Ted Stiger, by accident, created an iconic roadside oasis in the desert. The Buckhorn Baths in Mesa, Arizona, a mecca that denounced segregation, lured Hollywood stars, played host to the political elite, and arguably developed the Cactus League. Ted’s relationship with baseball ushered in the spring training of Americans favorite pastime to the East Valley – and all he did was dig a well.
Arizona was a no-mans-land for centuries, an arid desert, a harsh environment that few called home until the Granite Reef Dam’s construction. Completed in 1908, this early 20th-century engineering marvel on the Salt River diverted water via irrigation canals to Phoenix, allowing growth and development. Soon after, in 1911, the Roosevelt Dam was constructed, providing the valley with affordable electricity.
While Phoenix thrived with its new wealth of utilities, America was on the move. The pursuit of mapping all-season and all-weather roads was in full swing. Routes such as the Bankhead Highway, Dixie Overland Highway, Old Spanish Trail, and U.S. Highway 80 trudged west, each claiming the title coast-to-coast.
Soon travelers filled the roadways. Cars needed gas, passengers needed groceries, resulting in mom and pop shops popping up all along the newly formed transcontinental routes. In 1936, Ted and Alice Sliger purchased a parcel of property just east of Phoenix in Mesa, Arizona, a purchase that would set in motion a series of events that would culminate into the development of the Buckhorn Baths. Initially, the couple’s space was occupied by a store, a gas station; in addition to these, Ted found space to display his extensive taxidermy collection.
By 1938 business was good, but there was a problem. Ted had to have water delivered, and with an increase in traffic and patrons, this was becoming impractical. Ted set out to dig a well to find some water beneath his feet. Ted did find water, but not water worth drinking; Ted opened a 120 degrees mineral-rich water well. Water that, at the time, was believed to have healing powers. Understanding the unique opportunity flowing under their feet, the two built a 27 stone tub bathhouse that could serve 75 guests per day, added cottages, and ultimately employed a staff of 25.
The Cactus League Bill Veeck, who owned a ranch in Arizona, purchased the Cleveland Indians in 1946. Veeck also intended to introduce African American players to his roster. This would be problematic during spring training in Florida, where Jim Crow Laws still subjected African Americans to sever discrimination; he chose to move spring training to Arizona. The big issue with this move was that there would be no other teams to play during spring training; Cleveland needed another Arizona team during the spring. Horace Stoneham, the hands-on owner of the New York Giants, also wintered in Arizona. And as legend has it moved the Giants spring training to Arizona the day he discovered the Buckhorn Baths and the healing waters. The Giants would call the Buckhorn Baths home each spring for the next 25 years. Legends such as Ty Cobb and Willie Mays would soak in the mineral baths, wander the grounds, and enjoy the mild desert winters.
During a time of racial inequality, The Buckhorn welcomed all players of all colors, allowing the team to stay together on site, something that was not allowed in Florida.
Today, fifteen professional baseball teams call the Phoenix area home during the Cactus League’s season.
Ted passed away in 1984; although it had been decades since the Buckhorn was the Giants’ home base, the baths were still opened and operated along with the motel and the museum, by his wife, Alice.
With Alice at the helm, she drew the last bath in 1999. The motel and museum shuttered around 2005. On November 10, 2010, Alice passed away at 103 years of age.
Today the Buckhorn Baths stand abandoned but well preserved. The mineral-rich still flows through the pipes. A roadside gem. A collection of Americana history.
“Don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – The Main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”
West Texas is big!
Wind turbines are everywhere. Their uniformity is eerie. I wish they would paint them like pinwheels, giant pinwheels planted by Goliath in the Big Sky Country.
Or it could be that I suffer from Megalophobia.
Since Texarkana, the railroad tracks have been a constant companion. I can’t tell if I am chasing the engines or if they are chasing me. A game of cat and mouse across Texas.
Those rails witnessed the birth of the Bankhead nearly 100 years ago. At that time the tracks were operated by the Texas and Pacific Railroad.
Abilene, Texas, owes its existence to the Texas and Pacific Railroad.
In 1881 cattlemen began using the location to stockpile cattle awaiting shipment to market via the T and P. They name the town Abilene after Abilene, Kansas, the terminus of the Chisholm Trail.
My traveling companion is the reason Abilene exists.
Following my partner’s tracks into downtown I discover the historic Hotel Grace.
