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.

White Stallion Ranch: A Taste of the Old West

The patio at White Stallion Ranch

I had thought that dude ranches, the kind of places out west where you’d go to spend time galloping across the plains or desert with a background of mountain ranches, were out of the past. Popular around the time of Theodore Roosevelt who loved to ride and hunt, dude ranches first became big shortly after the Battle of Little Big Horn (though why a massacre of U.S. troops would be beguiling I don’t know) back in the 1880s, they attracted people not only from America but also Europe.

Dining Room at White Stallion Ranch

But unlike,western movies which had their heyday between the 1930s and 1960s and now are hardly ever made anymore, dude ranches have survived. Now called guest ranches, their numbers have fallen because the land they occupy is sold to developers for higher prices than owners can make offering lodging and horseback riding.

Indian Oven at White Stallion Ranch

And so, when my husband saw a deal for a long weekend at the White Stallion Ranch outside of Tucson, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I like to horseback ride,and I loved the idea that on Saturday nights they served a ranch-style dinner that had been cooked all day inside an adobe oven fueled by wood. Would we have to kick tumbleweeds aside to get into an old rickety cabin that smelled like horses? Would we sing along around a roaring campfire as the stars shone across the desert sky.

Penning a calf

Yes,to the later and no to the first. The cottages are adobe baked to a rust color and though the décoris decidedly western, it’s not tacky (excuse the pun) at all. Indeed, White Stallion Ranch (the name was originally Black Stallion but then the owners realized that the initials BS wouldn’t quite work)has received numerous awards including The 12 Best All-Inclusive Resorts in the United States for 2019 by SmartTraveler and Voted #1 Best Family Resort by USA Today 10 BEST Readers’ Choice Awards in 2018.

They’re running specials now because of Covid though as Russell True told me, social distancing is easy on a ranch. Russell is the son of the Allen and Cynthia True who bought the ranch in 1965, packing up their kids (Russell was five, his brother Michael was a baby) and moving from their very successful middle class life in Denver, Colorado. The whole place was rough and tumble to hear Russell describe it and much more isolated as the interstate some five miles away hadn’t been built yet and Tucson’s population was about 260,000—now it’s close to a million and rapidly growing.

White Stallion Trail Mix (recipe below)

When founded as a cattle ranch in the late 1800s, before Arizona became a state in 1912, about 5100 people lived in Tucson. Phoenix, about 100 miles north, had the same population back then but now they’re almost five times larger than Tucson.

The 3000 acres, located in the Sonoran Desert, backs up to the Tucson Mountains and is surrounded by the Saguaro National Forest and populated by ancient saguaros, those friendly looking cactus whose branches or limbs go up in the air like happy arms waiting to greet you. Movies are filmed here starting in in 1939 when William Holden and Jean Arthur starred in “Arizona.” In 1978, the James Garner film, “The New Maverick,” was filmed on the ranch and two years later Robert Conrad arrived for the making of “Wild, Wild West Once More.” Even better for George Clooney aficionados, the actor along with Sam Rockwell starred in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” in 2002.

White Stallion at Night

It’s all much comfier than 55 years ago when the Trues arrived. The main building wasn’t the gleaming glass, stone, and wood mid-century modern style it is today. When the Trues bought the 200-acre ranch there were 17 rooms and the same number of horses. Now operated by second and third generation Trues, the ranch encompasses 3000 acres. The horse population around 175 and there are 43 rooms and as well as 5-bedroom hacienda. Many of the True family members live on property including Russell’s son Steven and his wife.

But despite all these changes, the old west feeling is reflected not only in the cookery, trail rides, weekly rodeos, the cattle who range freely (have no fear, their prime practice is lolling under a shady mesquite watching people ride by) and the landscape but also in the chance to sign up for cattle drives, archery, rock climbing, hiking, heading to the shooting range and real-life lessons on how to pen cattle.

Over the years, there were many offers but Al True always turned them down.

“Do you know how much money you’re saying no to?” one developer asked him, emphasizing the amount added up to a gasp-inspiring millions of dollars.

Potato Chip Cookies

But land was more important than cash to the Trues and Al replied that riches were a poor substitute for their life on the ranch. But the lure of money is one of the reasons that of the 30 ranches once in business here north of Tucson when the Trues moved to the neighborhood have dwindled to three.
The food served is international but there’s definitely an overriding western/southwestern theme with taquitos, tacos, ribs, and steaks grilled outside. But the big paean to the past history is their signature Indian Oven Dinner on Saturdays. That’s a hard one to replicate at home, but just think of slowed braised pot roast with potatoes and carrots. Serve with flour or corn tortillas to add a little more western flair. They also offer food oriented guided trail rides including picnic luncheons, the Wine & Cheese ride, and a Beer & Cheetos ride.

The following recipes are courtesy of White Stallion Ranch and are among the favorite served there.

Prickly Pear Margaritas
Note: this makes a very large batch, if you’re not that thirsty or having a small get together, you may want to reduce the quantities.

1.75-liter bottle of Margarita Mix (your choice)
3/4 of a liter of Pepe Lopez Tequila
3 cans of 7-Up
1/4 bottle of Triple Sec
18 ounces of Prickly Pear Syrup

Peanut Butter Bars

¾ cup shortening
¾ cup peanut butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 c white sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 ¼ cups flour
1 ¼ cup oatmeal
¾ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt

Preheat oven 350° degrees or 300° convection oven.
Cream the shortening, peanut butter, sugar, egg, and vanilla well. Mix together the flour, oatmeal, soda, and salt.
Beat the flour mixture into the creamed mixture. Spread the dough by hand over sprayed and floured 9”x13” baking pan. Bake 25 minutes until still chewy. Immediately sprinkle on the chocolate chips and spread over the bars when melted.

Peanut Butter Bars

1 cup powdered sugar
½ cup peanut butter
1 cup chocolate chips
2-4 tablespoons milk, as needed
Beat topping ingredients well, using enough milk to get a creamy consistency, then swirl over the chocolate. Cut and serve.

White Stallion Ranch Trail Mix
6 cups dry roasted peanuts
1 family sized box or 2 regular boxes of Wheat Thins
8 c small twisted pretzels
8 cups thin pretzel sticks
8 cups corn nuts

2 cups vegetable oil
2 cups melted butter
4 tablespoons chili powder
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
10 drops Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon Lawry’s seasoning salt (or make your own using the copycat recipe below)
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin

Mix peanuts, corn nuts and pretzels in large roasting pan. Mix oil and melted butter, chili powder, Worcestershire, Tabasco sauce, garlic salt, seasoned salt, and cumin; pour over pretzels, mixing well.
If using a convection oven, cook at 300° F. for 15 minutes. If using a conventional oven, cook at 300° F. for about 45 minutes. Stir frequently to distribute the seasoning.

Remove from oven and let cool before serving, still serving frequently.

Lawry’s Seasoning Salt
2 tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons white sugar
¾ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon cornstarch
Whisk salt, sugar, paprika, turmeric, onion powder, garlic powder, and cornstarch together in a bowl.

Lariat Twirling Demo

Potato Chip Cookies
Preheat oven to 375 degrees

1 cup Crisco
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 6-ounce package white chocolate chips
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups coarsely crushed potato chips

Cream Crisco and sugars. Add eggs, vanilla and beat well.
Add crushed potato chips and white chocolate chips. Sift flour and soda. Stir into creamed mixture. Drop on greased cookie sheet. Cook 10-12 minutes.