Exit 185 to Route 66 relics on old road
Tourist camp, memories of Johnny Whipp’s bar endure
It’s easy to overlook Bellemont among all the Arizona towns along Route 66.
Holbrook has its Wigwam Motel. Everyone stops to stand on the corner of Winslow, Arizona. Hackberry has its funky general store.
Forget Winona. There’s nothing there. But don’t forget Bellemont. It still has a relic tourist camp and gas station featured in the 1969 counter-culture classic “Easy Rider.” There’s also a narrow 4-mile stretch of concrete that carried millions of travelers motoring west on Route 66 over five decades on the route.
Tiny Bellemont, 12 miles west of Flagstaff, also has its faded memories. That includes a World War II POW camp and the ashes of a bar known as Junior’s that had its roots in a rowdy saloon from the 1940s.
Junior’s was a dimly lit cement-block bar with a few bar stools and a pool table. Johnny Whipp Jr. tended bar there for 50 years and lived in the back of the place. Junior, as he was known, survived a 2006 fire that destroyed the bar.
He lost everything but escaped with singed hair, said Felix Mansene, 72, former owner of the nearby Roadhouse Bar & Grill that opened in 1996.
Junior was well accepted in Bellemont despite his eccentricities. He was described as“an odd duck” and there were indications he was a hoarder. The bar was full of piles of years-old newspapers, cigarette packs and cases of empty beer cans stacked along the walls.
Junior was a slight man with a raspy voice who wore old sweaters. He operated on his own schedule and often didn’t open the bar until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, Mansene said.
“You’d pull in and the place was all closed up,” he said. “But Johnny would peek out the window and if he recognized the car he’d flip on on his Budweiser neon sign.”
Della Arthur, a clerk at Grand Canyon Harley-Davidson in Bellemont, remembers Junior fondly. She went to Junior’s with her husband, who liked to shoot pool there. Arthur had not seen Junior since the fire.
Mansene said he heard Junior was living with his sister in Bullhead City, Ariz.
Joel Gabbard, 70, owner of Bellemont’s Pine Breeze RV Park, noted that Junior was a quiet guy.
“He never said nothing to nobody.”
'Easy Rider' put Pine Breeze on map
Now that Junior’s is gone, the Pine Breeze is Bellemont’s most notable Route 66 relic.
It was built in the 1940s as a tourist camp with wooden cabins and a filling station, said Gabbard, retired from his own excavation company.
In “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper (Billy) and Peter Fonda (Wyatt) ride up on their choppers and ask the Pine Breeze innkeeper if he has a room. Startled by the long-haired bikers in their leather jackets, the man retreats inside and flips on a “No Vacancy” sign. Billy shouts an obscenity over the rumble of the motorcycles and the two men race off into the darkness along Bellemont’s stretch of Route 66.
Fifty years later, the Pine Breeze is still enjoying its15 minutes of fame. It’s south of Interstate 40 about a mile east of the Exit 185 interchange.
“Tour buses come down Route 66 and people get out to take pictures,” Gabbard said of the old filling station with its lone gas pump. It hasn’t operated as a gas station for at least a quarter century, he added.
Gabbard bought the Pine Breeze in 2001 and put in rental RV spaces. The cabins are used for storage. Route 66 dead-ends into I-40 about a mile east of the Pine Breeze. This isolated stretch of Route 66 in East Bellemont is stuck in the 1950s.
Bellemont sits atop Arizona Divide
Modern Bellemont has a truck stop, industrial park, housing subdivision, National Weather Service forecasting office, motorcycle shop and a pair of RV sales, storage and repair facilities.
The unincorporated town stands out for its lofty location just west of the Arizona Divide. This geographic distinction, at an elevation of 7,335 feet, splits the watershed with runoff flowing south and west or south and east on either side of the divide. Locals have an obstructed view of the majestic San Francisco Peaks.
Bellemont dates to the 1880s when the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad built a line across Northern Arizona. The town is named for Bella Smith, daughter of F.W. Smith, general superintendent of the A&P, according to Will C. Barnes, author of Arizona Place Names.
It was just another sawmill and lumbering town for 60 years before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor changed Bellemont’s trajectory. Within weeks of the 1941 attack, the U.S. War Department picked Bellemont for one of 16 ammunition storage depots built inland during World War II.
