Monday, December 16, 2013

Old Plank Road is nearly 100 years old

Plank Road was built in the early 20th century to help cars get across the Imperial Sand Dunes. (KRISTA DALY PHOTO)

Imperial Valley Press

BUTTERCUP DUNES — Fifteen hundred feet is all that is left of what was once seven miles of decaying wooden planks known as the Plank Road.

In anticipation of the 100-year anniversary in 2015, tourists from all over the world travel to see the stretch of wooden planks that is part of the nation’s automotive history, said U.S. Bureau of Land Management Park Ranger Carey Goldstein.

As cities in the Imperial Valley began to develop, motorists needed an efficient way to get their Model T’s through the sandy desert, he said.

“As motorists had a lot of difficulty getting between Holtville and Yuma,” Goldstein said during a presentation in front of the Plank Road.

Before the construction of the Plank Road, Goldstein said motorists had to travel south into Mexico or take the northern route through Brawley.

However, Edwin Boyd, county supervisor for the Holtville area at the time, proposed the construction of a road made of wooden planks across the sand dunes.

Ed Fletcher, a pioneer road builder from San Diego, funded the construction of the road so long as Boyd provided the labor, Goldstein said.

“A lot of the workers were from Calexico and El Centro,” he said.

The first Plank Road was built in 1915 as a way for early automobiles to traverse the seamless ocean of sand.

“It was difficult to construct,” Goldstein said. “One of the things they had to do was spray oil on the sand to prevent it from drifting. It kept it nice and compact.”

The single-lane road was built with nothing more than wooden boards, which ran parallel and were a car-width apart.

It was built this way for easy mobility. Drivers could move the planks and dust off the little sand dunes that would cover the road, Goldstein said.

When the road first opened, horse- or mule-drawn wagons along with automobiles could be seen making their way along the wooden road.

The first road didn’t last very long.

With increased traffic, the sun, wind and rain taking its toll on the road, it quickly began to deteriorate.

Second Plank Road

A year later in 1916, it was Fletcher who suggested the newer and better constructed Plank Road, according to the BLM’s website.

Construction of the second road was completed in 1917.

This time 12-foot planks were laid side by side, somewhat the same as the first road. However, it differed in the sense that turnouts were built every mile to make passing easier for the one-lane road, according to a James B. Bates article in “The Journal of San Diego History.”

Binding cross-ties with strips of iron were used on the new plank road.

The road was used for about 10 years, said Goldstein.

The road depicted by the press

“The road got some positive and negative press,” Goldstein said.

The El Centro Progress told motorists to avoid Plank Road.

“Cars are injured in the drive, engines are racked and shattered and in many cases the machines have to be pulled many miles by teams,” according to the El Centro Progress.

“But it was kind of a false claim,” said Goldstein, “nobody was dying.”

Goldstein went on to say that one day later after the article ran, a maintenance supervisor claimed he saw 36 cars come through the road along with two teams of animals.

A segment of the road today

Lynn Housouer, chief executive officer of Pioneers’ Museum, said a historical marker was placed in October 1971 by the state Department of Parks and Recreation in conjunction with the Imperial Valley Pioneers Association.

Housouer said a part of the road is at Pioneers’ Museum.

By 1930 pretty much all of Plank Road was gone, said Goldstein.

A few museums took a piece of the road and the remaining 1,500 feet are barricades in hope of preserving part of our automobile history, he said.

“People used pieces of the road for firewood,” he said. “The rest of it is still buried.”

Goldstein mentioned that although most of the road is covered in sand, people have reported seeing pieces of the old road pop up from time to time.

“It is a part of our history that is yet to be uncovered,” Goldstein said.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Tiny town’s history slipping away

The Stone Hotel in Daggett was damaged in the Landers and Hector Mine earthquakes and remains closed. (SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY MUSEUM/CONTRIBUTED IMAGE)

By Mark Muckenfuss

History can sometimes be a tenuous thing.

In the tiny desert town of Daggett, it seems to be hanging on the edge.

The town’s historical museum is closed. The Stone Hotel, first built in the 1880s and now owned by the San Bernardino County Museum, is closed. And the Alf’s Blacksmith Shop, which for years was on the cusp of becoming a museum, never did open.

Lawrence Alf, the last of three generations of Alfs in the town, died in August, and the blacksmith shop is now in probate, said Beryl Bell, 87, a member of Daggett’s historical society. The society also is closed.

“We’re in hiatus right now,” Bell said.

That hiatus is mainly due to the closing of the organization’s museum, which is mainly due to a robbery in 2004 on Christmas Day. Bell says the thieves took American Indian artifacts, a doll collection and some model trains.

An Associated Press story at the time said farm tools, toys and local rocks samples also were taken.
“They were professionals,” Bell said. “(Sheriff’s deputies) dusted for fingerprints and didn't find one.”

She said she believes most of the material was taken to be sold internationally.

“Anything Native American was probably out of the country within 24 hours,” she said. “They can get any price they want for Native American things in Germany or Japan.”

None of the stolen items has ever been recovered.

Bell works in the offices of the Daggett Community Service District. The locked-up museum is next door, in the same building, what’s left of its collections sitting almost within reach. People looking for the museum sometimes confuse the two and come into the district office. Bell said she tells them she can take care of their water bill, but not their curiosity about local history.

Before Alf’s death in August, he was president of the district. Bell says his family’s blacksmith shop is still full of memorabilia. Despite being named a Point of Historical Interest in 1974, the shop never officially opened to the public. Alf’s mother, Gertrude, would sometimes take private parties through her house and the shop.

“The Alfs had a lot to do with the history of Daggett,” Bell said.

Some accounts have the family blacksmith shop opening in the 1880s. The official historical designation puts the date at 1890.

What is known is that Seymour Alf, who founded the shop, oversaw not only its smith works, but the building of some of the 20-mule-team wagons that hauled borax from local mines. He also butchered and sold beef to the miners in Calico to the north.

Seymour’s son, Walter, saw the value in the old equipment, which fell out of use in the 1920s when automobiles made the shop obsolete. Gertrude told reporters that her husband kept everything.

A news story from 1980 says the shop contained a set of 8-foot-long bellows, the original forge, an anvil, numerous homemade tools, canteens used by the borax teamsters, two hand-powered coffee mils from 1882 and 1885 and the bell from the original Calico School. Horse-drawn wagons and a water cart were parked outside. Bell is certain it’s all still there.

Nearby is the Stone Hotel, where Death Valley Scotty and Wyatt Earp once stayed. It was damaged in the Landers and Hector Mine earthquakes, and the county has never had the funds to repair it. Visitors can only look in the windows.

Bell worries. She said it’s hard to find people interested in preservation among the town’s younger residents, and Daggett’s days as a thriving commercial center serving miners are long over.

“We've got more history than we've got present,” she said.

New Kicks On Historic Route 66

The Road Runner Retreat Restaurant between Amboy and Essex is an example of a landmark “ghost-station” on Route 66.

By Ruth Musser-Lopez
San Bernardino County Sentinel

Ten boarded the 55-seat chartered bus at Rancho Cucamonga, three at San Bernardino, and sixteen at Barstow, all to cross the county on its backbone, the historic American icon, Route 66 (RT66). That evening, last Tuesday, was the opening kick off discussion in a packed meeting room at Juicy’s Café in Needles to learn about and consider what amounts to a planned “new kick” on Route 66. In attendance that night in Needles were additional San Bernardino County residents joined by city of Needles officials and chamber of commerce members.

On Wednesday morning, another eight boarded the bus in Needles along with several trailing cars filled with participants. The entire entourage of 50 then headed back across the Mojave desert to the west, together to view the longest, unaltered segment of intact Route 66 in the country-- “Portions of this road where the vistas have not changed at all since its realignment in 1931” noted Roger Hathaway, professional cultural resource manager/historian, Route 66 expert, now working for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Works and serving as guide on the tour. The pristine, intact section between Ludlow and Mountain Springs Road, all 70 miles of it, was visited along with other accessible portions of the 153-mile long route between Needles and Barstow.

Attending the three day tour was anyone and everyone showing a desire for the care and preservation of the plus 85-year old road, particularly those “interested, crazy people--crazy about RT66, that is” Hathaway explained.
On Wednesday evening at a “meet and greet” in Barstow, the entire group met at the Quality Inn’s Los Domingos Restaurant with City of Barstow officials and Chamber members as well as California Desert District Bureau of Land Management District Manager Teri Rahal to further ruminate on the planned “new kick” on Route 66.

So what’s the kick? The California Route 66 Association, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have teamed up and merged their energy and resources to develop a much needed “Corridor Management Plan” (CMP) for what is likely the most famous American highway, Route 66. Partnering with this effort are other stakeholders such as the county of San Bernardino, the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program, chambers of commerce, CalTrans, various tourism bureaus, local businesses, museums, grassroots organizations and other Route 66 advocates.

