Some time ago, this blog ran an article about the deserted Route 66, a feature story that attracted quite a lot of attention. So much so that I decided to focus – from time to time – on particular sites along that legendary by-way. As a child, I had traveled this road many many times with my parents, criss-crossing the country, first when we moved from New York to California in 1952, and then later on many trips back to visit the relatives in West Virginia. I had past by many of the places that I will feature. Most of them were still operating in those days. The current site was one of them. Now, obscured by a canopy of trees, six tiny, crumbling cabins sit next to a quiet, dead-end stretch of Route 66 that runs parallel to Interstate 44 about 10 miles outside of Rolla, Missouri. Two outhouses stand behind the aging buildings; nearby, a faded, broken neon sign that identifies the little structures as “John’s Modern Cabins.”
Driving along Route 66 in front of the cabins, a passerby can read the story of the road. To the right, termites and time quietly eat away at John’s long-abandoned cabins. To the left, truck drivers roar past at 65 mph, oblivious to the old tourist court and the road leading to it, both casualties of America’s need for speed.
John’s Modern Cabins began as part of a somewhat seedy juke-joint known as Bill and Bess’s Place. Six tiny log cabins flanked a shotgun-shack dance hall that in the 1930s was home to music, merriment … and murder. On Halloween night in 1935, 22-year-old Eugene Duncan fatally shot his estranged wife, Billie, 18, and slightly wounded two others in the dance hall’s fireplace room. Duncan apparently was angry with his wife because she had left him about 10 days earlier to live with her mother.
Duncan initially denied killing his wife, but a week before his trial was set to start, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and ended up serving 13 years of a 50-year sentence. He eventually remarried and died of a heart attack at age 60.
Ten years later, Bill Bayliss — who had owned the juke joint with his wife, Beatrice — sold the property. It changed hands three times before John and Lillian Dausch, a middle-aged, childless couple from Chicago, bought it in 1951 for $5,000.
Improvements to Route 66 forced the Dausches to move the business a few feet north of their original location. John Dausch moved several of the cabins but abandoned the shotgun shack and built three more cabins out of a concrete-asbestos mix.
Dausch also built a larger log cabin to live in and another building to use as a laundry room and snack bar, from which he also sold beer. Ed Goodridge, owner of the nearby Vernelle’s Motel, said Dausch’s habit of selling beer on Sundays — in violation of local laws — earned him the nickname “Sunday John.”
In 1965, the Missouri State Highway Commission bought some of Dausch’s property so they could make improvements to the road that eventually would become Interstate 44.
With the arrival of the interstate, Dausch — like so many other mom-and-pop business owners along Route 66 — saw his business begin to dry up.
It was a bad year for Dausch; a few months later, his wife died of a coronary thrombosis, and her death — coupled with his own failing health and declining business — eventually prompted him to close his little establishment.
Dausch continued to live on the property until he died of a stroke in 1971.
Another man, Arnold Noel, lived on the property for about a year after Dausch’s death. Then Noel died, and with no one around to maintain them, John’s Modern Cabins fell into disrepair.
In 1976, Loretta Ross of St. Charles, Mo., bought the property with the intent of turning it into a hunting getaway for her family, but after her husband died, those plans were scrapped, and the cabins spent the next 25 years quietly decaying.
Now Ross and her son, Kenneth, want to tear down the cabins, which are in such bad condition that they pose a hazard to anyone who might venture into them … and a liability to the Rosses.
Ross has said the cabins are beyond repair and simply aren’t worth saving. Route 66 enthusiasts disagree. The cabins may never be habitable again, but they are a piece of history that tells the story of the Mother Road better than perhaps any other single image on the highway, and as such, they deserve to be preserved — preferably on their current site. If on-site preservation is impossible, we’d like to move the sign and one or more of the cabins to another location so future generations will have a chance to see them and imagine what Route 66 might have been like in its heyday.