By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1998 Gourmet Magazine
The two-lane highway south of Bisbee, Arizona, cuts through reefs of hard copper rock and then curves around a traffic circle. If instead of pressing south toward Mexico you stay the leftward course and orbit back toward the old mining town, you might think you’ve spun yourself into a dizzy hallucination. Parked to the east in a secluded campground is a formation of aluminum house trailers, each as radiant as when it was new half a century ago. In the lazy Arizona afternoon, campers nap in lawn chairs by the trailers’ open doors, out of which drift Benny Goodman tunes and the chimes of ice swirled in cocktail glasses. The scene is a vision from a time long past, when silver land yachts were as prestigious as the luxury V8s that towed them and when trailer travel, promising an intoxicating mix of open-road adventure and tow-your-own deluxe accommodations, was as modern as a trip by blimp.
The satin-skinned metal coaches are installed in a field of machine-age dreams called Shady Dell. Once an ordinary campground, Shady Dell is now the grooviest motel in the West, with eight resplendent trailers for rent, including a mint-condition Airstream, a Spartan Manor, and a Royal Mansion. The aerodynamic quarters are exuberantly outfitted with original period decor in bygone shades of lime, bubblegum pink, and cherries Jubilee. Travelers reserve them for the night, week, or season and, while going nowhere in space, hitch a ride back in time to mid-century America.
Although some RV wayfarers do come to hook up their modern rigs at Shady Dell, they and all other signs of post-Eisenhower life are pretty well segregated from the magnificent turnpike teardrops lined up in grassy slips along the gravel driveway. The proprietor’s tail-finned ’56 Chrysler is parked out front; a small flock of pink plastic lawn flamingos graze near the white picket fence that surrounds the hitch of the 1950 Silver Streak; and the aroma of chicken ‘n’ dumplings wafts across the lawn from Dot’s Diner, a four-star hash house at the entrance to the park.
Dot’s fits right in with the silver trailers. Just outside the gleaming diner’s door is a twenty-five-cents-a-ride mechanical pony called Champion, the name of Gene Autry’s horse, that inexplicably plays the “William Tell Overture”—the Lone Ranger’s theme—when a child saddles up and hits a squeaky lope.
Built in Wichita, Kansas, in 1957, Dot’s spent its early life as Burger Bar No. 3, at the corner of Topanga and Ventura boulevard in Los Angeles. It is a snug beanery with ten stools arranged around a boomerang-pattern Formica counter. A primeval rock-and-roll hit parade sets a beat from the single Seeburg speaker on the wall as Dot Bozeman, a purposeful woman wearing a tall white toque, works the griddle and Rita Personett, a redhead with a ponytail and a jaunty skiff-shaped waitress cap, tends the counter.
Moved to Shady Dell from California late in 1996 and exquisitely restored to its original sparkle, Dot’s opens for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Saturday. It is frequented by locals as well as overnight guests, and is known for its retro-priced $1.99 daily workman’s special: meatloaf and mashed potatoes Tuesday; pork chops and stuffing or spaghetti and meatballs Wednesday; chicken ‘n’ dumplings with corn bread Thursday; catfish (at $4.95) Friday. Dot, whose previous restaurant was a three-stool diner with a single table, is a gifted cuisiniere. “I just do home cooking,” she says, “I’m no chef.” Whatever Dot’s correct job description, her hot roast beef sandwich with pan gravy and mashed potatoes is simply the best we’ve ever eaten (and we’re hot roast beef sandwich connoisseurs), with a spicy savor to the meat and gravy that reminds us of the Creole roast beef po’ boys of New Orleans. In fact, Dot is from Louisiana; lunchtime hot plates include a wickedly flavorful red beans and rice. Her hand-crimped sweet-potato pie is a tender wonder.
Your trailer is ready,” Rita informs us as she slides a chocolate milkshake in a frosted mug our way. Rita owns and operates Shady Dell with her partner, Ed Smith. She also runs the front desk; if you arrive to find the office closed, look for her at Dot’s.
For this visit to our favorite time-warp motel, we have booked the top-of-the-line Spartanette Tandem, a 1951 palace on wheels that’s paneled inside, front to back, wall and ceiling, in blond birchwood. It’s got a working bathroom, a kitchen with a good-sized refrigerator, and a selection of reading material that includes the books Beau Geste and Lives of Poor Boys Who Became Famous.
To the rear of the thirty-foot vehicle, twin beds are covered with chenille spreads in a wild lavender and fuchsia heart design. Between the bunks is a tiny wooden night table, in the drawer of which we discover a pristine packet of 1940 airmail stationery with tissue-thin paper and envelopes. (Opening drawers requires an extra little hitch upward before you pull them out—anything in the trailer that slides or swings open has a notch in its mechanism so that it won’t fly open in transit.) “Give your letter wings,” the stationery packet suggests, reminding us that when these trailers were in their heyday, air travel epitomized modern life. Indeed, the Spartanette was built by J. Paul Getty’s Spartan Aircraft Company.