Why a plan?

This is a comprehensive document that identifies the specific byway route, outlines the special intrinsic qualities along the corridor and develops a guide on how to market the byway. Officially established on November 11, 1926, US Route 66 began in Chicago, Illinois and terminated in Santa Monica, California, a distance of 2,448 miles. It was one of the original highways in the US highway system and was likely the most used. When Interstate 40 was completed in the early 70s, Route 66 was bypassed and in California, the transportation department (CalTrans) returned the route right-of-way to the BLM.

Now, though there has been deterioration, the original Route 66 continues to be a paved highway that through much of San Bernardino County remains intact as two lanes divided by a painted line with a few paved pull out rest areas installed in 1957. Through an agreement with the BLM, the county has attempted to keep the 85 plus year old road open to the extent possible, but without adequate funding the road along with its 127 timber trestle bridges has slowly fallen into decline.

What is more, over the years, what is left of the abandoned 1930s, 1940s and 1950s restaurants, gas stations, motor camps and lodges that sprang up when the highway was more active have become historic roadside attractions drawing international attention. The international visitors are usually high-income tourists who spend more and stay longer than the typical passerby, according to Rutgers University’s Route 66 Economic Impact Study. Drawing the crowd, Route 66 is a ghost road of the past that can truly be driven through mid-twentieth century ruins amidst a backdrop of vast high desert vistas that haven’t changed for thousands of years.

This new influx of tourism is a catalyst to ensure that the road is maintained as a viable attraction and doesn’t deteriorate further. Making the plan possible is $103,000 grant for the project acquired at the behest of James Kemp, California state director of the BLM received from the Federal Highway Administration in 2012 and supplemented by an 80/20 matching grant in services from the California Route 66 Association. Credit for preparing the grant application documents goes to Danella George of the BLM and Lynne Miller, treasurer of the Route 66 Association. Miller lead the charge during the 3 day tour along with other association members, including president Glen Duncan along with BLM representative Doran Sanchez and the BLM’s contracted project manager, Jim Klein of Virginia based Lardner/Klein Landscape Architects, which has been selected to prepare the CMP.

All attending the tour became the participants in the first phase of a seven-part program to develop and implement the management plan. The first phase entails scoping and brainstorming as to what would eventually become a plan to maintain and protect the road for this and future generations. The goal of the tour: “Experience the trail itself, determine how to communicate it, how to enhance it and how to make it a draw while still being an enjoyable, safe, and attractive experience” Klein instructed.

But there’s a kicker in all of this. If it were just the road that is to be preserved and protected as a historic linear site, that would be a simple, howbeit, costly matter, as estimated by the San Bernardino County Public Works Department to the tune of about a hundred million dollars’ worth of road, guard rail, bridge repairs and maintenance.

But as it turns out, there seems to be a consensus of opinion that extends beyond our county and even beyond this country into far reaches crossing international borders. That consensus is that the stretch of the highway in San Bernardino County, particularly that between the Colorado River and Barstow has such a mystique about it with its 1930s-1940s vernacular structures spiced up with nostalgic whoop-dee-doos and post war “atomic” style neon signs--sparsely spaced road side attractions set against the vast background of the wide desert expanse that to not include the entire viewshed of that which is visible to the eye from the road would be incomprehensible.

The intent is to go beyond the physical “in-kind” repair, replacement and maintenance of the road. The overarching question posed to participants is “what constitutes the road?”

Klein expounded, “It’s the whole desert experience and what you see along it.” Looking over the desert expanse from the tall perspective of the tour bus, the question begged to be asked, should this now pristine corridor be filled up with solar energy production fields, housing developments or similar or would doing so make driving along Route 66 a different experience? Would it have the same feel, the same character, and the same charm if massive industrial, agricultural, commercial or residential development will be situated here in the future.

Klein’s job is to document, assess and describe the special scenic, historic, recreational, cultural, archaeological and natural qualities associated with the desert segment of Route 66 and to get them recognized as such through legislation and official designation. To do this, Klein’s firm has let subcontracts to a cultural resource management firm Thomason & Associates based out of Nashville, Tennessee and a landscape architect, Dean Apostol, Portland, Oregon whose role on the team is how the landscape or viewshed might change in light of recent energy development proposals and how to manage potential developments to keep the impacts low.

This documentation would not just be used as a management tool but also for documenting the linear corridor site and the various individual sites along it for the National Register of Historic Places and as supporting evidence of a hopefully near future designation as a National Scenic Byway in need of preservation and federal funding to implement the management plan. “Visitors come from around the world as well as the US and California--yet little information exists” Klein observed, “except for a few wayside stops and some Route 66 markers. The project will lay out the steps needed to implement a comprehensive interpretive and marketing strategy that will provide accurate travel information, correct historical, cultural and natural history information, and better access to recreational experiences associated with the corridor, including safety and community pride.” The participants were to consider as the corridor everything that could be seen from the road—potentially the entire landscape beyond. A National Scenic Byway designation “refers not only to the road itself but also to the corridor through which it passes.”

Each equipped with a map of the route, participants were asked to provide their “expert advice and opinions” the map to help identify “important places and landscapes that contribute to a high quality travel experience and to identify any potential issues and concerns.” The types of notations to be made were for “features” any landmarks or places that are felt to be worthy of including as part of a travel itinerary along Route 66 for example, the “must sees,” places as well as destinations that require a side-trip but are worthy of the extra time spent and “views” towards recognizable, distinct and memorable landscapes. Participants were to draw arrows in the direction of the view and to identify “roadway issues or opportunities,” places along the road that present an issue that needs to be addressed in the plan such as an old bridge in need of preservation or place along the road that should be considered for interpretation.

A further category for identification was “landscape issue or opportunity” such as a proposed change in land use or a place that offers opportunities for more in-depth exploration to learn about natural or cultural resources or values or provide recreational opportunity. Examples provided were historic bridges in need of repair, mountain bicycle opportunity areas, and views toward a unique geologic or cultural feature like Amboy Crater or General Patton’s World War II maneuver areas.

Participants were asked to rate the “setting or “context” of the stops along the tour using the following scale 1) not very scenic, 2) barely scenic, 3) somewhat scenic, 4) very scenic and 5) extremely scenic where “scenic” was not defined. The stops included: El Garces Harvey house in downtown Needles and the Casa del Desierto Harvey House in Barstow. Other points of interest included Klinefelter townsite, Goffs Schoolhouse, Amboy, Essex, Danby courthouse, Cadiz, Chambless, Dola Bridge Ludlow ghost town, the original Bagdad Café that once housed the only jukebox between Needles and Daggett, the ruins of the Siberia Service Station, the Cliff House Resort and cliffside swimming pool, and the site of the historic Daggett inspection station made famous in the book Grapes of Wrath.

Of particular interest to the group was some 30 miles of contemporary rock art along the 1930 protective sheet flow berms along the north side of the road in the section between Essex and Amboy, backdropped by the beautiful Castle Dome in the Clipper Mountain Range. This rock art is basically people’s names written with hand sized stones aligned as letters. Sometimes the names were colorfully painted.

How can you get involved and find more information about the National Scenic Byway plan for Route 66? Send an email to with a copy to with “CMP Project” in the subject line. Go to to check out “Route 66” to learn more about the potential benefits that National Scenic Byway designation may have upon both the economy and environment in San Bernardino County.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Arizona Navy Deployed In 1934

Admiral Nellie T. Bush on one of her ferry boats. (Arizona Historical Society)

By Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez

Air Force, Army, Marines and the National Guard. These are the branches of the military stationed in Arizona, and there is one more.

In 1934, the federal government began the Parker Dam construction project to divert Colorado River water to Southern California, but neither the feds nor California got approval from Arizona to build on its land. So, a very unhappy Arizona Gov. Benjamin Baker Moeur declared martial law. Did You Know that is when the Arizona Navy was created and called to protect the state’s water rights?

“The Arizona Navy was a mighty force of two ships," said John Larsen Southard, a local historian. "And they were used to patrol the river and patrol the Parker Dam construction site to ensure that those willy Californians didn’t succeed in building Parker Dam and they’re not taking therefore, Colorado River.”

Southard said the Navy’s fleet was made up of wooden ferry boats that happened to be in the area. Gov. Moeur even named the boats’ owner admiral of this newly formed Navy. Adm. Nellie T. Bush, yes a woman, commanded the ships for two days!

“He backed up the navy with a deployment of the National Guard Troops from Phoenix. In fact if you look at the photos from deployment day, they had rifles at the shoulder," said Southard. "They are equipped. They looked and were a real fighting force.”

It was 40 riflemen and 20 machine gunners lined up along the Colorado River bank. A reconnaissance mission to make sure construction did not happen on Arizona’s side of the river. It was a show of force until one of the boats got stuck in the water and Californians, you know, the enemy, had to help get it loose. Sure we laugh now, but the governor’s act of force worked!