The Grace was built in 1909 and served the needs of travelers riding on the Texas and Pacific Line. The Grace was renamed The Drake in 1946.
As passenger-train travel waned the hotel began to decline and in 1973 it shuttered for good.
Today the building has been brought back to life and houses a downtown museum.
Abilene’s downtown has been restored with preservation in mind. Theaters and museums all conditioned to the standards of today, while utilizing the character of design and construction to make them interesting.
I head west down the Bankhead and pull in to Burro Alley for some lunch.
Sitting right on, what was, the Bankhead the Burro Alley’s courtyard is a hidden gem only a few feet off the road.
The path to the restaurant, shops, and courtyard is very Santa Fe -ish.
Surrounded by a collection of stores and a restaurant this oasis in Abilene is a must stop.
The food is great.
I find little history on Burro Alley but an old postcard shows that La Posada, as opposed to El Fenix, was the original restaurant.
Comparing the Ponca today to early 20th-century linen postcards, little has changed. Still operational and welcoming guests along the Bankhead Highway.
Several other Bankhead era properties can be found in Abilene, including the Abilene Courts.
The town deserves more time than I can give. I push on.
Merkel, Texas. My favorite town on the Bankhead Highway.
The Merkel Restaurant’s fabulous roof.
Abandoned with everything left inside, the restaurant has become a roost for pigeons. Hundreds of these feathered squatters are gathered in the cafe. Giving a real Alfred Hitchcock feel to the place.
While in Merkel, be sure to check out the Merkel Museum and learn about the Hollywood movie shot in Merkel titled “Independence Day”.
Yes, Independence Day was filmed in Merkel, Texas.
On to Sweetwater.
Again, the West Texas Music Hall of Fame is closed. I peer through the window and see a collection of music memorabilia. Maybe someday I will get to go inside, until then I will have to just look at the website.
The Sweetwater Municipal Auditorium has hosted performances from Fred Astaire, Roy Acuff, Eddie Arnold, and the King himself, Elvis. Elvis visited Sweetwater in June and December of 1955 to put on a show.
A pendulum hangs motionless, without purpose, over the old Bankhead route in Sweetwater.
During World War II the majority of male pilots were actively engaged in combat overseas. This resulted in a shortage of pilots.
A need arose to shuttle planes to bases across America. With a lack of male pilots, the solution was to train females to fly, thus The Women Airforce Service Pilots (W.A.S.P) was formed.
“If you went on a family road trip during the 50’s, 60’s, early 70’s, you pretty much had to stop at Stuckey’s…they were the only ones…miles and miles and Stuckey’s was the only thing you saw” – Tim Hollis (author)
As The Great Depression placed strain and stress over millions of Americans, W.S. Stuckey Sr. was developing an idea that would change the American roadside forever. Although times were tough, W.S. was an innovative individual with a D.I.Y. attitude and can-do spirit. A life long entrepreneur, W.S. utilized what was around him, the seed of a native species of tree and tourists on their way to Florida. With these two, he would create and build what would become a roadside empire, the Stuckey’s Pecan Shoppe. Growing into a franchised model that would reach a number of over 350 stores with pitched aqua roofs located across America.
With a thirty-five dollar loan, he secured a truck and W.S. went to work collecting, gathering, and shelling the abundance of commodity that was falling from the sky. While unsure of how advantageous the pecan would be, by the mid-thirties, W.S. Stuckey had opened his first roadside stand selling the nuts.
The rest is Pecan Log Roll history.
Well before Stuckey’s red and yellow signs lured the tourists and travelers off the highway, pecans grew native in the southeastern United States. The pecan tree, (Carya illinoinensis) a species of hickory, called North America home long before W.S. Stuckey Sr. and his wife Ethel, utilized the seed to produce “Fine Pecan Candies”.
Centuries prior to the European migration, Native cultures made use of pecans, for both nutrient and trade. It is believed that Native Americans used the pecan in a variety of ways including brewing a fermented drink. While the Stuckey’s did not create beverages with the native nut, W.S. and his wife Ethel would produce the item that would become their trademark, the Pecan Log Roll.
The idea to sell candy was born out of the ever-innovative and non-static mind of W.S while tending the pecan stand. With fervent excitement, W. S. burst into Ethel’s and her sisters’ bridge game and vetted the candy idea. With no previous candy making experience, the duo got to work at making Pecan Candy.
