Darrell Dean "Dusty" Rhodes
By Annette Barton
Spokane, Washington - this is a synopsis of the life of Darrell Dean Rhodes, known to most of us as "Dusty". What we have here is a love story because Dusty loved cars and racing them, he loved music, hunting, fishing and most of all he loved his wife, family and friends. Dusty passed away June 21, 2016, after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.
Dusty was born to Carl and Myrtle Rhodes on November 5, 1926 in Colville, WA and was apparently born with a taste for cars. Custom cars. Fast cars. Quick cars. By age 10 Dusty owned his first car and he reckoned by age 27 he had owned 165 cars! In October 1962 he saw Gael walking down the street in front of where he worked selling carpet in Kennewick, WA. He told a mutual friend "I want that wrapped up in a red ribbon for Christmas". He met Gael at the Kennewick Chamber of Commerce by signing up for a Dale Carnegie course and then set his course taking her to breakfast, coffee breaks, lunch and dinner, leaving no time for 'interference'. He quickly became fascinated by her love of hunting and fishing and her knowledge of cars and she with his "adventurous style". She teased him saying the only reason she married him was because he was such a good dancer. They married on December 8 of that year, "rather quick don't you think?" said Gael while we relax in her living room looking over articles and photos of the two of them during their nearly 55 years together. Dusty loved to play piano, guitar, drums, violin, and ukulele and was exceptional with oil painting. He loved playing his "fiddle" until he found it was more fun to dance than to play on stage. Once during a violin contest, Dusty took 1st place against Gene Autry who placed 3rd, yes, THAT Gene Autry! (Dusty's father insisted his children learn to play music, his brother Russell and sister played piano and she also tapped danced. Dusty was playing the violin in front of audiences on his father's knee by the age of 3. He also loved to dance and at one time was an Arthur Murray dance instructor. Gael still has a recording of Dusty's music as a youngster on a 78 record!
His love of racing led Dusty up near the Canadian border to the old dirt horse track in Northport, the oldest dirt track in Washington State (now called the Northport International Raceway). Dusty, along with a couple of other friends, was able to secure the Northport track as an oval track for some wild stock car racing. A 'Grand Opening' newspaper account told of 18 cars and 2500 spectators. Gael told me "Dusty would sit on the front bumper and ride through the burning ring of fire at the Northport Speed Bowl. He had no fear" adding, "Dusty set the 1st record at that track as well as at the Deer Park Dragstrip". Dusty also ran at Bonneville Salt Flats taking 9th place in his Lead Sled, a '47 Mercury painted 'Organic Purple' with a white Carson top.
Dusty played an integral part in the hugely popular Deer Park Dragstrip when in early 1952 he approached the Deer Park City Council about starting a drag strip on the abandoned concrete WWII runway at the Deer Park airport. By March of '52 the necessary paperwork was done and Lilac City Timing Association was born with Dusty as president, Doug Turnwall, V.P., Jim Kennedy secretary and Norm Davis as treasurer. Two years later a group of hot rodders formed the Dragin's Car Club, later to become the Dragin's Race Team which still exists today and hosts the extraordinary Deer Park Dragstrip Reunion every September. Many top national drag racers ran at Deer Park including "240 Gordie" Bonin, Ed "the Ace" McCullough, Gaines Markley, Jerry "the King" Ruth and Dick "Joker" Kalivoda. Dusty recalled racing against Frank Rupert's "Eagle Electric" TF car there and Dusty's son Mark raced the Dusty Rhodes rail there also. At 84 years of age Dusty was honored at the Deer Park Dragstrip Reunion, joining local greats Don Wilbur, Vern Massie, Larry Taylor, Jim Tipke and Greg Fury. The 2017 Dragstrip Reunion is scheduled for September 17 - don't miss it!!
Dusty's love of cars and reading and collecting car manuals and literature in a library of approximately 10,000 books, manuals and magazines, also went noticed throughout the Inland Northwest and beyond as he became the 'go-to' guy for restorers, racers and show car professionals. At the famous Murdo, South Dakota Pioneer Auto Museum Dusty worked with owner Dave Geisler providing tours and historical background on the nearly 42 buildings of rare and classic cars, memorabilia, and dinosaur and rock fossils during the summertime from 1990 through 2003. Dave says no one ever sold as many books as Dusty, because he knew where to find information anyone needed for their vehicles. Year after year Dusty was awarded South Dakota Tourism awards for his outstanding knowledge and showmanship at the Museum. During his life Dusty was lucky enough to have owned a 1940 prototype Hollywood Graham, one of 2400 made, a 1939 Lincoln Zypher V-12 they purchased in the 1970's and a 1937 Ford Phaeton with a 1936 Peninsular Trailette camper trailer. Another of the oddities they have is the 1962 Peel P-50, a 3-wheeler, the smallest production street legal car ever made and I'm talking small in size and production numbers - one of 64 made! Gael, also a talented artist, told me, "the Phaeton was made up of 14 different cars, most from a dump and the main shell of the body was traded for a case of beer. Our restoration cost approximately $3000.00 and was a family affair. It was my first attempt at woodgraining a dash board I found bent over a barbed wire fence riddled with bullet holes. Everywhere there was a bullet hole I turned it into a knot hole of the 'wood'grain".
