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Baker's giant thermometer, long on the blink, is taking heat

BAKER — The temperature hit 114 degrees in July, but most folks passing by the "World's Tallest Thermometer" in this Mojave Desert pit stop never knew it.

Once a shimmering beacon of light to Las Vegas-bound drivers heading up Interstate 15 with fat wallets and paper-thin dreams, Baker's 13-story thermometer marks California's last-stop oasis of bathrooms and burger joints before the Nevada state line.

Now it's an eyesore. The pinkish roadside oddity has been on the blink for years. The string of ovals that lighted up in 10-degree increments, the top one also giving the exact temperature, are black and lifeless. The gift shop below is padlocked, its shelves stripped bare.

"It's totally disappointing," said Brad Roach, 27, of Los Alamos, N.M., who pulled off the highway on an L.A.-to-Vegas road trip with friends to get a closer look. "It's kind of like the biggest ball of twine," he said, referring to another storied American roadside attraction. "If you're diving by, you have to stop and see it. But there's nothing here."

The thermometer's demise now serves as a billboard for a town on the brink. A chain link fence surrounds Baker's prized Starbucks — which closed its doors four years ago. Two of the town's three motels are shut. The Royal Hawaiian, which in the best of times aspired to two stars, peeks sadly out onto Baker Boulevard with smashed windows and graffiti-splattered walls.

Part of the blame belongs to the merciless Mojave Desert, where bleached 2-by-4s and cinder blocks are all that remains of gas stations, diners and other ventures that turned to dust along the highways. Part of the decline can be blamed on the recession, which depleted the conga line of vehicles heading to and from Las Vegas that sustains life in this tiny town of 735 on the edge of Death Valley.

Tough times are nothing new in this desert town, born more than century ago as a railroad station serving the borax mines in Death Valley. It was wiped off the map by floods in the '30s and saw its rails pulled up and shipped overseas during World War II. There still isn't a single stoplight in town.

Still, its people persevere. "There's always been work in Baker, but now, instead of one job, people are working two or three," said Ronda Tremblay, superintendent of the Baker Valley United School District, which has fewer than 190 students.

Baker has no bank or supermarket, no drugstore or health clinic — those are an hour's drive away, in Barstow.

But some hold out hope for the town and, not surprisingly in these parts, it could come from an unusual place: a spaceship.

The owner of Alien Fresh Jerky, one of the more popular stops on Baker's main drag, has plans to build a three-story, disc-shaped "UFO Hotel." Still in the permitting process, it would tower over the tiny markets, gas stations and restaurants on Baker's main drag. Plans call for a gift shop, cafe and 30-plus rooms. Outside, there would be a pool in the shape of an alien's noggin for guests to take a dip in on hot summer days.

"Forty percent of Americans believe in UFOs. Those are my customers," Luis Ramallo said. "No one has ever seen anything like it."

A wacky dream? Perhaps. But Ramallo, an electrician who emigrated from Argentina in 1988, has parlayed on those before with great success. His beef jerky store started as a tiny, roadside stand outside of Nevada's Area 51, the top secret U.S. Air Force base that has morphed into the Bethlehem of UFO theology. After Ramallo's oddball enterprise became a hit, he relocated to Baker.

Now his store, on good days, has a line snaking out the door, Ramallo said. He expects even more business once the spaceship hotel opens, which he hopes will be in the next year or two.

"This will be the new big attraction in Baker," Ramallo said. "I don't want them to fix the thermometer. I want them to tear it down. It's gone from good to bad to ugly."

The 134-foot-high thermometer was the brainchild of local businessman Willis Herron, who plunked down $700,000 to build the giant monolith in 1991 next to his Bun Boy Restaurant. The thermometer's 4,900 bulbs glowed so bright that Herron, who lived across the street, had to close his window shades at night.

"For 25 years I've had this dream of putting up the world's tallest thermometer, because people pulling off the freeway in the heat of summer are always making remarks like: 'Whew! It's hotter 'n hell. How hot is it anyway?'" Herron, who died years ago, told the Times in 1991.

The tower's height commemorated the 134-degree record temperature set in nearby Death Valley in 1913.

Shortly after it was finished, the thermometer snapped in two after being buffeted by 70-mph winds. Two years later, the rebuilt thermometer again twisted and swayed as gusts whipped through the valley, popping out light bulbs. The problem was solved when a work crew poured concrete inside the steel tower, anchoring it against the harsh desert wind.

Herron sold the Bun Boy and the giant thermometer to business partner Larry Dabour, owner of the Mad Greek restaurant, another Baker institution. It changed hands again in 2005 when Dabour "liberated" himself from the thermometer, Bun Boy and some other enterprises he owned.

"Is that the main reason Baker is down? No," said Dabour, who lives in Las Vegas but still owns the Mad Greek. "But as with anything, if you go into a neighborhood that has one place that's not kept up, all the other places suffer."

The current owner, Matt Pike of Orange County, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Pike, whose family has run businesses in Baker since the 1940s, also owns the Bob's Big Boy restaurant there, which supplanted the Bun Boy near the thermometer.

In September, Pike told Nevada Public Radio that the thermometer's light bill was about $8,000 a month. When the economy went south, he turned it off to focus on his other businesses in town but said he still had hopes of lighting it up when the economy rebounds.

The Michigan-based corporate owner of Bob's Big Boy restaurants filed a federal lawsuit against Pike and his company, Sleepy Hollow Enterprises, in August for failing to pay franchise fees for restaurants in Baker, Barstow and Temecula. A federal judge Nov. 29 ordered Pike's company to pay more than $40,000 in damages and fees and to "cease and desist" using Bob's Big Boy signs on the restaurants, court records show.

Nono Khosa, who manages a number of gas stations and restaurants in Baker as well as Ken's Towing, said the economy in Baker has been steadily improving as Las Vegas tourism recovers from the depths of the recession. So much so that her boss, Ravi Grewal from the San Fernando Valley, just built a posh new 76 service station on the northeast side of town, complete with a mini indoor food court and spacious restrooms.

A giant nonfunctional thermometer won't stem that recovery, Khosa said, but it certainly doesn't reflect well on the town.

"It's the landmark for Baker, and if it's not working, it's not a very comfortable situation for residents," Khosa said.

Le Hayes, general manager of the Baker Community Services District, called the thermometer's demise an "embarrassment" to the town. He plans to remove a picture of it from the welcome sign on Baker's water tower, leaving only Baker's claim to fame as the "Gateway to Death Valley."

"I would kind of hate to see it go down because every time I see it I think of Willis, and Willis was a great guy," said Hayes, who serves as Baker's unofficial historian. "But if this guy isn't going to maintain it, it's like anything else that's been abandoned. He needs to take it down and get rid of it."

Hayes dismissed Pike's suggestion to have the town buy the thermometer. Baker is not incorporated, and the special district exists only to provide fire protection and basic utilities to keep the town running.

Hayes said it isn't worth the $200 the town could get for scrap.

phil.willon@latimes.com

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