“His deployment of the navy did cause Secretary of the Interior Ickes to delay construction of the dam, and in fact when dam construction was resumed it was allowed to resume, because Arizona had won a project, an irrigation project to be sponsored by the federal government," Southard said.

That project was the Gila River Irrigation system. Southard said Moeur’s navy is still talked about.

“It’s the last occurrence in American history when one state took up arms against another no matter how unlikely it was that the arms would ever be fired," said Southard.

About that admiral I mentioned, Nellie T. Bush. She became a prominent figure in Arizona. She was a justice of the peace in Parker, served in the state legislature, passed the bar in California and Arizona, and in 1932 was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention where Franklin Delano Roosevelt received the nomination for president. Bush was inducted into the Arizona Women’s Hall of Fame in 1982.

Friday, November 15, 2013

A railroad dinosaur is coming back to life

Steam engine No. 4014, nicknamed Big Boy, was retired in 1959 but will now be restored by UP as a traveling museum

Union Pacific crews are laying 4,500 feet of temporary track so Big Boy No. 4014 can cross a parking lot and reach a nearby Metrolink line. (Los Angeles Times)
By Bob Pool
Los Angeles Times

See video

It's been sitting around in Pomona for nearly 53 years, but now the beast they call Big Boy is making tracks for Wyoming.

Officially known as Union Pacific steam engine No. 4014, the locomotive has been parked at the RailGiants Train Museum in Pomona since 1962, a displaced piece of the past.

Now Union Pacific has reacquired the behemoth and has begun inching Big Boy No. 4014 toward mainline rail tracks that will take it to Cheyenne, where it will be rebuilt and begin life afresh as a rolling museum on steel wheels.

"It's been sitting here in sort of a railroad Jurassic Park," said Ed Dickens, senior manager of Union Pacific's Heritage Operations. "We're bring T. rex back to life."

Big Boy was built in 1941, one of 25 huge steam engines used to pull 3,600-ton freight trains over the Wasatch Mountains between Ogden, Utah, and Green River, Wyo. After traveling more than 1 million miles, it was retired in 1959, when diesel engines replaced steam. Eventually, Big Boy was handed over to the Railway and Locomotive Historical Society's Southern California chapter, which oversees the RailGiants collection.

To get the old locomotive rolling again, Union Pacific crews are laying 4,500 feet of temporary track so it can cross the Fairplex parking lot and reach a nearby Metrolink line. Once it gets to Colton, it will be shuttled onto Union Pacific tracks and start heading east after being converted from burning coal to using fuel oil.

Moving the engine and restoring it are a huge deal in every sense, according to those involved with the project.

To keep the 600-ton locomotive from crushing the asphalt parking lot, workers are placing layers of plywood beneath 40-foot sections of rails and ties. The 2-ton track panels are moved by forklift and truck and leapfrog ahead of Big Boy as it is slowly towed across the lot by a tractor.

At the Metrolink tracks at the northern edge of the fairgrounds, Big Boy will be pulled by a diesel engine that also bears the old steam engine's original 4014 number. A second diesel engine will be hooked behind the steam engine to serve as a brake.

Dickens declined to speculate on what Big Boy's restoration will cost. But he's confident that Union Pacific has experts who will get it running again.

"These engines are our life," Dickens said. "I have the blueprints for this one on my smartphone."

It will take about five years to refurbish Big Boy in what Dickens calls a "frame-up restoration." After that, it will tour the country on his company's 35,000 miles of track, which connects about 7,000 cities.

Those affiliated with the rail historical society's RailGiants Museum say they are sorry to see Big Boy go. But they will still have eight other locomotives and four cars on outdoor display at the Fairplex, said Rob Shatsnider, chairman of the society's Southern California chapter.

"The whole motive of our chapter is railway preservation," Shatsnider said. "Now, the entire country will see him."

Pomona Mayor Elliott Rothman said he also will miss Big Boy. Twenty years ago, he enjoyed bringing his 6-year-old son Jason to the fairgrounds to sound the engine's horn.

Other young rail fans also come to the fairgrounds to watch the locomotive's slow move out of Pomona. High school student Shelly Hunter, 17, has been a member of the locomotive historical society for four years and has come to the Los Angeles County Fair to admire Big Boy for as long as she can remember.

As Big Boy rolls the over the makeshift rails that will take it to a new life, "I'll be keeping close track," Shelly promised.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Huell's Howsers out of this world house

The Volcano House owned by Huell Howser has an excellent view of the surrounding desert from atop the 150-foot volcanic cone it is built on. (LEONARD ORTIZ, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER)


We often wonder who the man was with the insatiable curiosity about the world around him. Huell Howser could get as excited about a single persimmon tree as he could about a state park, botanical garden, out-of-the-way museum or the ordinary lives of California residents.

We watched the late Tennessee native go underground in storm drains, learn about bluebirds with Orange County's Dick Purvis and hug trees as far north as Humboldt in his long-running series, “California's Gold,” for public television.

Visiting one of his own homes is a road trip to remember. Up the Cajon Pass, out to the Mojave Desert, you make your turns east along dirt roads until you come to a house you're not likely to see anywhere except in the middle of nowhere.

The Volcano House outside of Barstow is built on a cinder cone, a volcanic bubble of sorts. It follows the form of the cone with a white domed roof, and from a distance it looks like a snow-capped peak from outer space.

More photos

“We like to joke with our friends that have never seen it before, that we're not sure when it landed,” said nearest neighbor Spike Lynch, who lives a mile away.

Following the space-time continuum, but backward, a step inside is to experience the swinging '60s, a decade many of us joke that if we remember it, we weren't there.

The circular home with 360 degrees of sliding glass panels is surprisingly spacious for a house in the round – two bedrooms, two baths, living and dining rooms and a conversation pit. George Jetson would have been proud.

All the rooms are divided by floating interior walls that share the same domed ceiling. The top of the dome is an observation deck.

The house was built in 1968 by Vard Wallace, a Newport Beach resident who invented a drafting machine widely used in the aircraft industry during World War II.

There are 1,800 square feet of living space, 60 acres of desert, a small caretaker house and a man-made lake that could use a little landscaping. The view in some directions is the distant horizon, and it is so quiet you could hear a pin drop but for the lone coyote howling at dusk.

“Serenity is what attracts people to desert,” said Lynch. “There's nothing like watching the stars come out here.”

The domed roof also shelters a 5-foot-wide moat that was intended as a swimming pool, but proved too dirty after the first few sandstorms.

Howser bought the house on the spot from its third owner, midcentury fan and British developer Richard Bailey, in 2003.

Caretaker Ray Laporte said Howser signed on the dotted line within minutes of seeing the place. An impulse buy, but he rarely used it.

“It's pretty difficult getting up and down the narrow road,” said Lynch. “In fact, when they were pouring the dome, they couldn't find a concrete contractor to go up. It was so steep the concrete would pour out of the back of the truck.”

The problem was solved by a man from Barstow who backed all the way up the 10-foot wide road to deliver the concrete. Lynch recalls that portion of the job took months to complete.

Howser had it on the market in 2009, but ended up giving the house to Chapman University over lunch at the Filling Station in Old Towne Orange with Chapman's president, Jim Doti.

Register reporter Sherri Cruz wrote that in April of that year, while they sat on the patio, Doti asked about the house and Howser said something like: “Oh yeah, I bought that 10 years ago. I hardly ever used it, but I fell in love with the place. Why? Do you want it?”

The university plans to use the house for desert studies, astronomy and geology pursuits.

When flares fire into the sky over the nearby Twentynine Palms Marine Air Ground Combat Center, the large white lights hang with the stars for minutes. Lynch likes to tell his guests that the aliens are coming back for it.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Archivist revels in state's treasures and mysteries

Jeff Kintop displays a U.S. flag, hand painted on Oct. 31, 1864 to commemorate Nevada's statehood, stored in 'The Vault' at the Nevada State Library and Archives in Carson City. The flag, which flew over Fort Ruby, is believed to be the first 36-star flag. (Reno Gazette-Journal)

Written by Guy Clifton
Reno Gazette-Journal

A funny thing happened to Jeff Kintop on his career path back to his native Minnesota.

He fell in love with Nevada, and the rest, quite literally, is history.

Kintop, the Nevada state archivist, moved to Reno in 1979 to work on a grant-funded history education project at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“After four years of working at UNR, the grant ended and I had to go look for other work,” said Kintop, 62, who took over the top job at the Nevada State Library and Archives in 2009 after longtime archivist Guy Rocha retired. “I had come from Minnesota (he earned a master’s in history from Mankato State), and I always thought I would end up back at Minnesota, where they have a very large historical society. We already had two kids then, and my wife said, ‘You can find another job,’ and she meant here (in Nevada).”

