Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Great California Deserts by W. Storrs Lee

Mojave Desert
In the 1950s, the Bureau of Land Management decided to sell off parcels of land in the California deserts. People were lining up at auction to buy plots of land for $25, the only caveat being that they had to build a structure on it within two years. With visions of Hollywood-style retreats (Palm Springs was all the rage at the time), thousands of people mobbed the Los Angeles American Legion Hall and bid on their slice of paradise.  My great-grandmother was part of that mob.

Our "Desert House"
Nearly sixty years later, our family still enjoys the "Desert House" that she and her husband built.  My mom remembers going up as a teenager when it was just one room and an outhouse.  Over the years, there's been much progress of course.  It now has running water (hauled in by Larry the water guy) and an indoor toilet.  In fact, about five years ago, they even paved the main road in front of the house.  But we still love it for its rustic charm.

I came across a book in the library's collection a while back called The Great California Deserts by W. Storrs Lee.  Its opening chapters chronicle this great land grab of the 1950s and solidified all the family stories we'd heard over the years about our beloved Desert House.

Although it was written in 1963, this book had such a contemporary feel. I loved how the author inserted all the gossip and folklore of the desert.  He names all the villains, claimjumpers and bandits of the mining towns, not to mention all the muleskinners who drove their teams to and from Death Valley loaded up with Borax.  Here's one of the baddies that Storrs describes:
"One swamper [a mule-skinner's assistant and general handyman], half-demented by desert heat and the arrogance of his skinner, shadowed his prey for a week, waiting for the right moment to vent his spleen. The moment came one evening at Lone Willow after they had fed and watered the mules and eaten their supper in the usual silence. The skinner unsuspectingly squatted by the mesquite fire lost in his own thoughts. Behind him, poked into the sand, was the shovel with which the swamper had been digging mesquite to feed the blaze. Casually, the outraged subordinate picked up the shovel, raised it, and finished off his enemy with a resounding clout over the back of the head.

No twinge of conscience bothered the assailant as he dug a pit next to the spring, rolled the despised body into it, filled the hole, then lay down on the soft earth of the grave for the only placid night's sleep he had known since leaving Furnace Creek.

Next morning, he harnessed the team, climbed into the coveted skinner's seat, and headed for Mojave in triumph. But the swamper soon discovered that he knew less about driving a team of twenty mules than he had fancied. In descending a grade a mule stumbled; everything went wrong at once; mules, wagons, borax and water cart wound up in a frightful tangle, and when the would-be skinner worked his way out from under the wreckage he had a badly broken leg.

Painfully he dragged himself from one animal to another and cut them all lose, except one. He mounted that, and with a dangling leg rode to town, bearing a tale of chivalric purport: the sad death of the skinner from some mysterious natural cause; his own courageous attempt to bring in the team alone; the accident; the saving of the animals and the agonizing ride with a broken leg.

The crippled swamper was at once elevated to the stature of a hero, given the warmest sympathy and the best available medical attention. And he would have gotten away with his story and all the honors, except for one error. It had been a mistake to bury that body so close to the spring.

The next teamsters to go over the route noted the location of the grave and decided, in interested of sanitation, that the corpse should be moved a little farther from the water supply. In the process of disinterment the bashed skull was discovered and the murderer was soon on the most-wanted list of a lynching party."
That was only one of many fascinating stories. The desert breeds some real characters, from Death Valley Scotty (of Scotty's Castle fame) to James L. Butler who "carelessly knocked a hunk of rich ore off a boulder" and sparked a mining craze in Tonopah.  It takes a kind of eccentricity to thrive out there.  However, if that is what is required to live in the most beautiful country on earth, I'd gladly take up that mantle.  Maybe when I retire someday. . .

Exhibit A
Before the Desert Beautification project several years ago, you could see scores of abandoned structures dotting the landscape.  Not everyone could hack the desert's extreme temperatures and winds. Many of those hopeful people at the Legionnaire's Hall auction would give up on their dream. But for those residents and week-enders who stuck it out, the pay-offs were amazing, as evidenced by exhibit A.

This book might be difficult to find in a library if you're living outside of California.  But, I found a copy on e-Bay which I'm adding to my newly formed "Desert Collection," so if this topic interests you, you should be able to track it down.

<I checked this book out of my library. Then I bought it.>


  1. I really enjoyed reading your post. I didn't know anything about the selling of land parcels in the 50's and your family connection was interesting as well.

  2. Thanks! My husband teases me that he only married me for the desert house (in all it's faded and dusty glory). It's nice to be able to get away, though not right now as the temperature is hovering right above 105 degrees!