Oatman, Arizona: A Ghost Town on Route 66

            From glitzy Las Vegas to the dusty winding road through high chapparal into the winding roads through the Black Mountains I arrived in Oatman, Arizona just as a bank robber and sheriff were shooting it out. Standing among the crowd who were avidly watching this wild west display were wild burros, descendants of the pack burros who once carried gear up and down the mountain passes when Oatman was a booming mining town.

Oatman Hotel, Restaurant & Bar–live music and 300,000 one dollar bills tacked to the walls.

            The burros seemed non-plussed with all the action but then again, as the reenactment happens several times daily they probably were in a been there, done that kind of mode. And yes, maybe there was a little jealousy because for the most part, the burros are the main attraction in this old west town. They even have their own Facebook page. Though Oatman once had its glory days when it was a boomtown. That was back in 1915 when two miners struck gold—about $10 million dollars’ worth. The  population swelled to 3500.  But Oatman was a settlement well before that dating back to when gold was first discovered in the 1860s though they didn’t get a post office until 1906.

Oatman Burger

When the  gold ran out, the mine shut down in 1924. But because Oatman was on Route 66 it managed to hang on even after an Interstate further was built further north.  Not being a major stop on a highway was a good thing for history buffs and probably the mules. Most of the buildings are original to the late 1800s and early 1900s since no fast food franchise or other chains set up shop here  and there was no need for burro removal. So Oatman remains as it was over a century ago.

But there’s been a steep drop-off in population and according to the 2010 Census 128 people inhabit Oatman now.  As for how many wild burros live in or around town on any given day hoping to be fed by tourists, that’s hard to say. I counted seven but there may be more.

And, of course, you have to count the two ghosts who are said to haunt the Oatman Hotel. One is William Ray Flour, an Irish miner who over-imbibed one too many times  and died behind the hotel. Known as Oatie, it seems that since he was staying at the hotel he decided to haunt it. But Ollie, whose real name was Olive Oatman, is the real star when it comes to the town’s ghosts. Back In the 1850s, she was traveling with her family from Illinois when they were attacked by members of the Yavapai tribe. Of the nine Oatmans, six were killed immediately while Olive and her younger sister Mary were taken into captivity. Olive believed her brother Lorenzo was among those killed, but it turned out he was just grievously injured and left for dead.

About a year later, the sisters were traded for beads, horses, some vegetables and blankets to the Mohaves (we spell it Mojave now days) and off they went with their new captors. Somewhere along the line, Olive and Mary  had their chins tattooed  with the image of a Mohave blue cactus and photos taken of her on display in town show a very pretty woman with a complicated tattoo on her chin. It isn’t known if Olive considered herself a captive after spending five years with the Mohave or whether she was now part of the tribe.  Some stories say she had two children with one of the Mohave men and the cactus tattoo was a sign of acceptance. But whatever was going on, times got tough when a severe drought hit the area and Mary along with other Mohaves died of starvation.

In the meantime, Lorenzo, who was looking for his sisters, discovered that Olive was alive and authorities at Fort Yuma negotiated her return in exchange for more goods.

Now here is the intriguing part. Though much of what happened to the Oatman family occurred near Oatman, it doesn’t appear she ever lived there. She ended up marrying a banker who made a fortune and they lived in New York and Detroit. A book written about the family’s experience helped fund both Olive and Lorenzo attendance at the University of Pacific. As for the book itself, Olive’s husband bought up as many copies as he could and had them destroyed

So why she haunts Oatman, I’m not sure but I guess it could be because the town is named after her. I’m also not sure why movie stars Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, who are said to have honeymooned at the Oatman Hotel when they married in the 1930s, still haunt the room where they stayed. If I were a movie star of the Silver Screen era, I’d be haunting the Beverly Hills Hilton instead.

The Oatman is no longer a hotel, and the upstairs is now a fascinating museum of its mining days. But the restaurant remains open and its walls and even part of the ceiling are covered in one dollar bills. Since It’s composed of two rooms and a bar, that’s a lot of money. Our waitress says they estimate the total to be around $300,000. We added a dollar of our own with one of the two staplers they keep on hand just for that.

The Oatman burros have a much better gig than their forebears. They’re supposedly wild but as one of the main attractions in town, they stand in the middle of Route 66 barely glancing at the cars they’re blocking. and crowd the wood sidewalks in front of the stores.   I had to step out in the road to get around one who seemed to think he had more rights than me—and that’s probably true since I was just visiting. Several vendors sell burro food and so the burros are kept busy having their photos taken, eating food from visitors’ hands or being hugged by young children.   A baby burro had a label attached to its forehead saying not to feed it. Instead we watched as it drank milk from its mother.

Burros being burros, they don’t seem to change emotions no matter what’s going on around them.

