Cactus Garden: the Last Area Tourism Attraction
Posted Friday, March 9, 2012 - by Paul Milan, Historical Society, for the Cibola County Beacon
Editor’s Note: The Cactus Garden Trading Post, originally named Cobra Gardens, was built more than 70 years ago to attract Route 66 travelers. Demolition was scheduled to begin on June 15, 2011, according to Richard McNeil, the property’s current owner.
CIBOLA COUNTY - The original building was a trading post with attached living quarters. Herman Atkinson, his wife and children built it after World War II. Herman was discharged from military service and wanted to start his own trading post, which he built in 1945-46.
Jake Atkinson, Herman’s brother, owned the Rattlesnake Trading Post, on Highway 66, near Bluewater.
Herman rented the property from my mother for $75 per month. I remember the amount because I accompanied my father to collect the rent one time. Herman told my dad that he wanted to develop a very high-end trading post that featured Navajo rugs and jewelry. He offered a beautiful Navajo rug as payment for that month’s rent.
The rug is still in our family.
A number of important events happened after the war including no more gas rationing and increased automobile manufacturing. People had saved money and were anxious to travel.
I imagine that most people, including my family, had relatives in California and they began to drive Highway 66.
Herman discovered that he needed an attraction like his brother had in Bluewater.
If you traveled Highway 66 during that time, you could visit places with two-headed calves, snakes and buffalo. You could watch Indian dances, jewelry-making or whatever a person could make.
Herman decided he needed something no one else offered and chose cobras and claimed to have “the largest cobra collection in the United States.” Herman’s Cobra Garden grew so fast that he started building in front of the original building and added a large section for cobras. Then he added a restaurant and gas pumps.
Herman purchased land near what is now Airport Road and covered it with advertising signs. It seemed like there was a sign every 20 feet.
He began importing Mexican curios because tourists did not appreciate the value of the beautiful Navajo rugs and jewelry. They wanted to buy cheap souvenirs. After all, they were in New Mexico, a part of Mexico, in their minds.
The Cobra Gardens became a very important part of the economic value of the area. Persons were hired to help control parking, pump gas, sales’ people, sign painters, handymen, and helpers for feeding the large number of snakes.
Since live mice and other critters were the staple diet for the snakes, many locals would attend feeding time to watch because entertainment was scarce in those days.
Since the Cobra Gardens was so busy and successful, my father felt that the future of this area would be tourism. So he started his development plans for the area by building the Milan Motel in 1947-48.
Herman was very kind to his help and encouraged young people to get a good education.
The McBride brothers, Max, Jr. (Buddy) and Bert, both worked for him and they later became doctors.
I remember that they both had a lot of respect for Herman.
They took their jobs very seriously, and when I went to their home they had pet snakes.
Bert was listed as the youngest person in the U.S. to have presented a case study about a person that was bitten by a poisonous snake.
Bert attended Arizona University on a scholarship and majored in herpetology. He was listed on the national poison hotline as an expert in snake poisoning when he attended medical school.
During the 1950s the area started moving towards mining and the development of the area did not lean towards tourism. Rumors that an interstate highway was planned that would by-pass the towns on Highway 66.
Herman sold his property to the Thigpens, pulled up his stakes and headed to Arizona where he established a number of trading posts on state highways that were not scheduled for freeway bypasses.
It is my understanding that Herman became very successful and eventually sold his entire operation for a very large sum, according to Bert McBride.
Editor’s Note: Paul Milan, a longtime Cibola County resident, is a member of the Cibola County Historical Society.