Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The 1930s California Dude Ranch That Broke Racial Barriers

The empty lot where Murray's Ranch once stood. (Hadley Meares)

by Hadley Meares
Curbed Los Angeles

In 1937, press from all over the country descended on Victorville, CA, at the edge of the Mojave Desert, to cover the town's star-studded annual rodeo. The rapid growth of Los Angeles in the 1920s and '30s meant that millions of city slickers found themselves itching to escape to a simpler, more rustic time. A precursor to today's "experience-based tourism," the working dude ranch was enormously popular. Only 90 or so miles away from Los Angeles, these ranches—with names like the Lazy W, Yucca Loma Ranch, C Bar G Ranch, and Three Sage Hens—were centered primarily around Victorville and neighboring Apple Valley. While LIFE magazine photographers had originally been sent to these ranches in '37 to cover rodeo-going stars like Clara Bow and Tex Ritter, they quickly honed in on a more interesting story. Heavyweight boxing champion and Wild West enthusiast Joe Louis was in town, and he was spending a lot of time at a place called Murray's Dude Ranch. Besides the fact that Louis was one of the most idolized men in the world, this visit was of particular interest to the white mainstream media for two reasons: Joe Louis was black, and Murray's Ranch was billed as "the only Negro Dude Ranch in the world."

The history of African-Americans in Apple Valley begins long before Joe Louis's highly touted visit in 1937. As early as 1903, a Los Angeles civic club called The Forum encouraged working class blacks to become landowners. Since most of Los Angeles was reserved for whites only, often through racially restrictive real estate covenants, The Forum focused on an area in Apple Valley surrounding picturesque Bell Mountain. In 1914, several black families began homesteading in the unforgiving desert of Apple Valley.

One of the most prominent men in the community was Arthur Cook. Like many people in Bell Mountain, he retained strong ties to Los Angeles. Two of his good friends in LA were a respected couple named Lela and Nolie Murray. Nolie was a strapping six feet, with a larger-than-life personality. He ran Murray's Pocket Billiard Emporium and Cigar Store on East Ninth Street, and was praised for his "honest and just methods of dealing with patrons," which had earned him a "large following of friends." Lela, a registered nurse, was less than five feet tall, with a sweet disposition and tireless drive to help the less fortunate. By the early 1920s, Lela's frequent colds and lung ailments were making life in Los Angeles difficult for the Murrays. Arthur Cook, always on the lookout for potential quality neighbors, offered them 40 acres of Apple Valley land for free. But Lela worried about the legality of such a gift. "I wanted the land to be a legal deal," she said, "so I insisted on paying Mr. Cook $100 in cash and having it recorded as a bona fide sale. That was in 1922, and I moved up shortly afterward."

The Murrays dreamed of making the ranch a haven for troubled and underprivileged children and began building the infrastructure to support this mission. While Lela homesteaded at the ranch, Nolie commuted back and forth to their business interests in LA. Slowly, the ranch took shape—there were bungalows for the children, a deep fresh water well, stables, chicken coops, and a windmill. Nolie moved to the ranch full-time, and the Murrays began accepting children of all races, who were sent to them by the courts. At any given time there were around a dozen children at the ranch, some who stayed for up to seven years. A story in the LA Times illustrated the guidance Lela and Nolie offered:

Clyde, a young black boy, was always picking fights with white children. One day Lela sat him down and said: "You like flowers, don't you?"
He nodded.
"You don't like just pink roses? You like white, yellow and red roses because they are all beautiful, right?"
Again, Clyde nodded.
"Why then should you like only Negro children?" Lela asked. "People are people, just as flowers are flowers, whether they are white, yellow or black."

Despite their tireless work ethic, in the mid-1930s the Murrays found themselves in financial trouble. Though they received a little money from the state for the children's care, the Depression and the cost of running the ranch had wiped out their savings. Inspired by the increasing number of dude ranches springing up all around them, they began to convert their property into a Class-A guest ranch.

