A Place Called Borego
January 1, 1997
[map with locations of historic sites]
Long before the modern community of Borrego Springs was founded, there was a place called Borego. Until the 1930s the Borrego Valley was one of the most isolated and least-known parts of San Diego County. Life there in the little homesteader community of Borego was still primitive. As late as 1940 there was not a single paved road in the valley, no electrical lines, no telephones. It was San Diego County’s last frontier.
To understand Borego’s isolation, you have to look at the geography of the area. The Borrego Valley is surrounded on three sides by steep, rocky mountains—the Santa Rosas to the north, the San Ysidros to the west, and the Grapevine Hills to the south. To the east, the jumbled mudhills of the Borrego Badlands stretch off towards the Salton Sea.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, a few cattlemen began driving their herds down to the Borrego Valley for winter grazing. Among the first were the Helm brothers, who settled in the Warner Ranch/Montezuma Valley area in the late 1860s and early 1870s. They came to regard the valley as their own private domain, and in 1872 are said to have run off a French sheepherder named Bosque, who dared to establish a sheep camp at the spring in the lower end of the valley.1
By the early 1880s that spring was known as Borrego Spring. The name— spelled Borego—first appears on a county map in 1883. It is a misspelling of the Spanish word borrego which means a yearling lamb. Colloquially it also means a simpleton, or a fool. It has long been assumed that the spring was named because of the Desert Bighorn sheep that once watered there, but the term borrego refers to domestic, not wild sheep. More likely then, Borrego Spring was named because of the sheepherders (not necessarily Bosque alone) who watered their flocks there in the late 19th Century.
Beginning in the 1880s, it was the cattlemen who made the most use of Borrego Spring. The first were William and John Bunton, father and son, Julian pioneers who had a cattle camp there as early as 1889. In 1891 William Bunton filed the first water claim on what they always called “Borega” Spring.2 They were followed by another Julian pioneer, John McCain (1843- 1927), who took over their camp around 1895. In 1904 he filed the first homestead at the springs.3 By the 1890s other cattlemen were also using the valley for winter grazing, including the Clark brothers, Fred and Frank, of Anza (the namesakes of Clark Dry Lake), and the Angel brothers of Mesa Grande who had a camp near the mouth of Borrego Palm Canyon.4
But these were cattlemen, not settlers. It was not until after 1910 that the first homesteaders began to settle in the Borrego Valley. The Imperial Valley boom—begun by the arrival of irrigation water in 1901—had focused new attention on the desert, and some of that excitement eventually spilled over into Borrego Valley. Among the first homesteaders in the valley were Jack and Katherine French, Bill Schnoke, and Thomas Orland (“Oddie”) Fewell and his wife Estella. The Fewells arrived in 1912, and Estella Fewell is said to have been the first woman to live in Borrego Valley.5 The Frenches dug a shallow well that flowed artesian, and “French’s Flowing Well” was a valley landmark for years.
On January 10, 1913 the Brawley News reported:
Considerable interest is being attached to new development work in the Borego valley, not far from the road between Warner’s Hot Springs and Brawley and within a reasonable distance from the Los Angeles highway. The following dispatch in the San Diego Union tells of the good features of the valley, the most serious handicap being the mileage to the railroad: That a second Imperial Valley has been discovered in Borego valley is the report of those who have inspected that section with a view of taking up government land. Borego valley lies to the east of Hot Springs mountain, being thirty-nine miles from here, and thirty-nine miles from Mecca, the nearest railroad station on the Southern Pacific railroad. To the nearest point on the San Diego & Arizona railroad is about sixty miles.
Borego valley comprises about 80,000 acres, all being government land excepting tracts which have been homesteaded. A dozen families have settled there within the last few months.
The greatest advantage the valley offers is its abundant water supply, there being a lake beneath the ground. At several places in the valley water is found four feet below the surface. Drillings in other places have shown that it is not necessary to go deeper than thirty-five feet to get a liberal flow.
That same month, Borego’s most famous early settler arrived in the valley. Alfred Armstrong (“Doc”) (1871-1949) had been a bronc buster, stage driver, resort operator, Imperial Valley boomer, and miner. Now he was going to be a desert farmer. With him were his daughter, Fleta, and his wife Frances. Though only six years old, his daughter never forget their first glimpse of their new home. They had come down Grapevine Canyon, then followed San Felipe Creek down through The Narrows, then turned north over the hills toward the valley:
I remember we came up the hill and we looked down there, and Borrego Lake [Sink] used to be as white as snow with alkali, and my dad came up to the wagon and he says, “Well, there it is.” And mama began to cry—I never will forget it—and she said, “You told me it was farming land, what in the world can you farm on that?”6
Before the year was out, Beaty had found some more likely farming land at the mouth of Coyote Canyon, and in November of 1913 he filed a claim for an additional 163 acres there. While Doc was developing the canyon ranch, the family continued to live on their original homestead in the middle of the valley. “We just had a tent with a floor in it that we slept in,” Fleta Beaty McCandless recalled, “and we ate and cooked and everything out under the mesquite trees. There were very thick then, and we just cleared a spot for us to live out there.”7
To make some money, Doc Beaty cut and hauled mesquite wood to sell in Brawley. With a team and a fresno scrapper, Doc also did improvement work for other homesteaders. Fleta, who was already old enough to be in school, boarded in Brawley during the school term. With her away and Doc on the job, that left Frances Beaty alone much of the time. “I really think more about it now than I did then,” her daughter said,
but I don’t know how in the world she ever took it. Especially when we first moved out there and lived down there like we did— out in the open and all—when we first homesteaded. And dad would have to go into town. One of his projects was that he got on with Imperial County, and whenever they had a big storm in those days, which they had every summer, there were no bridges and all those washes would wash out. So they’d get word to dad to bring his team and wagon and come in. And so he worked in there. So lots of times my mamma was there all along for weeks at a time. I think about it now an I just don’t know. Once and a while she’d walk…it was a mile or so down to French’s, and I can remember even when I was out there with her we’d take off and walk down to French’s. But after we moved up above [to the Coyote Canyon ranch], there was a lot more activity there, so she didn’t have so much time—except to cook, bless her heart.8
After the Beatys proved up on their original homestead in 1917 they moved to the ranch at the mouth of Coyote Canyon. Doc dug an irrigation ditch down from Coyote Creek, built a reservoir, and began growing alfalfa. Their first home there was just a ramada. “Then dad finally put a tent over it to protect us from the wind and all,” his daughter recalled. Later, she said, “We had what we called the `Cook Shack’, which was a tent with boards walled up so high and a floor, and slats that we could raise in one area. And then across from it we had another one that they had fixed up to sleep in and visit in or whatever.”9
Brawley, in Imperial County, was the supply town for Beaty and most of the other early homesteaders. According to Fleta McCandless, it was a two and a half day journey there with wagon and team. They went from water hole to water hole—from Borrego Spring to Barrel Spring (now a part of the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area), then southeast to Harper’s Well, at the junction of San Felipe and Carrizo creeks. From there, they picked up something of a road down to the westside canal, the furthestmost part of the Imperial Valley irrigation system. Then they just followed the canal into Brawley.
