold the Midpoint to Dennis Purschwitz, who continues to run the restaurant and shop today. Because the store was next door in a long-closed 1930s gas station, it enabled her to visit with longtime customers of the restaurant.

She initially planned to run the store just two to three days a week. But it proved more popular than anticipated, and she was forced to extend her hours.

“Had I known it would have done that well, I would have started it years ago and hired someone else to be behind the grill of the Midpoint,” she laughed.

“I’ve had a wonderful two years there,” she said. “But my family wants me to be available when they do things. I want someone there who appreciates travelers on Route 66. It’s been a work of love.”

When she ran the Midpoint, Houser attracted worldwide notice for the the restaurant’s hospitality and its delicious “ugly crust pies.” Houser gained more fame when she became as an inspiration to the Flo character in the original Disney-Pixar “Cars” movie in 2006.

The building contains three rooms, and with a negotiable asking price of $195,000. Those interested in the property should call Houser at 806-538-6380.

(Images courtesy of Fran Houser)

Strike up the Band-Box July 30, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in History, Music, Preservation, Restaurants.
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Jo Ellis, a columnist for the Joplin Globe newspaper, reported about a sometimes-overlooked but cherished part of the history of Carthage, Missouri — the rare Chicago Coin’s Band-Box, also known as “Strike Up the Band,” in the Pancake Hut restaurant along Route 66.

The Band-Box is a coin-operated miniature, robotic big band that’s been in Carthage for about 60 years. It first was installed at Red’s Diner, Ray’s Cafe, and finally Wanda Baugh’s Pancake Hut. Even though it moved around a bit, it always has been on Route 66.

The Chicago Coin’s Band-Box was manufactured only from 1950 to 1952. It is in reality a remote wall-mounted speaker for a jukebox, and it was activated when a coin was inserted into the jukebox and a selection was made. The original miniature figures were made of sponge rubber. Dressed in stylish green jackets and suave bow ties, they sported the slicked-down hair style of the big-band era.

When the sponge rubber deteriorated, Baugh replaced the original musicians with similar sized figures. She found GI Joe dolls, discarded their camo and dressed them in Ken’s spiffy (Barbie doll) clothes. She also was able to replace the background drop, an ocean scene with waving palm trees, through Brad Frank Restorations in Chatsworth, California.

Here’s a video of the Band-Box in action, with the audio swapped out because of a television show blaring nearby:

Here’s another one in British Columbia:

Gene Autry and Clark Gable both saw the Carthage Band-Box when they dined at the restaurant after a night in the nearby Boots Motel, also a Route 66 icon.

A full restoration would cost about $5,500. Frank has offered to donate labor for the restoration if Baugh can raise the money for parts. Frank is supposed to return to Carthage in November to do more work on the machine; hope springs eternal that someone can come up with the cash for the full makeover.

Did Springfield, Missouri, miss the boat in promoting Route 66? July 29, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Attractions, Restaurants, Towns.
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A few days ago, the Springfield News-Leader published a long, soul-searching piece titled “Selling 66″ that asks the question: Has Springfield, Missouri, done a good job promoting Route 66?

If you have to ask, you know the answer.

Springfield has realized its error and is trying new things to bring tourists, including the future Birthplace of Route 66 Roadside Park. And the Birthplace of Route 66 Festival seems to be growing fast.

The article is worth reading in full, including its cool photos. But here are a few newsworthy highlights and observations:

  • The Route 66 Economic Impact Study of 2011, as I predicted, opened a lot of eyes about how financially viable the Mother Road is. The conservative number of $132 million in annual tourism spending on Route 66 surprises a lot of people. Naturally, folks want a piece of that.
  • City Manager Greg Burris said not only tourists, but locals said Springfield wasn’t tapping its Route 66 potential.
  • Jackie and Larry Horton, tourists from Newcastle, England, said Missouri doesn’t promote the route as well as Oklahoma and other western states.
  • In a few weeks, an 18-foot-tall neon sign will be installed at the Convention and Visitor Bureau’s Route 66 center on St. Louis Street.
  • History Museum on the Square’s Route 66 show last year drew an “unprecedented” 10,000 visitors in six months. The museum is planning a permanent Route 66 exhibit after it finishes a $20 million renovation.
  • The number of visitors to the Route 66 Visitors Center doubled from 2012 to 2013 because officials added Route 66 signage.
  • Best Western Rail Haven owner Gordon Elliot plans to build a replica of the long-gone Red’s Giant Hamburg restaurant.

I suspect when the Route 66 roadside park and other such projects are finished, Springfield — and a lot of businesses there — will be very happy it took the trouble to do so.

(Image from the Best Western Route 66 Rail Haven in Springfield, Mo., by the Missouri Department of Tourism via Flickr)

Video summarizes “Route 66: The Road Ahead” conference July 29, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Events, Preservation.
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A few days ago, the World Monuments Fund uploaded this eight-minute video that summarizes the “Route 66: The Road Ahead” conference that took place in November at a hotel near Disney’s Cars Land in California.

