Thursday, December 31, 2015

Indian Wells builds new monument to artist Carl Bray

Built in a park-like setting, the Carl G. Bray Smoke Tree Painter monument on Highway 111 in Indian Wells includes six panels – five of which detail the city’s past and one devoted to Bray.
(Sherry Barkas/The Desert Sun)

Sherry Barkas
The Desert Sun

Driving east on Highway 111 through Indian Wells, one can’t help but notice the Carl G. Bray Smoke Tree Painter monument, with its rock walls, colorful display panels and the palette sign near Miles Avenue.

Dedicated in November, the tribute to internationally known artist Carl Bray is situated where his art gallery and the home he built once stood.

“The monument speaks to the history of Indian Wells … and to Carl Bray,” said Jan Holmlund, advisory committee chair for the city’s Historic Preservation Foundation.

The monument was built by the city at a cost of $84,617 in a park-like setting, that includes six panels – five of which detail the city’s past and one devoted to Bray.

The artist built his home himself in the early 1950s along the edge of what is now Highway 111. The Oklahoma-born painter, who worked as a brakeman for Southern Pacific Railroad, was living in Los Angeles at the time but found the desert landscape irresistible as an artist.

He and his wife, Luella, bought the property for $1,000. At the time, their neighbors included “a few cabins, a dance hall, two small grocery stores, two gas stations, a cafĂ© and … a rattlesnake pen located just across the highway,” preservation foundation President Adele Ruxton wrote in a short historical biography of Bray.

As the city grew and resorts and country clubs went up around them, the Brays held on to their “little homemade house” until 1999, when they sold it and moved to Banning.

Bray’s gallery was a gathering spot for a group of artists who came to be known as the Smoke Tree School.

Under the new owner, the Indian Wells property fell into foreclosure and the city bought it in 2008. It was declared unsafe and demolished in 2010 amidst protests by preservationists and fans of Bray’s work.

His home was the last structure left on that historic site that was at one point also a stagecoach stop.

“It’s the last piece of that village,” Holmlund said.

“This monument and panels speak to so many of the moments in history and early settlement” of Indian Wells, Historical Preservation Foundation member Ann Japenga said.

The original sign marking the landmark spot is displayed in City Hall along with pieces of Bray’s artwork.

Bray’s paintings are prized today “for their blue collar mysticism, lonely freight trains and glowing smoke trees,” the monument states.

His artwork is mystical yet “very precise; detailed,” Holmlund said.

While most of his paintings are of desert landscape and smoke trees, he painted in a variety of genres, including a rare seascape he was commissioned to do, Holmlund said.

Holmlund, Ruxton, Japenga and foundation Secretary Sharon Devine gathered recently at Ruxton’s Indian Wells home to talk of the artist they knew and the importance of making sure he and the city’s rich history aren’t forgotten.

All four women knew Bray and described him as laid back, usually wearing suspenders and speaking with an Oklahoma accent – a working class man who wasn't the typical Indian Wells resident.

“His ordinariness” is what Holmlund most liked about Bray. “He was just a friendly, neighborly, compassionate person.”

He was always ready to help others and made people feel at home in his gallery and his house, the women said.

“His home was your home,” said Ruxton, who has binders full of notes Bray wrote, each of them in envelopes he would mark with a special drawing. “I think anyone who met Carl felt like they had known Carl a long time.”

“He had tremendous appeal,” Japenga said. “He had a very calm and accepting manner. He was more accepting of his house being torn down than we were.”

Ruxton was at Bray’s home in Banning the day he died – July 23, 2011. Luella Bray had died three years earlier.

“We went to see him,” she said, but were met by a doctor who thought they were family and told them of Bray’s passing.

Bray’s hat, easel and paint brushes are on display at the Historical Society and Museum of Palm Desert, where some of his paintings are also for sale.

“With every painting he told a story,” Japenga said.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On the Road: Museum hosts program on history of Mojave Road

MOJAVE ROAD: Speaking at the Colorado River Historical Society Museum earlier this week, eastern Mojave Desert historian Dennis Casebier gave a presentation covering the history of the Mojave Road, from its beginnings as a trail used by native tribes, to its present-day status as a recreational trail. “We’re extremely proud to have Dennis here,” said Karole Finkelstein, CRMHSM vice president. “There is no one more qualified to talk about the Mojave Road and the history of the eastern Mojave Desert.” - DK McDONALD/The Daily News

The Daily News

G.K. Chesterton called history a road to be reconsidered and even retraced.

For Mojave Desert historian Dennis Casebier, the history of one road has been his focus for more than 60 years.

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd at the Colorado River Historical Society Museum on Monday, Casebier covered the history of the road, from its beginnings as a trail used by native tribes, through time to its importance in moving troops for training during World War II, to its present-day status as a recreational trail, generously illustrated throughout with historic and personal photos, anecdotes, and stories of his drive to preserve history through the cultural center.