By 1916 there were sixteen registered voters in the Borego Precinct. About that same time, the local homesteaders tried starting a school in the valley. There were only three or four children in the valley then, not enough to justify a school district, but at the suggestion of Harold Bemis and Katherine French, the homesteaders put up the money to hire Mrs. Ruth Brice as a teacher, and classes were held in the Charles Ferguson home for about two months before the idea was abandoned.10
The first wave of homesteaders into Borrego Valley reached its peak just before the First World War, then followed several years of population decline. In the mid-1920s more and more new homesteaders again began to arrive. Several factors contributed to this next surge of growth. Special homestead laws had made it easier for returning veterans to file and prove up on a homestead. Then in 1922 the first automobile road was opened through Sentenac Canyon, making it easier to reach the valley. The older, rougher Grapevine Canyon road fell into disuse as more and more people began coming down the highway from Warners Ranch through the San Felipe Valley. Finally, in 1926 the first deep well in the valley was brought in on the Ensign Ranch, proving that there was an ample supply of water in the aquifer beneath the valley floor.11
O.H. Ensign, a Los Angeles carburetor manufacturer, was the first large- scale rancher to begin farming in Borrego Valley. In 1926 he acquired some land near the center of the valley, drilled a well, and began raising alfalfa, hogs, and turkeys. In 1927 he added a small date palm nursery, setting out more shoots in 1928. In 1933 he planted an eight-acre date palm orchard of his own. Disease-bearing pests were already common in the date groves of the Coachella Valley, but Ensign’s ranch was isolated, and by specially treating the shoots before planting he was able to maintain the only pest-free date grove in California. By 1942 they were harvesting more than 40,000 pounds of dates a year.12
In 1930 Ensign’s son, Roy, began developing his own alfalfa and turkey ranch adjacent to his father’s ranch, both ranches were enlarged over the years, and after O.H. Ensign died in 1935 they were combined, and Roy and his brother Paul took over a 1,160-acre spread. During the first half of the 1940s they also added dairy farming to their already successful operation. The other prize ranch in the valley was Doc Beaty’s homestead at the mouth of Coyote Canyon. He tried selling it to outside investors several times—the first in 1927—but the deals all fell through for one reason or another. Finally in 1929 Doc succeeded in selling the place to a group of Santa Monica “capitalists.”13
Armed with the cash from that sale, “He got a brain-storm that he wanted to put pecans in and raise pecans of all things,” his daughter recalled. Moving back to his original homestead, in 1930 Doc drilled a well, and a year later planted twenty acres of pecan trees, “…and not a one of them lived!” his daughter said. After the pecan debacle, Doc Beaty went back to growing alfalfa and row crops (such as onions) on his valley homestead. He also tried cabbages one year—another failure. With the money from the sale of the canyon ranch, he also built himself a permanent home. According to his grandson and namesake, Al McCandless,
The house itself was just basic shelter by today’s standards, but after a canvas house, it was a palace. It had a corrugated steel roof, a front porch, an underground cellar that served as a refrigerator, that huge stone fireplace in the living room, two bedrooms and a utility room, a kitchen, and a two-holer out back.14
In 1936 A.A. Burnand Jr. acquired Beaty’s old canyon ranch (which he named the deAnza Ranch) and ran it successfully for many years, growing alfalfa, grapes, and tomatoes. After World War II, Burnand would play an important role in the development of Borrego Springs.
Among the many homesteaders coming into the valley in the mid-1920s were Milo and Lelah Porter, who took up a 160-acre homestead in the northwest part of the valley, below the mouth of Henderson Canyon in 1927. Like a number of the early homesteaders, the Porters didn’t plan to settle permanently in the valley; they were going to stay just long enough to get title to their land, then move back to the city. “We were just going to stay 14 months and then `commute’ our homestead by paying $1.25 an acre,” Lelah Porter explains, “…then the Depression came, and we had no jobs to which to go back to, and so we just stayed, because we were getting by down there.”15
Things were rather primitive on the Porter homestead in the 1920s. Their first home was an 8 x 12 foot cabin. A few months later they added a 10 x 12 foot addition on each side. The original portion became the kitchen and one wing served as a bedroom and the other as a living room. Because they were on higher ground, it was too deep, and thus too expensive, for the Porters to drill their own well, so they hauled water in a 225-gallon tank on skids— first from French’s Flowing Well, then from the Ensign’s well, which ran at about 1,000 gallons a minute. “The way we lived for the first three years,” Porter says, “it was pretty primitive living. But you know, when you’re young, it doesn’t mean much. You know you’re going to make it…you just know it wasn’t going to be forever. You just get by.”16
Instead of commuting their homestead after fourteen months, the Porters had to stick it out the full three years, finally proving up in 1930. Then they moved to Lee Bowers’ homestead, closer to the center of the valley. Bowers, an absentee owner, had a good house and a 108-foot drilled well on his ranch. The Porters and their children lived there and raised turkeys until they left the valley for Julian in 1938.
