Thursday, July 13, 2017

Another glass of Mexican wine

Snow-packed streets in Victorville lead to the Stewart Hotel in this undated photo. It was here where silent film actor William S. Hart convalesced in the winter of 1920 while members of his crew purloined Mexican wine from a stopped Santa Fe freight train. (Courtesy of Mohahve Historical Society and Victor Valley College)

By Matthew Cabe
Victorville Daily Press

In a late-blooming but wildly fruitful film career, William S. Hart established himself as an actor who portrayed cowboys with authenticity and integrity, both unwavering.

A Broadway actor with Shakespearean chops who first performed on stage in 1888, Hart was 49 when he starred in his first silent Western, “His Hour of Manhood,” in 1914.

Hart’s Westerns were informed by his childhood. Though born in Newburgh, New York — a still-small town on the Hudson River, 125 miles south of where the horses run track in Saratoga Springs — Hart’s formative years were spent in the rural Midwest with ranchers, Civil War vets, outlaws, gold prospectors and saloon proprietors.

And so he saw the Old West differently from what had been depicted on screen in the early dawn of motion pictures.

According to a bio on the Hart Museum website, his films are distinguished by “gritty realism,” and Hart is credited for creating the “good bad guy” role — immoral characters who find the path of “clean, honest living.”

The persona melded with the man; Hart is remembered as a philanthropic gentleman, a proponent of clean living. But a tale from Prohibition-era Victorville hidden within the pages of his memoir, “My Life East and West,” humorously challenges that notion.

In the winter of 1920, the 56-year-old Hart spent a day in an icy Sacramento River filming scenes for “White Oak,” released the following year by Paramount Pictures. The nearly frozen river proved costly.

“I should have gone to bed; instead of that we went to Victorville for our desert scenes,” Hart wrote. “The river scenes were only the start of the story, but they came mighty near finishing it, for at Victorville my sister Mary made me smoke that little glass cigarette and it registered one hundred and three.”

Poor Hart was laid up in the Stewart Hotel on D Street for three days with pneumonia. He received care from Harris Garcelon — the region’s only doctor — who introduced the actor to the Victor Valley years before, according to historian Dr. Edward Leo Lyman.

Meanwhile, Hart’s “company could not work” without their star, so they bummed around the city, loitering in Forrest Park.

This idleness led to an unexpected discovery of what Hart described as “ninety-seven million gallons of the finest Mexican wine” stowed in one of the rail cars of a stopped Santa Fe freight train.

“Where was it going, I don’t know,” Hart wrote. “I only know it never arrived there, and that through the medium of several short pieces of garden hose, enough wine was siphoned out of that oil car to irrigate the Mojave Desert.”

Alcohol was illegal and all, but illegalizing anything rarely gives pause to those in want. Hart’s boys scrambled for buckets, milk pans, garbage pails and washtubs, brimmed their receptacles and went on a two-day bender, transforming city streets into a “public dance-hall.”

“The more timid citizens telephoned to San Bernardino, forty miles away, for help,” Hart wrote. “The sheriff and twenty deputies, all armed to the teeth, arrived on a special train. They did not need guns. They needed many husky men and many stretchers.

“The merrymaking had ended. Every foot of available space outside or inside at Victorville was occupied by a sleeping cowboy. The courthouse was full — the jail was full. Nothing was sacred to those Bacchanalian inebriates.”

Hart wasn’t guiltless, though. He too partook and did so in front of Walter A. Shay, who served as San Bernardino County’s sheriff from 1918 to 1931.

“The sheriff was a real sheriff; no one had been harmed, no damage had been done,” Hart wrote. “He returned with his deputies to San Bernardino.”

I’ve been told of contraband liquor in Victorville. Of sweat-browed men pushing barreled booze through underground tunnels as unwitting citizens walked the streets above.

On Richard Thompson’s Mojave History website, I’ve read about Guy Wadsworth, a notorious Oro Grande bootlegger, who peddled “turtle juice” and “would rather make one dollar illegally than two legally.”

