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    Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association

Our History

D. RattThe Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association was formed as a nonprofit extension of the already-established volunteer organization, the Friends of the Mojave Road.

The goals and objectives of the Friends of the Mojave Road are simple. We support leaving the desert as free as possible without risking destruction of the basic environmental values. 

Our approach to achieving these goals is through education. That education is accomplished with the Mojave Road Report newsletter, educational field trips in the desert, and especially through our Tales of the Mojave Road publications—books and guides that people use when they are in the desert.

History of the MDHCA by Dennis G. Casebier

The initial seed that has grown into the Goffs Cultural Center sprouted not twenty-five, but actually more than fifty, years ago. In the summer of 1953, I enlisted in the Marine Corps determined to participate in the war in Korea. While I was in boot camp, the North Koreans heard I was coming and that was enough to induce them to sign the armistice (anyway, that's the way I always tell it). Hence, I did not go to Korea, but instead I was sent to a radio-telegraph school at the Marines' Communications Electronics Battalion in San Diego for six months and then I was "banished" to the sprawling and isolated new Marine base at Twentynine Palms. I arrived there in May of 1954 and that's where and when all this began. For me, it was love at my first close-up sight of the desert. The area—29 Palms and the Morongo Basin—still had that historic pioneer and homesteader charm to it. I was hooked.

The Mojave Road

Since there were no wars to fight, I spent the rest of my enlistment in Twentynine Palms, with spare time used to explore the surrounding desert, including Joshua Tree National Monument, which then had few visitors. I spent many wonderful days exploring the backcountry of the monument.

I was on the desert more than two years (1954–1956) and became thoroughly hooked. From 1956 to 1960, I was back in Kansas attending college, obtaining a BS degree in mathematics and physics in 1960. The job market was good—the Soviets had put Sputnik up and the race was on—America needed scientists and engineers. In 1960 I took a position at a Navy guided-missile laboratory in Corona, California, which turned into a 30-year career there.

I also was back near the desert. I went to Joshua Tree National Monument at first, but in the intervening years it had become more crowded. So I ventured farther afield and found the East Mojave. It was sparsely settled and seldom visited then. If you ran into anyone, it likely would be a rancher, miner, or prospector: desert people. My first exposure to the East Mojave was like going back home, although I'd never been there. And it wasn't just the scenery that fascinated me; it was the remnants of a rich history that I encountered virtually everywhere. There was layer upon layer of history everywhere. And the life ways being pursued by the few residents still there fascinated me.

Very soon I discovered what was then frequently called the Old Government Road—what we now know as the Mojave Road. I had access to the library at the University of California, Riverside, and went there to learn about what an "Old Government Road" was. I discovered very little had been written about it. At that same moment (very early 1960s), I began spending a large percentage of my time in Washington, D.C., on Navy business. Occasionally I'd be there for several weeks at a time. Later on, I once spent three months there. I discovered the National Archives and the Library of Congress were open evenings. I had nothing to do with my evenings, so I commenced doing research in original Army and other federal records on the early history of the East Mojave. I set out to find out what an "Old Government Road" was.

Well, I found out there wasn't any such thing in historic times called the Old Government Road (or even "Government Road"), but I did find out that an early and important east-west wagon road ran through this country and it was preceded by the ancient Mojave Indian trade trail. The wagon road went by many descriptive names, but "Mojave Road" was included in most of its titles, so "Mojave Road" it was.

I became intensely interested in the early history of that country and subsequently spent my evenings in Washington, D.C., at the Archives (and Library of Congress to a lesser extent) researching the history of the region. Nobody had used these obscure federal records thoroughly for that purpose before.

Desert Historian

Beginning in 1970 I commenced writing books (or monographs) related to this subject. By 1975, I'd written six. My first book, Camp El Dorado, Arizona Territory, was published by Arizona State University. After that, I formed the Tales of the Mojave Road (TOTMR) Publishing Company and subsequent volumes were published under that imprint. The TOTMR Publishing Company still exists and at the time of this writing, 26 titles pertaining to the desert have been published.

Meanwhile, beginning in the 1960s, an important part of my research in the desert involved actually going there and exploring all the old roads and trails, especially the Mojave Road. Before 1970 I had located every inch of the 130 miles of the Mojave Road from the "Rio Colorado of the West" to Camp Cady near Barstow.