As more and more homesteaders began settling in the valley in the second half of the 1920s, the first permanent civic improvements began to appear. In 1928 San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Ada York authorized an emergency school district for the valley—”emergency” in the sense that the requirements for a regular district still had not been met. Doc Beaty, who was appointed as one of the valley’s three original school trustees, had lobbied hard in San Diego for the school, and was always very proud of having helped to get it started. The first classes were held on the Harold Bemis ranch on the south side of the valley; Addie Woolsey was the first teacher, and there were twenty-two students. Emily Holland, who was popular with parents and students alike, later taught at the school for most of the 1930s.
The Borego School District was finally officially organized in 1931, and a Board of Trustees was elected. Around 1934 the school was moved to the Dana Burks ranch, where La Casa del Zorro resort is today. Burks also donated the land for a permanent school site. “They wanted it more centrally located,” Lelah Porter explains, “so Dana Burks offered this land where the grammar school is now, and he gave us supposedly five acres, but he forgot the last quarter [section in the legal description]—I don’t know whether intentionally or unintentionally—so we got 20 acres instead of five acres. Well, at that time land was so cheap that he didn’t care.”17
The trustees bought Kelsey Hall’s old homestead cabin (built in 1927) and moved it to the new site, and classes began there in the fall of 1935. A PTA was formed which raised the money to add a lunchroom, where they served hot lunches, and restrooms for the school. Next, they installed a generator and wired the school for electric lights so that it could be used for community meetings and dances at night. The original building was used as a school until 1950. Later it was moved again, and stood until it burned down in 1994. Attendance in the district dropped so low during World War II that the school was closed for one year (1943-44), then it was reopened and has been active ever since.18
On March 1, 1928 Borego got its own post office, with Eslie Wynn as its first postmaster.19 His homestead was strategically located along the south side of the valley, very near to where the old hogback road from The Narrows came down into the valley. He built a solid, half-rock home, and had a hand- dug well that went down just a few feet to good water. About the same time the post office opened Wynn began carrying a small stock of groceries, creating the valley’s first store. Later he built a separate building across from his home and moved both the store and the post office there.
Borego’s mail came down by truck from Julian three days a week. Milo Porter got the contract to haul the mail. “He got $60 a month,” his widow, Lelah says, “and furnished his own transportation and his own gasoline.” He would also buy groceries, feed, and other necessities for local homesteaders while in town. Porter carried the mail for two years (1928-30). Wynn served a full four-year term as postmaster, stepping down on March 1, 1932. James Thomson is listed as postmaster from 1932-34, but he was apparently not living full time in the valley then, and mostly likely Wynn continued to shoulder most of the responsibility. Then in 1934 Wynn got the mail route contract. One day in 1935 he drove up to the post office with the day’s mail. Lelah Porter recalls what happened next,
People would just congregate down at the post office when the mail came in about four o’clock. It was a meeting place, and you’d get to see everybody. So we were down there…[and] Wynn came in and took the mail on in, and then he came out and said “Milo, I want you to go with me as a witness. These fellows rented some burros from me and they never paid me…”. So Milo got in his car with him and went on over. And Milo told me he barely got there when old Wynn just let go: “You so-and-so, why haven’t you paid me?” And there were two men, and they of course started hitting back. And Milo wasn’t a very big man…but he said, “I got between ’em finally and I told Wynn that wasn’t the way to handle things. If he wanted to sue them, sue ’em, but don’t start anything.” He said, “I got ’em separated,” and he got Wynn back in the car and when he [Wynn] had driven about half-way back to the post office, he just…[had a seizure]. Milo said, “I got my foot on the brake and got the car stopped…and pushed him over on the passenger side and brought him on to the post office.” He was gone, he was dead.20
To fill the void created by Wynn’s death, Milo Porter applied for and again got the mail contract, which ran until 1938. The Borego Post Office survived until July 31, 1940 when it was discontinued along with a number of other smaller post offices. For the next few years, homesteaders got their mail delivered from Julian via the Borego Star Route. It was not until 1949 that the Borrego Springs Post Office opened in the new town of that name.
In December of 1934, Glenn DuVall became Borego’s postmaster, and after Wynn’s death, he and his brother, Edward, bought Wynn’s store. In 1936, Eddie DuVall (1905-1973) took over the store, and the postmastership. Later, around 1940, DuVall built a garage and service station building nearby, and then later an addition which connected it to the original Wynn store building.21 He ran his Borego Valley Store (never adding a second “r”) on into the 1950s.