There was one problem in 1983. The country was in a recession and full-time jobs were hard to come by.

That’s when Kintop received a call from Rocha.

“Guy called and said, ‘I have this part-time opening that doesn’t pay hardly anything, but it’s a job,’” Kintop said. “I took it.”

He worked part time at the Nevada State Archives in Carson City and also took a part-time job as a scholar in residence for Sierra County, Calif., working with the schools in Downieville, Portola and other towns in the county.

Two years later, in 1985, the recession was coming to an end and the job at the state archives was expanded to full time. Kintop became the curator of archives and manuscripts.

“It’s been pretty exciting pretty much ever since,” Kintop said.

One of Kintop’s roles as the archives manager was to be the caretaker of some of the state’s most-prized documents — one-of-a-kind items that tell the state’s history and which are not replaceable. Most of them are kept in a special area known as “the vault.”

The vault is temperature-controlled, humidity-controlled and is protected by halon gas in case of a fire.

The oldest item in the vault is the “First Records of Carson Valley, Utah Territory.

“When John Reese and the first settlers decided they were going to stay the winter, they formed their own government and petitioned Congress to form a territorial government,” Kintop said, explaining the fledgling government kept its records in the small book dated Nov. 12, 1851.

This record book was stolen in 1989 when the State Archives moved to its present location on Stewart Street in Carson City. A worker helping with the move stole the book and sold it to a collector for $800.

It was eventually recovered and returned to the state.

The vault also includes the first U.S. 36-star flag (commemorating Nevada’s admission to the Union as the 36th state). On Oct. 31, 1864, a group of enterprising soldiers at Fort Ruby in Elko County decided to commemorate the occasion.

The soldiers hand-painted their own flag to fly above the fort in the shadow of the Ruby Mountains of eastern Nevada. The fort’s surgeon, upon leaving Fort Ruby years later, took the flag with him to Ohio, where it remained in his family for decades.

When Nevada celebrated its centennial in 1964, the surgeon’s grandson presented it to Gov. Grant Sawyer and it has been in the state’s possession ever since.

Seeing and touching the state’s history — and uncovering it to share with others — has been Kintop’s passion for more than 30 years.

He and Rocha co-authored a book about Wyatt Earp and his family’s Nevada connections titled “The Earps’ Last Frontier.”

Kintop said knowing the names of the people who built Nevada is one thing, but knowing about the people themselves, beyond the names, has been fascinating. In researching a water rights lawsuit from the 1880s, he learned the personal stories and put names to faces of old photographs from some of Nevada’s first citizens.

The best part, Kintop said, is that there are more treasures to be found and more history to be written and shared with Nevadans about their home state.

“There are still mysteries out there,” he said with a smile.

With Nevada celebrating its sesquicentennial over the next 12 months, his office is abuzz with activity — everything from people asking permission to use the copyrighted state song, “Home Means Nevada,” to people needing research on one historical tidbit or another.

Kintop lives in Reno with his wife, Dale. They have two daughters, Krista Phillips and Caitlin Fletcher, two grandchildren and two more on the way.

His thoughts of returning to Minnesota are, literally, history.

“I haven’t thought about it for years,” he said. “Nevada is home. It’s been home for 34 years now. I’ve spent more time here than anywhere else in my life. I love it here.”

Monday, October 28, 2013

Storefront windows going in at El Garces

Work continues on the El Garces intermodal transportation facility project, as reflected in this picture taken June 22. Window installation should begin any day. (JENNIFER DENEVAN/Needles Desert Star)

Needles Desert Star

NEEDLES — The pace may appear slow, but it’s quickening in regards to the El Garces intermodal transportation facility project.

Cindy Semione, project committee member, said the city’s been given a three week look-ahead to what work will be happening. There is plenty that will be happening, she continued.

Installation of the storefront windows should begin in early November, she said. Construction crews will also be working on sill fabrications. The fire alarm system is planned for next week, she added.

Stucco is an ongoing process, Semione said. Framing is also being completed and will continue. Crews are essentially recreating walls, she added.

Semione said air conditioning is also being installed. Robinson Electric is completing all the electrical work.

Craig Plumbing will do the plumbing work, Semione said. They are waiting on the plumbing fixtures before anything can be done.

The schedule is subject to change, she said, but it’s anticipated this portion of the project will be completed by the end of November. Once those items are completed, the interior will be worked on, Semione said.

Tammy Ellmore, of the city engineering department, said painting will be done and lights will be installed next.

More concrete work is also needed.

The parking lot on the west side of the building will also be completed, Ellmore said. The anticipated completion date for the El Garces is the end of March.

Semione said the city has managed to take the money awarded and maximize what could be done.

While the project being completed wasn’t what was originally planned, getting something done with the El Garces is still a success, she continued.

She said the El Garces is the foundation of economic development for the city.

The completed project will encourage more visitors to come to Needles and when that happens, there will be more traffic in the city and that encourages more money to be spent in the city, she concluded.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Historic Mohave County records rescued - but why did they need saving?

Decades of documents were abandoned at Kingman Airport

Mohave County records that the Mohave Museum of History and Arts took care of for decades are seen here stored in what used to be part of the old Mohave County Sheriff’s Office on Beale Street. (MOHAVE COUNTY/Courtesy)

Suzanne Adams-Ockrassa
Kingman Daily Miner

KINGMAN - Nearly 100 years of Mohave County records would have disappeared into the desert dust if it had not been for the Mohave Museum of History and Arts.

On Sept. 16, the museum was recognized by the Board of Supervisors for holding on to more than 400 books and several plastic tubs of county records dating back to the 1800s from the Mohave County Assessor's Office, Treasurer's Office, Courts, Board of Supervisors, School Superintendent and Recorder's Office.

The story of how the records came into the hands of the museum is nearly as interesting as the information contained in the books, according to Museum Board President Bill Porter.

It all started with a raiding party, he said.

"Some time in the early '80s, someone, I don't remember who, called the museum and told us that there were all these county record books just lying around in a dusty hanger out at the (Kingman) airport," Porter said. "So, we went out to look."

Porter said museum staff found piles of county record books piled everywhere in an unlocked hangar without any air conditioning or heating. Nothing was being done to preserve them.

"We were absolutely horrified," Porter said. "These are important to the county's history. They should have been lodged with the state years ago."

Arizona law states that all state, county and city records belong to the state and are supposed to be turned over to the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records division on a regular basis.

Porter said the museum contacted the county, but no one at the county at that time seemed interested in taking the records in and no one seemed to know how the records ended up in the hangar in the first place.

"We made an arbitrary decision to take the books," Porter said. "We couldn't just leave them there."

Once the records were safely transported to the museum, staff cleaned them up as best they could, Porter said.

Pawing through some of the piles, the museum staff found records from nearly every county department: tax records, assessor records, court records, mining claim maps, cattle brand books, Board of Supervisors records. The books ranged in size from about the size of today's school notebooks to huge 3.5 foot by 2.5 foot, 40 pound portfolios.

According to County Records Manager Robert Ballard, the oldest record books date back to the 1860s and the newest ones to the 1960s.

"It's really an incredible find," he said.

Porter said the museum organized the records and stored them in the museum basement, which is as close as the museum could come to a climate-controlled area.

Porter said that tax and assessor records don't seem that interesting, but the information contained in the books was fascinating.

"They're really, really interesting books. They paint a pretty good picture of daily life," he said. "We found a 1936 or 1937 bill from the Assessor's office, written up in this very formal language, saying a man had paid his property taxes by giving 24 live chickens to the county hospital. 'But after considering the price for chickens on the current market' the man still owed $5.60 in taxes."

The books are also historic works of art, according to Museum Director Shannon Rossiter and County Recorder Carol Meier.

"The handwriting in them is just beautiful," Rossiter said.

Meier agreed and pointed to a cattle brand book from the 1800s.

Each page of the book contains the name of the rancher, a six-inch hand drawn copy of the rancher's brand, a drawing of the notches the ranchers would cut into their cattle's ears and the time and date the information was recorded, along with the signature of the county recorder.

Another interesting record found in the piles was a book from a mechanic's garage, Rossiter said.

"It had the names, addresses, phone numbers and the work done and how much it cost for each of his customers," he said.

Over the years, many people have asked to look at the records in order to track down the history of their family or make a claim for compensation from the federal government.

For example, a group from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints traveled from Salt Lake City to peruse the books in search of information about family members that may have lived in the area, he said.

Several county residents have used the records as proof that they lived in the county during the nuclear testing in Nevada in order to make compensation claims against the federal government, Rossiter said.

Others have asked to look at the mining maps, Porter said.

"You get these really interesting journeys into the past," he said.

As the years passed the museum started running into a couple of problems with storing records, Rossiter said

The museum couldn't make certified copies of the records for people, he said. Only the state archives can do that. And 400 books take up a lot of room.