The Murrays were financially on their last leg when Joe Louis appeared, bringing a string of LIFE photographers with him. Thousands of tourists swarmed the ranch, hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero. After a six-picture spread of Louis at the ranch ran in November 1937, the Murrays' theoretical guest ranch was now a fact. The county and other ranchers supported the creation of a "Negros only" dude ranch. (Explicit segregation was not the law of the land in California, and customers could theoretically patronize whatever business allowed them in. But communities often self-segregated through local ordinances, real estate covenants, and societal pressure.) The Murrays began promoting the ranch, and the county widened the road leading into the ranch. The property soon included more than 20 buildings and amenities including tennis courts, stables, a dining hall, a baseball field, and a swimming pool.

Celebrities and prominent members of LA's African-American community flocked to the ranch.
Legendary architect Paul Williams and his family stayed there frequently while he was working on designs for the nearby Arrowhead Springs Hotel. Joe Louis, always "happy as a kid" at the ranch, returned to train for upcoming matches. Other famous fighters soon followed suit. In 1938, Herb Jeffries, "the black singing cowboy," filmed two movies—The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range—at the ranch. Thanks to The Bronze Buckaroo, clear images of the property's main house and windmill, and views of Bell Mountain, are preserved for posterity. Lena Horne, Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Nina Mae McKinney were also frequent guests. Here, they enjoyed a "most beautiful and restful desert oasis," where they could lounge on screened-in porches or take evening horseback rides in the moonlight, far away from Hollywood.

Everyday Americans also frequented the ranch, which boasted very reasonable rates. In 1940, a couple could stay at the ranch for only $5 a night, while a single person could stay for $3. The ranch often hosted around 100 guests a week from May to September, and became particularly popular with honeymooning couples (no doubt pleased with cottages that were "far removed from each other") and civic groups. It fulfilled a need for recreational activities for middle class African-Americans, who were barred from most vacation opportunities. Lela shared one letter she received that highlighted this problem:

I am a bachelor. I like to ride horseback very much. I have always wanted to spend a few weeks on a dude ranch. Being colored, I doubted that I would ever have the chance. I was happy to learn about your ranch. Please let me know the cost of a vacation with you.

While the ranch hosted guests from all over the country, its bread and butter continued to be visitors from Los Angeles. An ad from the 1940s appealed particularly to time-strapped Angelinos:

Leave your business Saturday afternoon. Take a two hour and twenty minute ride up through Cajon Pass on Highway 66 to Victorville. Get a nice large airy room with every modern comfort of home at Murray's Ranch. Have a cup of hot coffee or fruit juice served to you, early before arising for breakfast. Or you may ride early as you wish. Get your good country breakfast, including milk, butter, and eggs produced on the ranch. Swimming, golf, tennis, and other amusements as you wish. Have your Murray's famous chicken dinner about 2:30 or after. Return home late Sunday evening rested and fresh for the next week's business.

The Murrays continued to be remarkably colorblind when it came to staffing. One friend noted, "The ranch has its own fair employment practice policy and hires cooks, pantrymen, yardmen, stable attendants and maids for their ability, not their color. There are three white employees, four colored and one Japanese." White locals often came to the ranch's popular restaurant, which featured the comfort food of popular chef Malcolm Keys. Lela organized an Easter Sunrise service on nearby Catholic Hill that attracted thousands of SoCal worshipers for many years. Local children of all races often "snuck in" to use the ranch's heavily chlorinated pool, joking with Nolie, who was forever reaching for nuts stuffed in the pockets of his overalls to nibble on while he chastised the kids.

White guests did not spend the night until 1945, when a Workers Union newspaper in Southern California profiled the ranch. Soon many white people were writing to Lela, asking if they could come and stay. "I wrote back, telling them they had made a mistake, that the ranch was owned and operated by Negroes. But then the people wrote right back, saying that was fine with them, when could they come, what were the rates and questions like that," Lela said. And so the ranch became integrated, long before most of the country followed suit.

By the time Lela died in 1949, the Murrays were beloved members of the Victorville/Apple Valley community. Lela was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, and volunteered both her time and the ranch's facilities to such organizations as the Red Cross, the USO, and various children's charities. After Lela's death, Nolie remarried and continued to run the ranch, but the decline of the popularity of dude ranches, rising cost of living, and increasing recreational opportunities for SoCal African-Americans made the early '50s difficult. No doubt he was relieved when entertainment legend and noted humanitarian Pearl Bailey revisited the ranch with her husband, the drummer Louie Bellson, in 1955, looking for a respite from the fast life. "We fell in love with the place," Pearl recounted, "and this Murray fellow says, 'You want it?" Well, we bought 35 acres for $65,000. And we're still paying!" Nolie kept five acres and built the Desert Heart Motel on the property, which he ran until his death in 1958.