A variety of candies such as divinity, pralines, and taffy would soon fill Stuckey’s shelves, shoulder to shoulder to the popular shelled pecans, but the Pecan Log Roll would rise above them all to become the totem of Stuckey’s.
Stuckey’s did not invent the pecan log roll, in fact, pecan log rolls were common in the south, but it would be the Stuckey’s recipe that would become the benchmark in which all others would be measured.
Stuckey’s would start with a maraschino cherry nougat dipped into melted caramel. This goodness would then be encased with pecans. These portable pecan pleasures picture would be plastered on Stuckey’s billboards around the country, and become Stuckey’s signature candy.
The building of the Empire
W.S. had grown his business from roadside stand into three brick and mortar locations before the beginning of World War II. Stuckey’s growth proved that his business filled a need but America’s involvement in the war would hamper Stuckey’s growth and actually result in the closing of two stores, but this set back did not break the spirit of W.S.
As soon as peace returned so did his business. Veterans returning from the Pacific and European Theaters found an America full of growth and opportunity. A transformation had occurred. Suburban neighborhoods developed bring norms and standards to the masses with all-electric ranch-style tract homes. America was experiencing luxury. Deep chest freezers did away with the need for the ice houses and food lockers, and while taut wire clothe lines provided adventurous backyard child play, automatic clothe washers began to find their way into homes across America.
Automation aided in not just housework but in all aspects of life. America and those living the dream found themselves in routines, forty-hour work weeks, alarm clocks, and t.v. dinners. Soon a break from the regimen of suburban life was developed, the vacation.
America set out to take advantage of this golden age of travel. Amusement parks, campgrounds, and beaches called and the masses answered. Station wagons filled with picnic baskets and gear began transporting war-weary veterans, exhausted housewives, limp loggy labors with baby boomers in tow to vacations of leisure and luxury.
Stuckey’s was there waiting on the roadside to offer respite for the road-weary. Tim Hollis states, “(Stuckey’s was) somewhere to break up the monotony.”
In a time when travel could be a little less comfortable than today, Stuckey’s locations were an oasis for thirsty V-8’s, filled with wide-eyed children, and parents that could use a break, all with a need to Relax, Refresh, Refuel.
Miles of roadway created an artery carrying families across the voids of America. This deluge of travelers down pavements of progress created possibilities of profit. W.S. Stuckey Sr. found profit along America’s highways and turned a name into an iconic brand that would become synonymous with cherished memories.
Stuckey’s helped create family moments and memories on the side of the road.
Stephanie Stuckey, W.S. Stuckey Sr.’s granddaughter, and current CEO believes that, “What is woven throughout those (memories) is a warmth and sense of being with family and a fun time.”
Stephanie Stuckey hears stories from people who remember the talking Myna Bird, who would say, “My name is Polly and I’m not for sale,” as well as other memories of the store. The mechanical pony ride in front of the store is also a well-remembered memory. Stephanie believes Stuckey’s was a place where travelers could, “find highway happiness.”
Initially, W.S. would offer franchises to husbands and wives. These couples and families would set up a life in the Stuckey’s and actually live in the store. Stephanie has met quite a few people who grew up in a Stuckey’s store. Stephanie feels that the husband and wife teams took pride in the stores, “creating a special feeling.” W. S. Sr. believed that this concept would give the franchisee an interest in the store being successful.
Stephanie enjoys sharing the story about a family traveling from New York to Florida. Along the way, a winter storm and a flat tire had stranded them on the side of the road. The family walked to a Stuckey’s where they found a franchise family that welcomed them in for the night and aided in getting the flat fixed the next morning.
W. S. Sr. was very hands-on and, “cared very much about the look of the store,” Stephanie explains. He would conduct impromptu visits but conduct research first to assure he would know the names of all the employees at a location.
“We were an experience…we were the first,” Stephanie proudly proclaims.
Stephanie Stuckey describes her grandfather as a “visionary thinker.” W.S. Stuckey Sr.’s vision resulted in creating the first store on highways and interstates to offer gas, souvenirs, clean restrooms, and snack-bar. As Stephanie puts it, “first to offer that roadside experience.”
Sr. is remembered as a generous man. An early riser who was constantly investing and reinvesting in a multitude of businesses. W.S. Stuckey Sr. business ventures included furniture-stores, motels, Dodge/Plymouth Dealership, tractor dealer, sold railroad cross ties, drilled for oil in Texas, African-American night clubs, a timber company, and Stuckey’s Stores.