Porter said the museum contacted the County Assessor's Office, since most of the records belonged to them, several times over the years, but was told the office just didn't have the space to store the records.

About a year ago, the museum contacted Arizona Archives Director Melanie Surgeon and asked her if the archives would take the records, he said.

"She was very excited about it, until she found out how many books and records there were," Porter said. "There was no way the archives could handle all that material at once."

So, the museum contacted the county again and they were put in contact with Meier at the County Recorder's Office.

Meier and Ballard were also excited to hear of the records find. Meier, who was elected to office in 2008, said she had no idea the museum had the records.

"We wanted to get them back. They are the county's history. We just can't thank the museum enough for what they did for us," Meier said.

Ballard started immediately contacting the other county offices about the records and researching storage space in the county's buildings.

The county finally settled on storing some of the records in an old branch of the Mohave County Sheriff's Office on Beale Street known as the Armory, he said. Each county office has its own storage area in the building and it was easier to transport all of the records to one location and then divvy them up.

Ballard said the county considered storing the records in the old county jail behind the Mohave Superior Court building on Spring Street in Kingman, but the building has a host of problems, including a leaking roof, that would cost too much to fix.

Ballard and Meier's ultimate wish would be to have all of the county's record books rebound and preserved in a climate controlled room, but with the cost of rebinding one book running about $2,000 and more than 1,200 books in the county's records, it's just not feasible, Meier said.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The people behind Pioneer’s Museum preserving the Imperial Valley’s history

Tractor at Desert Museum: A rare tractor sits in storage at the museum. It is one of a few left in the world and is in working condition. (Erick Miller, Staff Photographer)

By ALEXIS RANGEL, Staff Writer
Imperial Valley Press

IMPERIAL — Lynn Housouer had heard stories as a young girl about her great-great-grandfathers both fighting against each other in the American Civil War but she never really paid attention until she was old enough to do her own research.

As the Chief Executive Officer and Archivist at Imperial County’s Pioneer Museum, she said oftentimes when we are young we don’t always pay attention to the stories our elders share with us.

“So you just hear it,” Housouer said, “until you are old enough to do your own research because now that my grandmother is gone I can’t call and ask her (questions) like I should have asked her when she was telling me the stories.”

Which is unfortunate, but makes Housouer’s work in preserving the Imperial Valley’s history for future generations all the more important.

She speaks from personal experience, as she says that after her grandparents passed she began cleaning out her grandmother’s sewing room.

To her surprise she discovered a box high above a shelf.

Climbing to reach the box she found an old picture of her great grandfather during the Spanish-American War with his uniform below the photo.

Having worked on the archives for the past 20 years Housouer has handled hundreds if not thousands of artifacts with the help of the museum’s curator Leanne Rutherford.

Both Housouer and Rutherford agree that they have always had an interest in history and working at the museum feels like a treasure hunt.

With more than 6,000 artifacts at the museum everything you see on display is tied in to the history of the Imperial Valley.

Housouer’s role at the museum as the archivist is preservation, she says.

Preserving artifacts, cataloging them into the computer, and making sure they are in an acid-free file folder or bag is an instrumental part of an being an archivist.

“We do what we can to preserve them for our future generations,” she said.

The museum runs on the help of volunteers, willing to give their time in preserving the county’s history.

One of those volunteers, Rutherford helps Housouer research the thousands of artifacts that go into their database.

Rutherford sees her position as the curator a bit different than one might at other museums.
“I help raise funds to keep the museum doors open,” Rutherford said.

Along with fundraising, Rutherford said her strength is in helping Housouer research the artifacts they receive.

Rutherford said she can spend weeks researching an item.

“Because you get to a point and you can’t find the answer you were looking for,” she said, “and you need to know what is going on.”

As curator and archivist at the museum it can be tedious work but Rutherford and Housouer say it is a passion of theirs.

Monday, September 9, 2013

New displays take center stage as Needles Museum opens for season

This is one of several new displays at the Needles Regional Museum on Front Street. This display focuses on a scene from a 1930s beauty shop and what it may look like to get hair done. There are curlers and hair drying machines on display. The museum recently reopened for the season and is open 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. (JENNIFER DENEVAN/Needles Desert Star)

Needles Desert Star

NEEDLES — New displays and additional binders with historical information are part of what’s new at the Needles Regional Museum this year.

The museum, 929 Front St., reopened for the season Sept. 3. The museum is open from 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

Flora Hill, president for the museum, said the large display at the back of the museum features a couple of mannequins depicting a scene straight from a 1930s beauty salon. Getting a ‘perm’ for a woman was a task back then.

Hill recalled a time when, as a child, her mother tried one out on her. The permanent wave machine looked like a tentacled beast with heated clamps at the ends in order to “permanently” curl hair.

It turned out to be a bit of a traumatic experience as it wasn’t easy to get curls at that time, Hill said laughing. She never tried it again, she continued.

The large display also includes other equipment and devices someone might have seen at the time including old clippers for men and a hair dryer. There is even a photo of Hill with her curls and her two siblings.

Not all the display cases have been changed yet, but most have been, Hill said. One such case that’s been rearranged to display items features old toys.

Hill said there are several dolls including an original “Dennis the Menace” and a Ricky Jr. from the “I Love Lucy” show. There are also several toys at the top of the case featuring heavy equipment made of iron which used to belong to Ed Perry, she continued.

One display case will be changed to show off old hats and some gloves, Hill said. There are several old hats exemplifying what would have been worn in an era gone by.

Along with new displays, there are new binders with Needles history featured, she said. There were already several binders discussing certain families and their histories, but there are more now including a couple showing old articles from several publications through the years, she added.

Hill said there are also new books for sale in the shop area.

The museum volunteers are doing a lot of work in being involved with the city’s Centennial Celebration, to be held Oct. 4, 5 and 6.

The calendar, a popular annual fundraiser for the museum, is coming out early this year because of the celebration, Hill said. Volunteers are also planning on having a special display for the centennial that will include several oral histories the museum has permission to play, she added.

In addition to new displays and books, the museum is always seeking donations of items that are in fairly good condition, Hill said. While space remains limited, having new items to be able to display at different times is a constant goal for the museum, she continued.

Volunteers are also always needed, she said. There isn’t a set amount of time someone has to commit to, she continued, but any time offered would be accepted.

Anyone interested in being a volunteer can call Cheryl at 760-326-4008. For more information about the museum call Flora at 760-326-2687 or Jackie at 760-326-4273.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Auto Trail to be built to the Grand Canyon

Judge J. M. Lowe
The past 100 years
Santa Fe New Mexican

August 4, 1913: This is a message brought from Judge J.M. Lowe, president of the National Old Trails [Road] Association, and vice-president of the National Highways Association — two powerful organizations which are going to build a highway right through Santa Fe, on to the Grand Canyon and to the coast: “When this great transcontinental road is built, Santa Fe will take on new life. It will be the greatest tourist route in all the world. From Trinidad down through the Glorietas, up through Santa Fe, and on to the Grand Canyon, will be a road the like of which cannot be found in either hemisphere. …

“The roads from Santa Fe leading out to the numberless places of interest ought to be improved so as to hold the tourist as long as possible. Santa Fe is superior in climate, in scenery and in historic interest to anything in Southern California, and yet the tourists have enriched California beyond the dreams of avarice.”

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Homesteading's role in settling Arizona Territory

Days Past: Jasper and Sarah Cartwright were early homesteaders in the Arizona Territory of the late 1870s. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Grady)

Special to the Prescott Daily Courier

This is a summary of a presentation Patrick Grady will make at the 10th annual Western History Symposium at the Hassayampa Inn Aug. 3. The symposium is co-sponsored by the Prescott Corral of Westerners and the Sharlot Hall Museum and is open to the public free of charge. For more details, visit the Corral's website at or call Fred Veil at 443-5580.
Homesteading. The word evokes sod houses in Nebraska or the fabled Okla-homa land rush or the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder. But what about the desert and mountain regions of Arizona Territory?

Homesteading is often ignored in the stories of the settlement of Arizona. While historians have generally downplayed the overall impact of the 1862 Homestead Act on western migration, an estimated 1.7 million homesteaders found opportunity that might otherwise have eluded them, successfully claiming 270 million acres.

In Arizona from the 1870s through 1940, more than 21,000 patents, covering 4.1 million acres, were issued. That number is rather small when contrasted with the 87,000 patents issued in New Mexico, covering 19.4 million acres. Yet all across Arizona there are inspiring stories of homesteaders creating new communities in a wild land during the latter part of the 19th century. A brief overview of that history reveals the significance of homesteading to the future of many a prominent settler and to the establishment of a surprising number of new towns in Arizona.