The antique coffee percolator next to the four-burner propane stove is gorgeous, but we are more enamored of the highball glasses in the kitchen cupboard: novelty barware with naughty-captioned cartoons on the side to peruse as you sip. We settle down on the living room couch at the front of the trailer, our afternoon libations in hand, and browse through an issue of Arizona Highways dated February 1953. For the tape player shaped like an old radio, we find a drawer full of tapes, including Bob Hope, Burns and Allen, and Duffy’s Tavern, as well as Inner Sanctum and The Whistler. There is even a 1950s television set—but this TV seems incapable of receiving any contemporary broadcasts. Instead it is attached to a VCR, and the trailer has a stash of apropos tapes: Rebel Without a Cause, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, and Lucy and Desi in The Long Long Trailer.
All Shady Dell trailers are accoutred in vintage decor, but each one is unique. The little 1957 El Rey has walls of celadon green and kitchenette curtains with a cherry-cluster pattern. The bullet-shaped 1949 Airstream features an above-the-bed canopy of riveted aluminum nearly shiny enough to be a mirror. “This is the one with the most sex appeal,” Ed Smith comments. “It’s where honeymooners like to stay.”
The mise-en-scene in each mobile microcosm reflects not some entrepreneur’s notion to mass market the fifties but the finely honed sensibilities of Shady Dell’s guiding lights: Rita and Ed. Their trailer-park motel is a work of art in four dimensions (if you include the dimension of time), and everything they bring to it fits a meticulous vision of roadsides past. Rita herself, behind the counter of Dot’s in her waitress cap, order pad in hand, could be a supporting character alongside Linda Darnell in the 1945 diner drama Fallen Angel.
Ed and Rita got together in the early nineties and later discovered a shared passion for collecting souvenirs of twentieth-century American life. After acquiring and restoring a couple of trailers, they were stuck for storage: Where do you keep one-ton artifacts so they can be admired and appreciated? Then inspiration struck. Ed and Rita came to believe that the one true way to do justice to their live in collectibles was to return them to service. To do that, they felt they had to outfit them exactly the way they were meant to be outfitted and set them in their proper context—a roadside trailer camp that would wholly recreate their era.
There are big differences, of course, between Shady Dell and other trailer parks in existence either then or now. Shady Dell is fastidiously detailed, reflecting its creators’ passion for shaping something far more precise than any accidental reality. It is breathtakingly stylish and scrupulously clean. At Shady Dell, you don’t find merely the past: You find the past perfect. To stay in a trailer that Ed and Rita have appointed is to live for a moment in a linen-finish postcard of the ideal trailer park: Yesterday’s dream of a streamlined tomorrow…today!
In a very real sense, Ed and Rita’s can-do attitude is a faithful recreation of the ingenuous motor-camp gestalt of the twenties, when Shady Dell first opened as a nook o’ rest where automobilists pitched tents. During the heyday of trailer travel, starting in the thirties, it remained a happy oasis for intrepid tin-can tourists making their way through southernmost Arizona. But like so many trailer parks, its optimistic mien eventually began to fade away. By the end of World War II, many Americans had come to think of the trailer park at the edge of town as a hotbed for rootless, non tax paying transients who did not belong in an increasingly suburbanized world. After the war, Airstream designer and trailer pioneer Wally Byam wrote, “The high esteem which the smart little travel trailer had earned through its service to vacationers, sportsmen, and tourists faded in the squalor of slum camps.” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, always on the lookout for depravity, warned that trailer parks were becoming “dens of vice and corruption, haunted by nomadic prostitutes, hardened criminals, white slavers, and promiscuous college students.”
As far as we know, Shady Dell never fell quite so low, but when Ed and Rita bought the old, abandoned campground in 1994 the lawn was overgrown with weeds and they spent more time than they care to remember picking up years’ worth of cigarette butts. They restored the original name (which had been changed to Snowbird Haven) and devised a logo borrowed from a thirties Kozy Coach Trailer advertisement that shows a sleek cartoon sedan hauling a bulbous trailer, captioned, “Follow the Sun to Shady Dell.” Their passion for collecting zeroed in on anything related to trailer life. “The research Ed has done to outfit his trailers would do a doctoral candidate proud,” says Tucson’s Ron Spark, an anthropologist of twentieth-century Southwest culture and co-author of Fit To Be Tied, the bible for vintage-necktie collectors.
When we chatted with Ed and Rita in the living room of our Spartanette Tandem, Ed expressed his delight at having just that morning come across a mint-condition 1947 trailer-park guide that he didn’t already have in his extensive collection of roadside ephemera. Then he told us of the arduous journey hauling the Spartanette back from Maine just two years ago. As he talked about hunting up tires for antique split-rim wheels in Lowell, Massachusetts (“Home of Jack Kerouac!” he reminds us); finding a welder for a cracked hitch tongue in Amarillo; and spending nights wherever the road took him in his own Spartanette, he conveyed all the joy and challenge that once made trailer life such an appealing hobby.
Ed then escorted us on a tour of his latest acquisition, a twenty-five-foot 1950 Spartan Manor acquired from the family of a little old lady who had kept every original manual, brochure, and tag from all the fixtures. Meanwhile, Rita regaled us with her hopes to someday soon institute bingo night at Shady Dell. (She and Ed recently came across a stash of vintage bingo boards.)
To duplicate an entire world of another era is a grand obsession. It demands hard work and the persistence of unswerving ideals. Still, not everyone gets it. With great consternation Ed and Rita tell of the man who stayed the night last summer and then informed them that Shady Dell was too old-fashioned. The unhappy guest suggested they save their money so they might one day be able to replace all their old trailers with nice new ones. Ed and Rita shake their heads in disbelief.