The original Borego Precinct had long since lapsed, but in 1928—again with Doc Beaty’s support—Borego once again became a separate voting precinct. Lelah Porter also got swept up into Doc’s scheming,
He came to me one day and he said, “I have a Republican and a Democrat and a Prohibitionist,” he said, “and if you’ll register as a Socialist I’ll put you on the election board.” Well, you know, I was almost 22, but I had never registered to vote because at that time the age limit was 21. And I went home and told my dad that I had registered as a Socialist and he hit the ceiling! He said, “You go down there and you register Republican, I won’t have a daughter of mine being a Socialist!” Well I didn’t even know what a Socialist was, but I went through that election then I re-registered after that election. But I was on the first election board down there with Doc Beaty and Mrs. Rice…and Eslie Wynn.22
In 1930 the San Diego County Board of Supervisors also authorized a Borego Judicial Township. Its boundaries included what is now Ocotillo Wells and the Tamarisk Grove area. The township officially came into existence on February 4, 1931 with Joseph Kelsey as justice of the peace and Milo Porter as constable. “Their jurisdiction covers much space and little population,” the San Diego Union reported,
Borego township has a population of about 300, with 148 registered voters. The center of the township is 10 miles north of the Julian-Kane Springs road, and about 38 miles from Julian. Borego township, strangely enough, has no commercial center. There is no “town” site, no crossroads, no centralized settlement. It’s spread over the valley and is typical desert country. However, big things are happening to Borego valley in small ways. It is a township, with a constable and justice of [the] peace who admit they will have little to do. Both Kelsey and Porter were appointed by the board of supervisors to serve until January 1, 1932.23
Porter was Borego’s only constable. In 1932 a new County Charter was enacted, and all the township constables were replaced with deputy sheriffs. Once again, Porter got the job, serving until 1935. Later, Eddie DuVall served as Borego’s deputy sheriff for fourteen years. Judge Kelsey continued as justice of the peace until his death in 1937. His widow, Arvena, filled the post unofficially for the next few months before moving out of the valley in the summer of 1938, but it seems she never heard a single case. In the November election that year two write-in candidates, Charles Fearney and Alex MacLeod, tied for the job, 17 votes apiece. A run-off election was set for January 24, 1939. 38 of Borego’s 49 registered voters turned up at the polls and elected Fearney, 21-17.24
While Borego never had a church, “We always had a Sunday School down there in Borego,” says Lelah Porter.
Seems like from the very beginning when we first went in, I suppose Milo and I along with a bunch of other people just decided we’d have a Sunday School. And we always had a Easter Sunrise Service. Even if we danced all night we’d still have an Easter Sunrise Service. One year, I know, we had it up on Sleepy Hollow…near the Disney place. And cold! If ever “the sands of the desert grew cold”…I was never so cold in all my life.25
Despite the beginnings of the Depression, Borego entered the 1930s with great hope for the future. On January 1, 1931 the San Diego Union published a detailed review of local developments:
Borego Valley Residents Make Many Improvements
Developments have been proceeding at a rapid rate in Borego valley in the northern part of San Diego county, adjacent to the Imperial county line, that give promise of this fertile valley eventually becoming the breadbasket of San Diego….
The Borego Valley Growers, Inc., a syndicate of Hollywood motion picture directors, has spent several thousand dollars in developing a fine property in the eastern section of the valley. A fine well has been drilled which produces in excess of 100 miner’s inches of water at a lift of about 80 feet. It is planned to develop this property into a colony of winter homes for filmland folk and plant grapefruit, dates, alfalfa and figs. Harry Oliver, a member of the syndicate, has completed a fine new adobe residence and several more of these structures are contemplated for erection this year.26
Roy Brininger is preparing to have drilled for him a 300-foot well on his ranch in the center of the valley and has engaged the Taylor Brothers of Coachella, pioneer well drillers of the desert, for this undertaking. Brininger has associated with him Wilbur Hutchinson of Chicago, and they plan to raise turkeys.27
At the 1000 Palms Ranch [the old Beaty place] at the head of the valley there is a development project in the making, with a view to harnessing the Coyote Creek and placing this water on several thousand acres of fertile land.
Thomas Miller, World war veteran and former resident of San Diego, is developing water on his ranch near Borego springs and plans an extensive development.
F.B. Osborne has developed a small well upon his property and has constructed a store and built a couple of cottages, making a nucleus for a large auto camp.
Fred Lanz, proprietor of the Tubb [sic] Canyon ranch, is developing a fine gravity water supply from Tubb creek and is raising winter tomatoes for the Ramona market.
Charles and Henry Fearney, owners of the Palm Canyon ranch, have extensive plans for the development of their property, with plans to secure water by gravity from [Borrego] Palm creek….
Emil Christiansen is digging a well at present and plans to raise winter tomatoes upon his property when this well is completed.
Frank Scheck has completed a small well upon his property and is raising a small planting of tomatoes.
Fay Childers has built a fine new home upon the Thompson ranch and is planning to drill a well and engage in the raising of poultry for outside markets.
John Windolph has built a new house upon his ranch and developed a small well….
The Julian-Kane Springs highway, now an actuality, has stimulated the endeavors of the people of Borego and is bringing inquiries from hundreds of new people desirous of locating in Borego, according to Lloyd E. Kelsey, corresponding secretary of the Borego chamber of commerce.
The citizens of the valley are also contemplating joining with the city of San Diego in assisting in the payments of the cost of a pipe line from the canals of the Imperial Irrigation district and securing an ample water supply to irrigate several thousand acres of the valley’s fertile lands. This improvement will add materially to the assessable wealth of the county and insure prosperity for this area….
The crop range for Borego valley is so varied in its character that settlement and development will be quite rapid as soon as the proper transportation facilities are provided with the completion of the Julian-Kane Springs highway project.
The valley possesses a live chamber of commerce, headed by Milo C. Porter as president, with Medford Courtney and Mrs. Lloyd McGinnis as vice presidents, Mrs. Medford B. Courtney, treasurer, and Miss Drilla DuVall, secretary. It has a fine elementary school for the grammar grades with an excellent high school nearby at Julian. Veterans of the valley are also planning on organizing an American Legion post. A very fine community spirit exists here and a hearty welcome is extended to prospective settler.