Take Sedona for example. Several notable landmarks today are on former homestead property - Crescent Moon Park; Slide Rock State Park; Indian Gardens; Junipine; Chavez Ranch; and Los Abrigados. Frank Owenby later sold his homestead to T. C. Schnebly, whose wife, Sedona, provided the town's name.

A similar story unfolded in early Tucson. More than 280 patents were issued in three townships surrounding the Tucson townsite from 1874 to 1900. Early prominent pioneers included William S. Oury, Sidney DeLong (first mayor of Tucson), miller Solomon Warner, merchant and farmer Samuel Hughes, Hiram Stevens, Ramon Pacheco and Pedro Aguirre. In those three townships, 208 patents were issued to Mexican pioneers. Further east, Mexicans were early homesteaders in the San Pedro Valley.

Look at Phoenix. In the 1870s alone 93 homesteaders successfully claimed land near the Salt River. Expansion continued along new canal routes and related irrigation ditches, providing valuable water to this young farming community. Early Phoenix pioneers included prominent community leaders - John Alsap, Darrell Duppa, William Hancock, William Hellings, and the Isaac, Cartwright, Osborn, and Orme families. From 1872 to 1900, 399 patents were issued in Phoenix in the six townships surrounding the townsite. Only 31 of those were patented by Mexicans. Several 160-acre homesteads would become Phoenix's first subdivisions in the 1880s.

Further east along the Salt River, the Mormon colonizers of 1877 utilized homesteading laws to establish their colony in the Lehi-Mesa area. From the early 1880s to 1900, 145 patents were issued in the single township. Mormon leaders like the Jones, Rogers, Crismon, Pomeroy, and Sirrine families were among that group. Nearly 80 percent of the Mesa township land was patented by 1900. Moreover, Mormon colonists were prevalent throughout the Arizona Territory (and frequently used the Homestead law) along the Gila River, in several White Mountain communities, the Arizona Strip and elsewhere.

In Prescott, from 1870 to 1900, only 73 patents were issued in the two townships adjacent to the townsite. But this does not include the 1864 -1865 flurry of Pre-Emption filings by the early arrivals, including Van Smith, Richard McCormick, George Lount, King Woolsey and others. Even Paulino Weaver, reputed to be Prescott's first settler along Granite Creek, filed a Pre-Emption claim (signing his name with an "X"), although it was located in Walnut Grove, not in Prescott. The list of successful homesteaders using the 1862 law, however, includes Levi Bashford, Hezekiah Brooks, Henry Fleury, Jacob and Samuel Miller, Andrew Moeller, Albert Noyes and the Simmons, Dickson, and Sanders families - all prominent Prescottonians. That number included three women but only two Mexican homesteaders.


Come to the Western History Symposium Aug. 3 to learn more about the trials and triumphs of a number of the early Phoenix and Prescott homesteaders. Topics include settlement patterns, family histories and the homesteading experience of the Miller brothers, Henry Fleury and the Dickson, Sanders, and Mitchell families of Prescott, as well as the Hancock and Cartwright families of Phoenix. Their engaging stories and journeys, found in homesteading files, family letters and reminiscences, reflect the many facets (some untold until recently) of the pioneer spirit that contributed to the settling of the Arizona Territory.

Days Past is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International. This and other Days Past articles are available at Submit articles for Days Past consideration to Scott Anderson via email at

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Financial shortfalls threaten local museum

After 20 years of operation, the struggling Victor Valley Museum in Apple Valley will continue to stay open with a portion of $200,000 in bridge funding from San Bernardino County. (SARAH ALVARADO)

Rene De La Cruz, Staff Writer
Victorville Daily Press

APPLE VALLEY • The future of a key educational facility in the High Desert hangs by a financial thread.

After 20 years of operation, the struggling Victor Valley Museum will continue to stay open with a portion of $200,000 in bridge funding from San Bernardino County.

Because of the county’s budget reduction for 2013-14, nine positions have been eliminated in the county’s museum budget, with additional bridge funding retaining the one paid employee at the museum in Apple Valley.

The county’s museum budget of $3.1 million reflects a reduction of nearly $770,000.

In May, Director of San Bernardino County Museums Robert McKernan said the local museum had to temporarily layoff one paid staff worker because of a lack of funds.

McKernan said the county was not planning on closing “any facility in our system of museums.”

On Friday, Facility Manager of the Victor Valley Museum Rhonda Almager said she was ecstatic to be back after being temporarily laid off for almost two weeks.

“It was touch and go, but I love this place,” said Almager, who has worked for the museum system for 24 years. “It’s me and about 14 volunteers. I’m grateful to still be here.”

Since May, news of the lack of museum funds spread, with the rumor mill lamenting the impending closure of the facility.

The county’s $4.4 billion budget for 2013-14, passed June 12, reveals limited one-time sources to fund certain costs as part of a multi-year plan to address a five-year structural deficit.

A few of those one-time fund issues include covering shortfall in the county museum system, Fire Department and underfunded programs and projects in Land Use Services and Public Works.

The budget also revealed that the county will work with other government agencies to explore opportunities to “transfer the ownership/operation of the Victor Valley Museum to another entity.”

One of those entities may be the newly formed Friends of the Victor Valley Museum, which held its inaugural fundraiser and reception in November to raise funds and promote community awareness and involvement in the museum.

During the event, Brad Mitzelfelt, the county’s 1st District supervisor at the time, pledged $125,000 of remaining discretionary funds as matching funds for the nonprofit group.

The museum opened as an independent nonprofit in 1992. It closed for a one-year renovation project after the county acquired it in February 2010 after declining revenue threatened its closure.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Exhibit focuses on mysterious shacks

Kim Stringfellow’s “Jackrabbit Homestead” documents the history behind empty dwellings that dot the desert

This image of a desert shack in Wonder Valley is part of Kim Stringfellow's "Jackrabbit Homestead" exhibit. (KIM STRINGFELLOW/CONTRIBUTED IMAGE)

By Mark Muckenfuss
Riverside Press-Enterprise

Broken glass and dirt crunched under Kim Stringfellow’s sandals as she picked her way through an abandoned desert cabin in Wonder Valley, a thinly populated plain east of Twentynine Palms.

The walls were nearly skeletonized — mostly bare timber frames with a few asbestos shingles still hanging onto the weathered wood of the exterior.

In what once was a living area, a tangle of rusted coils and a wooden frame were all that remained of a couch, its upholstery shed long ago. In the ruins of the bedroom a dresser still stood, its top two drawers gaping and full of debris.

Stringfellow peered in, curious.

“You wonder about the people that inhabited these cabins and what their stories were,” said Stringfellow, 49, an artist living in Joshua Tree. “How long did they live there? How did they end up here?”

The cabins — some still occupied, others nearly ghosts — dot the desert chaparral east of Twentynine Palms. Stringfellow’s fascination with them has spawned an art exhibit, “Jackrabbit Homestead.”

The show opens at the UCR Culver Center of the Arts in downtown Riverside on Saturday, June 29 and includes photographs, historical material and a life-sized floor plan of a homestead cabin. A companion website offers audio interviews and a map showing where people can tour some of the cabins.

Stringfellow published a book on the subject in 2008. But she has continued to explore the cabins, built as part of the Small Tract Act of 1938, as well as their importance to the landscape and to the development of today’s desert communities. These were the original residents who helped make towns such as Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley viable.

“It looks like a wash came through here are some point,” she said, noting the alluvial soil covering the cabin’s floor. “People would build during the dry season, and they weren’t accustomed to what happened when the rain came.”

Often when a cabin was hit by a mud flow, she said, the occupants would abandon the place, suddenly realizing the utopia of free wide-open spaces and self-determination was more often than not just a fantasy.

Tyler Stallings, artistic director of the Culver Center, said Stringfellow — an assistant professor of art at San Diego State University — is one of dozens of artists seeking their own utopias in the Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree. Many of them are drawn by the open expanse and the stark beauty of the desert, as well as the affordable property that once drew the homesteaders.

Stringfellow’s show is the latest in a series of projects and exhibits Stallings has produced in an effort to connect art and the Inland region’s deserts.

“Many nationally recognized artists are choosing to ground their work in and around Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert in a relocation that is akin to the spirit of the Wild West,” Stallings said via email.


Stringfellow said many of those who built the desert cabins in the middle of the 20th century were attracted by the romance of the vast open spaces.

“Everyone wanted that John Wayne Western experience,” she said.

And for just a handful of dollars, they were able to take a stab at it.

The Small Tract Act grew out of a migration of necessity, but blossomed into something wholly different.

The genesis of the historic episode is generally credited to Dr. James Luckie, a Pasadena physician often acknowledged as the father of Twentynine Palms. In the wake of World War I, Luckie was treating veterans with respiratory problems resulting from mustard gas exposure. He encouraged many of them to relocate to the desert, where the air was warm and dry.