So I finally got to see burros and visit a ghost town, all for the cost of a bison burger and Burro Ears (which the menu assured me weren’t from burros but were actually house made potato chips, thinly sliced and fried, and served with a sour cream/salsa dip)  at the restaurant along with a dollar bill stapled to the wall. Overall, it was a much better deal than playing the slots in Vegas.  

Other menu items included Stinky Cheese Fries–cheese fries topped with grilled garlic, Burro Drop (a town joke since Route 66 as it goes through town has to be cleaned up constantly from, well, you know—burro drops) which is a skillet dish with hash browns, onions and green peppers topped with gravy and cheese, beef stew, chili, wings, and shakes. Desserts included cakes and pies.

Steak Fingers from Faith, Family & the Feast. Photo by Shannon Rollins.

Beef stew, chili with beans, and bison meat would have been typical fare in mining towns back then though I don’t think the chicken wings and nachos also on the menu would have been common. Overall the trip to Oatman has inspired me to visit other ghost towns wherever I’m traveling and to discover more about the foods eaten when the west was being settled.

Enchiladas from Faith, Family & the Feast. Photo by Shannon Rollins.

I had previously interviewed Kent and Shannon Rollins, author of Faith, Family & the Feast: Recipes to Feed Your Crew from the Grill, Garden, and Iron Skillet, and turned to his cookbook as a start for learning about cowboy food. Below are several of his recipes. For more, visit http://www.kentrollins.com

Cowboy Kent Rollin’s Authentic Cheese Enchiladas

12 guajillo chilis stemmed and seeded

2 ancho chilis stemmed and seeded

4 New Mexico chilis or Cascabel chili stemmed and seeded

2 chili de arbol stemmed and seeded

4 garlic cloves

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

2 teaspoons whole oregano

2 teaspoons whole cumin

5 peppercorns

1 cinnamon stick

4 tablespoons butter divided

1 large white onion chopped

2 cups con de pollo or chicken broth

4 tablespoons butter divided

½ teaspoon allspice

2 tablespoons avocado oil

6 to 8 Corn tortillas

Monterey jack cheese thinly sliced

1 block Queso Fresco

Mexican Crema for topping

Add the guajillo, ancho, New Mexico and de arbol chilis to a stock pot. Cover the chilis with water and bring to a low boil for about 10 to 12 minutes, or until tender.

Strain the chilis from the pot and place in a blender. Add 1 cup of the chili liquid and garlic cloves. Blend well. Pour the contents through a strainer and set aside.

Add the sesame seeds to a medium cast iron skillet over medium-low heat. Stir frequently until they are lightly toasted. Stir in the cumin and oregano and continue to cook for about 1 to 2 minutes, stirring frequently.

Remove the spices from the skillet and place in a grinding rock (mortar and pestle). Add the peppercorns and cinnamon stick and crush into a fine powder. Set aside.

Add 2 tablespoons of butter to the medium cast iron skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook for about 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender.

In a large cast iron skillet, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the blended red sauce. Stir in the chicken broth, crushed spices and allspice. Cook for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the sauce thickens.

In the medium skillet add the avocado oil, and heat over medium heat. Add the tortillas, one at a time, and cook about 30 seconds per side or just until they are tender. Remove and place on a wire rack or cutting board.

Dip the tortillas in the red sauce making sure to coat both sides. Lay the tortillas flat and layer down the center with onions, 1 to 2 slices of Monterrey cheese and 1 to 2 tablespoons queso fresco. Tightly roll up and place in the large skillet. Repeat with the remaining tortillas.

Cook the enchiladas in an oven heated to 350 degrees F. for 5 to 10 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the enchiladas are warmed through.

Place on a serving dish and spoon over the leftover red sauce, sprinkle with crumbled Queso Fresco and drizzle with the Crema. Serve immediately.

Kent Rollins’ Steak Fingers

3, 5 ounce cubed round steak

2 cups all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons cornstarch divided

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 ½ tablespoons Red River Ranch Seasoning see substitution below

2 large eggs

1 ½ cups buttermilk

Oil for frying

Cut the steak into about 1-inch strips and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, 2 tablespoons cornstarch, baking powder and Original seasoning.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk and remaining 1 tablespoon of cornstarch.

In a deep fryer or Dutch oven add about 3 inches of the oil and preheat to 350 degrees F.

Dredge the meat strips in the flour mixture and then dip in the buttermilk mixture to generously coat. Repeat back in the flour mixture, wet mixture and finish in the dry mixture. Set on a wire rack for at least 3 minutes to let the batter and flour dry which will help it stick to the meat.

Fry the strips about 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown. Place them on a wire rack. Serve warm.

Recipe Notes

Kent’s Original seasoning is available at KentRollins.com or substitute your favorite all-purpose seasoning or 1/2 tablespoon pepper, 1/2 tablespoon seasoned salt, 1/2 tablespoon garlic powder.