The Lope: January 2008

Thursday, January 31, 2008

50 years of the U.S. in Space

Today is the 50th anniversary of the first successful launch by the United States of a space vehicle into orbit. Read about it at

Explorer 1 helped us catch up to the Soviets after they served us with Sputnik. To see something of the prior, unsuccessful launch attempts by the U.S., see the cooler-looking Vanguard satellite, here.

To see authentic relics of Explorer (above), Vanguard and Sputnik satellites, you need go no further than the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, which was recently declared one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Where is Ace Jackalope? (Episode 17)

Why wouldn't you want to bite into this slice of watermelon? And where is Ace Jackalope? Really, this one is too easy.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


We lost a valued reader the other day. Jim Terrell succumbed to lung cancer at his home in La Center, Kentucky, last Saturday. Our sympathy goes out to to his family, whose hospitality often aided us in our travels. Pictured is frequent Lope chauffeur Patsy Terrell, his sister.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Belvedere Motel

Who can resist stopping to shoot a fine bit of neon on a swoopy sign?

The Belvedere Motel is in Cairo, Illinois, which is pronounced "care row", unlike the Egyptian city. Cairo is a sliver of a town located at the southern tip of Illinois between Missouri and Kentucky. The Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet here, and the town was a happening place back in the heyday of river travel.

Sadly, Cairo's fortunes changed and its business district is now a virtual ghost town of boarded-up buildings. The Belvedere plugs along, though.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Lorraine Motel

The motel at which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated nearly 40 years ago declined after his murder until it went into foreclosure in 1982. Concerned parties bought the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, and it eventually re-opened as the National Civil Rights Museum in 1991. Read more about it on their website.

The motel's preservation is a laudable act of adaptive reuse. So little is the exterior structure altered that when I drove past the place on a googie photo-recon of Memphis in 2001, I didn't even immediately realize it wasn't a working motel. With other historic motels endangered here and there (i.e. El Vado), I hope we see more of this sort of thing.

Note the arrow-shaped part of the sign. This is common to thousands of signs that can still be seen today.

Back in 2001 I was photographing signs almost exclusively, and not often the buildings that went with them and gave them context. Now I know better.

The metal web or grid used at the base of the sign is a feature that I see more in the South and in Texas than in the Midwest or most of the Southwest.

The Lorraine Motel is the 1960s annex of the older Lorraine Hotel, which was built in the 1920s. Read more about the history of the Lorraine Hotel/Motel here.

The attached Coffee shop sign is also intact. Note the relatively unobtrusive museum banner in the background.

This long metal and neon sign is affixed to the same wall from which the Coffee Shop sign protrudes.

"Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride

U2 - Pride (In the Name of Love)

Neat song, but they got it a bit wrong, you know. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot at just after 6 PM on April 4, 1968 - not in the morning.

A white wreath marks the balcony of room 306, on which Dr. King received the fatal wound. The room has been preserved and is the last part of the museum tour. The museum was closed when I was there; it was undergoing growth that stretched a tendril, via an under-street tunnel, to the boarding house where James Earl Ray fired the shot. I did read a good accounting of the museum at a business blog, of all places: Jeff Matthews Is Not Making This Up.

I expect that with this year holding the 40th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., we'll see a few documentaries that include the National Civil Rights Museum. I hope that somewhere along the line we see a detailed accounting of the debates and practical procedures that went onto the restoration and adaptation of the Lorraine Motel.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Breakfast at Lou Mitchell's

Just as a walk on the Santa Monica Pier is the spiritual (if not actual) close of a typical Route 66 end-to-end journey, breakfast at Chicago's Lou Mitchell's restaurant is often the ceremonial beginning of one, and it's actually on the route at 565 West Jackson Street.

As a matter of fact, the restaurant pre-dates Route 66 by a bit. It has been in this same location since 1923.

The day after our first taste of Illinois' Route 66, we drove to Lou Mitchell's for a late breakfast and took a few pictures.

That's the Sears Tower in the background, by the way.

There was no wait when we arrived, shortly after 1PM, but I was told these doughnut holes are handed out to customers who have to wait in line.

I'd never seen a restaurant so proud of the quality of the water with which its coffee is made.

Nearby coffee drinkers told me the place is known for good, basic java.

Small boxes of Milk Duds wait in a plastic basket by the door. These are given to women and children when seated.

As a man, I feel so slighted!

Seating is a mixture of counters, booths and communal tables.