Some acquired land through the existing Homestead Act. But meeting that act’s requirement for cultivating a certain number of acres on a homestead was a challenge in the Mojave. In the mid-1930s, a federal land inspector suggested a different set of rules were needed for the region. The Small Tract Act, passed in 1938, provided homesteaders with five acres, requiring only that they construct a dwelling of at least 400 square feet within three years.

For a $5 filing fee and a lease of $1 per acre per year, a person could lay claim to a piece of the desert. If a dwelling was constructed and approved, homesteaders usually could purchase the land for $10 to $20 per acre.

Hundreds of homestead cabins popped up on the landscape after World War II. Even some famous names got involved. Stringfellow said Desert magazine reported that Ronald Reagan applied for a homestead at one time but never built a cabin, so the land reverted to the government.

The cabins were dubbed jackrabbit homesteads.

Stringfellow said the name came from the fact that the local rabbit population would take advantage of the ample shade the cabins offered in the desert heat. As if on cue, as she walked around the corner of another shack, a jackrabbit leaped off into the sparse brush.


Some homesteaders made a go of it. Most did not. The result is the half-deteriorated shacks scattered across the landscape. Stringfellow’s photos depict these relics. But while the images are compelling and saturated with color, she purposely avoids any of the mystique that might have drawn the early residents.

“I wasn’t trying to romanticize the cabins,” she said. “I don’t want to do romantic skies and clouds.”

Instead, she wants to intrigue.

“I’m hoping it opens people up to investigating,” she said. “I want people to go out and actually experience the landscape. You don’t have a sense of the scale unless you’re out there.”

Part of the project is a website — — that contains a map for touring the area and audio interviews with local residents and historians. Stringfellow wants people to understand that the cabins are more than a curiosity, more than a disturbance of the desert vistas.

“Maybe one of these should be made into a monument for the Small Tract Act,” she said. “I hope, at one point, the historical society acquires one.”

Such a monument could tell the history of the homesteads, and perhaps even some of the stories of those who lived there. Although, she said, she’s found more mysteries than stories.

One shack she photographed had remained largely undisturbed since its abandonment. She found shirts hanging in a closet and an old manual typewriter.

“There had been a note posted to the door that was, ‘Be back soon … something, something,’” she said. “It was probably like the last thing that was left there. So this thing has been flopping in the wind for 25 to 30 years, it’s just sort of faded out.”

Such experiences only pique her interest more.

“I think I’ll always be photographing these,” she said. “I never really get tired of looking at them.”

Jackrabbit Homestead
  • ART EXHIBIT: “Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Landscape, 1938-2008, a project by Kim Stringfellow”
  • WHERE: Culver Center of the Arts, 3824 Main St., Riverside
  • WHEN: June 29-Sept. 28, 2013
  • CLOSING EVENTS: Panel discussion, 3-5 p.m., and reception, 6-9 p.m. Sept. 28
  • HOURS, INFORMATION: 951-827-4787 or

Monday, June 24, 2013

100 years later, Stoddard-Waite Monument in Cajon Pass is rededicated

Stoddard-Waite Monument rededication ceremony, held on 05/18/13 at the Stoddard Waite Monument in the Cajon Pass. Group photo with members of the Stoddard, Waite, and Brown families and members of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society. (Mark Landis)

Nick Cataldo, Correspondent
Redlands Daily Facts

Last month the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society sponsored an event celebrating the 100th Anniversary Rededication of the Stoddard-Waite Monument in the Cajon Pass.

This white obelisk near the truck scales along the 15 Freeway south of Highway 138 on property owned by the San Bernardino County Museum Association, was built to honor the pioneers who came to Southern California in the 1800s. On one side of the monument is the inscription "Santa Fe and Salt Lake Trail, erected by the Pioneer Society of San Bernardino, 1912." On another side, etched on a brass plate, is the inscription "Sheldon Stoddard and Sydney P. Waite came over this trail in 1849 and helped erect this monument in 1912."

Attending last month's festivities were about 50 people, including a group of individuals who had special cause for celebration. This assemblage consisted of descendants of the two men whose names are emblazoned on the monument.

In December 1849 a group of hardy pioneers arrived at this site -- for centuries a Serrano Indian settlement known as Amuscopiabit and during pioneer times as "the Willows" -- with a wagon train traveling from Salt Lake City. The group became famous as the "Death Valley 49ers." Among them were 19-year-old Sheldon Stoddard and 12-year-old Sydney Waite who were traveling with their parents. They all rested at the Willows, after entering the Cajon Pass by way of Coyote Canyon.

This narrow, twisting gorge had been heavily used for pack trains of mules between Santa Fe and Los Angeles during the 1830s and into the 1940s.

By the late 1840s, emigrant parties traveling by wagon departing from Salt Lake rolled slowly down the Cajon. One such caravan was the Jefferson Hunt party who were bound for the gold fields of Northern California.

Many of the wagons had to be dismantled and dragged over the rocky streambed that runs through the narrow Coyote Canyon. Two of the individuals who helped get the wagons through were Stoddard and Waite.

Original Stoddard-Waite Monument dedication ceremony, held on 05/18/1913. In the automobile are surviving pioneers Sheldon Stoddard and Sidney Waite.
The Stoddard-Waite Monument was erected by the San Bernardino Society of California Pioneers, aka Pioneer Society, in December 1912, but for various reasons the dedication was held off until May 18, 1913.

The location was chosen so that "modern-day" motorists traveling along the Santa Fe-Grand Canyon-Needles Highway -- later known as the National Old Trails Road -- could easily pull over and contemplate the history of the trails and roads serving the area.

The 1913 dedication was carefully planned by Secretary John Brown Jr. and conducted by President Silas Cox.

Transportation was arranged in automobiles for elderly participants and a caravan starting at John Brown's residence at Sixth and D streets in San Bernardino drove to the site.

A surprising number of pioneer survivors -- including Sheldon Stoddard and Sidney Waite -- were present.

As part of the program, those two men, along with R.T. Roberds, Mary Crandall, Jane Smithson and George Miller, gave their recollections of the route. Pablo Belarde was the earliest of them all, having arrived from New Mexico by pack mule in 1844.

After Mary Harris uncovered folds of American flags from the monument, Reverend Mark B. Shaw delivered the invocation, De La Montaigne Woodward, Henry M. Willis, Judge Benjamin F. Bledsoe, W.J. Curtis and Joseph E. Rich gave addresses and there was plenty of singing. After the ceremony there was a basket picnic and all had a great time.

One hundred years later to the day, the Stoddard-Waite Monument Rededication of May 18, 2013, also was a rousing success.
Stoddard-Waite Monument rededication ceremony, held on 05/18/13. In the car, all relatives of the Stoddard Family. Front seat L to R: Nancy Armstrong Bob Sleppy. Rear seat L to R: Ginger Urquhart, Donna Fees, Debbie Mcfadden. (Mark Landis)

The activities began at 9 a.m. at the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society's Heritage House at Eighth and D streets in San Bernardino, when President Steve Shaw welcomed everyone and presented a slide show featuring the old "Pioneer Society," followed by a special gift to descendants of Stoddard and Waite.

After everyone convoyed up to the Stoddard-Waite Monument in the Cajon Pass, San Bernardino County Museum Association caretaker Mike Hartless talked about the Indian village followed by my own historical overview of the Willows.

Then, in honor of those pioneers who arrived more than a century and a half ago, descendants of Stoddard, Waite, and other families proudly talked about their ancestors who helped turn the Cajon Pass into an important gateway into Southern California.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Budget cuts put San Bernardino County Museum on shaky ground

The San Bernardino County Museum has cut eight positions due to a loss of state and federal funding. Further layoffs could endanger the museum s accreditation, county officials said. (Gabriel Luis Acosta/Staff Photographer)

Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Supervisor James Ramos is leading the charge in an effort to save jobs and programs at the San Bernardino County Museum, which stands to lose its accreditation due to budget cuts.

The museum lost out on $766,000 in state and federal funding this fiscal year, roughly 50 percent of its projected revenue of $1.8 million, county Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux said at a budget hearing last week, when the Board of Supervisors adopted a $4.4 billion budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Ramos said the museum system is a "vital asset" to county residents and tourists, and that it is crucial for the museum to think creatively as the state and federal funding it has depended on for many of its programs dries up.

The county museum system consists of the main museum in Redlands, which is in Ramos' 3rd District, the Victor Valley Museum and Gallery in Apple Valley and seven historical sites in the San Bernardino Valley and the High Desert.

"What we need to do is create a revenue-generating model and work with the museum association and museum commissioners to make sure we're all on the same page with a plan," Ramos said Friday.

He said he'll help arrange meetings with museum officials and the county Economic Development Agency to draft a revenue-generating plan.

"I'm hoping to get this done within the next three months," Ramos said.