The key to all these projects and plans were the roads that were finally being built across the desert. The most important was the Julian-Kane Springs Road (now State Highway 78). Plans for the road had been discussed as early as 1917, and some work had been done as early as 1919. In 1922 the opening of Sentenac Canyon to automobiles began to make the route a reality. In 1925 the road was opened down past The Narrows and on into Imperial County. Still, it left a lot to be desired. “When you get down from the Narrows out toward Imperial Valley,” Lelah Porter recalls, “you run into clay, you’re not on sand at all, it’s just old ‘dobe clay, and oh, the chuckholes were worse than sand! It was just one chuckhole after the other. It was a terrible road.”29
In 1928 Borego’s homesteaders began to lobby both San Diego and Imperial counties to improve the road. The plan became a political football according to Porter,
In 1928 Felix Landis was running for Supervisor…and a fellow by the name of [Leroy] Aul ran against him. And he ran saying that if he got in he would macadamize the roads…. Well, of course for the people in Borego that was a big thing, because if you wanted to go to Brawley it was about a four or five hour drive the way it was. So there were 62 voters in our precinct, and Aul got 61 votes. My husband and I campaigned hard for Mr. Aul, and he knew it. We had a meeting down there, everybody came, and the women all brought food and Mr. Aul came down and talked to us. So in the election, Landis had won until the Borego votes got in, and with 61 votes coming in for Aul he was elected. So he sent me a box of candy.30
In September, 1929 the county established its first prison “Honor Farm” road camp near Yaqui Well. The site is now an Anza-Borrego Desert State Park campground, and the Tamarisk trees planted for the road camp gave it its modern name, Tamarisk Grove. Beginning with nothing but hand tools, the prisoners hacked out a roadbed along the south side of San Felipe Creek. Later more equipment was brought in and the road was extended out across the desert. It was not until 1932 that the job was finished. A year later, the state took control of the road and declared it a state highway.31
The opening of the original Julian-Kane Springs Road in 1925 probably spurred the development of the Little Borego townsite, which was laid out in 1926. Several buildings were built on the townsite, including a store, a school, and the 14-room Miracle Hotel. All around the townsite were five and ten acre “farms” offered at low down and easy payments. But the final route of the new highway by-passed the townsite by several miles, and the coming of the Depression marked the end of the project.32 By 1937 Ed Benson had opened the “Dry Lake Gas Station” along the new highway, the first step in the founding of the modern community of Ocotillo Wells. He sold out at the end of 1944, but his name survives in nearby Benson Dry Lake.33
Before the Julian-Kane Springs Road was paved, the Borego homesteaders had built another road for themselves out across the Borrego Badlands to join State Highway 99 (now Highway 86) near a little gas station called Truckhaven. As usual, Doc Beaty was the one who pushed the hardest to get the project started, and once the job began, he worked harder on it than anyone else. According to Beaty’s wife, Frances, in 1929, “Mr. Beaty and Lloyd Kelsey went over the tax books and land office records [to] get the names of owners in the Valley, then they went to each one and asked for donations in either work or money, and everyone responded wonderfully. They went to the merchants of various towns and they all donated willingly. The main object was to get a road out to a town like Coachella or Indio as San Diego County had refused to help us with roads.”34
Most of the residents of the valley had a hand in the construction of what they called the “Borego Road”. As the work carried them further and further out of the valley, the women followed their husbands into the badlands to cook for the construction camp. Lelah Porter, pregnant with their second child, was spared cooking in the road camp, but still recalls,
This end of it was just a matter of grading, and they did a lot of it with fresnos. Doc had a couple of teams and they did a lot of it by hand. But when they got over to the Imperial County side they ran into those deep washes. Now they bridge those. Milo worked on it when they were building there and they had to go with the Fresnos down the side of those washes. You don’t go straight down, you angle down, then they’d turn and angle up the other side. There were three of them. I think it took as much time to build the road through those three canyons as it did to build the rest of the road, if I remember right.35
Even when it was completed in 1930, “It was a slow road,” Porter concedes. “I don’t suppose you could drive over 20 miles an hour over it, if you could drive that fast.”36 According to a 1930 accounting, the entire project cost about $750 (with a remaining deficit of $26.60).37 Borego homesteader Nora Carpenter celebrated the completion of the road with one of her many poems:
Welcome, friends, to our Borego
We’re not far from San Diego
But it’s quite a little journey to L.A.
And the road was so durned pore
It made Boregoans good and sore
So they up and built this shorter better way….
So the men all got together
Didn’t stop for any weather
For they worked in rain and snow and in the blazing sun
Grubbed the cactus, scraped the sands
Got big blisters on their hands
Worked like demons ’till they got this road all done.
And when it was hot as hades
To the road camp came the ladies,
Two by two, and ran the cook stove with a snap
Fed the men on such good chow
They could do their work – and how
Thus they helped to put Borego on the map.
Everyone deserves great praise
All have helped, in various ways
Our “Doc” Beaty was the one to start the load
Then the rest at his appeals
Put their shoulders to the wheels
And today we all may ride along this road
“All roads lead to Rome” twas said,
Tho’ this saying’s long been dead
We can use it here in county San Diego
If we all with one accord
Pull just like a brand new Ford
Until ’tis said all roads lead to Borego.38
In 1934, Doc Beaty also took the lead in the construction of the Yaqui Pass Road, which shortened the trip from the valley out to the new state highway and on up to Julian. The Yaqui Pass Road later became the first paved road into the valley. It was paved by the federal government around 1942, while the military was holding training exercises in the area. In 1946 the present Borrego Springs Road was built into the valley.39
Various other road projects were suggested for Borego over the years. One that never came to fruition was a road through Coyote Canyon. Riverside County was interested in the project, and as early as 1921 sent out a party to explore the route (with Doc Beaty’s help), but San Diego County never got behind the idea. The proposal lurched along off and on until the 1970s, but never got beyond the talking stage.