Through my publications and slide shows I'd give to historical societies and other venues, the Mojave Road became somewhat better known by the mid-1970s. It was at about that time that I became concerned that something would negatively impact it. As it was, there was that 130-mile stretch between the Colorado River and Camp Cady still running through country that hadn't changed much since the wagon road fell out of use in the early 1880s. That is when what is now the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway was built between Needles and Barstow. Subsequent wagon, and later auto, traffic followed the more secure line of the railway, causing the Mojave Road to fall out of use.

Adding to my fears for the old road, in the early 1970s I saw a map that actually showed an interstate highway (called the Kingman-Yosemite Freeway) laid down over a good part of the Mojave Road where it crossed the East Mojave. That led me to believe it was necessary to acquaint more people with the Mojave Road—people that might be able to protect it from such threats.

At this same time (mid-1970s), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency that managed most of the land through which the Mojave Road traveled, had become concerned about resource management and had laid the groundwork for development of the California Desert Plan. I became acquainted with the planning staff and they were receptive to hearing about this artifact that was 130 miles long and ten or twelve feet wide—the Mojave Road. In the next few years I worked with BLM people to acquaint them with the Mojave Road and assist in planning its future.

At that time it had not occurred to me that the Mojave Road might be used as a four-wheel drive recreation trail. I thought of it more as a hiking trail. In pursuit of that idea, in October of 1975, I hiked the trail from the Colorado River westward to Camp Cady. It took eight days to walk those 130 miles. A support crew of friends met me each night at camp.

It was a wonderful adventure and I learned a lot. Perhaps most importantly, I came away with the belief that hiking the Mojave Road would never catch on. The distances are great. There are risks in that wild desert country. Of course, it seemed to me, there would be a few hardy souls that would try it, but it would never become especially popular in that role. I set that idea aside and continued to work with the BLM on other possibilities.

Friends of the Mojave Road

In 1980, the Associated Blazers of California, a recreationally oriented group, asked me to lead a small detachment of four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicles over the Mojave Road and offered me a ride in one of their four-wheelers. All of their vehicles were equipped with CB radios. The idea was for me to lecture as we drove over the trail. It was magic! As we rolled over the road, things along the way suggested topics to be described to the occupants of the ten vehicles following along behind. The entire history of the East Mojave was told, geography pointed out, wildlife and their challenges discussed, and management issues aired. It was a wonderful experience. I have guided many 4WD caravans over the trail since then.

I came away from that first experience with the four-wheelers convinced this was the way to make use of the Mojave Road—as a driving trail. After all, it is a road and it was originally traced out on the desert by wagons and later, largely through local use, by every manner of flivver imaginable. I carried the idea back to the BLM. They were tempted to agree, but needed public support. Hence, the idea for the first Mojave Road Rendezvous.

I met with Dick Crowe, BLM's Needles Resource Area Manager, during the second half of 1980 and laid plans for a Mojave Road Rendezvous, to be jointly sponsored by the BLM and me. It was agreed there would be no general publicity announcing the event. We would send notices to the people on my mailing list that we knew were interested. It was to be a test to measure public support for the Mojave Road; and also to give BLM officials, who had not been previously directly involved, a chance to observe public use of the trail and thereby provide the BLM with inputs on how it might be managed.

The dates selected for the Rendezvous were November 8-11, 1980. Headquarters for the event were at the BLM's Mid Hills Campground. Fifty vehicles carrying nearly 150 people showed up. The campground at Mid Hills bulged at the seams.

Over the next few days we operated out of Mid Hills to the east and west, taking a long caravan of vehicles over the Mojave Road. The number of vehicles was too large; at times, the train spread out over many miles. The road was dusty. People in the rear could not always hear what was being said over the CB radio. Still, almost everyone had a good time and our objectives were achieved. There were quite a number of BLM people there. They mingled with these positive-minded desert users and talked with them about the Mojave Road and what might be done with it. The BLM was encouraged to do something special with the road. It was discussed and agreed that volunteers could help them with this.

The bottom lines were: we (the BLM and everyone else that was watching closely) were aware there were a large number of people interested in the Mojave Road; it was clearly apparent the road could be used for four-wheel drive recreational purposes in a positive, educational, and non-destructive way; and the public could be organized in such a way as to develop the trail and aid the BLM in managing it once it was developed.

Dick Crowe became a staunch supporter. He pushed, supported, and encouraged the project in the months thereafter. Without his encouragement, it is likely the Friends of the Mojave Road would not have been formed.

