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.

"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.

Now an unofficial attraction on Bisbee's tourist circuit, Shady Dell regularly receives non-staying visitors who drop by to grab a burger at Dot's or simply wander around the grounds looking at trailers. (To discourage the latter activity, windows of several trailers sport signs announcing that the unit is occupied and privacy is appreciated.)

Adjusting the bill of his baseball cap, Smith surveys a queue of tourists swamping the diner during a recent lunch hour.

"You look at that and say, 'Yeah, business is great'--and right now it is," he says. "But year-in, year-out, we're depending on the locals to support the diner. The problem is that people who live in Bisbee will go eat somewhere else before they'll stand in a line like that."

For better or worse, a story that ran in Sunday's New York Times will undoubtedly only add to congestion around Smith's park: According to the results of a University of Chicago study, men who live in trailers reportedly have sex 30 percent more often than the rest of the population.

The moral? Don't come a-knockin' if you see Shady Dell a-rockin'.

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: dwebb@newtimes.com

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