Although they loved the Phaeton, Dusty and Gael traded/sold it for the full custom 'Cherry Delight', a 1949 Mercury Coupe that had been one of the main attractions at the Pioneer Auto Museum for over 40 years and rightly so with the verified George Barris and Gil Ayala customizing and paint. Chopped, channeled, frenched, louvered, Lakes Pipes and the original flathead engine in it! George Barris saw it again at the 2011 Spokane Auto, Boat, Speed Show in 2011 where it took 3rd place in a tough class. "George confirmed that he and Gil Ayala had done the customizing, stating ' there was no one else that could do a back panel like Gil Ayala'. Three great longtime friends, Don Campbell, Ron Corkrum and Frank Moyer, helped get the Merc in peak performance, working long hours and days so that he could show it at the Dragins September reunion, its first outing" said Gael, smiling at that memory as well.
Dusty was a member of the Vampires car club of California, Lilac City Timing Association, Dukes, Early V-8 Ford Car Club and the Dragins all of Spokane area and the Canadian Club of Nelson and Castlegar, B.C. Dusty's knowledge of cars opened the doors for many events and lifelong friends for he and Gael. She told me, "With his knowledge of cars and their drivers and wonderful voice Dusty was asked to announce at car parades frequently." He also assisted rounding up vehicles for a couple of movies in Nelson and Greenwood, B.C. -"HouseKeeping" and" Snow Falling on Cedars". He was also an extra in both. As Gael reminisced about her adventurous life with Dusty, occasionally her voice would trail off as memories came up and made her smile.
The "Great Trail Drive of the Century" began as a "how hard can it be" in 1987 for the Rhodes'. Gael was Tourism Director for Panorama Land as well as Secretary for the Stevens County Centennial Committee and what a better way to celebrate the great state of Washington Centennial than to organize old cars on a trip commemorating the old military freight trails from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Colville? What started as an idea by Gael turned into the adventure of a lifetime. As they began to promote the Trail Drive, Gael said "it just snowballed when antique car enthusiasts began requesting entries, including Canadians. British Columbia officials asked us to include Fort Steele. It was quite an honor for us." After 2 years of planning and organizing, the Great Trail Drive (much like The Great Race) began on May 11, 1989 with Dusty as the official Trailmaster. A ribbon-cutting ceremony in Burnaby, B.C. started it off and they followed military freight trails from Olympia, after a sendoff by Governor Gardner, to Fort Vancouver, on to Fort Walla Walla, up to Fort Colville and over the border to Fort Nelson, Creston, Cranbrook and to Fort Steele. Then back south to Farragut, Silverwood and finally home to Fort Spokane. During the 29 days of the Drive, thousands of participants joined in as they could along the tour as word spread among car clubs and towns. "Local communities including Davenport, Colfax, St. John all did a great job for us. Each town along the way tried to out-do the other with hospitality, entertainment and meals. Davenport had the vote for entertainment with the Whistling Midgets." She still smiles thinking about the hospitality shown by people along the way who fed or housed the group.
The Trail Drive was well documented on video and even broadcast by the BBC all the way to Nova Scotia! Dale Evans and Jane Russell were even involved as the group stopped in Colville on May 30, 1989. Russell's brother lived nearby and friends Elmer and Polly Merle enticed them to Colville to entertain the Trail Drive Participants at the Elks Lodge as part of the Trail Drive Washington Centennial. By the last exhausting day 64 cars had made the entire 1900 mile trip! "On the very last day it was kind of a meltdown (after all the work that went into it)", Gael reminisced, "and I almost collapsed. I couldn't even stay awake to watch a television report of our arrival home at Riverfront Park!" Reunions of the Trail Drive were held in various participating cities several years after. It turned out to be one of if not the most participated event of the Centennial.
Dusty also participated in one of the Hemmings "Great Race" from Jefferson City, MO all the way to Niagara Falls, NY - a wild trip to be sure in pre-WWII vintage cars on the backroads. I can never fully document the long history of Dusty Rhodes nor his relationship with Gael. When I would ask her questions involving her part in Dusty's life Gael would say 'this is about Dusty not me" but honestly neither could have been as successful or happy as they were without the other's influence. In April 2013, Dusty was inducted into the Washington State Hot Rod Hall of Fame, a huge honor and possibly the last big spark in his life.
I still remember waking up after a back surgery in Spokane to find Dusty and Gael standing there with a huge bouquet of flowers. Typical of the most caring people one could ever meet. Rest in Peace Dusty, and thank you Gael for sharing a part of your lives together with our readers.