Visit Date: March, 14 2016
"Desert" Steve Ragsdale founded the community of Desert Center back in 1921. He had the large, adobe-style concrete Cafe, gasoline station and service garage built to entice travelers to stop in for food, gas and a shady spot to rest. Next to the cafe, he built a large "plunge," where travelers could escape the desert heat by taking a quick dip. A number of "cabins" on the west end of town provided a place to stay for folks who wanted to spend the night before continuing on their journey. A Post Office, general store, and other buildings opposite the Cafe were also built by Desert Steve and still stand today.
Steve was apparently quite the character and led a very interesting life. He had a way with advertising; "U Need Us - We Need U," "Free Room and Board Every Day the Sun Doesn't Shine in Desert Center," "Our Main Street is 100-miles long!" Whatever it was, it worked and the community prospered for quite a long period of time.
Desert Center enjoyed some extended periods of prosperity over the years. In 1942, the U.S. Army established a desert training center for combat troops heading to the deserts of North Africa to fight against the German forces led by Field Marshall Rommel. The number of support personnel and all those associated with building and operating the vast desert base certainly was a boon to the small community. As was the Kaiser Steel Eagle Mountain Mine which operated nearby until 1982.
When I visited, the only business on the town's main street that appeared to still be in operation was the small post office. The cafe seems to have closed "for remodeling" sometime back around 2012. The remodeling sign was still in the front door window, but it didn't appear as any such work has started. There are a lot of empty/closed buildings in various states of disrepair, which is sad to see for the town's sake, but I admit I enjoyed taking pictures of a town that seems to have passed on. If you're an artist/photographer/wanderer/time-traveler, do pull off I-10 the next time you're zooming by and see what you can find in Desert Center. Here are some of the things I spotted.
I was heading east on I-10 and the exit for California State Route 177 and Desert Center was drawing near. I spotted this abandoned gas station on the opposite side of the freeway, so once I exited, I headed back to check it out. At one time it must have done a good deal of business. And then the 10 freeway was born, with no exit. A sure sentence to slow death for a highway business.
There's not much left to see here, so I got back into Tacoma Red and headed back to check out Desert Center.
This little complex of abandoned homes immediately captured my interest.
And this old sign makes me wonder if this group of buildings may have been the group of cabins built by Desert Steve mentioned earlier.
Seven small homes still stand, out of how many originally built: I don't know. Probably several more, as one had burned down and the opposite side of this street only had two structures standing.
Each "cabin" at one time had a small roof over the porch. Cement steps lead up to the front door and also at the back doors.
Each cabin was also filled with trash; broken appliances, refuse, clothing, furniture and graffiti. And of course, most everything broken.
I poked around a bit in each building, but found pretty much the same story in each place. Each home seemed a bit too large to be the "cabins" that Desert Steve had built, these all seem like small homes. But I don't know for sure, it could have been either one.
Note the headless palm trees in the background of this image. Desert Steve died in 1971 and his son Stanley apparently owned most, if not all, of Desert Center afterwards. In the early 1990s, he commissioned the planting of hundreds of palm trees in geometric patterns he found interesting. When asked why, he reportedly said that he always wanted a 'tree-ring' circus. Many of the palm trees have since died.
After spending considerable time at the cabins, I headed into the town proper.
The Cafe/Service Station building is pretty darn cool.
A couple views of the interior of the Desert Center Cafe. Left click to enbiggen them.
Close-ups of the two photos above. Checkout the telephone booths and the ATM machine in the photo on the left. And the counter image on the right looks like they just closed the doors when the last customer left and never returned. I wonder if that maple syrup is still good....
Interior view of one part of the large service station.
After wandering about the cafe and service station, and wishing I could actually go inside both for some better pictures, I headed out to see what else was in the neighborhood.
An old railroad car from Kaiser Steel.
The "plunge," located next door to the Cafe. Thousands of people must have enjoyed the cool water in this pool over the years. Now it holds a bunch of neat old stuff. In fact, there's so much neat old stuff in Desert Center, that if you like to take pictures, you could easily spend most of a day here.
I missed getting a picture of the U.S. Post Office, which stands to the right of the Desert Center Market. The Post Office is apparently the only business still open in town.
The abandoned Desert Center Elementary School is located on the east side of Route 177. I'm not sure when it was built, but one report I read stated it closed in 1983. I'll bet it was used for town functions as well as for education. Imagine the school programs that were put on inside the auditorium. They had a lot of chairs.
The two sets of windows on the left were for the kid's bathrooms.
There are several pieces of farm machinery out back of the school, neat-looking, old, rusty stuff.
There are the remains of two pianos in one of the large rooms, this is the only one that is still "upright."
Two ends of a very large room. Maybe at one time it was divided by a sliding partition of some kinds. Perhaps this was an auditorium where plays were held, there appears to be a small stage at one end with three steps leading up to it. It was nice to find this abandoned school and be able to go into it, but it was so sad to see what people have done to it.
I ran across this video of the abandoned school on Youtube. It was made a few years ago and is definitely worth a look.
And that was my Desert Center Exploration. It's another one of those places that had been on my list of spots to visit for several years. I'm glad I finally made the time to go and see it. Personally, I hope it stays the way it is for other folks to visit and take a brief trip back in time.
I'd love to hear any stories from folks who used to live in Desert Center, please feel free to post in the comments section or send me an email.
Next stop for my day: Rice, California. You've probably never heard of it.
If you like any of my photos enough to want to download them, feel free to do so. Use them for whatever purpose you like. Credit back to Cali49.com would be nice, but it's not required. I do enjoy reading comments :-)