On May 9-10, 1981, at the urging of Dick Crowe, I guided a caravan of 14 vehicles over the Mojave Road from the Colorado River to Soda Springs. The caravan consisted of BLM officials, seasoned desert travelers, and professional experts of various kinds. The object was to make decisions about what was to be done with the Mojave Road, and to set the wheels in motion to get it accomplished.

The final meeting was held at Zzyzx on the afternoon of the second day. An organization was formed, called Friends of the Mojave Road. This group was to enter into a volunteer agreement with the BLM. Then, with the BLM's supervision and guidance, the group would investigate how the Mojave Road might be marked so that people unfamiliar with the country could follow it. It was agreed the Friends would make careful maps of the route, and they would write and prepare for publication a Guide to the Mojave Road to reach a wider audience. I was named temporary chairman of the group (a position I still hold to this day!). The responsibility of setting the project in motion was to be mine, with BLM assistance. Volunteers to do the work would be recruited from my growing mailing list, with the aid of any publicity we could attract. Work would commence in earnest in the fall.

I can shift gears now and say, "The rest is history." Over the next two years, more than a thousand people helped put up the rock cairns on the Mojave Road, did a little road work, removed a little brush, measured distances, erected a "mailbox," took 10,000 photographs along the trail, and did another thousand things to make the trail ready for use. By early 1983 we printed a preliminary draft of the upcoming Guide to the Mojave Road and hundreds of volunteers drove the Mojave Road to find errors and otherwise perfect the road log. Finally, on November 12, 1983, at the Fourth Mojave Road Rendezvous, the original Guide to the Mojave Road was released at a gathering at Camp Cady Ranch. Basically, we had "gone public" with the Mojave Road, since anyone could now buy the book and follow the trail. The book was designed to aid the traveler through the experience in his own 4WD, without having to take a living guide along.

East Mojave Heritage Trail

The Mojave Road was a huge success from the beginning. We had installed a mailbox in an isolated spot on the road with a sign-in book. From the data in that book, we estimated 2,000 people annually were using the Mojave Road in the early years.

Encouraged by the Mojave Road experience, the Friends of the Mojave Road and the BLM agreed that one such 130-mile road would not be enough to support expanding interest in this kind of non-destructive and educational recreational use. We looked around for other historical trails that would support this kind of development. While there were literally hundreds of historical trails to choose from, we could find none that was extensive enough by itself to support development. We conceived of the idea of a "Heritage Trail"—that is, a trail composed of segments of many historical trails linked together.

The Friends and the BLM went to work on this concept. After six years of work, the East Mojave Heritage Trail was completed in 1990. It was developed similarly to the Mojave Road. The trail embraced 660 miles of backcountry roads and required the publication of four hardcover guidebooks (each over 300 pages). The books were produced at a cost of over $100,000 and literally tens of thousands of hours of volunteer support. In doing this project, we felt we had created something very special for the American people. Something we could live with and grow with—something that would stand the test of time.

Meanwhile, as we were aware but perhaps not fully attentive to, forces were determined to destroy the good we had achieved. For more than a decade, environmentalists had been pushing for an Act of Congress to "protect" the California Desert. Senator Alan Cranston championed it for a number of years. Then Senator Dianne Feinstein, who took office after Cranston, adopted it.

We had made a fatal mistake when we laid out the East Mojave Heritage Trail—we ran it through several Wilderness Study Areas. In each case, these were study areas that nobody (including the BLM and other government officials) felt would ever qualify to become wilderness. But we had underestimated the determination and fervor of the more radical elements of the environmental movement. When the California Desert Protection Act was finally signed into law by President Clinton, on Halloween Day 1994, nearly every acre that had been studied as possibly being eligible for wilderness designation was designated as wilderness—no matter how unqualified that designation was. As a result, the East Mojave Heritage Trail was cut in 13 places, impacting about 75 miles of access. That ruined the trail and the usefulness of our guidebooks, and consequently we abandoned the project.

I should leave in this record a statement that no consideration at all was given to the East Mojave Heritage Trail by Senator Feinstein and her staff—no provision at all was made for it. Consequently, the tens of thousands of hours of volunteer time put in by and for the American people were thrown away. The new leadership under the National Park Service (NPS) made no effort to save the trail—it was completely lost. This had a chilling effect on our organization’s desire to provide future volunteer work for the BLM or the NPS.

Goffs Cultural Center

Meanwhile, I had retired from federal service on the last day of 1989, just ten months before completion of the East Mojave Heritage Trail. My wife Jo Ann and I determined to purchase the crumbling Goffs Schoolhouse and more than 100 acres that went with it and, with the help of volunteers, commenced development of a cultural center where the story of the East Mojave could be gathered together.

