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Here It Is

By Jim Hinckley and Lea Loeb

Anyone who recalls traveling on Route 66 in the 50s will fondly reminisce that one of the highlights that they remember the most were the mysterious Jack Rabbit signs that dotted the old road — huge billboards strategically placed all along the route that featured a black, almost sinister, jackrabbit silhouette over a bright yellow background, with the remaining mileage to the advertised ‘destination’. Travelers were intrigued. The destination was the Jack Rabbit Trading Post, an iconic stop on Route 66 in Arizona, that has become a living part of Route 66 history, and one that continues to capture the imagination and instill the thrill of traveling the Main Street of America.

The Jack Rabbit Trading Post may be a quick stop along the Will Rogers Highway for some, but to whole generations it remains so much more than a faded gift shop. The vivid yellow paint, bold red lettering and dark silhouette of the jack rabbit sign against the sepia landscape of rural Arizona are images that kindle nostalgia in many Americans who remember the ‘glory days’ of the road and of road travel itself.

The trading post, which dates back to 1949, has managed to cement its place as an important piece of Americana for generations now. For those who traveled the old road during the halcyon days, it’s a fond memory of when the double-six was THE Main Street of America and for younger folks, the Jack Rabbit is a rare, recognizable Route 66 landmark, thanks to its appearance in the Disney animated movie Cars.

As with many roadside businesses that opened along Route 66 in Arizona and New Mexico during the post-war years, the early history of the building is a tangled mix of faded memories. Purportedly, it began life as a building built by the Santa Fe Railroad. In the late 1930s, the complex was home to the Arizona Herpetarium, a glorified snake farm and gift shop. After a few years of abandonment, the Rockwell family used the space as a restaurant and dance hall. Finally, in 1949, James Taylor leased the property and opened the Jack Rabbit Trading Post - a souvenir shop that would become known for its giant jack rabbit statue.

The ever-increasing flow of traffic along Route 66 in the post-war era and into the 1950s provided unprecedented opportunity for entrepreneurs, showmen and families in rural eastern Arizona. At the time, the Jack Rabbit was one of many faux trading posts along the Mother Road. Each boasted their own special attractions to lure in visitors. Petrified logs, fake wigwams, teepees and frontier era forts blossomed in the desert along the highway near Holbrook and Joseph City, like wildflowers after a spring rain, creating stiff competition for tourist’s dollars.

These trading posts and their oddities became famous throughout the country. “Doc” Hatfield, who had established the Geronimo Trading Post five miles west of Holbrook, was luring droves of tourists to his establishment with signs that advertised the “World’s Largest Petrified Log.” Otis Baird, a former deputy sheriff in Navajo County opened the Apache Fort Trading Post and used snakes and a pet mountain lion as a draw - legend has it that he deterred theft by keeping rattlesnakes in the jewelry cases. There was also the Hopi Village Indian Store & Cafe, which by the mid-1950s had evolved into Howdy Hank’s Trading Post.

The pioneer in the trading post business near Joseph City was a self-proclaimed poet, as well as former prospector and trapper named Frederick Rawson, who for reasons unknown, went by the moniker, San Diego. Rawson was a tangible link to the frontier era, and by all accounts a colorful character. Born in about 1861, the story goes that his early childhood was spent as a captive of either the southern Cheyenne or Kiowa Indians. He came to Joseph City in about 1926 and opened a museum that housed an array of memorabilia from the territorial era as well as personal effects from his various adventures. In 1927, he established San Diego’s Old Frontier Trading Post along Route 66.

Local lore has it that Don Lorenzo Hubbell, owner of the historic Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, Arizona, acquired the complex built of old telephone poles in the 1930s. However, what is known for certain is that by the late 1940s, Hawaiian band leader Ray Meany and his wife Ella Blackwell owned the trading post and that they were fiercely competitive.

Today, these trading posts are almost extinct, with the Geronimo Trading Post and the Jack Rabbit Trading Post as the lone survivors. They are the last links to a way of life erased by the need for speed that led to the replacement of Route 66. Of the two, the Jack Rabbit is a true rarity. Unique to the post is signage that dates to its founding, part of a brilliant advertising campaign that gave the store an edge over competition during the heyday of Route 66, as well as international recognition today.