The Navajo Ordnance Depot was established in 1942, bringing a
huge influx of workers to Flagstaff and Bellemont, according to John Westerlund, author of Arizona’s War Town: Flagstaff, Navajo Ordnance Depot, and World War II.
He wrote that the workforce built 800 ammunition bunkers along with 50 buildings, 227 miles of roads and 38 miles of railroad tracks
across the depot site. Camps were set up for Navajo workers, with a separate one for Hopis. Flagstaff’s population swelled from 5,080 in 1940 to 7,663 a decade later, according to the U.S. Census.
Joe Richards, former Coconino County sheriff who grew up in Bellemont, told the Grand Canyon Historical Society in a radio interview that his hometown was a small, tight-knit community. His mother, Wilsie, operated a post office out of the family home. His father, Milton, patrolled the depot perimeter for over 30 years, first on horseback and later in pickup.
The railroad and Route 66 were vital transportation links for the depot, now known as Camp Navajo. The U.S. Army moved the ammunition storage in 1993 to the Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada. The Arizona National Guard now operates Camp Navajo and uses it for training.
In March 1945, the depot added a prisoner-of-war camp. It incarcerated 250 Austrians who had been drafted into the German army and were captured by the Americans.The war ended six months later and it was time to celebrate stateside.
Honky tonk whips up kicks on Route 66
Sometime in 1945, Johnny Whipp, Junior’s father, began operating a saloon on Route 66 in Bellemont, serving depot workers and travelers. It was a rough-and-tumble place known for brawls, Westerlund said.
The wooden building, with a covered porch, was on an earlier alignment of Route 66 south of the current road and a quarter-mile west of the current I-40 interchange.
In 1956, the Whipps built a new cement-block bar nearby that became known as Junior’s, where Johnny Whipp Jr. began his long bartending stint.
The old place faded with no one left to get their kicks in the shuttered saloon. It was falling down into the tumbleweeds by the late 1970s. A rusted piano frame and the cracked slate of a pool table were left behind, along with faded memories.
The new bar endured for a half century. In February 2006, a coffeemaker ignited some newspapers and the blaze destroyed Junior’s. He was close to 80 years old.
His father, who serviced cigarette machines in the Flagstaff area died decades earlier, Mansene said.
“Senior was always dressed in a suit with a little bow tie.”
Junior’s mother, Myrtle, died in 1967 at age 73. Her obituary said she was born in Firth, Neb., and moved to the Flagstaff area in 1940.
It’s unclear if Junior is still alive. He would be in his 90s. Attempts to locate him were unsuccessful.
Signs of the old times
A Schlitz beer sign from atop the Whipp’s old saloon was among the few things of value salvaged from that WWII-era building.That restored sign and reclaimed barn wood from the saloon now decorate the nearby Grand Canyon Harley-Davidson shop.
The motorcycle dealership is adjacent to Roadhouse Bar, which has its own special signs. That includes a neon “Liquors” sign from the Whipp’s saloon and a “No Vacancy” neon that pays homage to the Pine Breeze’s “No Vacancy” sign.
The Roadhouse is popular with Route 66 roadtrippers during the high season from late March to October. Lots of motorcycle tour groups from the U.S., Asia and Europe visit.
The Roadhouse has three pool tables and is adorned with old signs, gas pumps and automobile collectibles. It’s at least three times larger than Junior’s rustic bar.
A wall of photos of famous Roadhouse visitors included shots of Peter Fonda, Richard Petty, Jay Leno and Jimmy Carter. There’s photos of many of Mansene’s friends, present and past.
“I look at the pictures on the wall and realize so many of these guys are gone,” he said. “This guy got hit by a truck, another guy was having too much fun one night and never woke up.”
Mansene, who ran six bars in Flagstaff starting in 1972, said he intended to return to his roots in Florida upon selling the Roadhouse.
“I’m going home to Miami” he said. “The Wild West was fun but after 46 years I think I can give it up…I’m going to get a boat and cruise to the islands.”
Bellemont and its Route 66 relics will be in his rearview mirror.
Peter Corbett lived on Route 66 in Flagstaff during the 1970s. He worked for 35 years as an Arizona journalist and created this award-winning travel blog.