The menu was composed of basic comfort food. It was basic, good-quality road trip fuel - a bit pricey, but plenty of it. And that's good, because we needed a lot of fuel to support the hard work of getting in and out of the car, opening the doors of other restaurants, lifting the camera, turning the pages of the map...I'm hungry again just thinking about it.

Though quite busy, our waitress Marina took a few moments for a picture.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Cool Fire Station

I was just looking at a calender and noted that February is Black History Month. Deciding to run a bit ahead of schedule this time, I'm publishing some photos with a local African-American history connection.

Fire station #10 in Wichita, Kansas, was renamed "Charles Shoots" station in 2004 after the first African-American hired by the Wichita Fire Department.

Several of Wichita's fire stations have unique decorations but # 10 at 21st St. North and Chautauqua is my favorite because of its tribal theme. I suppose the inclusion of any sort of exterior doo-dad to dress up a building is similar to the practice of putting dingbats on plain boxy apartment buildings back in the 1950s and 60s.

When I first saw this building from a distance, I thought maybe those were tiki masks. Nope. African.

Of course, I think they'd look even cooler with red back lit eyes and smoke machines spewing out their mouths, but I suppose smoke coming out of things loses some of its entertainment value if you're a fireman.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Memoirs of an Elf

I caught up to an old friend this past Christmas season - the Kansas City Southern railroad's Holiday Express train. The train was in Drexel, Missouri, too near the end of its 28-stop tour to blog it before the tour actually ended, especially with the ice storm still disrupting power. But if you like what you see here, don't be too sorry you missed it. 2007 was the seventh year for the train's yuletide tour and I presume you'll get a chance to see it next year.

The Holiday Express consists of two cabooses, a flatcar containing Santa's sleigh and reindeer, two converted box cars and a faux steam engine named Rudy. This photo was taken in Joplin, Missouri back in 2002, before one of the boxcars was added. This past year, the train had stops in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and Illinois.

I've seen the Holiday Express a few times over the years, but had never seen a reception like the one in Drexel this past year, in which the locals built an event around the train. Here, girls perform in a tent through which the line to see the train passed. The tent also housed food booths staffed by various local non-profit agencies. I enjoyed a hot dog and some fresh kettle corn while I waited and watched the shows - quite convenient, really.

A long line of folks passed through the tent to eventually enter the train, which opened at 4PM, at the trailing caboose. Admission is free.

The line reminded me of this picture I shot from the caboose during one of the train's 2002 stops. The kid is probably looking at me because I was dressed as an elf.

The Holiday Express train is a continuation of a tradition started on the former Gateway Western railroad, which had a Santa Train that ran from East St. Louis, IL, to Blue Springs, MO. After Gateway Western was absorbed by KCS in 1997, KCS employees noted that the Santa Train was the only Christmas some underprivileged kids had. Some of them volunteered to revive the train and by 2001, the new Holiday Express was up and running on the KCS.

The stream of people in Drexel finally thinned out at a bit before 8PM.

According to KCS press releases, KCS employees, vendors and friends raised $122,700 to purchase Wal-Mart gift cards which were given to the Salvation Army at or near all of the stops. These were used to pay for warm clothing for kids. Major sponsors included American Railcar Industries, CorpLogoWare, DST Systems, Inc., Michael and Marlys Haverty, Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, Kinder Morgan and Watco Companies.

KCS and Watco also helped out with steam engine 745's 2006 visit to Pittsburg, Kansas.

Elves help people up the steep steps into the first caboose. I am told the red uniforms are a newer addition and designate people who are with the train full-time, as opposed to local volunteers.

Flashback time. Here are my brother (right) and I in 2002. We were elving in Pittsburg, Kansas. It was frigidly cold and I was wearing about four layers of clothing and several chemical warming packs, including one under the pointy cap. Our mother was so proud those college educations weren't wasted.

Back to the present...

The caboose, like all parts of the train, was painted in Christmas designs and decorated with lights which were activated right before the train opened. The lights are off when the train travels from city to city.

Kids wanting to meet Santa were able to get right to it. The first caboose contained the man himself, who took time to hear what Ace wanted for Christmas.

The caboose and boxcar interiors are decorated with various Christmas displays. This past year, the theme was Santa Clause - way to kiss up to the ole' boy. Of course, he did ride along with them, so I guess it worked.

I understand this little display is called the ice castle.

People are next ushered through this boxcar, which is painted like a reindeer stable.

The boxcar contains two model train layouts.

This one featured a model of the Southern Belle, the KCS executive train that actually furnishes the power to pull the Holiday Express on its tour. The Southern Belle no longer wears the black paint scheme on this model. Also note the Western Auto sign, a Kansas City fixture.