Pearl renamed the ranch "The Lazy B," a name born from her legendary wit. "I told Louie people would pass by and look at this huge ranch and say to themselves, "There are actors in there, leading a glamorous life. I wonder what those 'Lazy B's are doing there." In between gigs across the country, Pearl became a dedicated Apple Valley housewife, renovating the property's rundown buildings and inviting many Hollywood friends to stay on the ranch. Much like Lela before her, Pearl relished being an active citizen, joining the Chamber of Commerce, serving as a den mother for the local cub scouts, and doing all the chores life on a large ranch entailed, including chasing snakes and pulling weeds. "So much is there," she said. "The earth where food can be planted, the lovely sunsets, the air, and all that space to wander away and get with God."

Pearl's family lived at the ranch for nine years, until work obligations and "freeloading" permanent houseguests from Hollywood slowly pulled them away. The ranch was eventually sold, and by the late 1980s, the buildings were abandoned and supposedly infested with brown widow spiders. The buildings were burned in a training exercise conducted by the Apple Valley Fire department around 1988.

I recently visited the ranch, which is now nothing more than an empty desert lot, filled with scrubby trees, low foundations, and bits of rusted barbed wire fence. Bell Mountain loomed over the barren land, where the outlines of the ranch's trails and roads were faintly visible in the dust. I passed two men in overalls and cowboy hats, one black and one white, cutting across the lot to the gas station across the street. Further into the lot, all I found was a lizard, a colony of ants, and a feeling of peaceful solitude, far away from the pollution and prejudice of the city.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

A River Captain in the Mojave Desert

This 1876 photo shows one of the May Day outings Yuma residents enjoyed on the steamboat Mojave, captained by Isaac Polhamus.


Had you stood on the eastern edge of San Bernardino County in the latter half of the 1800s, you might have been reminded of the Mississippi River.

That’s because, in wet years, the Colorado River swelled to a wide expanse in areas such as the slow wide stretch that would eventually become Lake Havasu. Even more reminiscent of the Big Muddy would be the sight of a steamboat.

Mark Twain, Robert Fulton and those other river folks were 1,500 miles east, turning the mystique of the riverboat into part of American lore. But the lower Colorado had its own river culture, brief as it was. And perhaps the best-known person in that culture was Isaac Polhamus, a steamboat captain for nearly 50 years.

Polhamus was known for his stern demeanor. His method for disciplining his Mojave Indian crew was to throw them overboard and then drag them back on deck.

And yet he was admired.

When he died in 1922, the local Indian community camped out at his house for two days, mourning his loss. There were so many Mojave in attendance that they filled Polhamus’ yard and a vacant lot across the road in Yuma, Ariz. A bonfire was lit to keep them warm while they remained through the chilly January night, sometimes chanting quietly to honor his passing.

In a 1941 story in Desert Magazine, Frank C. Lockwood, details Polhamus’ life, in part using materials that were provided to him by one of the captain’s daughters.

Polhamus grew up with the river life. His father was a riverboat captain on New York’s Hudson River. In 1846, Polhamus left the East Coast for California, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope on a voyage that took nearly a year.

Prior to California’s gold rush, he prospected on the American River, but had little luck. He was soon back on a riverboat on the Sacramento River. Not long after, he got wind of the opportunities on the Colorado.

In those days – before dams and desert golf courses -- the untamed river dumped its contents into the Gulf of California and made upriver passage easy. The Colorado was a conduit for goods moving into Arizona from western ports. Ships regularly sailed from San Francisco and San Diego around the tip of Cabo San Lucas, delivering cargo to Yuma, Ehrenberg and La Paz. Freighters then carried the merchandise to Prescott and other towns in the fledgling territory.

When Polhamus joined the Colorado Steam Navigation Company in the late 1850s, the business occupied half of the only permanent building standing in Yuma, a 100-by-25-foot adobe.

