Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

Cactus RV Park sign hauled off after sale to collector


October 31, 2018

Courtesy photo: Larry Smith

Workers from SignArt in Albuquerque on Thursday afternoon prepare to remove a 1950s-era neon sign from the Cactus RV Park in Tucumcari. It was the second vintage neon sign to be taken from Tucumcari's Route 66 in less than a year.

Workers on Thursday afternoon dismantled and hauled away a 1950s-era neon sign from the Cactus RV Park in Tucumcari after a collector from Albuquerque purchased it.

It was the second time in less than a year a vintage neon sign along Route 66 in Tucumcari was taken away. In February, a sign collector in Wisconsin bought the Paradise Motel sign on the town's west end after the long-abandoned property suffered its second suspicious fire in less than six months.

A prominent Route 66 advocate in New Mexico called the disappearance of neon signs in Tucumcari and elsewhere on the historic road alarming and has proposed an idea to do something about it.

Andy and Sue Patel, who have owned the Cactus at 1316 E. Tucumcari Blvd. for nearly 40 years, have been selling off many belongings in recent weeks in anticipation of selling the property. Andy Patel said they've been negotiating with the O'Reilly Auto Parts chain, based in Springfield, Missouri, and hope to have the deal closed as early as this week. The business will continue operating until that happens.

"We've been here so long," Patel said. "It's time to retire."

The Cactus RV Park, formerly the Cactus Court and Cactus Motor Lodge, opened in the late 1930s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Cactus also remains one of the few surviving properties in Tucumcari listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book. The travel guide, published annually from the 1930s to the 1960s, helped African-American travelers find businesses that would accommodate them during the Jim Crow segregationist era.

The motel part of the Cactus closed in the 1990s, and the Patels converted the grounds into an RV park.

Patel said he didn't want to part with the Cactus sign. But a new owner likely would bulldoze it, he said, and the Albuquerque collector at least would preserve it. The Patels received a grant in 2008 from the National Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program to help restore the sign.

Bob Beaulieu, manager of the New Mexico Route 66 Museum in Tucumcari, a few weeks ago saw a post on Facebook the Cactus sign was for sale. He offered $600 cash but had to get approval from the museum's board of directors for the transaction.

About 75 minutes later, with cash in hand, Beaulieu said learned he was outbid by an Albuquerque collector who offered $8,000. He said the museum's annual budget is $10,000 to $12,000 - not enough to make a counteroffer.

"We didn't move fast enough," Beaulieu said of the initial offer. "We're deeply saddened, because it's an artifact of Route 66."

Johnnie Meier, former president of the New Mexico Route 66 Association and owner of the Classical Gas gas-station museum in Embudo, New Mexico, knows the collector who bought the sign but didn't reveal his or her name. The collector will give the sign to a proposed neon-sign park in Albuquerque, he said.

Meier said the loss of the Cactus sign puts the spotlight on an a larger issue on Route 66 - the disappearance of its historic neon signs to collectors and eBay hawkers.

"Our signs are in danger," he said. "This thing is going to snowball, I'm afraid."

Beaulieu agreed the dwindling number of historic Route 66 signs remains an ongoing problem.

"I think it's an issue for Route 66 and not just Tucumcari," he said.

A recent count by the Quay County Sun of old neon signs along Tucumcari's Route 66 showed about two dozen exist in various states of repair.

That's more than other similarly sized towns along Route 66, but dozens less than Tucumcari's heyday of the 1950s and '60s. One of the garages of the Blue Swallow Motel contains a mural that pays tribute to eight neon signs that disappeared from Tucumcari over the decades.

Meier said it's time for a culturally rich Route 66 town such as Tucumcari to adopt a variation of a landmarking ordinance such as the one Albuquerque uses to protect historic properties such as El Vado Motel and De Anza Motor Court.

What Meier has in mind is one key difference - designate historic neon signs as the landmark and not entire properties.

"The landmarking ordinance doesn't prevent a landowner from taking action," Meier said. "It just requires the landowner to go through a series of steps before the action is granted. A landmarking ordinance wouldn't necessarily prevent the sale of a sign, but maybe it sets up some perimeters before a sign is sold to an out-of-state party."

Meier acknowledges such an ordinance would draw the ire of property-rights advocates. But he noted the Cactus' listing on the National Register offers no protection, while a landmark designation would.

Tucumcari Mayor Ruth Ann Litchfield said she would support such an ordinance.

"I believe an ordinance such as the one Johnnie Meier is proposing is essential to preserving the history of Route 66," she stated in a text Friday. "I was saddened by the hauling away of the Cactus RV Park sign. I was (hoping) it would stay here in Tucumcari."

Leslie Naji, a senior planner for Albuquerque's Landmarks Commission, said about 20 properties in the city hold a landmark designation.

If the owner of a landmark-designated property wants to make a major addition or demolish a building, Naji said the commission can deny a demolition permit and impose a one-year period to find an alternative use for the property.

Naji said she knows of no property in Albuquerque where a sign is designated as a landmark. But because the National Register can designate an object and not just a property, she said precedent exists for doing so.

Though the Cactus' main sign is gone, Patel said he donated to the New Mexico Route 66 Museum some neon tubing outlining a metal cactus that stood on the property many years ago.

Patel also took down other architectural neon tubing and said he will give it to any Route 66 property owner in Tucumcari that wants it. He figured he has enough tubing in storage to serve seven or eight businesses along the corridor.

On Thursday night, after his business' main sign was gone, Patel turned wistful.

"I miss the sign now," he said, looking out onto the front of his property. "It's all dark and dingy out there."


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