Desert Center, in Riverside County, California, is an unincorporated town (pop. 125) located in the Colorado Desert of Southern California, mid way between the cities of Indio and Blythe at the junction of Interstate 10 and State Route 177 (Desert Center-Rice Road). In the vicinity of Desert Center are the Chuckwalla Mountains, Corn Springs, Eagle Mountain (a former Kaiser iron mine) and Chiriaco Summit.
The town was founded in 1921 by Stephen A. Ragsdale, also known as “Desert Steve”, and his wife, Lydia. Ragsdale was an itinerant preacher and cotton farmer, originally from Arkansas. In 1915, he left his farm in the Palo Verde Valley along the Colorado River to attend to some business in Los Angeles. The road between Phoenix and Los Angeles was mostly sand, and Ragsdale's vehicle broke down near a place called Gruendyke's Well. This featured a hand-dug well and was inhabited by a prospector named Bill Gruendyke. Gruendyke rescued Ragsdale and gave him food, shelter, and water until his vehicle was repaired and he could resume his journey to Los Angeles.
Upon his return, Ragsdale bought out Gruendyke and moved his family to the remote spot, where they constructed a small shack with a lean-to that served as the repair garage. A Model T truck was modified to serve as a tow car. Gasoline was pumped by hand from a 55 gallon drum. Lydia served food and refreshments to thirsty and weary travellers. In spite of the remote location 50 miles in any direction from anything, the Ragsdales prospered. Ragsdale named his outpost 'Desert Center'. In 1921, it was announced that the sand road running through Desert Center would be relocated about 5 miles north, straightened, paved, and named U.S. Route 60, a modern "high-speed" highway. Ragsdale abandoned "old Desert Center" and built a poured-concrete café in the adobe style with an attached gasoline station and a huge service garage. Across the road, a series of wooden structures were built, including a market (which at one time was the largest Coleman camping equipment dealer in the country), and a post office. He also built several cabins for travellers, and a large "plunge" (pool) next to the café where travellers could escape the desert heat.
Ragsdale was a desert eccentric of the first order, and his advertising for Desert Center in publications such as 'The Desert' magazine reflected his personality: "U Need Us - We Need U", "Our Main Street is 100-miles long!", "We lost our keys... we can't close!" (a reference to the fact that the café' has been open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year since it opened in 1921), "Free Room and Board Every Day The Sun Doesn't Shine In Desert Center", "If You Don't Believe Me, You Can Go To Hell, or Visit Me in Desert Center in August! Nuf sed, Steve".
Ragsdale was a teetotaller and once hung a sign on the door of the café which read, "No Drunks. No Dogs. We prefer dogs." He was known to take a stick to travellers who were drunk in his café.
When Steve needed a teacher for his own children and the few others in the town, the county declined to send one; there weren't enough students to warrant the expense. Ragsdale hastily built a basic structure of stick framing with paper board walls to use as a schoolhouse, and placed an ad in Los Angeles newspapers asking for an auto mechanic with a large family, which he got, and a teacher was indeed provided by the county.
One morning, the town awoke to find that goats had gotten loose and had eaten the paper board walls of the schoolhouse as high as they could stand on their hind legs. The Ragsdales still have a photo of the goat-eaten schoolhouse.
Steve frequently retreated to his writing shack near the north tip of the rock formation called "The Alligator" (across I-10 from DC) where he composed bad poetry - the stanzas are referred to as "Spasm #1", etc. - to be distributed in booklet form to travellers. Steve was a close friend of many classic "desert people" such as Randall Henderson, founder of Desert Magazine; Marshall South, the hermit of Ghost Mountain; desert painter John Hilton (painter); noted biologist Edmund C. Jaeger; and Harry Oliver, with whom Steve co-founded the annual Pegleg Smith Liar's Contest in Anza-Borrego. Oliver often printed items about Desert Steve in his 'newspaper,' the Desert Rat Scrap Book.
Within a few years, Ragsdale operated a number of satellite businesses in locations such as Cactus City, Hell, Skyway, Box Canyon, and (Shaver's Well). Even the closest competition, Chiriaco Summit, was originally a Ragsdale operation called Shaver's Summit.
Around 1950, Steve was accused of dallying with an office worker in his employ and left Desert Center in disgrace, living the rest of his days in self-imposed exile at his log cabin retreat near the summit of Mount Santa Rosa. His sons, Stanley, Thurman, and Herbert, took over operations of Desert Center, and Stanley eventually purchased the town from his father. Stanley ran it for decades, adding a hamburger stand and the Stanco gasoline station.
Desert Steve died in 1971 and is buried in the Coachella Valley cemetery.
