Nomads Land

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

"It was just great, more fun than either of us ever imagined," says Ricker, a computer graphics designer at a Phoenix TV station. Too tired to go into town for dinner, Ricker slipped on a 1950s apron she found in the kitchenette and cooked up a "white trash" dinner--Spaghetti-O's and canned green beans. Then, over a bottle of cheap wine, the couple sat outside and watched bats flit overhead while a Billie Holiday tune wafted out of the trailer. Says Ricker, "It was really a special night, something I'll always remember."

The park also plays host to more practical guests, like the substitute teacher from Alaska who made the '53 Crown trailer her home while subbing at a school across the street from Shady Dell.

"You're roughing it a little bit," concedes Smith. "But for one price, you've got the use of a phone, a laundry, a diner and a place that's heated and cooled. And once they compare paying $25 here to a $10 camping fee, most people are willing to spring the few extra dollars."

Not that money was any object to the pair of hipsters from New York who honeymooned at the park. Or to the contingent from a German magazine that used Shady Dell as the background for a risque fashion layout, culminating with a photo of a nude male model handcuffed in the trunk of Smith's '56 Chrysler.

Still, Shady Dell's most memorable guest was probably the older gentleman who, during his frequent visits to the park, repeatedly mentioned how much "Martha" would have enjoyed the place.

Quizzed about Martha's identity, the man finally revealed that she was his late wife; furthermore, she was buried in the cemetery right over the wall from the trailer he always rented.

Although they've hitched their lives to trailers, neither Ed Smith nor Rita Personett is particularly eager to live in one. Or at least not one parked in Shady Dell.

"You can't live where you work," explains Personett, who shares a home with Smith in Old Bisbee. "It would drive you crazy; I'd always feel like I had to be picking up trash or doing something. Around here we all wear many hats."

The chapeau Personett most frequently sports is a paper waitress cap she wears while sharing diner duty with cook/park manager Dot Bozeman.

Smith, meanwhile, keeps one eye on the park and the other on any old trailers that cross his path.

"Since we've had this place, though, the trailers find us," says Smith. Prices vary according to size and condition, but geography also factors into the decision-to-buy math. Smith reports that after paying $2,000 for a trailer in Maine, it actually cost him more than that in gas and expenses to transport it back to Bisbee.

Still, old habits die hard, and Smith confesses he can't help prowling through ramshackle trailer courts on the off chance he'll find a hidden gem. More often than not, he says, all he finds are human "doghouses"--"A lot of these old trailers wind up in slumlord situations."

Were it practical, he'd find much better pickings peeking into people's backyards. "If you've got a trailer, you can't do better for a spare bedroom or guest room," explains Smith. "That's what happened to a lot of trailers. Either that or they were used as storage sheds. But unless the owner was really conscientious, the seals eventually broke, there was leakage and the trailer was shot. It's a shame to see that happen; some of those things were beautiful."

Upon opening for business, Smith claims the pair initially hoped the park would break even. To do that, he figured they'd need to supplement income generated by RV rental space and tent campers by renting each of the two $25-a-night trailers then on the property four times a month, for a grand total of $200.

His partner, meanwhile, figured he was being wildly optimistic.
"Looking back, that was a laughable estimate," says Smith, who claims that despite the park's popularity, he's still not making any money. "What's happened is that every penny we make, we put that back plus more."

Reservations are a must for weekend rentals from January through June, when his seven trailers boast an occupancy rate approaching 100 percent. A group of local artists has already booked the entire park for New Year's Eve 1999.

The Bisbee landmark is "definitely one of a kind," reports writer Chiori Santiago, a Berkeley, California, cultural historian who spent several days at the Bisbee park last year while researching an upcoming Smithsonian article about trailer camps.

"There are probably still parks that have old funky trailers in them," concedes Santiago. "But there aren't any where the trailers have been restored and you're given the feeling of such a mood. Their place reminds me of those dinosaur exhibits you see in a natural history museum, where they've got big dioramas to show how life used to be."

But life doesn't stand still, not even at the frozen-in-time Shady Dell.
And that bothers Ed Smith, who remains somewhat ambivalent about the overwhelming success of his landlocked roamin' holiday. As much as he enjoys showing the place to like-minded enthusiasts, he'd hate to see his sleepy trailer park turn into a theme park.

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