I’ve seen the Mohahve Historical Society’s photograph of deputies confiscating crates of rotgut.

But the revelry of Hart’s crew forced the issue into broad daylight, proving powers that be don’t always believe in whatever asinine law they’re sworn to uphold.

Dr. Lyman called the moment “the most hilarious and unbelievable ... episode of the town’s history.”

I call it one hell of a good time.

Monday, July 3, 2017

African-American homesteaders once farmed the Mojave Desert

This advertisement ran in several Los Angeles newspapers in 1910 encouraging African-American men and their families to go to the eastern Mojave for opportunities in both mining and agriculture. It appeared May 1, 1910.

By Joe Blackstock
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

“An Appeal to Colored Men” was the bold message of opportunity in an advertisement in a Los Angeles newspaper on May 1, 1910.

It spoke of a mining and agricultural colony planned by, and for, African-Americans in far eastern San Bernardino County by the Eldorado Gold Star Mining Co.

The chance to have their own land and leave behind some of the pains of prejudice convinced the family of young Richard W. Hodnett, along with a few dozen others, to give up the trappings of “civilization” for a hard life in the desert.

More than a century ago, they settled in the Lanfair Valley, a hardscrabble desert wilderness almost to the Nevada line. Homesteaders — both black and white — could become landowners if they were tough enough to endure that area’s hardships and improve their land for three years.

The story of this exodus of African-Americans from places such as Whittier, Los Angeles and Long Beach had mostly faded from memory until unearthed by Dennis G. Casebier, founder of the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association in the hamlet of Goffs, 15 miles south of Lanfair on old Route 66.

His research, including oral histories taken from about 900 former eastern Mojave Desert families, showed that racial problems were relatively infrequent among Lanfair’s homesteaders, who perhaps realized they had to work together to overcome the challenges the desert presented them every day.

Hodnett, who died in Riverside in 2003, was an infant when his family escaped to the Los Nietos area of Whittier from Catcher, Arkansas, a racially charged community where they and other African-Americans were very unwelcome, Casebier said. Shortly thereafter, his father visited Lanfair and sent for his family to join him on 160 acres at an elevation of about 4,000 feet.

“My father would tell me how beautiful the country was, how there was land up there that could be worked up,” recalled Hodnett, during an oral history given to Casebier in 1999. “He liked farming and getting all that land up there for homesteading.”

The idea of opportunity for the Hodnetts and other African-Americans was first described in the Los Angeles Herald of April 24, 1910, by Howard Folke, vice president of Eldorado Gold Star, a wholly African-American company with mining interests in nearby Searchlight, Nevada.

In the article, Folke outlined an ambitious plan to create a “Tuskegee Institute West” to teach African-Americans the skills of mining as well as agriculture in the spirit of “the great work of Booker T. Washington in making practical farmers of thousands of young men of his race.”

The San Bernardino Sun on Jan. 10, 1911, wrote that “a veritable agricultural empire” was being created under the direction of G.W. Harris, a Pasadena minister, and Folke. What is still unclear is the actual purpose of Folke and the mining company in encouraging black families to join the Lanfair Valley colony, which was largely on public land open to homesteading.

Hodnett said he believed it was Folke who urged his father to not only leave Arkansas but later pull up stakes in Whittier and head for the eastern Mojave.

By early 1911, six African-American families had settled in the Lanfair Valley, according to Casebier. The Sun article said one black settler, William Jones of Whittier, had already sowed 80 acres of winter wheat.

Casebier said initially the homesteaders in the Lanfair area were mostly spread into two communities.

The original site of Lanfair, the meeting place and post office for most of its white settlers, was a couple of miles west of the railroad line that ran between Goffs and Searchlight. A post office for the African-American settlers at the Lanfair railroad siding was known as Dunbar, which Casebier guesses was named for African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had died in 1906.

The two settlements later merged at Dunbar, with two post offices briefly operated in the same building. The Dunbar post office, whose postmaster was Folke, closed in May 1914 after 18 months of operation.