In the early 1930s, Dr. Sidney Garfield, who had just graduated from USC, went to visit a former classmate with a practice in Indio. The practice was thriving to capacity, while Garfield was nearly without business in Depression-era Los Angeles. Garfield's friend explained that he was the closest doctor (50 miles) to 5,000 men digging the Colorado River Aqueduct under direction of The Seven Companies, Inc. The project site's headquarters was just southeast of Desert Center. Garfield borrowed money from his father and constructed a 4-bed clinic near the construction site. The clinic was cooled by an ammonia air-conditioning system and at the time was the only air-conditioned building between Riverside and Phoenix. Garfield would treat the men, who would promise to pay on payday, but who would usually go to Blythe or Indio and drink their paychecks. Within a year, Garfield was broke and announced that he would pull up stakes.
Hearing this, Henry J. Kaiser, whose division of The Seven Companies was building the stretch of aqueduct through the Desert Center vicinity, paid a visit to Garfield at his clinic. His idea was to take a nickel a week out of each man's paycheck to prepay for that man's future medical treatments, should an injury occur while he was working. If the man wanted to be covered for the remainder of the day, after work hours, another nickel would be deducted. If the man had a wife and/or children he wanted to cover, this would cost another nickel. Within a short time, Garfield had a steady income stream and things improved for him immensely. When the aqueduct project was finished, Kaiser's next venture was the construction of the Grand Coulee dam, and he took Garfield with him to manage the workers' health care, but this time there were 50,000 men, not just 5000. Garfield's operation morphed into Kaiser Permanente, the largest managed health care system in the world, but its origins are in Desert Center. Dr. Garfield's sister unveiled the plaque that is on a boulder next to the grocery honoring Desert Center as the birthplace of pre-paid health care. Stanley and Crystal Ragsdale named one of their sons Sidney in honour of Dr. Garfield. Unfortunately, Kaiser Permanente does not serve the area where it started (zip code 92239), even though it serves areas as close as Indio.
By 1942, Desert Center had only 19 residents. It was then that the Army, under the direction of Maj. General George Patton, established the Desert Center Army Air Field to support operations in the California-Arizona Maneuver Area. The base covered 18,000 square miles. Its purpose was to train troops for combat in the deserts of North Africa against the forces of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The enormous operation came to a close in 1944, when the Allies were victorious in the North African theatre. A museum honoring Patton and his training complex is located in Chiriaco Summit.
After the military’s departure, the town became quiet again, remaining relatively unchanged as the
One of the largest open-pit iron mining operations in the world is located about 13 miles north of Desert Center at Eagle Mountain. This rich deposit was discovered by geologists working for Henry J. Kaiser during aqueduct construction in the early 1930s. The mine operated at capacity from World War II until it shut down in the late 1980s. A for-profit prison was operated by Utah's Management and Training Corporation in facilities leased from Kaiser. Six weeks before it was closed on December 31, 2003, a race riot claimed the lives of two African-American prisoners. Films are sometimes made there, including scenes from the first Terminator movie. Environmentalists have taken legal action
Today, though showing its age, the town still survives. In addition to supporting tourism by providing sparse amenities for travellers crossing the vast expanse of desert between the Colorado River and Indio, it is home to agricultural farms, a couple of mobile home parks frequented by “snowbirds,” and the Lake Tamarisk community founded by the Kaiser Steel Corporation. Desert Center Airport (FAA designator: L64) has a 4,200-foot runway, but last operated as a public airport in 1992. It is now privately owned.
The 1980s saw a surge of growth in Desert Center as jojoba gained popularity. The brackish water, sandy soil, and dry weather make the area ideal for cultivation of this hardy desert plant whose oil is used chiefly in cosmetic products.
In the early 1990s, Stanley Ragsdale commissioned the planting of several hundred palm trees in strange patterns on the town’s frontage with Interstate 10. When asked why, he said he always wanted a “tree-ring circus.” Since his death in 1999, the trees have fallen into disrepair and many have died.
Despite many changes in the modern world, Desert Center is a true survivor – a town that not only refuses to die, it thrives and continues to provide a safe haven for travellers. It is a fitting monument to its founder, who once said, “Even the woodpecker owes his success to the fact that he uses his head.”
The community is served by State Route 177 and Interstate 10. Most wired phone numbers in Desert Center and Lake Tamarisk appear to follow the format (760) 227-xxxx [& 437, per VeriZon Directory]. As of 2000, a CalTrans maintenance station existed at 29476 Ragsdale Rd.
A memorable episode of the hit '80s TV show Airwolf was filmed during July 1984 in Desert Center. The 2nd season premiere episode, entitled 'Sweet Britches', pitted the venerable jet helicopter against a corrupt sheriff who was providing prisoners (who were in jail for minor infractions) to a local hunt club-for the purpose of being hunted down and killed. The location made for some excellent photography and enhanced the episode with genuine desert earth tones.
Lake Tamarisk is about one and three quarter miles north of Interstate 10 at and on the Desert Center 7.5-minute quadrangle. The community is off Kaiser Road. It hosts a lovely golf course with low greens fees.
Both the Lake Tamarisk Library and Riverside County Fire Station 49 are located at 43880 Lake Tamarisk Drive.