Sunday, July 24, 2016

Randsburg: Living ghost town is a Mojave Desert treasure

A sign hangs on a building in Randsburg, CA, Thursday, July 14, 2016. (Photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher/The Sun/SCNG)

By Michel Nolan
The San Bernardino Sun

It happens suddenly. You’re traveling along an endless stretch of the Mojave Desert, and like you’ve noticed a hundred times before, the U.S. Highway 395 road sign comes into view, pointing left at the turnoff to the town of Randsburg, a two-minute drive on an unpaved road.

The sky is a brilliant blue, the July heat hasn’t risen yet, so you decide to try it and take the path less traveled.

Within three minutes, you’ve left the parched expanse and arrived more than a century back in time.

Could your eyes be playing tricks on you?

Is this a desert mirage?

You are on Butte Avenue, the main thoroughfare in an Old West town that looks like an authentic Old West town.

Welcome to Randsburg, a desert gold-mining town that struck it big more than a century ago.

On a recent Thursday, staff photographer Jennifer Maher and I set out for a Randsburg adventure and were delighted with the town and its inhabitants, who were friendly and eager to share stories of their living ghost town.

The area’s mining operation, at its peak between 1895 — when gold was discovered — and 1933, took out more than $60 million in gold profits from the earth.

There truly is “gold in them thar hills.”

As gold became scarce, however, so did the people, and the 1896 boomtown that sprang up overnight was no more.

During the area’s “Gold Rush” era, the population mushroomed to nearly 4,000, but has now dwindled to about 50 hardy souls.

Greeting us at the edge of town was the weathered wood facade of an aging Post Office, which bears the skull of a steer, along with the ominous words, “End of the Trail, Randsburg, CAL.”

The General Store, just two doors down, looked friendlier so we decided to check it out.

We were hooked. Randsburg had us, reeling us in.

Built in 1903, the Randsburg General Store/Soda Fountain/Restaurant is a purveyor of fine provisions, necessities from pancake mix to soup, Clorox to mousetraps. The store serves fresh coffee, as well as restaurant menu choices and its famous soda fountain phosphates.

The focal point of the store is the 16-foot marble-topped soda fountain with stained-glass cabinet doors.

According to one story, the soda fountain was carried from Boston on a clipper ship around Cape Horn, arriving in the desert in 1904. Another story claims it traveled from Boston via mule train and arrived about the same time.

General Store owners Brad Myers and Carol Dyer, who moved to Randsburg part time from the San Fernando Valley and took over the store on July 1 of this year, are enthusiastic entrepreneurs.

“We wanted to get out of the rat race,” said Carol, a former legal secretary who has been dirt bike riding up here for 40 years.

So, three years ago, they started a T-shirt company in Randsburg, MadInk Designs; then, they opened up the MadInk Motorcycle and Surf Shop next door and the Hole in the Wall Antique Store down the street, and finally the General Store.

They envision a thriving future in the dusty little town.

“We want to keep our history, but we want to expand to keep it alive,” Carol said.

“Randsburg is a mecca for motorcycle riding and other off-road vehicles,” said Brad, who admits he tells everybody to call him “Pitt.”

Folks don’t forget his name, he says with a smile.

Brad begins his day fixing breakfast, and then goes out and sits on the yellow line in the middle of the street to have his coffee and bagel.

Where else can you do that?

A former fabricator, Brad also rides motorcycles and he reports the influx of desert riders and campers within a 20-mile radius reaches about 190,000 during Thanksgiving weekend.

The little town is jumping.

The hospitable couple learn local history from the old timers who come in.

Randsburg has more than its share of colorful characters.

The aroma of fresh morning coffee lures Ron Bush, 75, a Randsburg resident for 30 years, and Gary Gearhart, 67, of Johannesburg, a town a few miles away.

Ron, a native of New York, worked for Wells Fargo, also working security in nearby Boron at the Borax plant and the solar fields.

