Baby Jeremy was napping, and four year old Atom was making a model airplane with Davey. Well, Davey was glueing the parts together while Atom climbed on his shoulders and asked, “What is this? Can I do that?” I heard Davey tell Atom, “Here. You hold the propellers while I put glue on the engine.” For a few rare moments, I would not be missed.
I slipped away from the weathered shack we lived in. I closed the cracked wooden door behind me, and headed down the hill to main street, walking the same rocky path prospectors took in 1916. I passed the now rusty hulk of a shed where they once took their gold to be assayed, and headed toward the abandoned theatre where their families once watched silent movies. I stepped onto the one paved street in Oatman, old route 66. I skirted the sun dried burro droppings and dodged the few burros that weren’t hanging out by the General Store hoping for a handout from some obliging tourist.
It was Saturday, still early in the tourist season. A few swap-meeters were set up beside the road, also hoping for tourists. Across the street, The sun glinted on turquoise jewelry set in silver, displayed on a dark blue velvet cloth. Ye Old Photo Shoppe offered to take your picture as a gold rush dance hall girl, a snappily dressed gambler, or a gun swinging cowpoke. Judy’s Pottery Shop was just opening up.
Under one awning, an ancient rocking chair caught my eye, along with a card table sporting collectables (salt shakers, sugar dishes, creamers), and an open steamer trunk with colorful fabric spilling out of it. I took a closer look. Quilt tops! I had been wanting a real quilt for sometime now, something with a well thought out orderly pattern, not one of those crazy quilts with patches of all different sizes and shapes sewn haphazardly together, like the one Davey got me.
I picked up the blue and white one. Every little 3 by 4 inch triangle was carefully hand stitched into a pattern of squares and triangles. The other quilt was made of hexagons, one inch to a side, also hand sewn. There were yellow hexagons, red with white flowers, cream with red or green balloons, blue with white circles, and many many others, all arranged to make a repeated pattern of diamonds with stair step edges.
My neighbor Mac McKenny was running the booth (in Oatman we are all neighbors, as we all live within shouting distance). I asked Mac how much he wanted for the quilts. “$25 for the both of them” he told me. Ten minutes later I was carefully putting them away where the guys wouldn’t spill beer on them and tiny hands couldn’t reach them, where they would be safe until I had time to finish them. Only then did I notice the blue ribbon on one of the quilts. Printed on the ribbon, in gold lettering, were the words:
Crowley County Fair
Sugar City, Colorado
The note with them was too faded to read.
Almost forty years later, I still had them, still unfinished. Every once in awhile, I would take them out to admire the meticulous hand stitching, and the careful ordering of pattern pieces. I would imagine the quit maker in an old farm kitchen, baking fresh bread, soup simmering on the cast iron wood burning cook stove, or canning vegetables from the garden, so many years ago.
Last week I took the quilts out again, remembering that time in my life when my home was anything but orderly, and the longing I had for a home that welcomed friends whose lives did not revolve around beer, marijuana, and dreams of mineral riches, a home I could invite the pastors wife into if I chose. I have that now. My house is beautiful. It has welcomed a wedding, Quaker meetings, music and laughter.
I hugged to myself the colorful quilt with the hexagons in so many different patterns. Then I picked up the blue and white one, the one with the blue ribbon. I went to the computer and googled Sugar City, Crowley County, Colorado. I learned that Sugar City, like Oatman, was a boom town in the early 1900’s, but instead of gold, it’s fortune was build around the manufacture of sugar from beets. Like Oatman, it now has only a tenth the population it had then.
I took a close look at the faded note pinned under the blue ribbon. After several tries I was able to decipher a name, the name of the quilt maker: Amalia N Bates, age 77 years. At least that’s what it seemed to say. Back to the computer, I found the Crowley Historical Museum, and through that, Annette, the contact person for the Historical Society. Then I knew. It was time for the quilts to go home. If I could find Amalia’s descendants, I would give the quilts to them; if not, I would send them to the museum.
A few days later, my email was answered. Annette and her resources had located the great-great grand daughter of Amalia N Bates! She gave me contact information for Shelia Burns, and I called. Shelia was in tears of joy when she heard about the quilts. She told me her Aunt Lois and husband “Uncle Bud” (Mac McKinney) had moved to Oatman after they retired. Lois died in Oatman. Apparently Mac, in his grief, didn’t realize the quilts value.
I packaged up the quilts, wrapped them carefully in plastic, wadded up newspaper to take up the extra space, taped the box firmly shut, and took them to the FedEx office. They were on their way home!
When I worked at the Oatman Hotel in about 1980, the dining room was pleasant if humble. The large windows let in just enough sunlight, and the green patterned tablecloths gave kind of a down home feeling. The food was average middle American. You could get a steak dinner or grilled cheese sandwich and potato salad. I served people their morning coffee for a quarter and they would leave me a 50 cent tip.
On New Year's Eve or when there was a band, there was room to dance, and dance we did! Sometimes my Sicilian friend would play "Lady of Spain" on his accordion. I would dance to anything in those days!
Back then, the closest you could come to staying at the hotel was to peer into the room where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were said to have spent their wedding night, after being married in Kingman. Since I left Oatman, a whole bevy of ghosts seem to have moved into the hotel, so I guess you could say the rooms are occupied once again.