A Family Business

The proprietors have deep roots along Route 66; for current owner Cindy Jaquez, who now runs the post with her husband Tony, the highway and trading post is a lifelong association. The Jack Rabbit has been in Cindy’s family for all but the first 12 years of its existence, when it was operated by the original owner, James Taylor.

Shortly after opening the trading post, Taylor realized that he needed a hook - something to make his business stand out from the crowd. Taylor approached Wayne Troutner of Winslow, Arizona, and the men put their heads together.

In what proved to be a stroke of brilliance, the combined effort resulted in Taylor erecting a large billboard along the opposite side of the highway, painting it bright yellow and adding the black silhouette of a jackrabbit and bright red lettering that read: “Here It Is.”

The two men joined forces and set out along Route 66 to set up signs; the yellow sign with the jack rabbit and mileage to the trading post, and Troutner’s sign for his men’s clothing store, with the silhouette of a curvaceous cowgirl and the slogan: “For Men Only, Winslow, Arizona.” Eventually the signs would be placed along U.S. 66 as far east as Illinois and as far west as California. The mileage listed on the Jack Rabbit Trading Post signs decreased as the traveler drew closer and then, finally, the big “Here It Is” sign. Then, as today, smaller versions of the mileage signs with the jack rabbit became popular souvenirs and soon they were turning up everywhere; military barracks on bases in Guam and Germany, restaurants in Philadelphia and New York, and, purportedly, even in a bar in the Yukon Territory.

Cindy’s grandparents, hoteliers Glenn and Hattie Belle Blansett, leased the Jack Rabbit Trading Post from Taylor in 1961.

“My dad’s parents built the Pacific Heights Motel in Joseph City in the 40s,” said Cindy. “Then they built the Pacific Restaurant across the street. [Glenn Blansett] got into the Arizona state senate thru the 50s, and in 1961, he leased the Jack Rabbit. They bought it in 1967. Thanks to his Senate ties he was able to get us an exit off the highway during the I-40 bypass in 1967.”

In 1961, the Blansetts employed a 10-year-old Glen Jones, as well as his aunt and thirteen- year-old sister to help run the store - it was the beginning of a 57-year relationship between Jones and the Jack Rabbit.

“My job was to tie on bumper signs; they were made from cardboard, had four holes in them and had to be attached to a car’s bumper with two lengths of heavy twine. I believe I was paid two and a half cents per sign.”

It was Jones’s first paying job, and he credits his experience at the post for sparking his interest in travel and fostering his wanderlust.

“To me the place was magical - there were people from all over the world stopping there, people from all walks of life coming and going all day long. One memory that will always stick with me is the smell of the cars - you could smell the bugs cooking on the hot radiators and the Desert King canvas water bags [that] hung on the front bumpers.”

New Management

Although the Jack Rabbit Trading Post has remained relatively intact from its opening to the present, there have been changes over the years. Blansett added cold cherry cider to the store’s offerings and did a bit of expansion to the trading post in 1967. In 1969, Blansett passed down the business to his son Philip and his wife Patricia - Cindy’s father and mother. Jones, who joined the navy that same year, returned home in 1971 and continued to work odd jobs at the venue.

“The place was still magical,” said Jones. “I helped Phillip Blansett pour a concrete floor in the east end of the store - when we tore out the old flooring, there were hundreds of snake skeletons from when it had been a snake farm.”

“My parents moved here in 1969 from Phoenix. I was not quite four-years-old,” Cindy said. “However, we had visited the trading post often before this as my grandparents owned it at the time, and mother’s parents lived around Flagstaff and Williams.”

There were difficulties that came with living in such a remote location, and according to Cindy, growing up in rural Arizona along Route 66 wasn’t easy as a kid.

“There were four of us and we were five miles from Joseph City where we went to school. Friends were very hard to come by, and we only went on two family vacations since it was harder for our parents to leave the business as it was open seven days a week. There wasn’t much thought about Route 66 [at the time], it was simply our road. We rode the school bus or drove this road every day to get to school. Route 66 didn’t really mean that much to us until the early 80s when Joseph City was getting bypassed.”

Cindy’s recollections capture a moment in time when Route 66 was on the cusp of rising from the ashes of abandonment.