Gary, who worked in Boron at the Borax plant for seven years, was a heavy equipment operator. He later spent 29 years in Mojave.

Obviously, desert lovers.

While Jenn and I sipped our lime phosphates, the old-timers talked about mining borax in the nearby mines at Boron and how the 20-mule teams, made famous in ads for borax soap, hauled the borax in old wooden-wheeled wagons through the rough terrain, across Trona Road, to California City and over to Mojave.

The trip took one month in 1872.

They talked about “the old days,” the people who have come and gone and the changes in the town, which are few because the townspeople want to keep the character of Randsburg authentic.

There is pride here.

The elementary school and high school are gone, but an elementary school still stands in Johannesburg, two miles away.

The old hospital is also gone, so locals go into Ridgecrest for medical needs.

Many of the homes that look ancient on the exterior have been remodeled and are comfortable and clean on the interior.

According to Ron, residents get their water from three wells dug at the end of town.

Air conditioning is so expensive that residents opt for swamp coolers to keep them comfortable in the summer’s brutal heat, which is usually in the triple digits.

Winter temps are the other extreme — dropping way below freezing, and occasionally blanketing the desert in snow (drought permitting).

With spring comes the wildflowers: lupines, primroses, sand verbena.

There is no cable TV service here, so residents have satellite dishes. As for Wi-Fi, there is none.

While it’s not an easy way of life, it’s somehow simpler.

The scattering of eclectic homes ranges from those built into the hills, to a few ranch homes to others patched with old wood and corrugated metal.

There is also a sprinkling of outhouses dotting the landscape.

Along the street are the Opera House, the White House Saloon, the Randsburg Inn (which has lodging and lots of antiques), The Joint saloon (a former bakery), the Randsburg Museum, a barbershop and the “Goat Sky Ranch,” bed and breakfast owned by Goat Brecker, an old Supercross racer from the ’70s and ’80s.

There are two churches in town — Methodist and Catholic.

Up a winding road is the original jail, last occupied (according to Brad) by two ladies who had too much to drink, got into a gunfight, and fortunately, in their inebriated state, couldn’t shoot each other.

They each had a cell in the two-cell adobe jail.

This fascinating place is real — not Hollywood — and it’s technically a ghost town, but don’t tell that to its inhabitants, who number about 51 — give or take.

If Randsburg looks like a scene from some old Western, that’s because it has been — TV commercials, movies from “Hidalgo” with Viggo Mortensen to “Chopper Chicks in Zombietown,” starring Billy Bob Thornton, have been filmed in the area.

We enjoyed our adventure and the Old West charm of the place, returning richer without even looking for gold.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Dorsey the Mail Dog, the Tale Behind the Tail

Photo of Dorsey the Mail Dog, who carried U.S. mail from Calico, to the Bismarck mines in the 1880s. From the collection of the Mojave River Valley Museum. (Courtesy photo)

By Mark Landis
San Bernardino County Sun

It’s not known how a stray border collie named Dorsey arrived in the Calico Mining District in the early 1880s, but this dedicated mail-carrying canine became one of the region’s best-known and beloved frontier characters. Dorsey’s story is a fine tale on its own, but as time passed, a new collection of related storylines began to surpass the legend itself.

The town of Calico sprang up in the mineral-rich hills northeast of Barstow in 1881, and the raucous mining camp became California’s most famous silver bonanza. New mining camps quickly sprouted up all across the nearby hills and canyons, and by 1885, the district was brimming with thousands of miners hoping to strike it rich.

In May 1882, a post office was established at Calico, and the town was officially “on the map.” Mail was delivered regularly to Calico by stagecoach, but getting the mail to the miners in the outlying camps was a slow and laborious task.

The miner’s tales that came from Calico were often just as colorful as the multihued hills that inspired the town’s name, but Dorsey’s story is supported by numerous accounts in newspapers and published works from the period.

