East Essex – “Hank’s Place”
by Joe de Kehoe
34° 45’ 06.01” N., 115° 13’ 40.67” W.
Although it is uncertain who first built the garage and Texaco service station in East Essex, from about 1960 to 1977 it was run by Henry Joseph “Hank” Cusson and his wife Elva and it was most commonly known as “Hank’s Place.”
Located one-half mile east of Essex, at the intersection of Goffs Road and National Trails Highway, old Route 66, the business operated as a gas station, garage, towing service, café, used car sales, an automobile graveyard for abandoned cars that had broken down on Route 66, and there was a 2,000-foot runway behind the garage.
In the late 1950s Hank was anxious to get out of his construction business in San Diego and flew his plane out to Essex hoping to get some leads from his friend and former co-worker, Al Rupe who was working in Essex. In the words of his daughter, Danna,
“He was banking the plane around looking for a place to land in the desert and lo and behold, there was a 2000-foot runway. So, he landed, and people came running out to see who was landing on their runway. And he said, ‘Well, I came up to see my friend, Al Rupe, because I want to buy a place in the desert.’ And they said, ‘well, this one’s for sale.’ And he said, ‘how much?’ They shook hands, he got back in the airplane and flew home and wired them the money. So, in 1960 we moved from San Diego to Essex.”
“The lady he bought it from was Frankie Moran. She sold it because her husband had died, and she wanted to move back to Oklahoma. The day we arrived in town, she gave my dad the keys to the front door, and she jumped in a car and took off and was never seen or heard from again.”
When Hank arrived home and announced to the family that he had bought a place in the desert, and they were moving as soon as school was out, he got mixed reactions. Joe, the oldest boy decided that wasn’t for him and he joined the Air Force as soon as he graduated from High School. So, Joe went off to boot camp and the rest of the family, Hank, Elva, Vick, Danna, and Tommy went to Essex.
During the time they were there the family basically ran everything, but Hank hired a waitress, Sue Cairns, and a cook to take care of the customers in the café, but cooks came and went with regularity out there. However, the service station, garage and towing service were all handled by the family and the business was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Hank also sold used cars when the opportunity presented itself by scavenging parts and assembling vehicles from those that had been abandoned by unlucky motorists.
“Vick and I ran the place, and Tommy too. I mean, here’s a little 10-year-old kid changing truck tires, not on an F10, you know? Right, truck tires. Semi-truck tires, when you’re 10 years old which is a hard job, but Hank taught us fulcrums and, you know, ratios and how to do that. We had a little tiny wrecker, and we could do things that the big wreckers couldn’t, all because Hank taught the physics of how to do something with a tiny wrecker.”
In 1968 the café caught fire and was destroyed. Hank had been out on a tow job and was returning to Essex and saw the smoke coming from the café. He knew the fire was coming from the kitchen, but customers in the cafe did not realize it. Hank ran in, yelled for everyone to get out, he grabbed the cash register and that’s about all he was able to save. The nearest fire trucks were in Needles, 45-minutes away. A passing motorist happened to take a picture of the burning building and sent it to “Hank.” C/O Post office, Essex, California.
With the building and the family’s personal belongings destroyed Hank was out of business, but this is where Hank’s experience in the construction business paid off. Two of his brothers from Massachusetts flew in as soon as they could and worked day and night and got the place rebuilt and running again in record time. The building that burned was a wooden structure, so during the rebuild the brothers used corrugated tin sheeting wherever possible to minimize the risk of another fire and the business was reopened.
The family lived in the back of the restaurant in rooms built behind the freezers that were used for storing food. Danna, Tommy, and Vick were in one room. Next door was Elva and Hanks bedroom and the office.
Through another door was the bathroom, except it didn’t have a door, and we did not get a door on the bathroom until I was 18 years old, and people would be walking through and just, you know. One of the cooks quit in the middle of a busy day and said, “I’m not working until you put a door on the bathroom for that girl.” So, at the age of 18 I got a door on the bathroom.
And, as to the beds, you know, I had my bed, my brother had his bed, et cetera, et cetera, but you never knew who you’re going to wake up next to in the morning, because if people broke down during the night, Hank said, “Well just go in there and get in a bed. If they’re all full, just pick a place. “Yeah. So, I never knew who I was going to wake up next to. He didn’t charge ‘em; he was just being helpful to stranded motorists, you know. “Oh, I’m not going to make you sleep in your car, here, you go in there and sleep. You know, if we were doing it today, the cops would, turn us every which way, but loose... back then it was just a matter of necessity.”
Hank was an accomplished pilot and owned two airplanes, a Cessna 140 and a Cessna 172. Residents of Essex at the time recall that it was not uncommon for California Highway Patrol officers to fly into Hank’s Place for lunch and take off again on patrol. Hank also had a reputation of being a ‘daredevil’ pilot and he had several minor accidents with his planes, but he served a valuable service also in that he was sometimes asked to fly injured motorists to the hospital in Needles which was much quicker than the ambulance service. Remnants of the runway that was included in his purchase of the place are still visible behind the property today.
Hank’s wife Alva was known in the area as an accomplished organ player, and it is even more remarkable because she was autodidactic. It was seemingly just on impulse that Alva decided to try playing an organ, so she rented a little Hammond B3, mastered it in about a week, and returned it to get the next size up and mastered that too. In the evenings there was sometimes an impromptu jam session in the café with Elva at the organ, JR Bently Jr. on the drums and a few other Essex folks with their musical instruments.
Hank and Elva continued to run the place until about 1975, but when Interstate-40 opened in the early 1970s between Needles and Barstow the business started to decline and they decided to sell. Levi Gudmundson purchased the property from Hank and ran the business from about 1975 – 1982 and then off and on from about 1985 to 1990 or 1991. Levi was a deputy sheriff who had married one of Hank’s waitresses, and he and Hank were good friends, having known each other for a long time. When Levi took over, he renamed the business “Levi’s Place” and he ran the towing and gas station and his wife, Bonnie Jo ran the café.
Through the years, however, Levi watched the business dwindle. The opening of the interstate highway that diverted traffic away from Route 66, combined with a 1983 California ordinance that required underground gasoline storage tanks to be renovated and insured was something that few small businesses could afford. Levi tried to sell and the business changed ownership several times in the coming years, but buyers would stay for a few months, default on payments, and Levi would have to step in and take over again. This happened repeatedly. The café was permanently closed because truckers who used to stop for a meal were now using the interstate, and the lack of traffic on Route 66 meant that the cafe was probably never going to be profitable again. Most of the temporary owners operated only as a tow business, but unsuccessfully, and in the late 1990s or early 2000s the business finally closed permanently.
Today, Hank’s Place is in ruins. The café is dilapidated, the walls are emblazoned with graffiti, and the grounds are littered with pieces of wood, scraps of metal, and abandoned tires.
Years later, long after they had left Essex, Hank and Elva separated, but their separation was not uncommon or unexpected; Elva had married her first husband nine times and married Hank seven times! Elva was living in Oklahoma with her first husband at the time, and the judge said that “Because the two of you keep getting remarried, I’m not going to grant another divorce until one of you moves out of Oklahoma”, so Alma moved to southern California.
Both Hank and Elva died on the same day, April 22, 2002, just a few hours apart, Hank in Kingman, Arizona and Elva in Long Beach, California.
Sadly, even a small desert town like Essex could not escape tragedy. Tommy Cusson, their youngest child was killed on June 20, 1970 in Cambodia. Tommy’s remains were returned to the family and Hank and Elva are interred with Tommy in Needles Riverview Cemetery. ~ Joe