I photographed the real Western Auto sign this past August. I had also included it in the background with Union Pacific's steam engine, 844, in 2006.

The second layout featured a model of the Holiday Express. So, if the model contained a boxcar with a model train layout within, and that boxcar contained a layout with...hmmm...I guess we can call that the "boxcar paradox."

Next in line was another caboose. You can't have too many cabooses ("cabeese"?). Actually, I wonder how many of these kids had seen a caboose.

Apparently, Santa has a disco cupola within. Play that funky music, North Pole boy.

This is the end of the interior tour. More elves help you off the train at the far end of the green caboose. Kids get a little sack of goodies right before leaving. In 2003 I helped pack the little treat sacks, which contained crayons and small toys that year - not a bad deal, especially as it's free.

But there's more to see outside, like this next festive ginger bread box car which, I believe, serves as the elves' workshop. I think I worked in this car in 2003, assembling those goodie bags.

Of course, Santa needs something a bit more airborne than a train to do his job, so a sleigh and eight reindeer are carried on this flatcar.

I'm sure that when not simply on display, this guy is "lively and quick."

Last in line (going in the direction of the tour), is Rudy, a converted tank car made to look like a steam engine.

He qualifies for the best-ever use of a fog machine as the stuff occasionally spills from his stack, as seen here in 2001.

Forward of Rudy is the Southern Belle executive train, the end of which can be seen here in Pittsburg, Kansas, in 2002 when the Holiday Express had a slightly different arrangement. The Southern Belle will be the subject of another post. The passenger cars of the "Belle" house the elves in transit between cities. Many of them actually stay on the train for its entire tour.

I shot this picture of Rudy from the rear platform of the Southern Belle during that same 2002 Pittsburg stop. That's the old Pittsburg KCS diesel shop in the background, at left. I spent many a joyful hour there in my youth, shooting pictures of locomotives gone by.

Back in Drexel, 2007..

As if six railroad cars loaded with Yule weren't enough, a jewel waits down the tracks that'll quicken the heart of anyone who goes glassy-eyed when thinking about the golden age of passenger trains - and it waits under the moon and stars, just to be more ethereal. These classic 1950s FP-9 locomotives are what actually pull the Holiday Express as well as the KCS executive train, Southern Belle.

Ahh, The Southern Belle - one speaks the name as though remembering a dear departed relative or war hero, long fallen. Although I'm pretty sure the Southern Belle of old was pulled by a larger form of streamliner (E-units, I've read) and certainly not these particular F-units as they are relatively recent additions to the KCS, they are what motivated me to drive the 450 miles round-trip from Hutchinson, Kansas, to Drexel, my nearest point of interception for the train. I paid much photographic attention to them, and they'll be the subject of another post.

Of course, the final authority on the train's coolness must rest not with nostalgia-propelled rail aficionados but with those for whom the Holiday Express was intended. Judging from the reaction of Drexel area resident Katrina Barker, it was pretty holly-jolly.

If you like trains, you might enjoy the following posts:
844 - Union Pacific's steam engine in Salina, Abilene, Herrington and Hutchinson, KS in 2006...lots of night shots
844 Returns - 844 in Claremore, OK
844: Riding the Iron Horse - woo hoo! We get a cab ride!
Goodbye, 844, 'til we meet again - Train ride from Coffeyville to Kansas City
You Can Have A Steam Train - Louisiana Steam Train Association's steam locomotive, ex-Southern Pacific #745, visits Pittsburg, KS
745 - More of Louisiana Steam Train Association's #745 in Pittsburg
Cincinnati Union Terminal - trains, Art Deco, dinosaurs, neon, Art Nouveau and the Justice League to boot!

Monday, January 07, 2008

A Rocket and a Storm

I fell in love in a parking lot today.

I encountered this Oldsmobile 88 while parking at a grocery store and just had to shoot pictures. The owner said this wasn't unusual; in fact, another guy got out of his car and shot pictures too.

I'm not normally a car person, but if they made something like this now, with modern workings, I'd so buy it.

I read up on this model tonight, and found out the engine was named the rocket.

As I've said before, our nation lost its way when cars went sans fins.

I guess that, unfortunately, we finally realized that despite having apparent rocket exhaust ports, a car cannot fly.

Overhead, a storm was brewing.

The dramatically sunset-lit clouds that delighted me portended unfortunate events for others.

A night view from south Joplin - the storm raged in the southeast, exerting its violence on, among other cities, Monett, Missouri, where a tornado hit a convenience store and (of course) a mobile home park. Unintentionally, I seem to be including Orion in night shots lately.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Jingle the Bells Slowly and Fade Out

Hey, I said it would be Christmas until Epiphany on this site...or was it Christmas until Target cleared it's Christmas items? Anyway, here are four more examples of electric Yule.