The dream of a road down from Ranchita via Culp Valley and Hellhole Canyon was being floated as early as 1918, and in the 1930s a group of Borego homesteaders even hiked down the mountain, looking for a feasible route. Construction finally began on the Montezuma Valley Road in 1955, but it was not completed until 1964.40
During the construction of Highway 78, the Borrego Valley caught the eye of Dana Burks, a Los Angeles and Palm Springs real estate developer. In 1932 he and a group of investors acquired 13,500 acres in and around the valley— much of it raw, desert land. Burks hoped to entice both agriculture and resort living to the valley. Agriculturally, he was relying on Borego’s desert climate, which would allow grapes, tomatoes, and other crops to be harvested early, and reach the markets ahead of other growers’ crops. “We are not interested in growing anything that will not beat the market,” Burks told the San Diego Union. “We feel that here we can ripen our products at any time we desire, selecting our own market and assuring it.” Burks’ vision of the valley as a center of resort living sounds like some of the later publicity for Borrego Springs:
Burks [en]visions the valley as a great winter playground, dotted with productive desert estates and encircled by the wild, mountainous desolation of the Borego desert [state] park. An authentic Spanish flavor of architecture and development will match the landscape, according to his plan, and the settlers will be specialists in agriculture and in living the fullness of desert life.42
But the bottom of the Depression was no time to start a new, isolated, desert development and Burks soon became discouraged. In 1937 he sold his own “Spanish” style adobe in Borego to Noel and Ruth Crickmer. They added some cabins, and in 1939 opened The Desert Lodge, Borego’s first hotel. Today, it is known as La Casa del Zorro.43
Borego’s other big booster was Harry Woods (1874-1964), a real estate agent who first visited the valley in 1925. “If it hadn’t been for him I don’t think the valley would have progressed at all,” says Lelah Porter.44 He encouraged a number of new homesteaders and developers to come into the valley, including Dana Burks, A.A. Burnand, G.M. Jones, and the Fearneys.
Along with Lloyd Kelsey and Henry Fearney, Harry Woods was one of the most vocal local supporters of the creation of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The idea was first proposed in 1927 by Clinton Abbott of the San Diego Natural History Museum, who had toured the area with Doc Beaty earlier that year. In 1932 the State of California accepted the first parcel of what would become the park, and in 1933 the Borego Palms Desert State Park (as it was originally known) was created after the acquisition of 185,000 acres of Federal land surrounding the valley.45
Not everyone in Borego (or San Diego County) was originally in favor of the park. The usual argument was that it was taking valuable agricultural land off the county tax rolls. But all of the best land in the Borrego Valley had long since been homesteaded, and will always remain an in-holding within the park. Eventually most of the homesteaders warmed up to the idea, especially after the arrival of the first permanent park ranger, Jack Calvert, in 1936. Calvert, another Azusa product, had first visited the valley in 1919 and had helped Eslie Wynn dig his original well.46 Beginning in the winter of 1936-37 he spent his winters in Borego and his summers at Lake Tahoe. During the war, he was transferred to Mission La Purisima, but he returned to Borego in 1946 and served as Park Superintendent until 1952.
In 1938, the Borego Chamber of Commerce took it upon themselves to dedicate the new state park. Milo Porter’s uncle, John C. Porter, a former mayor of Los Angeles, was then serving on the State Park Commission, so he was invited as the speaker for the day. “We decided we were going to dedicate the state park,” Lelah Porter recalls,
…and the teacher wrote a little play, and the kids were in the play, and we fixed our truck up as a stage. And Milo’s uncle and aunt came down and were there, and Jack Calvert, the first park ranger, he was there. And so we dedicated the park. All it was then was Palm Canyon….
It didn’t mean a thing, because it was just our local chamber of commerce that did it, but the kids put on the play and we had a nice little program.47
The park did help focus a little more attention on the Borrego Valley in the 1930s, and a few hearty tourists began coming down, especially during wildflower season each spring. As early as 1935 the Borego Chamber of Commerce was hosting “Ocotillo Days” for the tourists during wildflower time. Before the decade was out, Borrego Palm Campground had been developed, and the Civilian Conservation Corps had built the first stone ramadas there (which are still in use today).
But the biggest impact on Borego in the 1930s was the same as everywhere else—the Depression. Some of the ranchers with outside capital, like the Ensigns, did all right. Other homesteaders hung on, doing what they could to get by.48 Many others left the valley. The Porters left for Julian in 1938. Between 1931 and 1939 the Borego Precinct lost two-thirds of its registered voters—more than one hundred people.49
With the coming of World War II, the pioneer homesteader days in Borego came to an end. The population seems to have bottomed out around 1943, then began to grow again. The military took over part of the Ensign Ranch as a training base, bombing ranges were established at Clark and Halfhill dry lakes, and maneuvers were held in the Borrego Badlands.50
In 1945, outside electrical service finally reached the valley through the efforts of Joseph DiGiorgio, a prominent Central California grape grower who needed power before beginning large-scale ranching in the valley. In 1946 the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation planted two thousand acres of vines in the valley and within a few years was shipping “early” grapes across the United States.
In 1946, A. A. Burnand Jr., Lawrence Barker, and Paul Grafe formed the Borrego Land and Development Company and subdivided the first 1,800 acres of their new community of Borrego Springs.51 Telephone service reached the valley that same year, and in 1949 the new Borrego Springs Post Office was established. It was during this era that the correct double-R spelling of Borrego (correct unless you asked Eddie DuVall’s opinion) became common. It was finally made official by a decision of the United States Board of Geographical Names in 1950.52 A few years later, Burnand’s partners were bought out by the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation, James Copley, and William Black, and they began work on the De Anza Country Club, the first golf resort in the valley. Modern civic development had finally arrived.53
1. Unpublished notes in the Horace Parker papers, Sherman Foundation Library, Corona del Mar, CA. There were four Helm brothers—Turner, Wid, Chat, and Daunt. Turner was the first to settle in the Warner Ranch area, arriving in 1867 if not before. For more on the family, see San Diego County Pioneer Families (San Diego History Center, 1977), 113-14.
2. Borrego Sun, 22 September 1994.
3. Homestead Entry No. 10,677, dated 12 October 1904. General Land Office, “Register of Homestead Entries” (1869-1908). Los Angeles Branch, National Archives and Records Service, Record Group 49.
4. The best book on San Diego County’s early cattlemen is still Lester Reed’s Old Time Cattlemen and Other Pioneers of the Anza-Borrego Area (Palm Desert: Desert Magazine Press, 1963. Third edition, Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, 1986).