We moved to Goffs in 1990, bringing with us the collection I had formed over a period of nearly 30 years of books and research materials pertaining to the American Desert West and focused on the Mojave Desert. The collection more than quadrupled in size and importance by the addition of the collection formed by Harold and Lucile Weight. More recently, the significant and extensive collection formed by Mojave Desert local historian Germaine L. Moon was donated. Other collections of related material have been added and more are slated for acquisition in the future. At this time, the collection includes more than 6,000 volumes of published works, tens of thousands of pages of news clip files, over 50,000 historical photographs, 1,000 oral histories, more than 5,000 maps, an extensive collection of materials culled from federal records in the National Archives, and much more.

The Friends of the Mojave Road from California, Arizona, and Nevada have contributed a vast amount of volunteer work at Goffs. Since its inception in 1981, the Friends has always been an informal group, although it has become quite large, involving nearly a thousand people in different ways. In 1993, a nonprofit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) corporation, the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association (MDHCA), was formed with one goal; to ensure that the historical research collection and the work being done on the Schoolhouse property at Goffs will exist in perpetuity. Or, put more simply, the mission is to gather together the history of the East Mojave desert.

As an immediate goal, the Association began raising money to restore the old Schoolhouse—to put it back the way it looked and felt in 1914. By the spring of 1998, the Association was ready to move ahead. On June 20, 1998, Jo Ann and I donated the Schoolhouse and the one-acre schoolyard to the Association. A contract was signed with contractors Elegant Custom Homes of Kingman, Arizona, to completely restore the Schoolhouse. That effort was completed in late 1998.

To ensure authenticity, the restoration benefited from interviews with more than 40 former students and many others who had firsthand knowledge of the early days. Also, a collection was formed of several hundred historic photographs of the building. Other details came from physical evidence, such as details of construction that were revealed as restoration proceeded.

The restoration cost $200,000, all of which was obtained as donations from the Friends of the Mojave Road and the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association. There was no public tax money or foundation money in the project.

With restoration of the Schoolhouse completed, the Association began to open it to the public. Access to the developing museum grounds is granted on a limited basis. A booklet titled Guide to the Goffs Cultural Center facilitates visits to the site for long-time friends and the public.

In 2001 a graduate class in Public History from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, under the direction of Dr. Andrew Kirk, undertook a class project to prepare an application to have the Goffs Schoolhouse placed on the National Register of Historic Places. They did an outstanding job, with the result that the Schoolhouse received this coveted distinction on October 11, 2001. It thereby became one of the few buildings along historic U. S. Highway 66 in California to receive that honor. It is the only one-room schoolhouse in all of southern California listed on the National Register.

In December 2002, Jo Ann and I donated to the MDHCA the entire 75 acres of our property in Goffs lying west of Lanfair Road, including all buildings and structures. That same year, the MDHCA completed a Conditional Use Permit application with the County of San Bernardino, which enables continued development.

Mojave Desert Archives

In 2008, the MDHCA constructed a large state-of-the-art library facility in the image of the old Goffs railway depot. This new structure is vitally needed to house and properly care for the existing collections of the Mojave Desert Archives and new materials expected to be acquired in the near future. The Library/Depot cost about $1 million to build; $500,000 in grant funding was provided by the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, $250,000 in in-kind donations from board members and volunteers, combined with an additional $250,000 in cash donations raised from our membership. Rechristened as the Dennis G. Casebier Library, the new building was dedicated in October 2008 during the Mojave Road Rendezvous.

Meanwhile, Jo Ann and I are at a point of second retirement. We moved to a new house on the east side of Lanfair Road on property we still own, where we intend to retire from day-to-day management of the Goffs Cultural Center to spend more time on historical research, the oral history program, organization of the collections, and writing several books relating to the East Mojave (for example, a history of Lanfair Valley).

The Future

To carry the torch forward, the MDHCA is in dire need of your support. First and foremost, we need people to live here and manage the day-to-day operations of the Cultural Center. We need people to provide a presence and protect this valuable property. We need people to maintain the buildings and grounds. We need funds to support the expanded budget requirements that have resulted from acquisition of so much property. We are at a turning point — we need your help to continue the magic of the Friends of the Mojave Road and the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association into the future. We have taken this opportunity to explain where we have come from, where we are going, and what our needs are for the future. Join with us as we solidify the position of the Goffs Cultural Center into the 21st Century.

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