“It was an excellent presentation,” said Nancy Nelson, who attended with her husband, Barry. “We traveled the Mojave Road without knowing much of its history, so this is kind of after-the-fact. Just about everything he told us we didn’t know. The history is fascinating.”

Casebier and other proponents of preserving the route founded the Friends of the Mojave Road in 1981; working with the Bureau of Land Management, Casebier and the group identified the route of the trail.

The Mojave Road is unique in that for most of its 138-mile length it is in much the same condition as it was when formed more than 150 years ago, he said. Bisecting the Mojave National Preserve, the twin tracks functioned primarily as a supply, rather than migration, route, and the road was overlooked while many other early major Western routes were upgraded into state and national highways.

The Friends insisted that the BLM place no signage to mark the route; in order to help preserve the road from overuse and prevent the unprepared from attempting its crossing, navigation is only possibly by locating strategically placed rock cairns and through the travel guide.

“It’s a four-wheel-drive-only road,” Casebier said. “In order to travel the road you have to buy the Mojave Road Guide, which tells you how to access the road, and how to behave while on it. It is a dangerous place; people have died out there.”

The road guide is available at the Colorado River Historical Society Museum, 2201 Highway 68.

“It was a wonderful presentation,” said attendee Leroy Jackson. “I am so interested in his stories of earlier pioneers homesteading the region. It’s amazing to think you could be standing in the same places those people walked.”

Casebier, a retired U.S. Navy physicist, is the driving force behind the most complete archive of Mojave Desert history in existence — the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association in Goffs, Calif.

“He’s a historian above all historians, as far as I’m concerned,” said Elsie Needles, Colorado River Historical Society and Museum president. “He’s devoted his life to that area, and no one is better than Dennis at finding Mojave Desert history.”

Casebier began gathering archival materials pertaining to the Mojave Desert in 1954. When the Friends group transitioned to registered nonprofit status in 1993, his personal collection became the seed of the most complete library known on the history of the eastern Mojave Desert; the cultural center now houses more than 108,000 photographs, 6,000 historic maps of the region, 3,000 files on individuals and cultural sites of interest, 1,300 oral history files, and 6,000 volumes of published literature, including the library and personal papers of desert bibliographer E. I. Edwards, the library and collection of Harold and Lucile Weight, and the collection of San Bernardino County historian Germaine L. Moon.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Old West lives on at Pioneertown

What started as an Old West movie set built in the 1940s, Pioneertown still lives on as a getaway that recalls those days. (Photo by Trevor Summons)

By Trevor Summons
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

One of the few places that never seems to change is the small Western town of Pioneertown, or Pi’ Town as many of the locals call it.

A walk down Mane Street — only hoof and foot traffic allowed — is always interesting. If the original builders of the town were to come back they would feel right at home.

Some of these builders were the stars of the old Western movies, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. They decided to convert the sets of their films into overnight dwellings and then they put in a small 18-room motel where they could stay after a day’s shooting out in the hot sun.

The six-lane bowling barn is still there, but it’s not functioning at the moment. It’s been up for sale a few times but it’s hard to find many takers; it’s difficult to make money from occasional bowlers.

It’s a shame as the bowling alley is an original — Roy Rogers bowled the first ball back in 1947 and it was a strike (of course!) A decade later school boys and girls were replaced with automatic pin setters, but then gradually business fell off.

At the end of Mane Street, sits Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, which is a thriving bar and restaurant business with regular concerts on the weekends. Its outside walls were some of the original sets used in those early films.

Today, during the daytime, you will find lots of horse trailers unloaded as today’s modern cowboys trail their mounts over the impressive terrain. It was this scenery that attracted Rogers and Autry to film so many movies and early TV series here.

Often at night they would gather in the motel, at the rear of Pappy and Harriet’s, play cards and carouse around. Room No. 9 became known as Club Nine for the fun they had there.

Last time I was there, I met up with John Jeffries who with his partner, Gary Suppes, makes saddles and other leather goods. As I walked along in the center of town he was there again. It was good to see him.

He is one of about 400 who make up the permanent population of the town. Of course that is not just Mane Street, but several blocks on either side.

“We’ve had a very good summer,” he said. “Lots of buses with foreign tourists from all over the world.”

It was a Thursday in late October when I was there, and it was pretty quiet at that time.

“At the weekend, things begin to build up,” Jeffries continued.

They do a lot of weddings, he told me.

“We offer a particular service,” he said. “For a $50 fee, we’ll try and talk ’em out of it!” he laughed into his grizzled beard. “We haven’t had any takers yet. But it might save them a lot of money later on.”

I can never quite work out exactly how many people live on the main street there, as there are a number of places with obvious signs of habitation. Perhaps there is a resident of the shop that sells Soap and Goats, but I never saw anyone about, not even a goat.

Pioneertown is a fun place to visit, and if you want to stay over like the old movie stars, then go online to the motel and see if they’ve got room. Prices vary from $110 to $210 per night. And if you’re thinking of getting hitched, then maybe a visit to the saddle maker might be an idea first.