This particular display has graced Joplin, Missouri, for over 25 years. It's on South Schifferdecker Avenue between 26th and 32nd streets.

I hadn't ever seen this one before. The array of about ten stars with trails hovers over the grounds of a house on South Colonial Drive, bordering the eastern edge of the Joplin Regional Airport.

This house is just to the south of the one above. It's on the northeast corner of highway 171 and South Colonial Drive.

Christmas Corner

Our last display is a special one. From a distance, coming north on Kansas Highway 400, shortly after exiting at I-44, you know you've found something big in this rural display near Baxter Springs, Kansas.

Christmas Corner, the locals call it - and it's been here in some form since 1968, according to a Joplin Globe story by Melissa Dunson.

Despite the apparent frivolity, this is a bittersweet display that was unplugged - probably for the last time - just a few days ago. We had the chance to see and photograph it after Christmas.

The display was the ongoing Yuletide passion of the late Gladys Murray, who died of lung cancer this past June. She asked her children to run the display one more time after her death, so that her three new great-grandchildren might see it.

Many parts of the display had personal meaning for Gladys and tragedy plays out in some of the wattage. The sled pays tribute to her grandmother's childhood in Nebraska. The blue angel at far right memorializes her daughter Marquetta Murray, who died of cancer in 1995.

The blue Trans Am outline is a tribute to Gladys' grandson, John Sears, who died in a 1996 car accident.

But it wasn't all sad. The gem of this display is the reindeer stable located in the glass-fronted building

Among the modern blow-molded interior-lit plastic pieces are some older ones, like this elf, made by (I believe) David Hamberger Display Company, which was bought by Center Stage Productions in 2005. I've seen literally hundreds of this design of elf, dating back decades; they were almost always part of an animated display and some part of him would have been motorized. Window display veterans tell me they are made of vulcanized rubber and that accounts for them being prone to cracking and decay, as seen in this elf's left hand.

I believe David Hamberger also made the reindeer. This was the only full-bodied one on display.

The back of the small building houses eight reindeer heads poking out of their stalls. I didn't realize the influence of the poem, The Night Before Christmas, until I saw reindeer displayed out of that poem's order of names.

I haven't seen this much vintage stuff in one place since the last time I saw Mike Babick's display in Prairie Village, Kansas.

The reindeer had seen better days, but I was glad to be able to photograph them.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Help Something Cool - Feel Good, Too

If one of your new year's resolutions was to give more positive reinforcement to people doing good things, now's an opportune time to start.

I'm catching up on the emails and bits of news that came in during the ice storm and subsequent clean-up and holiday travels, but here's something important:

This coming Monday at 5PM, the next step in the legal history of Albuquerque's historic Route 66 motel, El Vado, will take place - a hearing before the Albuquerque City Council to decide whether to designate El Vado as a city landmark.

Of late, the long battle to save El Vado has gone well. Back in November, the Albuquerque’s Landmarks and Urban Conservation Commission recommended unanimously that the motel be designated a city landmark to protect it from demolition. The motel had already been declared a Historical Landmark by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but that designation did not protect it from demolition.

As with many matters of the Mother Road, Route 66 News has been following the story from the beginning.

Sending your feedback to the council with this online form couldn't make it more easy to give these people some positive feedback for what we hope they'll do - approve the designation.

This is most of what I sent:

"Dear council members,

As an annual tourist to Albuquerque, I have followed the events surrounding the El Vado motel with great interest.

I'm sure you all know what a great touristic lure that Route 66 provides your city.

The El Vado, a well-preserved motor court with regional architectural flavor, is part of that lure - a magnet that draws people like me to come to Albuquerque and contribute to the local economy via food and motel stays.

I have confidence that you'll do the right - and logical - thing: approve the historic designation and help ensure that El Vado remains a time capsule that is aesthetic as well as educational.

I hope to take great pleasure in speaking of your city's wisdom in setting an example for preservation-minded city councils everywhere.

Remember that the hearing is Monday, so get typing if you intend to.

If you want to participate in a discussion about possible future uses for El Vado, you might want to join the website, Duke City Fix.

By the way, according to Legends of America, Albuquerque's nickname, "Duke City", comes from its 1706 naming in honor of Spanish Viceroy Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva, the Duke of Alburquerque. The "r" was later dropped.

January 7 update: El Vado was given landmark status, but not by a large margin. See Route 66 News.