By Linda Kor
Holbrook resident Leo Maestas considers himself a “Route Scholar.” The owner of Nakai Indian Art has seen many changes from the windows of his shop on Navajo Blvd. A Holbrook native, he was born in the Holbrook Hospital, which once stood on the present site of the parking lot of Bank of the West on Hopi Drive.
As a child in the 1940s, he was raised in a home on the south side of the railroad tracks along with his 12 brothers and sisters. At that time, the south side of the tracks was home to Holbrook’s business district. Beck’s, Babbitts and Schusters were the places local residents and travelers shopped for groceries, dry goods and other supplies.
Many of Holbrook’s lifelong residents have been told about the days of Holbrook’s bustling commerce, but Maestas believes many of them don’t realize the rich heritage that they may have.
Maestas has traced his family heritage back to the time when the conquistadors traveled through this region in 1540 looking for the Seven Cities of Cibola.
“Many people living here have no idea of the rich heritage that they have,” stated Maestas. “Many of the people in Holbrook don’t realize that they are descendents of Spanish families that were privileged to come and settle in what were considered the golden cities.”
His family comes from a long line of cattlemen on his grandfather’s side and sheepherders on his grandmother’s. “My grandfather and my great-grandfather used the Santa Fe Trail for commerce for 60 years before the railroad came and changed the way business was done. They hauled timber from San Francisco to Independence, Mo., and saw commerce first hand,” he explained.
The first settlers in the area included Juan Padilla who, in the 1870s, opened a saloon near Horsehead Crossing, which was located about two miles east of Holbrook along the Little Colorado River. When the railroad came through the area in 1881 the railroad station established two miles east of Horsehead Crossing was named Holbrook by Atlantic and Pacific Railway grading contractor John W. Young after Henry R. Holbrook, the first chief engineer with the railroad. When a settlement was made four miles to the west a year later the station moved as well, carrying the name with it and the new town was established.
“Holbrook is one of the most vital passageways through this country,” stated Maestas. “It’s been a destination point for hundreds of years just because of its location.”
The town was known as one of the most lawless towns in the Southwest and in 1914 was the only county seat in the United States without a church. But as the town grew and became prosperous, mostly due to the railroad transporting cattle, sheep and lumber throughout the U.S, it stopped being known as the “town too tough for women and churches,” and instead became the center of commerce for the region during the 1940s.
“I grew up among giants of industry. I did yard work for Art Whiting, who had land, cattle, lumber and petroleum,” recalled Maestas. Whiting and Kutch Lumber Co. claimed to provide the largest payroll in Holbrook, employing 70 men.
“I worked for Fred Harvey at the Painted Desert Inn and Leroy Gibbons at the Motoraunt Restaurant.”
As the town grew, so did the Maestas family and his grandfather, Vidal Maestas, established the Maestas Family Ranch about 12 miles south of Petrified Forest National Park on Highway 180. “My grandfather built the first bridge, a toll bridge at a crossing over the Little Colorado River in 1890 and it remains the oldest continuous crossing over the river,” Maestas noted.
The family prospered throughout the years and was led by Vidal into the automobile repair business, dry goods and groceries, and operated one of the first Unocal service stations in the area.
The first grocery store in Holbrook was Schuster’s Grocery. Located on the southeast corner across from the train depot, it provided hardware, dry goods and groceries to the area residents. “I remember the sign out front of the store read ‘Your Friendly Store Since 1884,’” said Maestas.
On the southwest corner was Koury’s Shoe Store. “Since my father was blind, I or one of my brothers or sisters would lead him around to take care of his business. I remember going to Mr. Koury’s store. He was the kindest man. I believe his family came to the area in the 1870s or 1880s.”
Next door to Koury’s was the First National Bank. Although there is little evidence of it any more, there were shops, bars and factories built near the tracks. The train brought people and allowed commerce to grow in the town, traveling to the west end of town to pick up freight from Babbitt’s, which employed about 50 people.
“I remember the ice skating rink where Shumway Insurance is now, there was also a Coca Cola factory there at one time. The Babbitt’s was where Walt’s Hardware is now,” he recalled.
Maestas remembers hopping a ride on the train to Joseph City as a youth, where he jumped off to go swimming at Howdy Hanks Swimming Pool, which advertised in the Holbrook Tribune-News in June 1957 that it offered the purest water on U.S. 66.