It was hardly easy living for the settlers, some of whom probably had little in the way of farming experience. They regularly faced the extremes of winter cold and summer heat, not to mention the isolation of an area reached only by railroad and many miles of dirt roads.

To educate the children of the area, the county formed the Lanfair School District on Jan. 13, 1913, later building a school there.

One white woman who was a student at the Lanfair School told Casebier she really never recalled any discrimination against the black children there. “They were kids to me,” she said. “I didn’t care whether they were pink, red or white.”

It wasn’t all perfect, though, as oral histories indicated that an informal white “social club” created for parties and dances did exclude their African-American neighbors.

In their first full year, the new homesteaders of the Lanfair Valley were welcomed by a winter of abundant rainfall, a godsend that proved to be the exception rather than the rule.

“It rained a lot of up there in Lanfair in that year, and in the spring, as far as you could see, was golden poppies all over the valley,” recalled Hodnett. “It rained so much up there (my father) could grow a good crop of grass and barley, oats and corn.”

That first year, ranchers, most without wells, produced a relative abundance of crops, part of which was shipped by train and sold in Searchlight and at neighboring mines.

The Hodnetts, living a couple of miles east of the Lanfair station, also had cows, horses, mules and chickens. Followers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, family members were largely vegetarians, growing much of their food in a large garden. Occasionally, they would kill a cow or turkey to supplement their diet.

“We weren’t too pressed for money. There wasn’t much in the way of necessities to buy up there,” said Hodnett, who as an adult would operate a nursery for many years in Riverside. To help out the family, his mother worked several days a week at a hotel south of them in Goffs.

But after that first wet winter, nature returned things to normal in the east Mojave. Rainfall was an all-too-infrequent visitor for the homesteaders.

The Hodnetts set out many rain gutters, barrels and troughs to collect everything from each storm when it did arrive. They quickly learned never to waste a drop of water — even laundry water was collected and later poured on plants in the garden.

When things got especially dry, Hodnett said his family took their wagon out to remote watering sites to fill barrels to supplement their supply.

But despite all the challenges, many succeeded. Casebier has documented 24 African-American families, including the Hodnetts, who made it through the required three-year period and “proved up their land” to gain ownership. It is “remarkable for what it says about their persistence and their success in this difficult land,” he wrote in an article for the National Parks Service.

But it also appears that few truly wanted to make the rugged Lanfair Valley a permanent home and soon starting moving out. As an example, 64 voters participated in the 1916 presidential election in the Lanfair precinct, but by the 1924 election, there were only 27 registered voters. Seven residents cast ballots there in 1932, all for Franklin Roosevelt.

Hodnett said his father later moved the family to a farm near Needles (“The first time I experienced prejudice”) and later to Blythe.

“After he proved up the land, it was his,” Hodnett said. “But most people left there because it didn’t rain well. It was too arid up there.”

Hodnett told Casebier his family held onto the Lanfair land for many years after his father’s death, but eventually a decision was made to stop paying property taxes and give up ownership.

As the homesteaders gradually moved out, the area mostly reverted to desert rangeland for cattle. Today’s Lanfair Valley, now in the Mojave National Preserve, is not much different from the way it looked when African-American families first arrived to make a go at desert farming.

Casebier said one of the most interesting experiences he had while living in Goffs was to meet up with a very elderly Hodnett and his family in December 2000. During their interview a year before, Casebier had offered to take him to Lanfair.

“His family had gone to ‘grandpa’ and asked what he wanted for Christmas,” said Casebier, now a resident of Bullhead City, Arizona. “He said he wanted them to take up my offer” and have him guide them to the desert area of his youth.

A large group arrived in Goffs just after Christmas, and Casebier directed them to the long-abandoned site of Lanfair and Dunbar along the still-unpaved Lanfair Road. About all that remained was pieces of the school foundation — and a lot of memories.

“Seeing him on the steps of the Lanfair School, where he was a student in the late teens, was so culturally uplifting for me,” Casebier said.

Continuing research into the African-American homesteaders in the Mojave is being undertaken in a three-year study by a team under the direction of David R. Nichols, park archaeologist of the Mojave National Preserve.