The earliest story on the mail-carrying dog was found in the Calico Print newspaper from May 10, 1885. The Print references “Jack the Mail Dog” in its 1885 article, and by 1886, other newspaper accounts referred to the mail dog as Dorsey.

The scruffy stray was adopted by Calico’s postmaster, Everett E. Stacy, sometime around 1885. Dorsey was a typical black-and-white border collie with a shaggy coat, and bright eyes. He was friendly to most and dedicated to his work, but before his postal career, he was known as a loafer whose primary motivation was the food and scraps he could beg from the locals.

Dorsey’s initiation into the postal service occurred in 1885, when Stacy wanted to send his brother Alwin a message at the Bismarck Mine camp, a mile and a half to the northeast. Not wanting to make the rugged trip himself, Stacy wrote a note to Alwin, tied it to Dorsey’s neck, and sent him scampering off toward Bismarck.

The dog returned the next day, looking none the worse for wear, with Alwin’s reply note tied around his neck. Stacy realized he may have found an unorthodox but potentially practical way to get mail to Bismarck for distribution to the local miners. After a few more successful test runs between the two camps, the postmaster was convinced the mail could be delivered by the canine courier.

A special canine mailbag was fashioned for Dorsey that could be strapped onto his back and fastened with two buckles. He was also equipped with a set of homemade leather booties to protect his feet from the blistering sand and rocks on the pathway between the two camps.

Dorsey became familiar with his routine, and was sent off to Bismarck with the mail each day, returning with Bismarck’s outgoing mail the following morning. Most accounts of Dorsey’s overnight stays in Bismarck tell of the appreciative miners spoiling him with snacks and affection.

Word of the unique canine mail delivery service spread quickly, and newspapers all across the country began running their version of the tale. Dorsey soon became a celebrity, and his photos were posted nationally in newspapers and on the walls of mining shacks and businesses all across the district.

In January 1886, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a full article on Dorsey and concluded the story with: “He is immensely popular with the miners, whose mail he carries so faithfully, and every evening at Bismarck, the miners order an extra beefsteak for the canine carrier.”

The unique canine mail service was reliable and cost efficient, but it only lasted about a year. In February 1886, Stacy gave Dorsey to the wealthy Bismarck Mine owner, W.W. Stow, of San Francisco. Dorsey lived out his retirement years in comfort at the Stow mansion in San Francisco.

Almost 90 years later, Dorsey was memorialized in song by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, in their 1972 double album “The Ballad of Calico.” It was the group’s eighth studio release and featured songs about the characters who lived in Calico during the frontier days. “Dorsey, the Mail-Carrying Dog” was cut four on side two of the album.

In March 1974, Dorsey’s story hit the big time on the small screen, when it was turned into an episode of “The Wonderful World of Disney” called “Go West, Young Dog.” Mylas Hinshaw Productions filmed the outdoor sequences on the streets and in the canyons of Calico, and the company rented an old grocery store building in Lenwood to film the interior shots.

Several local residents from Barstow and Yermo were used as cast members. In this version of the Dorsey story, the canine mail carrier tangles with a cougar, foils a train robbery and helps apprehend a pair of claim-jumping desperadoes. The episode aired Feb. 20, 1977, and was narrated by Roger Miller.

In 2007, children’s author Susan Lendroth came across the story of Dorsey while doing research on Calico. Lendroth was intrigued by the story, and she saw the potential to adapt Dorsey’s character for a children’s picture book. “Calico Dorsey, Mail Dog of the Mining Camps” was published in 2010 with beautiful illustrations by Adam Gustavson that bring the story to life.

“I’ve been fascinated with Calico since I was a child going to the ghost town at Knott’s Berry Farm,” said Lendroth. “I thought Dorsey’s story could bring something warm into the lives of children.”

It’s fascinating that Stacy’s unique and brief experiment in mail delivery by a plucky little border collie could grow to such magnitude in frontier folklore. Maybe it’s time for a Pixar version of “Dorsey, the Mail Carrying Dog”?