5. The Fewells sold out in 1920. For a few of Estella Fewell’s recollections, see Fred Rynerson, Exploring and Mining Gems and Gold in the West (Happy Camp, CA: Naturegraph Publishers, 1967), 61-63.
6. Fleta Beaty McCandless (1906-1991), interviewed by the author 19 November 1986, Indio, CA, for the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association (hereinafter, McCandless interview). Frances Beaty later said it took them five days to make the trip from Azusa, and when they arrived there were just five families living in the valley (notes from a talk, 1953. Copy courtesy Virginia DeMarais).
7. McCandless interview.
9. Ibid. The Beaty Ranch was located right where Whitaker Horse Camp is today in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The tent houses are gone, but their storage dug-out is still standing, and the trace of Doc’s ditch is still visible heading up the canyon. For a contemporary description of the ranch, see the The Hemet News, 28 January 1921. See also my articles on Beaty in the Borrego Sun, 16 & 30 June 1994.
10. Virginia DeMarais dated this first school “around 1915” (Borrego Sun, 22 October 1992). Frances Beaty remembered the date as 1917 (notes courtesy Virginia DeMarais).
11. Diana Lindsay, Our Historic Desert (San Diego: A Copley Book, 1973), 79-80.
12. H. W. Roche and Roy Kepner Jr., “The Date Palm Industry in Borego Valley”, San Diego County Department of Agriculture report, 1944 (original typescript in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitors Center library). The Ensigns finally sold their ranch in 1957.
13. For Doc’s first attempted sale, see The Hemet News, 1 April 1927. A 1932 promotional brochure from the Borego Valley Chamber of Commerce mentions “the Santa Monica capitalists” that then owned the Beaty Ranch (copy in the Virginia DeMarais collection, Ensign file, San Diego History Center Research Archives).
14. Borrego Sun, 4 November 1993. Alfred Armstrong McCandless was a Riverside County Supervisor from 1970-1982 and a U.S. Congressman from 1982 until his retirement in 1994. He spent a great deal of time on his grandfather’s homestead, and even attended the Borrego Valley School in the early 1930s. Doc Beaty lived to see the Borrego Valley Airport open across the road from his homestead in 1947. In 1955 the Molina Verde hotel was built on the site of his home, and his cherished fireplace became a poolside barbecue. It was finally torn down around 1988.
15. Lelah Porter (b. 1906), interviewed by the author, 3 May 1994, Julian, CA. Porter is the last of the 1920s Borego homesteaders still living. In 1912 the Homestead law was amended so that claimants only had to occupy and improve the land for three years (instead of five). After fourteen months they also had the option to “commute” their homestead and receive a “patent” (deed) by paying $1.25 an acre for the land.
16. Lelah Porter, interviewed by the author, 28 July 1995, Julian, CA.
17. Lelah Porter, interviewed by the author, 29 July 1994, Julian, CA. Porter had been a trustee of the emergency school district. Virginia DeMarais told a similar story in the Borrego Sun (22 October 1992): “The district asked Dana Burke [sic] for two acres to put the school on, but that donation eventually ended up at 20 acres with the suggestion that part of the land could be used for a park and community center and also some acreage for a local cemetery.”
18. San Diego Union, 30 July 1944.
19. H. E. Salley, History of California Post Offices, 1849-1976 (La Mesa: H. E. Salley, 1977). Wynn had been a jeweler in Azusa before coming to the valley in 1919. Doc Beaty had also come from Azusa, which may explain why Wynn came to Borego.
20. Porter interview, 29 July 1994.
21. All of these buildings, along with Wynn’s home, still stand on the Fletwood Garner ranch on Rango Way in Borrego Springs.
22. Personal interview, 3 May 1994.
23. San Diego Union, 5 February 1931.
24. The San Diego Union followed this story with glee, see November 18, 29, 1938, and January 24, 26, 31, 1939.
25. Porter interview, July 29, 1994. Sleepy Hollow is still on some maps, in the hilly country east of the Borrego Sink. The Borrego Air Ranch is there today.
26. Borego’s Hollywood connection were not all directors. Ferd Sersen was a “scenic director” for Fox. His ranch was managed by his brother-in-law, Medford Courtney. Albert Vansco was a set builder. Paul Widlicska was another Hollywood homesteader, but the best-known was Harry Oliver (1888-1973), an art director at Fox. He became fascinated with the legends and lore of the Borrego Desert, and in 1938 published Desert Rough Cuts. A Haywire History of the Borego Valley, a fanciful piece that foreshadowed his famous Desert Rat Scrapbook which began publication in 1946. Oliver also declared himself the press agent for Peg Leg Smith, the 19th century trapper who had supposedly found—then lost—a mammoth gold deposit somewhere on the desert. In 1948 Oliver founded the Peg Leg Smith’s Liars Contest, which despite a hiatus in the late 60’s and early 70’s, is still held annually. His adobe home still stands, not far from the site of the contest, the Peg Leg Smith monument along county road S-22.
27. In 1933 the Union reported that Brininger had “a 20-acre patch which supports some 62,000 cuttings of different varieties of vine, truck and orchard crops set out for next year’s planting.” (March 19, 1933). The success of his vineyard later helped attract the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation to the valley.
28. Later, in 1933, George Crowley had an auto camp on his ranch near the mouth of Tub Canyon.
29. Porter interview, 28 July 1995.
30. Porter interview, 29 July 1994. At the time, the Union called the race for the Third District seat, “The hottest battle of the election….” (7 November 1928). Aul finally won, 2,391 to 2,2,91. Aul served only one term as a supervisor, losing his bid for reelection in 1932.
31. San Diego Union, 12 April 1930, 2 February 1931, 4 June 1931, 19 March 1933, 15 August 1933.
32. Little Borego was about two miles due south of modern Ocotillo Wells along Split Mountain Road. See the San Diego Union, 24 October 1926. The school district there (originally called the Borego Valley District, then renamed the Dry Lake District in 1932) was in existence from 1926-37, though no classes were held after 1935. Lelah Porter maintains the developers were eventually forced to build the hotel because they had promised one in all their early advertising.