You’ll probably see a few familiar faces from Route 66, including Dawn Welch at the Rock Cafe, Kevin Mueller at the Blue Swallow Motel, Allan Affeldt at La Posada, Bill Thomas of the Palms Grill Cafe, and Kaisa Barthuli of the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. The video also touts the Route 66 Economic Impact Study, as it should.

Alas, you’ll also see a few things that are no more, including Bill Shea, who died in December, and the Bell gas station in Tulsa, which was demolished (but the sign saved) in March 2013.

Route 66: The Road Ahead from World Monuments Fund on Vimeo.

(Image of brick Route 66 near Auburn, Ill., by Jim Grey via Flickr)

A visit to Enchanted Trails RV Park July 28, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Motels, People, Preservation.
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KC Keefer with his ongoing “Genuine Route 66 Life” video series interviews Vickie Ashcraft at the Enchanted Trails RV Park west of Albuquerque.

The interview also serves as a brief tour of a couple of the vintage travel trailers that Ashcraft rents out to overnight guests. If you’d like to stay in one, go here.

Tours offered of hard-to-access Route 66 sites in Arizona July 27, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Businesses, History.
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The Petrified Forest National Park is allowing free, guided tours of hard-to-reach landmarks on a long-closed section of Route 66 on Aug. 8 and Aug. 10.

The tours coincide with the Route 66 festival taking place that weekend in nearby Holbrook, Arizona. The Arizona Journal had a listing of the sites that will be included during the tours:

  • Painted Desert Point Trading Post operated by Harry Osborne, which reportedly had illegal slot machines.
  • Rocky’s Old Stage Station, owned in the 1950s by Nyal Rockwell, which also had guest cabins.
  • LA-A Airway Beacon No. 51, a 1920s landmark that guided an air mail route from Los Angeles to Amarillo.
  • Painted Desert Tower, built by Charles Jacobs in 1953, and the Painted Desert Inn, nicknamed Stone Tree House because petrified wood was used to build it.
  • Remnants of the Petrified Forest National Monument entrance station, which opened in 1932.
  • Remnants of Painted Desert Park, also known as the Lion Farm zoo, established in the 1920s by Harry “Indian” Miller.
  • Ruins of the Painted Desert Trading Post,  established by Dotch and Alberta Windsor in 1942.

These sites were rendered almost completely inaccessible by the opening of Interstate 40 and the decertification of Route 66 in the mid-1980s. A few hardcore roadies with four-wheel drives or good hiking shoes have managed to explore these places, but I’ve never placed them on the Attractions page simply because they’re too difficult to get to.

But park’s tours will offer an easy way to see these Route 66 sites, with historical context to boot.

The tours will last about four hours. They are free, but with limited seating. It’s recommended that you make reservations by calling Kathleen Smith at 928-524-6225.

(Image of the Painted Desert Trading Post by Marcin Wichary via Flickr)

Owner of El Rancho Hotel in Gallup dies July 26, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Businesses, Motels, People, Preservation.
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Armand Ortega Sr., 86, savior of the historic El Rancho Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico, when it faced the wrecking ball during the 1980s, died Wednesday.

An employee at the hotel said Ortega had been in failing health for about a year. His funeral was today at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup, with burial at Sunset Cemetery.

Ortega Family Enterprises, based in Santa Fe, owns several concessions in national parks, Native American-themed gift shops and restaurants in the Southwest, as well as El Rancho.

But Ortega was especially fond of El Rancho, which was opened in 1937 by R.E. “Griff” Griffith, brother of the famed movie director D.W. Griffith. The Griffiths encouraged filmmakers to shoot movies in the Gallup area, and the hotel benefited by having a bevy of stars — including John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart – stay at the hotel during productions up to the 1960s.

The hotel started to decline, especially when Interstate 40 bypassed Route 66 in 1980. But Ortega, who always dreamed of owning El Rancho, bought it in 1986 after it went into bankruptcy and was threatened with demolition. According to an Associated Press story in 1989, Ortega bought the property for $500,000 and spent another $500,000 restoring it. It was reopened in May 1988 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places that year.

Clair Gurley, a salesman who was the hotel’s first guest when it opened in 1937, was invited back to the hotel after it was renovated and charged the original $5-a-night price.

An obituary in the Gallup Independent newspaper (subscription only) said Ortega could be found almost daily in the hotel’s restaurant, drinking coffee while chatting with tourists or buying crafts from Native Americans who lived in the region.

According to an obituary supplied by Rollie Mortuary in Gallup:

Ortega got his start in business selling newspapers and leading a team of shoeshine boys at the age of 10. In his youth he worked for his father at Indian Trails Trading Post in Lupton, Arizona. He graduated from Holbrook High School in 1946, where he played basketball and the trumpet. In 1952, he opened his first store in Deming. He worked to promote Indian Jewelry throughout the U.S. and he was the first Indian Arts and Crafts dealer to market and distribute throughout the United States.

Ortega was born in Holbrook. He eventually opened a slew of businesses in New Mexico and Arizona, including the Indian Ruins Trading Post in Sanders, Arizona, and the Hopi House near Flagstaff.

(Images of El Rancho Hotel by el-toro and Larry Lamsa via Flickr)

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