I am often asked why? Why did you go there? Why ghost towns? Why this ghost town? I never have an answer. I suspect my father is to blame.
I was born in Ames, Iowa. My dad, Joseph John Sinnwell, was a civil servant for 35 years. Not the type we think of today as politicians, but one that actually served the people. He started as a postal clerk inside the post office sorting mail, then as a walking mailman with a route in Ames serving Iowa State University. I remember him telling stories about delivering mail to all the young coeds. These were never told when Mom was around, but rather during some father and son moments.
In the mid 1940’s he transferred to Bode, Iowa as a rural mail carrier. We moved from Ames to a small Catholic community called St Joe. That is where I grew up along with an older brother, Roger, and an older sister, Connie. We all attended the Catholic school, elementary through high school, in St Joe. Roger and Connie graduated from St Joe High School. I graduated from Bishop Garrigan High in Algona. When I was a sophomore, five Catholic parishes merged their high school students to the new high school in Algona.
Growing up around Dad was fun. He took us on picnics, fishing, hunting, to the annual Mulligan Stew festivals, to the county fairs, visits to distant relatives, and on many road trips. He was involved in all sorts of activities, Knights of Columbus, Rural Mail Carriers, etc. At one time he had three jobs, a mail man, a insurance rep, and a seed corn salesman. He always carried two items with him, his black pocket knife and at least one handkerchief. Countless times he pulled out that handkerchief to wipe some small child’s nose or ice cream covered face. It did not even have to be someone he knew. Today he would hear much criticism for spreading germs. Back then I saw it, and I still do, as a gentle, kind man helping a small child in need. I can still picture him with a hand reaching down with his small finger extending out for his grandchildren to grasp as they attempted to walk their first steps.
I can also remember numerous times hearing Mom, Leona, saying, “Just wait till your father gets home“. He was the enforcer of the household rules. Mom was a little more the rule maker. When Dad started to unbuckle his three inch wide black policeman’s belt we three kids disappeared to our favorite hiding places. That is, unless I knew he was coming after one of my siblings. If that was the case I would attempt to block their exit. Like the time Connie broke one of Mom’s best dishes over my head.
The road trips were, by far, my favorite pastime. In those days we did not have seat belts or car seats, so the three of us, Roger, Connie and I, could easily have a free for all in the backseat. This always went on until dad would slam on the brakes, pull over to the side of the road and threaten us with his most deadly words and looks.
I was usually stuck in the middle as Roger and Connie always got the window seats. I was small so I would make sure I crawled up in the back window and lay down on the shelf. If we had ever been in an accident I would surely have been a deadly missile.
We fought, played games, looked for the Burma Shave signs, watched the scenery, and slept. Dad always kept us entertained with his knowledge of any area we traveled. He was full of historic events, the appropriate wildlife, and always the first to spot something of interest. He never worried about getting there in a hurry and always had time to stop and see the alligator farm, the two-headed calf, the rattlesnake farm, or any other oddball attraction we might come across. All this was cherished with great excitement by us kids and a constant frustration to mom.
Why the interest in the west and in ghost towns? Dad watched all the westerns, on the four fuzzy black and white TV channels, ABC, NBC, CBS, and a local UHF channel. He and my mom took us kids to all the Saturday matinees westerns that we could handle. Gene Autry, Dale Evans, The Lone Ranger, Tonto, Hopalong Cassidy, Gaby Hayes, and a host of others were always topic for discussions. My favorites were Randolph Scott, followed by Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne.
Then, to top things off, my Mom and Dad decidef we needed to journey to California to see my favorite Uncle. Ted was my mom’s brother and I did not learn until my mom was in her 90’s that Ted had been a bootlegger and a rum runner during prohibition years. My favorite uncle was the family’s black sheep. She shared the stories over dinner one night with me, my daughter Christina, and my granddaughter Sarah. She spoke in low tones while hiding her face and trying to protect anyone from hearing the nasty family secrets.
I always wondered why he left Iowa but it became clear when she told the story of how the police caught him for the umpteenth time and threatened to throw him in jail for life if he did not leave the state. Apparently he always wondered what the cops did with the booze they confiscated from him. The cops always wondered how many times they would have to catch him before he would stop. They finally gave up and told him to leave. He decided it would be prudent to leave for California. Mom said it was a good thing as she and dad were getting tired of bailing him out of jails.
Anyway, Dad and Mom packed the three of us kids in the new 1953 Dodge Cornet four-door pale green sedan and we headed for California. That was my dad’s first Hemi. That was another benefit of having a dad that was a rural mail carrier. He wore his cars out so fast driving over 150 miles a day, six days a week in all types of weather and roads, that he had to buy a new one every two years. Mom only got upset with him one time and that is when he brought home a souped up 1955 Chrysler C-300 2 door hardtop. She just did not think it was the appropriate family car. He had to take it back and came home with a 4 door sedan Plymouth. Big disappointment to a teenage boy.
A trip cross country in 1954 was a lot different than it is today. Freeways were just starting to be built in large cities like NY and LA. The interstate projects were still a couple years in the future. Two-lane highways were our mode of travel. With Dad’s sense of adventure we did not travel in a straight line nor the shortest distance. We had many side trips.
From Iowa, we traveled to St Louis where my dad did what he always did when we arrived in a new town. He got out the phone book and looked to see if anyone with the name Sinnwell lived there. If they did, he got on a phone someplace and called them to check to see if he was related. In St Louis we discovered we were related to some Sinwell’s that owned and ran a drug store. They spelled their name differently using one N instead of two. After a short phone call we spent time at their business and at their home.
Then back on the road to great places that began to spark my interest in the southwest and ghost towns. We traveled along old route 66 from St Louis to Albuquerque and Gallup where I saw my first real live Native Americans. Unfortunately he was a little inebriated and lying in the park taking a nap. Mom cautioned me to stay away.
Then onto the Painted Desert and the Petrified Forest. That is where I was sure we were all going to be thrown in jail for stealing some of the petrified rocks that dad stashed in the trunk and under the seat. But we left and went on to the meteor crater and the Grand Canyon.
We visited many great places going to and from California. Places like Phoenix, Flagstaff, Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Salt Lake City, Denver, Leadville. Boy ,do I remember Durango, Colorado and even a trip across the Mohave Desert at night so we would not perish in the heat. No air conditioning in our car, instead we hung canvas canteen bags from the hood ornament and a rented window cooler for the trip. The great adventure in LA was Knotts Berry farm. More old west excitement. Disneyland was just being built and did not open for another year.
So with all that influence, I guess it was just natural for me to like the southwest. Especially with my dad relating the history and stories of the different places as we traveled. And having a black sheep uncle in California certainly helped.
So why do I go there? My dad made me do it.
Thanks, Dad, I appreciate it.