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  • David Grassé

Giving Back to Holbrook

For years, the towns along the old Route 66 Highway in Arizona - Winslow, Kingman, Holbrook, Williams, Flagstaff, etc. - have survived, in good part, by marketing themselves to the Boomer Generation. From what I understand there was a television show called "Route 66," a song by Nat King Cole (and covered by numerous others) with the chorus "Get your kicks on Route 66," and, of course, Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck both wrote a books set on the old interstate. These were all part of the Boomer Generation's upbringing, and they have a fond nostalgia for the so-called Mother Road. I still regularly see Route 66 stickers and licence plates on cars driven by this older generation. The problem is, the memories and remembrances of old Route 66, like those of sock-hops, drive-ins, and muscle cars, will be dying off with the Boomer Generation. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 was the beginning of the end for the famous highway. Slowly but surely new super highways circumvented and replaced it. Finally, in 1985, Route 66 was decommissioned altogether. Sure, there are a few stretches of the old highway remaining, lined with quaint little mom & pop restaurants and souvenir shops hawking Route 66 memorabilia to old timers, but Route 66 is fading into history, Generation X might be vaguely aware there was once interstate highway between Chicago and Los Angeles, but they never traveled it. Mention Route 66 to a Millennial and you will probably receive either a dumbfounded or patronizing look. And the iGeneration... well, they might learn about it in a history or English class... Recently, I visited the town of Holbrook again. Holbrook started out as a railroad town in the 1880s, and ended up on Route 66. Today, it is nicknamed "The Gateway to the Petrified Forest." The stretch of the old Route 66 that runs through town, and is still drivable, and one can see the Wigwam Village, take a picture with a giant concrete dinosaur, and eat at a diner filled with pictures of Elvis, Marilyn, and James Dean. And, of course, there are the ubiquitous souvenir shops where you can pick up the aforementioned Route 66 memorabilia, plus baseball caps and logo-emblazoned t-shirts, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, etc. In point of fact, except for the dinosaurs and the wigwams, it really is not that different from any of the other Arizona towns located along the old highway. What does makes Holbrook unique is, long before Route 66 came along, it was a bonafide Old West town, and among the wildest in the Arizona territory. It was once said Holbrook was "too rough for women and churches." Commodore Owens violently ended the depredations of the Blevins boys there, and Terrill’s Cottage Saloon was re-christened "The Bucket of Blood" after a particularly brutal altercation left the walls of the place running with gore. The outlaw Red McNeil visited long enough to try to rob a local merchant (and received a few pellets of buckshot in his arm for his trouble), and Hashknife cowboys were regular visitors to the town's brothels and saloons. No doubt it was a tough place, and it has a long and colorful, albeit sanguine history. When I first visited Holbrook, about 20 years ago, while working on the early drafts of my Owens biography, I had no interest in seeing Route 66. I will readily admit I was completely ignorant of the fact the old highway ran through the town. I had read about the famed interstate in On the Road, but didn't realize parts of it still existed. My interest was in seeing the remnants of Holbrook's wild and wooly western past. I visited the Blevins' house (now a retirement home), walked around the old Atlantic & Pacific train depot, and visited the dilapidated, and abandoned buildings on Bucket of Blood Street (formerly known as Central Avenue). Amazingly, many of the original buildings (pictured below) are still standing, including the Bucket of Blood Saloon. In fact, some of the structures along this road are listed in the National Register of Historic places, and there are several other structures which are eligible to be listed therein. What I could not understand then and still fail to understand today is why the town of Holbrook has not done more with this area. The district seems like an opportunity-in-waiting. Obviously, there is the issue of funding. Holbrook is not an affluent place by any stretch of the imagination, and I would guess buying and refurbishing these properties would be an expensive proposition. Still, this is the town's history, it is unique, and a damn site more interesting than another stretch of Route 66. In my opinion, it is its wild and wooly western past Holbrook should be marketing to tourists, especially as the Boomers fade away. Certainly, the Old West is not as popular as it once was, but it is still an integral part of the great American mythology, which Route 66 is not (except that it once took people to the west). Even the iGen recognizes the iconography of the cowboy. It is easy to complain and moan about things, and/or point out what should be done. Being a detractor takes no skill whatsoever (as evidenced by all the videos floating around out there of grown men yelling into camera phones while seated in their vehicles). Over the years, the people in Holbrook, especially those at the Navajo County Historical Society, have done a lot for me (you can always buy a copy of my first book at the old Navajo County Courthouse), and I feel like I want to give a little something back. It is my intention to (at least) start the process of re-establishing the historic district on Bucket of Blood Street, and turning it into a tourist destination. I am not sure exactly how to go about doing this, but I am starting by producing an exclusive Holbrook t-shirt (rough sketch below), which can be sold to tourists to begin raising some money for this project. I am also looking into how one goes about securing grants, donations, and the like. I will keep you apprised, dear reader, of my success in this endeavor. This project may well have the added bonus of creating jobs and bringing to Holbrook some much needed capital. I have seen the way towns like Cottonwood and Bisbee have reinvented themselves, and increased their appeal as tourist destinations, and I do not see why Holbrook cannot do the same. Sometimes all it takes is a small push to get the wagon rolling. I think it is time for the town Holbrook to let go of the Route 66 nostalgia, and start promoting itself in new and exciting ways.




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