The museum initially stood to lose 13 positions, but Devereaux said he was able to save five of them by pulling together $550,000 in "bridge funding," which buys the museum another year to figure out how to generate other sources of revenue.

Devereaux said the museum will probably end the year $500,000 in the red, which means the county would have to dip into its reserves to cover the loss.

The staff reductions will result in significant cuts to services and programs the museum has traditionally provided.

Among the amenities that will be lost are the live animal exploration station in Redlands, educational outreach programs for elementary, middle and high school students, the Museums on the Roads and Geological Sciences programs, and weekend programing.

The museum in Redlands also will no longer have security guards.

County Museum Association President Robert Christman said the museum now has roughly 30 employees, but will definitely lose its accreditation in 2015 if it loses nine to 13 employees.

Accreditation, Christman said, had enabled former Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, to secure grants for the museum.

"If we lose our accreditation, all that goes away," Christman said.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Pair of 'geeks' sifts through history for aviation ruins

Peter Merlin and Tony Moore, self-confessed aviation geeks, find and sort through military crash sites in the Mojave as a hobby. They call these weekend expeditions 'aerospace archaeology.'
Tourists scour the Mojave Desert landscape on the lookout for debris from a 1967 X-15 crash near Johannesburg. (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles Times)

Photography by BRIAN VAN DER BRUG
Los Angeles Times

REPORTING FROM MOJAVE - Peter Merlin trudges through the desert, side-stepping sage brush and creosote until he reaches a spot barren of vegetation. He points out a faint crescent-shaped scar in the earth 100 feet long.

Merlin kneels and scoops up a handful of sand and lets it sift through his fingers, leaving behind three gray pebbles, each no bigger than a quarter.

"See these rocks?" he asks. "They're actually fragments of melted aluminum. This is the impact point where the flying wing crashed, and the crew lost their lives. Right here. This is the incident that gave Edwards Air Force Base its name."

The pebbles were remnants of the YB-49, an experimental bomber that crashed in 1948 carrying Capt. Glen Edwards and a crew of four. His untimely death prompted the military to rename Muroc Air Force Base in his honor.

Finding and sorting through military crash sites in the Mojave is Merlin's hobby and pastime. He and Tony Moore, his partner on these weekend expeditions, call it "aerospace archaeology."

"Living this close to Edwards is like an Egyptologist living in Egypt," Merlin said. "It has been called the 'valley of the kings.'"

The skies above the Mojave Desert are legendary. The first American jet plane flew here. The sound barrier was broken here. Space shuttles returned to Earth here. But less heralded are the failures and crashes, tragic footnotes to these remarkable accomplishments.

Merlin and Moore refer to themselves as "The X-Hunters," a nod to the Air Force's use of "X" in naming experimental planes. Their findings have broadened the military's understanding of Southern California's aerospace history.

"Their value to the office is a great one," said Richard Hallion, a retired official who worked 20 years as an Air Force historian. "In many cases, there was only rough approximation of where the crashes took place."

Despite the vastness of the Mojave, there are few crash sites that Merlin and Moore have yet to find. They have compiled a list of more than 600 locations amid the sun-scorched sand and rock, and so far they have examined more than 100.

Merlin and Moore are unlikely confederates. Merlin, 49, the introvert, is prone to extended pauses when talking. He has a thin Errol Flynn-esque mustache and is known to wear a safari hat and leather jacket with "The X-Hunters" emblazoned on the back.

Moore, 55, is a large, affable man who walks with a metal trekking pole because of bad hips. He grew up in Northridge and has long been fascinated with Edwards, and seems to have a story about any aircraft that was ever built.

They both work at Edwards, but in 1991 the self-confessed aviation geeks were employed at the Burbank airport when they had a conversation about the region's aerospace history. Moore told Merlin he had found the wreckage site of the XB-70, an experimental bomber that collided with an F-104 in 1966.

Merlin was intrigued. But aviation buffs are secretive about the information they have — like fishermen who won't tell where the big ones are — so Moore gave Merlin vague directions to the site: about 12 miles north of Barstow.

The following Monday, Merlin came to work, smiling. He had found the site.

"I was shocked," Moore said. "I must have given him a two-mile area to search through. But he found it, to his credit."

After recognizing their shared infatuation, they decided to team up. When the two men started researching airplane wrecks, they mostly relied on files from the Edwards History museum and a 1993 environmental impact study of the base that listed only 15 sites.

On their first expedition, Moore and Merlin turned to a book written by a former test pilot that documented the crash of Maj. Michael Adams, who was killed in 1967 when the North American Aviation X-15 rocket plane he was piloting broke up at 62,000 feet while traveling at 4,000 mph.

According to the book, the wreckage was located several miles northeast of Johannesburg. But once they arrived at the spot, the terrain didn't resemble what was depicted in the book's grainy black and white photographs.

After several hours of fruitless searching, they decided to head home. As they drove toward U.S. 395, Moore noticed a mountain in the distance that looked like one pictured in the book.

They pulled onto a dirt road and rumbled toward the mountain. More landmarks began to line up. There was a ridge with an outcropping of white rocks near its crest.

They got out of their Jeep and began walking toward the mountain, stopping at intervals to consult the book. Merlin then looked at the ground and saw a piece of weather-beaten metal tubing.

"We're here," he shouted, noticing the ground was littered with more metal fragments.

For two years, they combed over the debris field and recovered 125 pounds of parts, including a warning light that likely glowed in the cockpit while Adams fought to save himself and the aircraft. These items are at the flight test museum at Edwards.

Aircraft crash sites interactive grahic

A memorial now marks the site. It was erected in 2004. More than 60 people, including Merlin, Moore and members of Adams' family, attended the dedication.

"We often approach these sites from a historical perspective," Merlin said. "But there's a human element that lives on. To see the emotional reaction from the family really showed me how much the sites can mean to people."

Among their other finds was the crash site for another flying wing, an experimental bomber constructed of wood, dubbed the N-9M. The plane went down 12 miles west of Edwards in 1943.

The men also located pieces of the Bell X-2, which in 1956 tumbled out of control, killing test pilot Capt. Milburn Apt on impact in the Kramer Hills off the eastern edge of the base.

Seven miles west of California City, they found the location of the NF-104A crash that would have killed Chuck Yeager in 1963 had he not ejected in time. A more recent non-fatal wreck was the X-31 that crashed less than a half-mile from California 58 in 1995.

When a plane goes down in the desert, the military tries to recover as much of the wreckage as possible. Retrieving hefty, hulking pieces is a priority.

Most of the time, Merlin and Moore are searching for smaller parts such as twisted stainless-steel skin, rusted fasteners and fittings, or crushed cowl flaps.

They scan the horizon for glinting metal when they think they're in the right spot. Once they uncovered a part of a tail fin. But finding such items is rare, and often what they think is an aircraft part shimmering in the distance ends up being a Mylar balloon.

"I've seen enough deflated Mickey Mouse balloons to last me a lifetime," Merlin said.

When they do find something that they think they can identify, they take it home and weigh and measure it. They verify the part's authenticity by chasing down serial numbers, inspection stamps or examining a manufacturer's book on the aircraft. After documenting it, they'll donate it to the flight test museum or other institutions. They have written a book about their exploits titled "X-Plane Crashes."

Critics believe that the significance of the men's findings is slightly exaggerated. Raymond Puffer, retired Edwards historian, said their work is more of a hobby than anything else.

Other explorers, like G. Pat Macha, prefer to leave the crash sites intact.

"That's a big issue in this field: To simply take a picture or take the stuff home with you," said Macha, 67, who has identified and documented crash sites in Southern California for 50 years.

Macha, however, appreciates that rather than holding onto what they have recovered, the two men have given their findings back to the base.

Merlin and Moore take pride helping families who have lost a son or a father in one of these fatal crashes.

While standing at the YB-49 crash site that killed Edwards, Moore saw something glimmering in the dirt. He picked it up: It was a star sapphire, perfect except for a slight chip on one side.

The small stone was a mystery until Moore was talking to an engineer who had been on the base the day the YB-49 crashed.

The engineer mentioned that a member of the crew, Maj. Daniel H. Forbes, had been married just a few weeks before the accident. His wife had given him a sapphire ring. The military had found the setting but not the stone.

Moore was stunned: "We found the stone," he said. "We found it five years ago right in the middle of the site.'"

He mailed a photograph of the sapphire to Air Force personnel, who went to visit Forbes' widow.

A half-century had passed since the tragedy. The widow had remarried and at first didn't seem to remember the ring. Then they showed her the pictures.

Without saying a word, she walked to her bedroom and returned with a matching star-sapphire ring in her hand. The stone was eventually returned to her in a ceremony at the Kansas air base that bears Daniel Forbes' name.

"It's unbelievable how many things needed to happen in order for that ring to be reunited with her," Moore said. "It validated all our work."

Aviation buffs sift through history in the desert (Watch the video)