At different times, Route 66 took a few loops other than the one we’re traveling, but today, we follow our map through Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana and Rialto. It’s lush, green agricultural country, and worthy of exploring at another time, for sure.
San Bernardino is the site of the very first McDonalds and, given the love/hate relationship I have with the restaurant, I still wanted to lay eyes on its historic roots. However, we stop for lunch in Rialto, and see clippings that the place had pretty much gone to ruin, and then burned, so we decided to not go and stare at a pile of black rubble. A similar fate occurred to the Wigwam Motel (one of 3 along the road), so we postpone a kitschy motor court visit until we get to Arizona.
We head to Victorville Route 66 Museum, instead. A number of the small towns capitalized on the Route 66 designation, trying to generate a bit of commerce, I’m sure, so we like to support them in whatever way we can, however small. Unfortunately, we didn’t do our homework very well and made the assumption that they’d be open on a Wednesday. Well, we all know what “assuming” does.
We find that these small town museums (usually staffed by volunteers, I’m sure) are only open on the weekends during the non-summer off season. Later, I find that Google gives Victorville 4.3 stars, so it’s a shame to have missed it. Several attendees write glowing reports of their visits. Go to www.califrt66museum.org before you go and get the hours. Making a living can be hard in these small towns, so we encourage you to stop and spend a few bucks whenever you can.
Because we are a bit pressed for time, we skip the loop through Oro Grande, Helendale, Hodge and Lenwood (which I knew I’d later regret), stay on Interstate 15 and go straight to Barstow. Our cell phone coverage is spotty, at best, so we have trouble connecting to the internet. But, we cross our fingers and hope the museum there is open. Wrong again, and what a disappointment not to be able to go in, because it looks great from the outside. Barstow seems to have seen a lot better days, and the accommodations here were the worst on the entire trip, even though we chose an, admittedly lesser known, national chain. From our hotel on the Route, we navigate over the humpback bridge and find an unexpectedly large building next to railroad tracks. Often, these low budget museums seem to be housed in low cost buildings nobody else wants, but this one is expansive, with arches and great architectural details. There are several interesting railroad cars we can get out and examine, and in contrast, shaded grounds instead of the barren high-desert in the rest of the town. This is one museum I’d love to revisit.
It’s only a short drive to Daggett the next morning, and we’re tired of missing out on all the local color and information, so we decide to get off the highways, just talk with people and create our own tour. We know Daggett to have been an important way-station on Route 66, so we want to explore. An Asian-looking house appears almost immediately, and I dub it “The Pagoda House.” We turn left toward what looks like it was once “downtown, and find history evident everywhere in tumbledown buildings and rusting mining equipment; and that’s about all we see among the cactus and creosote bushes. We’re looking for the old hotel we’d read about where Wyatt Earp and Death Valley Scotty (the infamous con man who sold fake gold mines) had stayed, but we’re not sure which of the stone carcasses can claim that distinction.
We stop at the little general store along this “business” strip and I go inside to buy a couple bottles of water. The store has to be an original, because it’s like stepping through a time portal back to the 1930s. The only modern day giveaway is the older, very East Indian looking man behind the counter waiting on and shooting the breeze with a young man in blue jeans and a button up shirt. The clerk finishes his business and greets me, but his customer sticks around to see what I want in this off-the-track town. I pay for the drinks and ask which of the buildings down the dirt street is the famous Stone Hotel. The clerk/owner shakes his head and tells me, in heavily accented English, that he doesn’t really know because he’s only been there 5 years and doesn’t know the history. He’s not exactly encouraging further questions.
Cue the dark haired young man who steps forward immediately and offers a bit of local history and more than a bit of local pride. The streets seem to come alive in his eyes; I can almost imagine that Wyatt Earp had just walked out the door of that hotel last week. He loves this town!
“Where can we find the museum?” I ask. He waves vaguely toward the back of the store.
“Oh, it’s just right over there in the
The Inspection Station
city building right across the hall from where we pay our water bill. It’s closed right now because some thieves broke in a while ago and stole a lot of our stuff. But Beryl’s there and she might open and show you what’s left. She’s amazing and loves to talk about the town. Everybody knows Beryl.”
I don’t ask him to be specific on his directions because, in a town with about a dozen streets, how hard can it be, right? Welll…remember what I said about assuming? Thirty minutes later, we finally wind our way back to the General Store from the outskirts of town and a couple tours through a little neighborhood. We start over and finally find the unassuming, low- slung, barely marked building in the general direction of his wave.
He was right, Beryl Bell is on duty that day, and I can hardly believe she’s 88 years old. I introduce myself, and she’s interested in talking, but not very, because her phone keeps ringing every time she’s about to tell me a story. At first, she agrees to talk and show us what’s left of the museum, but there’s a crises in the water district, and it seems she’s the (only) woman who can take care of it. I get the feeling absolutely nothing happens in this town that Beryl doesn’t know about and/or take care of. The more I listen and watch, the more I see her as that one immoveable object, the mountain smack-dab in the middle of the road to oblivion. She’s the stop sign with arms spread wide that demands that this town will go no further down that road!
She gives us her attention just long enough to learn that Daggett was founded in 1860, but originally called Calico Junction. What put it on the map was a silver strike in the Calico Mountains, just 6 miles to the north, and then the Borax mine. This set the stage for the Alf Family to build the, now famous, “20 Mule Team wagons” that hauled supplies and water to the mines in Calico and Borate and silver ore on the return trip to be process in Daggett. Ten teams were hitched together to pull two wagons and a water wagon. Their picture still appears in the logo of 20 Mule Team Borax cleaning compound and the company (now a subsidiary of Dial) sponsored one of the longest running Western radio and TV shows, Death Valley Days. Loved that show as a kid. I can still hear and see their most famous host, Ronald Reagan, telling us about the heroes of Western folklore.
Just as an aside, I learn that Borax is also used in cosmetics, gold extraction, making fiberglass, as a fire retardant and as flux in metallurgy, among other uses.
She also told us she’d come to Dagget with her father, who became an agricultural agent at the inspection station just outside of town. And this information piques my interest the most. I’d been hearing, since I’d done the Arizona Highways Route 66 article in 2000, that there was once an inspection station in the 30s, established on the California border to weed out the riff raff refugees emptying out of the Dust Bowl. I’d wanted to find its exact location and talk with locals who could tell me about it. According to what’d I’d heard, everyone coming down Route 66 was stopped and questioned. If they didn’t have enough money, looked too seedy or had a disease, they were not allowed to enter California. Not surprisingly, the system was rampant with abuse of the poor, naïve and illiterate. My search of the internet and conversations with people I thought might know had not turned up even a clue about inspection stations, until now.
When I asked about the poor and sick being turned away, Beryl shook her head and said that she didn’t think so, but admitted that some inspectors could have been overzealous. I’d been under the impression that the station had been located right at the Arizona/California border, so this probably isn’t it. At any rate, this facility was open from 1948-1953, so it seems a bit late to have been the one I’d heard about. Apparently, that initial station is a dark piece of unconstitutional history that prefers to stay hidden.
To state the obvious, being in Daggett has been fascinating, but it’s confirmed at least one thing: discovering The Mother Road is best learned by getting out of our car and talking to the people who know it best. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation and ask good questions when you travel. We meet the most interesting people and hear wonderful intriguing stories. It may be downtrodden in appearance, but the people of Daggett were helpful and most were more than willing to share a few minutes with us. Our story and our experience would have been so much less rich without them.
Next: Daggett to Bagdad Cafe