Polhamus quickly established himself as the top captain on the river, navigating the Colorado when it was fast and roiling from the spring melt, as well as when it lay slow and shallow during drier periods.

Mostly, he hauled cargo, as far north as Fort Mojave, which was just above Needles. The downriver journey from Fort Mojave to Yuma could be done in a day. Upriver was a different story.

On one 1859 trip, the river was moving so fast that it took 28 days to make the trip. Some sections of rapids required the steamboat to be pulled through using a cable threaded through ring bolts set in the canyon walls.

When the railroad was completed in 1877, river traffic dropped off. The company Polhamus worked closed up shop. But the captain kept going with his own line of steamboats. By then, there were enough people in the area that pleasure excursions were offered.

“For almost a generation,” Lockwood wrote, “Polhamus carried merry May Day picnic parties up the river on his boat as far as Picacho (about 30 miles up river).”

He also advertised for tourists and land speculators and entrepreneurs.

One promotional pamphlet promised “to show the possibilities of mining and agriculture of the country . . . with none of the hazardous hardships and privations of roughing it, in the saddle or on foot, the trip will be through the heart of the most weird and awesome scenery on earth.”

Polhamus probably would have kept steaming up and down the Colorado, but in 1904, the damming of the river began. He was forced to retire. Had it been today, he could have spent his leisure time golfing. But the water being held back wouldn’t be used for that purpose for many years.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mitchell Caverns Reopening Efforts Update

Special Report by John Marnell
MDHCA representative for Mitchell Caverns

As Jack and Ida Mitchell gaze from the front porch of their home at the caverns into the brightness that is the east Mojave Desert, I believe that in the same way we are beginning to see the “light at the end of the tunnel” that is the reopening of Mitchell Caverns.

A good deal of the infrastructure was either damaged or destroyed by the theft and vandalism attack that occurred more than three years ago. Coupled with the same lack of maintenance that plagues most of California’s State Parks, and budget woes, the road to reopening has been a long and winding one.

This past week, I attended a meeting with the district superintendent for California State Parks and Recreation about Mitchell Caverns and some really heartening news was provided. As you may recall from previous articles, the primary delay has been with bringing a new well on-line. While not yet complete, a good volume of top quality water at a depth of 550’ has been reached, the casing is in place, and the pump has been ordered. Money has been approved and a contract is about to be awarded for the completion of the generator system upgrade. These are the final issues to be resolved.

A couple of months ago I got to see firsthand the refinished visitor center (the former home of Jack and Ida), the newly installed LED lighting within the caverns, newly sealed roadway and parking lots, and I was impressed by the enthusiasm of Andy Fitzpatrick the State Interpretive Ranger who is stationed at the park.

The State will not announce a formal reopening until all is ready but the timeline appears to be on schedule for perhaps a July date. The plan as of now is to have a formal “Grand Reopening” celebration at the park a month or two later, to be certain all systems are in good order, tour procedures are in place and working correctly.

Please visit the Committee to Reopen Mitchell Caverns on the web, and on Facebook for up to date information.

The State Parks website for Providence Mountains may also be updated regularly.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Talking for the Bridge

Barstow resident Ira Gwin watches vehicles traveling over the First Street Bridge on Thursday. Gwin wants that the city to conduct studies exploring the feasibility of alternate routes over the railroad yard and the Moajve River and alternate use of the old bridge. (Mike Lamb, Desert Dispatch)

By Mike Lamb
Staff Writer

BARSTOW — Ira Gwin is demanding the city conduct studies on the feasibility of protecting the old First Street bridge from the wrecking ball.

And so is fellow Mojave River Valley Museum member David Mott.

“I hates to see this history stuff go to the wayside,” Mott said. “I’m here to talk for the bridge, because it can’t talk for itself.”

The two Barstow residents showed up at Monday’s City Council meeting to speak in support of not tearing down the old bridge during the public comment period. They were reacting to the city staff report and update presented by Andrew Sanford from Kleinfelder, Inc. during the April 6 City Council meeting. The company has worked on past maintenance projects for the bridge and the project to replace the bridge. Sanford gave a detailed report on the replacement of the First Avenue Bridge and reasons for the old bridge to be removed.