Even with all these irons in the fire, “Stuckey’s (stores) was front and center,” Stephanie explains, “(he) carried candy everywhere constantly giving it out,” promoting the brand and passionate about the success of the store he created – “America’s Stores”.
Stuckey’s was an American store, a store for every traveler, no matter their race.
Stuckey’s began in Georgia, at a time when Jim Crow Laws where firmly indoctrinated into everyday life. W.S. Stuckey Sr. offered his roadside experience to all regardless of race. This should have been economic suicide but did not hamper any growth. Ultimately the ’50s and ’60s found Stuckey’s expanding at an exponential rate. W.S. Stuckey Sr. has been quoted, “Every-highway traveler is a friend.”
W.S. (Billy) Jr., W.S. Sr. son, was asked by author Tim Hollis how Stuckey’s got away with allowing all travelers to use facilities at a time when it was not just personal it was judicial. Billy feels that Stuckey’s were located far enough away from communities that people did not notice. They were welcoming everyone into their stores to relax, refresh and refuel. Today the Stuckey’s family is extremely proud of their openness to everyone in an era full of prejudice.
Growth and decline of the brand, roadsigns, and innovations
Stuckey’s has, “more inventory in billboards than candy,” W. S. Sr. would exclaim.
W.S. Stuckey credited billboards as the real secret to the success of his stores. Large yellow and red signs with quirky slogans such as “eat and get gas” would appear every few miles.
Billboards were not a Stuckey’s idea. Burma Shave and others had exploited the billboard long before Stuckey’s had any dreams of manifest destiny. Stuckey’s signs did induce excitement in the travelers especially the children.
W.S. Sr. was not only a visionary he was an innovator. Today gimmicks and giveaways are common among businesses. With every new competitor, a need to stand out is required.
In Stuckey’s heyday, there was no competition. Stuckey’s iconic red script on yellow signs stood proud across America. Confident that no other would be offering Pecan Roll Logs, Fine Pecan Candies, or talking myna birds on the roadside. This confidence and lack of competition did not limit Stuckey’s innovation of promotion, marketing, and growth.
Some of the most remembered are the Stuckey’s Coffee Club. The coffee club cup was an aqua, red, and white Fire King brand cup. In addition, was loyalty discounts on gas and giveaways for the kids. Stuckey’s even introduced travel computer kiosks as well as Stuckey’s branded motels and campsites, Gold Rush Certificates, and who remembers the Stuckey’s jingle with the catchy chorus, “every trip’s a pleasure trip when you stop at Stuckey’s.”
W.S. Stuckey Sr. would stay in the leadership role of Stuckey’s until his untimely passing at the age of 67 in 1977.
Stuckey’s would enter into some transition during the next seven years. Between 1977 and 1984 there will not be any family involved with the running of the company. A merger with the PET Dairy company for 15 million in PET stock removed ownership from the family.
In 1984 W.S. (Billy) Stuckey’s Jr. purchased the company back with plans to restructure. Billy had served in Congress for 10 terms and was a successful businessman in his own right. Billy had acquired the sole right to place Dairy Queens on interstate highways in the continental United States.
He incorporated the Dairy Queens and the Stuckey’s. Slowly the iconic roadside stop began to morph into a DQ Stuckey’s hybrid. Billy also create a Stuckey’s express and began offering Stuckey’s products to be sold in larger chain grocers.
W.S. Stuckey Jr.’s intervention surely kept the brand alive and kept it from fading into obscurity like many of the other brands of the time.
“(Stuckey’s was) woven in with the whole roadside Americana…with Howard Johnsons, Sea Rock City…we were part of that era and experience” Stephanie Stuckey
Stuckey’s was the alpha and seems to be omega of the original group of roadside establishments of the mid 20th century. Stuckey’s peers such as Howard Johnson’s and Big Boy’s, while each numbered more than 1000 in 1979, today they’re a limited presence. Others like Bonanza Steakhouses and Burger Chef have all but faded into memory.
A few of these icons still exist in some transmuted form, none have weathered the storm of change as-well-as the Stuckey’s brand. In fact, Stuckey’s footprint is larger than it was before with products being sold in a variety of travel plazas, gift shops, and groceries across America.
Tim Hollis reports, “In reality, their products are being sold in more places now than when they were at their peak.”
Stuckey’s weathered the storm of oil embargos, recessions, and an overwhelming market of competition. While not as predominant on the roadside, the brand still produces the Fine Pecan Candy’s.