When I visited Oatman in March, I could hardly find the Hotel door. The windows and doors were plastered with dollar bills, blocking the light, and there was no sign. People were going in, though, so I followed them--and was hit with the smell of fried grease! Unhuh, no way I wanted to eat there! It was dark inside, and crowded. It did not feel healthy! The only daylight I could see was in back, where the wall had apparently been removed--or had fallen away--to show the wall of gray dirt behind the restaurant. I suppose this is where "Oatie", the ghost of an Irish miner, is supposed to hang out. I only remember the aging septic system being there.
I backed out quickly and we headed down to Bullhead City for lunch.
Nothing was open yet when we arrived in Oatman, but the door to the Olive Oatman Restaurant was open, so we went in. A man with a salt and pepper pony tail and beard was sitting at one of the tables, with his dog Bun sitting in a chair beside him. He turned out to be Lee Kent, who said he owns the restaurant. I introduced myself and we got to talking.
I used to live here, I told him. I came with Boone and Shorty and had two little red haired boys. "Oh yes!" he said, "I remember the boys! Cutest things, running around town. My wife and I got such a kick out of them!" (I found out later he came to Oatman after I left; must have been some other boys--either that or he was messing with me. I left in 1982 or '83. And I never let my boys run around town anyway.)
"What do you hear from Boone?" Lee asked. "I bought fire agate from him sometimes."
Boone, Shorty's brother, was the very picture of an old time prospector. He would get a grubsteak together--that is he would persuade someone to loan him money for food--and walk up into the hills to the fire agate claim. He would be gone about a week, and come back down with as much fire agate as he could carry in his backpack. He'd sell enough to pay off his debts and get roaring drunk with the rest. After a few days or weeks, he'd get enough money scraped together for another trip up to the claim.
He stayed with us between trips to the claim, but he never ate with us. I guess he was able to keep himself fed, anyway.
Lee hadn't heard that Boone died a few years ago.
To Oatman, we took old route 66 out of Kingman AZ. Route 66 is the "Mother Road", the road that brought hundreds of thousands of people from Illinois to settle in California in the 1800's and early 1900's. It fed the gold rush and brought people escaping the dust bowl.
We crossed some of the most barren land I have ever seen.
Route 66 goes over Sitgreaves Pass, through some of the richest gold mining country in the U.S. Oh, that lovely windy road with steep buttes and deep washes on the right--and few guard rails! Rich was very glad we didn’t attempt this last night in the dark (we took hwy 68 down to the Colorado River and had dinner in Bullhead City instead).
Gold Road, once a thriving town with post office, hotel, restaurant, bar, etc, has entirely disappeared! Even remnants of stone walls with gaping door and window holes are gone. Nothing there now but mining equipment and piles of dirt. Even the mining equipment is silent, waiting for the price of gold to go up.
We arrived in Oatman in time for breakfast, but nothing was open yet. The air was cool and the streets deserted except for about a dozen wild burros and few shop keepers, both getting ready for tourists. We were greeted by a baby burro with a sticker on his head that said, "don't feed me", and signs saying "don't feed the babies; they are still nursing."
Burros came to Oatman with the prospectors before off road vehicles could manage the terrain and the mines were still operating. Tough little guys, they can subsist on almost nothing, so when the prospectors abandoned them, they stayed on and flourished. Now a good many of them come into Oatman to beg from tourists, who love to feed them! I didn't ask if they still rob garbage cans and gardens; when I lived here, I lost an entire crop of corn the night before I planned to harvest it!
I had to chuckle; every empty lot I knew then is now filled with a new shop built of rusty tin and weathered wood--built to look old. Reminds me of the Patchwork House. And a shop called the Gold Burro!--really?
In just 8 days I'll be in Oatman!
I haven't been back to Oatman, Arizona since....since my youngest son, now a father himself, was a toddler.
I'm told it has changed and not for the better. The patchwork house we lived in is long gone. The Brown Jug, where we danced on the old wood floor, burned down years ago. Judy's Pottery Shop, where I spent many an afternoon chatting with friends, is now a bar.
I wonder if any of those old miner's shacks are still there?
I called Judy yesterday. She and Willa, who owns the Glory Hole Antique Shop, are the only old timers left, she said. Judy wondered why I would even want to come to Oatman now; it's just a tourist town, she told me. I told her, the cliffs will still be there; there's no way they could get rid of Elephant's Tooth! I've a hankering to walk up to Elephant's Tooth. Walking in the hills above town was my joy and my solace when I lived in Oatman.
It is said that at one time these slopes were covered with gold seekers tents!
Apparently the wild burros still come into town for handouts from the tourists. I bet you can still see a "gunfight" staged in the street. Not that the gunfights ever interested me, and the burros got ALL my corn the night before I planned to harvest it one year, so I'm not overly fond of them!
And the hills are still there! I wonder if they've fenced or covered the mining shafts? Some of them were pretty darn deep! Once I dropped a stone down one, and counted to 12 before I heard it hit bottom.
We lived in a patchwork house, built on the bones of a miner's cabin left from the days Oatman was a bustling gold mining town. He was searching for gem stones; I was searching for love. We were both betrayed.
For years I didn't want to think about it, let alone talk about it, but time has shed a more forgiving light on many of the people I knew then--and I am better able to forgive myself.
I found my journal from those days; it is with some trepidation that I invite you to read it over my shoulder. I did some things I'm not proud of, and perhaps you will think less of me. Perhaps you will find some entries