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Toxic Town USA - Part Zero

Updated: May 26, 2018


A decade before the turn of the century, a friend asked me to join him playing in a folk and bluegrass music festival happening that summer in Sayre. Wanting to get away from the city, I readily agreed.

The morning of the festival, I discovered I badly needed some new banjo strings as I hadn't changed them on either banjo for years, but I didn't want to drive east all the way over to Elk City with the rising sun burning into my eyes. That could lead to a headache I didn't want to start the day with. So I went west instead after a friend told me about a couple running a small music shop in Erick. That sounded cool. I drove the old concrete stretch of Route 66 west a few miles, marveling at how well it had stood up to the elements over the decades, turned left at Main as instructed by my friend and found the shop on the right just a block south.

I immediately recognized the old red brick building from childhood. Mom took me into it once while in town visiting a friend of hers. The town's City Meat Market. It still had the old Bond Bread screen doors on it. Childhood flashbacks were raging through my brain as I parked out front and checked the front doors.


Well hell. Looked like I would be going over to Elk after all.

It was a beautiful summer morning, still nice and cool and I liked the feeling of the place, so I sat down on the front step for a bit. It wasn't quite 9 AM yet, so I hoped maybe the shop owner would show up soon and open for the day. A few minutes passed then I heard a gruff, angry voice yelling at me from a distance.

"What the hell are you doing here!"

I flinched at the booming inquiry, looked south down the street toward the sound of the voice and saw him coming, walking briskly with a look on his face I couldn't easily categorize. Not ready for a confrontation so early in the day, I thought about getting back into the truck and leaving, but something made me stop and wait. That walk looked like a pretend angry walk. I stood to greet him, no matter the outcome.

He strode up fast and close and held out his hand with a big grin on his face, probably happy to see he managed to shake me up a bit. We shook hands, told each other our names and I explained I needed some banjo strings to play in the festival over at Sayre. He laughed and asked how the hell I got snagged into that gig, unlocked the shop, sold me a couple of sets of Martin lights at a nice low price as I explained a friend named Pat invited me to perform; He said something like "Well that's just horrible!" and gave me a free blues harp in the bargain as he rang up the sale. Then we started talking.

That's how I met Harley for the first time ever.

A decade later we were still friends, somehow, and over that decade I would stop in Erick to visit with him and his wife Annabelle whenever I could. Annabelle's brother Jeff gave them this first Route 66 sign back in1989.

In July 2001, I stopped by on my way to Colorado to start working for a hot new dot com company that would go under less than a year later. Harley and Annabelle told me about a helicopter from a TV news station in Oklahoma City landing near their shop and reporters coming in to interview them about what they were up to. It was an incredible story of unlikely, blooming success and I soon started thinking what a great little documentary it would make. I always wanted to create a documentary.

We talked for a long time after sundown. They fed me and I stayed overnight with them. The next day they filled me in on what else had recently started happening to put them firmly on the Route 66 tourism map. After more than two decades struggling together to make a go of it as entrepreneurs in a tiny town long forgotten when it was bypassed by fast lanes of Interstate 40, Harley had deftly applied his musical touch, Annabelle applied her artistic touch and the couple had finally found their niche.

It's a fascinating story I'll be expanding on in this blog as time allows.

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