Nomads Land

Bisbee's idyllic Shady Dell trailer park offers nostalgia--with a hitch

Nobody's ever going to mistake a night's stay at Bisbee's Shady Dell for a room at the Ritz.

There are no mints on the pillow, and forget about daily maid service. If you want to make a call, you've got to use a phone in the laundry room that serves all guests. And don't bother looking for that sanitary paper banner wrapped around the toilet seat--most of Shady Dell's accommodations aren't even equipped with rest rooms.

Yet it's the very lack of these rather rudimentary hospitality-industry amenities that has put this Arizona lodging curio on the map. And how many five-star resorts decorate rooms with "God Bless Our Mobile Home" wall plaques or furnish guests with in-room videocassettes of The Long Long Trailer?

If no visit to northern Arizona is complete without staying in one of the concrete tepees in Holbrook's Wigwam Village, no sojourn to the state's southern region is complete without stopping at the Shady Dell RV Park and Campground. When will you ever have another chance to spend the night in one of seven gleaming aluminum travel trailers, each outfitted with ceramic punjabs, tropical-print draperies, old reading material (Arizona Highways, Mickey Spillane paperbacks) and even audio cassettes of radio shows specific to that unit's particular vintage?

Accommodations range from the snug '43 Crown (if you ever snuck into a drive-in movie in a car trunk, you'll feel right at home in this $25-a-nighter) to the spatial grandeur of the $45-a-night '51 Spartan Mansion, 33 feet of streamlined swank replete with birch, chintz and Formica. For amorous guests, there's also the classic '49 Air Stream "honeymoon suite," so named because the ceiling over the back bedroom features a polished, mirrorlike surface. Fifties-style lawn furniture, yard ornaments and a variety of well-stocked bird feeders complete the bucolic scene.

All units come equipped with a propane stove, a refrigerator, cooking utensils and linens, as well as a freshly filled antique cookie jar.

And when the cookies run low? If you're lucky, you might grab one of 10 stools in the on-premise Dot's Diner, a restored 1957 Valentine dining car that for years did business as a burger joint in L.A.'s Topanga Canyon.

No KOA Kampground, Shady Dell.
But that's not to suggest that this nostalgia-themed tourist camp is Ed Debevic's with a trailer hitch, either: If there's anything campy about Shady Dell, it's strictly of the "tenting tonight" variety.

"Everything here is as authentic as possible; it's what people would have done," says Shady Dell co-owner Ed Smith. "We've been pretty careful not to make it cutesy."

"We" is Smith and partner Rita Personett, owners of a modern-antiques business in Old Bisbee that specializes in "20th-century souvenirs"--collectibles like pinball machines, old gas pumps and advertising memorabilia. But the professional pack rats' career path radically detoured three years ago when they ran out of places to stash the half-dozen travel trailers they'd collected through the years.

A floating light bulb suddenly lighted up the cottonwood shadows that engulf what would later become Shady Dell. What better place to open a retropolitan trailer park than Bisbee, the burned-out mining town turned artists' enclave that's now a mecca for both nostalgic retirees and thrill-seeking hipsters?

Situated on a one-and-a-half-acre plot of land that abuts an old cemetery, Shady Dell is believed to be the state's oldest continually operating tourist camp. But the 71-year-old property had fallen into serious disrepair by the time Smith and Personett bought the park in May 1995. Sewer lines were broken, the grounds were strewn with debris and the graffiti-riddled bathhouse was a shambles. And in case there was any doubt this forlorn outpost epitomized the trailer-trash nadir, a former owner had rechristened the eyesore "Snowbird Haven."

"This place was a mess," says Smith. "We had to replace everything."
But thanks to the couple's ongoing restoration efforts (an additional three trailers are awaiting renovation), travelers may well think they've cruised into a time warp where Truman or Eisenhower is still in the national driver's seat.

A rearview mirror into America's roadside past, Shady Dell is a meticulous recreation of what a typical American trailer court looked like four or five decades ago.

Or at least what it might have looked like in bygone promotional brochures for auto camps with reassuring names like Kozy Kourt, Dreamland and Silent Nite.

Ed Smith readily admits the spread is an "idealistic" representation.
"This isn't a total reproduction--and you wouldn't want that," he explains. "If this were real trailering, these would all have belonged to individual owners. There would have been cars stuffed in between the trailers, kids running around and clothesline strung all over the place. This is sort of a fantasy."

It's a fantasy that a lot of people are eager to experience firsthand, even if it does mean traipsing to the privy in the rain.

"I'm kind of a private person, and when I first heard there weren't any bathrooms in the trailers I was kind of worried," says guest Leigh Ricker. But after spending the night in the park's honeymoon suite last December, she and her boyfriend can't wait to go back.

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