The Future of Stuckey’s
Several years ago W.S. Jr. stated in an interview with Tim Hollis, “What the company needs is some young person with the vision and energy to revive it.”
W.S. Jr’s daughter, Stephanie Stuckey, has taken the reigns and looks to improve, promote, and expand the Stuckey’s brand. She also has a mission to visit every Stuckey’s store in the year 2020.
“I want to know the good, bad, ugly…what can be done jointly with owners to bring the stores back to more of what they were in the heyday.” And just like W.S. Sr. she plans on doing her homework before the visit.
Stephanie believes that the brick and mortar Stuckey’s store is the “last bastion of experiential opportunity for retail”. She wants to, “restore some of that nostalgic feel”… and “pay homage to all those families that stopped at our stores in the 60’s and 70’s”…by bringing “that good feeling back.”
Stephanie, like W.S. Sr. and Jr., is a visionary thinker and as author Tim Hollis refers to her, a “dynamite stick…who certainly has big plans”.
Stephanie Stuckey, a lawyer, environmental advocate, and expert in sustainability looks to incorporate environmentally conscious protocols into the Stuckey’s business practices. Beyond manufacturing, there is talk of placing EV charging stations at Stuckey locations.
As for her plan, she hopes to improve e-commerce and business to business sales. There is also a desire to bring the production of the candy back to a family-owned manufacturing facility. While there is no plan to change the original Pecan Log Roll, variation to the icon is being discussed as well as offerings that fit the unique diets of the twenty-first-century lifestyles. Of course, she would love to expand the franchise operation.
Stephanie realizes that Stuckey’s is part of a “collective history of so many families that vacationed in a certain era… I am proud but also feel protective of that.” She wants to, “make sure I am doing dignity to their memories.”
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Elements create, in the hands of artisans, wonders. Some wonders inspire as art, some function as needs, some create envy as wants, all have a purpose. The Hotel Capitan, in Van Horn, Texas, was created with such purpose. The designer’s purpose was aesthetics while the developer’s purpose was to capitalize on the tourist industry. The combination of these two purposes would culminate into developing several hotels in West Texas whose purpose would impact well beyond the expectations of the designer or the developer. Elements of art, earth, and the economy would bring to life the Hotel Capitan and these elements would continue to shape the hotel’s purpose throughout its life.
Designer and Developer
The designer, Henry Trost, was an established and respected architect well before designing the Hotel Capitan. Trost’s designs had come to life across the southern states. Trost is credited with designing most of the buildings in downtown El Paso, between the years 1910 and 1933. His buildings can be found from Austin, Texas, to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Trost found inspiration in a multitude of styles, although he would embrace the Spanish Colonial Revival style in many designs in the southwest. Trost’s designs were cutting edge in respect to the steel-reinforced concrete he would use. Approaches such as this could be the reason many of his buildings still stand.
Charles Bassett a developer and part of the Gateway Hotel Chain had the vision of hotels at the crossroads of the newly developed National Parks of Big Bend, Guadalupe, and Carlsbad Caverns. Bassett developed five Gateway hotels within a 200 radius of El Paso. He felt that tourism would soon create a great need for overnight accommodations.
El Capitan’s Birth and Early Life
The Hotel Capitan opened in 1930, arguably not the greatest time in American history to become a realization. Only one year before the stock market crashed and brought about the start of The Great Depression. This did not deter the Hotel Capitan from being a success and operating as a hotel into the late 1960’s.
The Hotel Capitan met the same demise as many other early and mid-twentieth century overnight accommodations. Interstate ten bypassed the main street of Van Horn, Texas. While the interstate is in earshot of the hotel, this had a huge impact on not only the Hotel Capitan but all of Van Horn.
Many hotels and motels fall quickly into disrepair and decay once their original purpose is abandoned. The Hotel Capitan was able to escape this fate by being repurposed as a bank in the mid-1970’s. While this did change much of the character and design of the original layout it would ultimately save an American roadside architectural treasure.
In 2007, seventy-seven years after the Hotel Capitan was built it was purchased by Joe and Lanna Duncan. The couple had the plan to convert the Capitan back to its former glory. The Duncans had success in bringing life back to Hotel Capitan’s sister property, The Paisano, in Marfa, Texas. The dedication of the couple would eventually bring the Capitan back to its original purpose of welcoming, entertaining and wowing the weary traveler in West Texas.