“[My husband] Tony and his family lived about 15-miles east of Holbrook at Goodwater, where they worked for a local ranch. He eventually moved into Holbrook to live with his older sister and brother in-law to attend high school. We met in 1984, married in Holbrook in 1988, and lived in Pinetop, Arizona, for two years.”

“I was working 6 to 8 hour days managing convenience stores up in the mountains and one night I sat down with my father-in-law over dinner,” said Tony. “He was going to sell [The Jack Rabbit Trading Post] so I offered to run the store for him and Cindy just kind of went with it - it wasn’t planned at all.”

Cindy and Tony raised their children at the Post, the same way Cindy grew up.

“All of our kids learned how to play soccer, baseball and softball on our gravel and concrete driveways. But you make do with what you have. Not always the best, but you learn to live with it.”

In addition to the series of giant rabbit statues that have starred as the Post’s main attraction, there is now a weathered old De Soto sedan that sits at the back of the property and peaks the interest of visitors.

“The De Soto was Tony’s dad’s car. He moved back to Mexico after Tony’s mom died and left the car here. That car is almost as popular as the rabbit as far as pictures are concerned. I was always under the impression that there were only two rabbits, but we recently discovered that there were three. The first one was gray and had fur, that was when the store opened in 1949. We found out that the second rabbit arrived here in a convertible in 1956. The third rabbit is the one we have today.”

Today’s Challenges

Cindy and Tony proudly carry on the tradition of making memories for the Route 66 traveler: “Cherry cider was sold here until the very early 80s, but so many people still come in asking for it. A lot of people say that this store and Route 66 are a big part of their growing up. We now have second and third generations customers.

People from across the globe come to visit the Jack Rabbit Trading Post. During his time in the military, Jones met a man in Vietnam who had traveled down Route 66 and stopped at the Post. Customers from all over the world continue to frequent the Jack Rabbit, some as often as once or twice a year.

“Yesterday we had someone here that was from New Zealand that was here 20 years ago,” said Cindy.

In the era of renaissance on Route 66, one would imagine that an icon such as the Jack Rabbit Trading Post, a living time capsule where a person can have an authentic Route 66 experience, would be bustling with travelers. However, rumors were circulating online recently that the Post had closed, so Cindy took to social media to set the record straight: the Jack Rabbit is definitely still open for business.

“People were writing on the internet that we were closed, but they weren’t even trying to come into the store. They were just looking from the outside and assuming we had shut down.”

Cindy began posting regular updates on Facebook on the shop’s happenings, in an effort to prove the Jack Rabbit’s vitality. One day in April 2018, she posted a picture of a souvenir mile marker Tony had made for a customer. It was a replica of the infamous yellow billboards that used to line the highway leading to the Post’s iconic “HERE IT IS” sign. The picture quickly made its way around the web and became viral in the Route 66 community. Suddenly, after years of decline, the Jack Rabbit was back on the map.

Route 66 has always been about the people. The people are what give this highway its sense of infectious vibrancy. The people are what make a road trip on the double-six memorable.

“Every time I was in Arizona on leave to visit family when I was in the navy I would stop in and visit with Phillip and Pat,” said Jones. “I never missed a chance to reminisce about the time Waylon Jennings’s and his bunch stopped in for a visit, or the bus load of naked hippies, or just how good [a] cold can of Coors tastes. It’s still the same Jack Rabbit - still magical, still wonderful people running the place. The Jack Rabbit is not just a tourist stop, it’s a family that has continued a tradition for almost sixty years.”

The people, the dreamers that travel the road, the people that organize events, the people that keep the neon glowing bright or the vintage signs painted, they are the essence of the Route 66 experience. If we forget that, if we only see Route 66 as a photo op, a linear theme park, we risk losing everything that makes the highway special and unique.

The Jaquez’s have high hopes for the future of the Jack Rabbit Trading Post and the Mother Road. According to Tony, business is starting to pick up again, but he and Cindy urge visitors to support local families along the route so that they can continue to keep the tradition alive.

“Don’t just take a picture, come meet us - hear our stories.”

As a parting thought, Cindy shares a little bit of wisdom that her father used to say: “If you haven’t been to the Jack Rabbit, you haven’t been to the southwest.

Photographs courtesy of Efren Lopez/Route66Images.

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