One of my volunteer occupations involves answering the phone for the Mojave Chamber of Commerce.
We get several calls a day that involve requests for information on the area, reservations for the monthly Plane Crazy Saturday programs, and calls about the location and value of bare desert land.
The latter are probably the most frequent. (I received two while writing this column.)
Back in the 1950s thousands of acres of bare desert land in the California desert was sold to naive buyers as a way to get rich quick.
Sellers told buyers in this post World War II era that Southern California was in for explosive growth and now was the time to get in on the game.
The region was booming due to growth in the aviation industry and general growth resulting from America being about the only major nation whose economy had not been destroyed in the war.
Growth tidal wave
A tidal wave of growth moved toward the desert from L.A. and San Bernardino.
Palmdale was about the size of Mojave when we arrived here a few years earlier.
Lancaster, a farm town, was the largest community in the region, with the only high school and most of the shopping.
The expansion of what became Edwards Air Force Base drove growth in the Antelope Valley and eastern Kern as the Korean War spurred the need for modern warplanes.
Lancaster and Palmdale’s growth was spurred by their strategic location between Edwards and L.A.’s aviation industry, something I could never get across to a long-time Mojave businessman who thought the two towns’ growth was all part of a vast conspiracy against Kern County.
One of the interesting artifacts of that connection was the sight of record-setting X-15 rocket planes being towed to L.A. for maintenance with a California license plate hanging from their rear ends.
(In those days the turnaround time between test flights was measured in weeks rather than months.)
Developers advertised new communities with fancy brochures and hauled punters up to the desert in airplanes and trains, especially to California City when it was launched in the late 1950s.
CalCity’s airport was built to handle potential customers flown up in DC-3s that a few years earlier had been hauling troops and cargo to global battlefronts.
Special Southern Pacific Railroad trains transported additional punters in trains of red, orange and black cars from their beautiful “Daylight” streamliners.
A small shopping center which still exists at the west end of the city was erected, with some structures built with 2-by-2, rather than 2-by-4, framing lumber.
A sales center rose at what is now Central Park and has been upgraded into a very nice community center over the years.
Back in the day a group of talented local actors performed some really entertaining plays — including a production of “The Gazebo,” (pronounced “gaze-bo”) in that building.
North Edwards arose among a battle between its developers and a few locals who thought it would be more historically correct to name it “North Muroc.”
The legacy of that boomtown era is echoed in the calls I get, usually from someone who has inherited a parcel of bare desert land in a remote location far from any roads.
Some of the calls are from realtors or attorneys trying to settle the estates of the original buyers.
Their first question is usually about the location of their land, which they have never visited. The only location information they have is usually an assessor’s property number on a property tax bill.
For that I refer them to the Kern County Surveyor’s office in Bakersfield.
I recently got an interesting call from a woman who said she had received an offer for some land from that era from one of our local renewable energy firms.
Knowing this firm, I told her it was reliable and the offer sounded like a good deal to me.
She then said she had been told three years ago by a California City real estate salesman, whose name she could not recall, that her land would probably triple in value in three years because of the expected advent of the marijuana industry.
Since she had not been contacted by anyone from that industry I suggested she might consider taking the “bird in the hand” offer from the renewable energy firm.
We left it at that.
I often get calls from owners of bare land wanting to know how to contact folks in the wind or solar business.
I always tell them that those folks contact property owners if they are interested in their property rather than the other way round.
It’s a lot like the oil business in that regard.
When the Mojave 58 Bypass was being developed by Caltrans, right-of-way agents spent a lot of time trying to track down the owners of the many small properties along its route.
Over the years criminal cases have been prosecuted against people who allegedly scammed buyers of some of this land including a major case developed by the California City Police Dept. and the Kern County Sheriff’s Department.
The truth comes out
One Saturday evening in the late 1970s my wife and I, owners of the Mojave Desert News at the time, were enjoying a late dinner in the back room of Reno’s Restaurant in Mojave after a very busy day which included two fatal airplane crashes.
After a while we found ourselves listening to four people in the next booth, all apparently veterans of the desert land business, bragging about the various ways they had conned customers into buying bare land in the middle of the desert over the years.
As the booze flowed the stories got wilder and included racist comments about some of their clients.
Had I taped those conversations they would have told a fascinating and disturbing tale of an interesting era in the history of Southern California real estate.
Decades from now the fallout from those mid-century land sales will continue to bedevil owners of this land and government officials.