33. Desert Magazine, December 1938, p. 16, and February 1945, p. 15. In the 1950s one of the gas stations in Ocotillo Wells kept a pet burro on display, giving rise to the popular nickname “Burro Bend”, but in 1962 the residents voted to keep the old name of Ocotillo Wells. Borrego Sun, 25 April 1970.
34. Frances Beaty to Horace Parker, 11 December 1957, Horace Parker Papers.
35. Porter interview, 28 July 1995.
36. Ibid. As a private road, the Truckhaven route (now known as the Truckhaven Trail) quickly fell into disrepair. It was finally replaced by the Borrego-Salton Seaway (S-22) in 1968.
37. “Financial Statement of Borego Road” (Copy in author’s collection, courtesy Fleta Beaty McCandless). Some of the outside donors included businesses in Brawley, Westmorland, Indio, Coachella, Julian, and the Truckhaven Service Station itself. The Indio Chamber of Commerce gave $54. The Hollywood crowd (Oliver et al.) put up about $75. Doc Beaty gave almost $140 besides all the work he did.
38. Typescript courtesy Fleta Beaty McCandless. Carpenter donated $5 towards the project and probably worked in the road camp as well.
39. Borrego Sun, 19 July 1990.
40. Russ Leadabrand, “A New Road Into Borrego Valley.” Westways, January 1965, 23-25.
41. San Diego Union, 19 March 1933. Burks and his associates had already planted thirty acres of grape vines, and were discussing tomatoes, squash, peas, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes.
42. Ibid., 19 March 1933.
43. Burks was still interested in Borego Valley affairs as late as 1939. By 1946 the Crickmers had sold The Desert Lodge to the Burnand interests and were running a guest ranch in Tub Canyon. See the Borrego Sun, 31 July, 14 & 28 August, 1971. Their original hotel was acquired by the Copley family in 1960, and given its present name. The Copleys are best-known as the publishers of the San Diego Union-Tribune, but have also owned the bi-monthly Borrego Sun (founded in 1949) since 1954.
44. Porter interview, 29 July 1994. Woods’ son, Fred was also active in local affairs after Borrego Springs was founded. See the Borrego Sun, November 1964, and 11 July 1985.
45. For a detailed history of the creation of the park, see Diana Lindsay, “The Creation of the Anza Borrego Desert State Park,” Journal of San Diego History 19 (Fall 1973): 14-26. In 1938 the park was renamed the Anza Desert State Park. The southern part of the park was not acquired until 1941. In 1953 the park was split in two along Highway 78, the northern portion became the Borrego State Park, and the southern portion remained the Anza Desert State Park. In 1957 the two parks were recombined and named the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which now covers more than 600,000 acres. See also Lloyd Kelsey’s description and plea for the protection of Borrego Palm Canyon in the San Diego Union, 28 December 1930.
46. Calvert’s wife, Ella, later wrote, “He first came to Borrego Valley in March 1919, and helped Eslie Wynn dig one of the first wells here. They had to go down twelve feet for all the water needed. As there was only one road and no gasoline service stations, he had to walk to Verruga, at the head of Montezuma Valley. There he was given a ride to Warner’s Hot Springs by a cattleman, Ralph Jasper.” “Of all the parks where he has served,” she added, “He really loves Anza Desert best.” News & Views (California State Parks Dept. newsletter), April 1949.
47. Porter interviews, 29 July 1994, 28 July 1995.
48. Even before the Depression, getting by for the homesteaders meant sometimes hunting out of season for deer and even the occasional Bighorn sheep. Fleta Beaty McCandless admitted to that particular skeleton in most of the old families’ closets: “In those days, boy, it was something. I’ll tell you why; you know, when you live on just beans and rabbits or whatever kind of meat you could get, why, dad would get so hungry for some fresh meat that he’d take off and pretty near always come back with something. And he knew he was breaking the law, but fortunately for him he never got caught.” (McCandless interview, 1986). Bud Clark adds that the local game warden was always out to catch Beaty, but never did. Al McCandless recalls that his family more often ate rattlesnake and rabbits—”My grandmother probably knew 40 ways to cook a rabbit, and I ate rabbit prepared each one of the 40 ways as a child. I don’t eat rabbit anymore.” (Borrego Sun, 4 November 1993).
49. According to the San Diego Union (5 February, 1931; 24 January, 1939), the number of registered voters in the Borego Township dropped from 148 in 1931 to just 45 in 1939.
50. For more on the war years, see F. L. Orrell, “Recent Military Operations in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park” (Report prepared for the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, 1991).
51. San Diego Union, 29 September 1946.
52. The San Diego History Center had asked for a ruling in 1949. It appeared on Decision List #5003 in May, 1950. Ed DuVall’s son, Dennis, says that his father always claimed that Borrego was a terrible insult in Spanish-speaking countries. Borego, Eddie said, was not Spanish at all, but an Indian word that means “End of the Trail”. In each tribe, he said, there were always those people who could not get along with the others, so they would be given one day’s worth of food and told to get out. They became roamers, looking for another place to settle, but at every village they tried, they were also turned away. Finally they all ended up at Borego Spring, and since there was no one else living there, there was no one to tell them to leave, so they stayed and named it Borego—the end of the trail. (Personal conversation, 14 October 1995).
53. For a brief outline of the history of Borrego Springs, see Diana Lindsay, Our Historic Desert (San Diego: A Copley Book, 1973).
Phil Brigandi has been researching and writing local history since 1975. A native of Orange, California, he has written several books on the history of his hometown. He has worked as a historical consultant for the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and has been active with the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association for many years. Mr. Brigandi currently lives in Hemet, California, where he serves as Pageant Historian for the Ramona Pageant. His most recent book is Temecula, At the Cross Roads of History.