“I remember having to cross the train tracks to go back and forth to school, and again at lunchtime because they didn’t offer lunch at the school back then,” stated Maestas. “You had to really watch out. We’d climb between the cars and through them when they were stopped on the tracks.”
One of the finer hotel establishments in the region at that time was the Arizona Rancho located south of the railroad tracks on Apache Drive. The building served many purposes over the years, but as the Arizona Rancho owned by the Taylor family it became a gathering place for a host of visitors from all over the world. Although no longer in use, remnants of the white stucco walls and turquoise blue trim are still visible from Highway 77.
“That family was very well raised; very cultural. All the elite people that traveled through the area stayed at their hotel,” recalled Maestas.
According to memoirs written by Lloyd Taylor, his guests at the Arizona Rancho included Hollywood’s first Western mega-star Tom Mix, who rode in on his horse Tony, breakfast cereal magnate W.H. Kellogg, U.S. Senator and former Arizona Governor Ernest McFarland, and hat maker John B. Stetson. Also staying at the motel were Hashknife cowboys who used their saddles as pillows and, so as not to disturb the beds, slept on top of the blankets with their clothes and boots on.
“There were huge timbers cut into benches and the guests would gather around in the evenings and tell stories,” Maestas recalled. “You heard the most amazing stories there from the people that stayed there at the Rancho.”
Another hotel, the Navajo Hotel, was situated next to the Arizona Rancho and across the street from the Maestas’ home. “We would run back and forth between these places. We were like the Little Rascals in Our Gang,” Maestas related. “I’d run around with the Taylor boys Bo and Henry, and other neighborhood kids.
“At the Navajo Hotel the owners sold rugs and pots, but at that time Native American art was considered crafts and trinkets, not art like it is now,” he said.
Beck’s Brothers furniture was on Central, and carried appliances and had a lumberyard. “There was a piano at Beck’s and when I would take my dad there on business, they would always ask him to play and he played beautifully, he was a very talented man,” recalled Maestas.
Lloyd Henning brought technology to Holbrook with Navajo-Apache Communications in 1933 and kept the company until 1957 when he sold it to Western States Telephone Company. “He was a very dapper man, always wore a three-piece suit. I remember back in the 1960s he would fire up his 1938 Chevy coupe, it was a military green color, once a year or so and drive around town,” said Maestas.
Henning was also a newspaper printer and editor for papers including The Winslow Mail and The Argus. He was an insurance agent, state senator, bank executive, Navajo County Superior Court clerk and mayor of Holbrook.
The Green Lantern Cafe was where the Shoebox is now, and the grounds surrounding the Navajo County historic courthouse was the city’s park.
“When it was hot in the summer we would go inside the courthouse and watch the court trials. Dean Nutting was one of the attorneys and he always wore a camel hair jacket and was very tall, 6’4”, I believe. My father would go to him to discuss legal matters, because he would deal with all of the ranchers.
“Guy Axline (another attorney) ran one of the finest eating establishments in the state when he had the Plainsman. Guy was a fierce looking man. He was a big man in a three-piece suit and he wore a big ring on his hand of a Buddha,” recalled Maestas.
Holbrook had retained some of its rowdy past and there were a number of bars in town. “There were four bars on Central Avenue, but back then people took the time to shoo kids away from places like that,” he said.
Lacy Greer established the Greer Engineering and Surveying Company in Holbrook where the Holbrook School District offices now stand. “He employed about 30 people in his business,” stated Maestas.
He recalled that in the 1970s Holbrook’s industry focused more on visitors and travelers. “There were so many restaurants and bars that it used to look like the Vegas strip. Travel by train was being phased out as people started taking buses, and I would shine shoes at the bus depot on Hopi Drive and Navajo Blvd. It felt like back then, everyone was working together for the common good,” he said.
Although Holbrook has changed over the years some landmarks such as the historic Navajo County Courthouse, the train depot, the Wigwam Motel, several cafes and a handful of other buildings remain, most still drawing road weary travelers and visitors from throughout the world. The descendants of many who settled this area have remained here, carrying a legacy of western pioneers who forged a town from the desert.
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By Linda Kor