Gwin wants that the city to conduct studies exploring the feasibility of alternate routes over the railroad yard and the Mojave River and alternate use of the old bridge. He reminded the City Council members he sent a letter to them and he was waiting for a response.

“The board of directors of the Mojave River Valley Museum and the Democratic club both asked me to represent them at this meeting by asking for these two studies to be done before further work proceeds on this bridge,” Guinn said. “There was not one public meeting, not one public group from the city to give its input from either museums from anyone else directly involved in the establishment of that bridge. The city did none of that. Never asked for our advice, never asked for any assistance or thoughts. You are going ahead on this extremely important project with no input from the community. I think it’s wrong. I think it’s disgraceful.”

Barstow Consulting City Manager Brad Merrell said during his street report the city has completed studies on the project gong back to 1995. He also announced that a town hall meeting on the project has been scheduled for 5 p.m. on May 27 inside the City Council chambers. He said the project and studies will be presented and the public can ask questions and get answers.

Later in the meeting, Councilman Richard Harpole responded to Gwin admonishment of the city staff and City Council. Harpole referred to a photo of the bridge that was placed on one side of the City Council chambers.

“Mr. Guinn, I did get your letter. All of us did. And I read your letter not once, but four or five times,” he said. “The photograph you see on the easel over there is my photograph. I took it four or five years ago. It hangs in my house. And after reading your letter, I looked at the photo. I thought about it and kicked it around and I kept looking at the picture, and I said, ‘man it would be kind of cool if it had park benches on it and we converted that old bridge into a city park as a vista for the Harvey House and the train station.”

Harpole admitted he was sold on tearing down the old bridge during the April meeting. But he said he now has second thoughts and would like to hold a study session to discuss the possibility of converting the old bridge into a vista park.

“We can even have that as a venue for community events. I know that there is an issue we need to look at,” he said. “If that bridge came down on railroad property that would be a big problem for us.”
Mayor Hackbarth-McIntyre agreed.

“I’m not so convinced its so much a safety issue and I want to see the studies and the amount of money it would take to convert it into a park or keep it maintained and where that would lie within in our budget moving forward in the next couple years.”

Thursday, May 7, 2015

From the Archives — How I Became an Archivist

Helen and Jere Baker in front of the Goffs Schoolhouse, September 1990.

The Mojave Desert Archives is the memory of the Mojave Desert community and the MDHCA organization.

by Chris Ervin, Archivist
Mojave Desert Archives

Author-historian Jere Baker visited the Mojave Desert Archives a couple of weeks ago. He was in the area doing some research and stopped in to bring me up to date on his latest project related to the history of mining in El Dorado Canyon. It also gave me a chance to show Jere the work I’m doing to get my arms around the many wonderful collections here at Goffs.

At one point, Jere asked me how I went about specializing as an archivist in my studies. It’s a good question because not everyone understands archives work and just what it is that archivists do. Even the word “archivist” is not common in the vernacular. I can assure you I am not involved in archaeology, architecture, activism, or anarchy.

I usually sum up my vocation by explaining that an archivist is a flavor of librarian. Everyone knows what a librarian is, although the word usually conjures up images of cardigans, hair in tight buns, horn-rimmed glasses, and shushing. Stereotypes aside, archival practice has much in common with librarianship from the standpoint of asset organization, subject knowledge, and preservation techniques. Whereas many librarians specialize in the cataloging and retrieval of publications (books, periodicals, music, etc.), archivists specialize in the cataloging, retrieval, and preservation of unpublished materials, such as the records of an organization, personal papers, manuscripts, photographs, etc., especially those having enduring historical value.

Since the introduction of computers in our daily lives in the 1980s and 90s, modern librarians have begun to refer to themselves as information professionals. Information has always been something librarians were known to possess, retrieve, and dispense, but now they more clearly identify their profession with "information" and the information systems that have replaced card catalogs in public libraries and archives. In fact, the school I attended at San Jose State for my master’s degree is called the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS).

To get back to answering Jere’s question, there are several tracks at a library school a student can pursue; public, academic, government, and research to name a few. The source materials of the Mojave Desert Archives have their origin in the history research author Dennis Casebier has conducted for over fifty years on the Desert West. Therefore, it is in the research and archival aspects of librarianship that I concentrated my studies and internship.