February 9, 1982

Hoist a Root Beer for Family of Yucca Cutters

Milton Blair uses a chainsaw to cut a yucca tree on Mojave Desert leased land. Watching are two of his daughters, five sons. (Ben Olender / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Times

HACKBERRY MOUNTAIN, Calif. -- Next time you have a root beer, think of Milton Blair and 10 of his 14 kids.

The Blairs harvest 14 tons of yucca trees each week on land leased from the Southern Pacific Railroad on the Mojave Desert in eastern San Bernardino County. Root beer foam comes from the sap of the thorny desert tree.

"Harvesting Spanish daggers (yucca trees) is dirty, hard, nasty work," said Blair, 50, as he revved up a chain saw to cut a yucca.
Blair is blind in his left eye. Four years ago a yucca spine punctured his eye.

Blair and his oldest son, Milton Jr., 26, cut the trees and strip the trunks of the dangerous spikes. The rest of the family hoists the heavy yucca sections into a truck.

"This is the best time of the year to cut daggers," said Melissa Blair, 17, her mouth bulging with a plug of chewing tobacco.

Occupational Nuisances

"In summer we're wringing wet with sweat from sunup to sundown. Ants crawl up our bodies and bite. We get stuck with daggers and cactus. We gulp gallons of ice water," she said.

The Blairs sell the yucca to Ritter International, a Los Angeles firm, where it is processed for scores of uses including foam for root beer, an additive to carbonated beverages, shampoos, cosmetics and industrial deodorants. Yucca foam has been used for snow scenes in television and motion pictures. It was used by the Navy during World War II to smother fires.

Don Emery, botanist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, noted: "The yucca is a renewable resource just as a tree in a forest, providing it is properly harvested as the Blairs are doing." Even though the Blairs are harvesting the desert trees on private railroad land they are still required to have government permits and must cut the yucca in a prescribed manner.

The family divides its time harvesting yucca and running 200 head of cattle on their Lazy Daisy Ranch 450,000 acres of dry desert terrain leased from the railroad, the federal and state governments.

They live 14 miles by miserable dirt road from their nearest neighbor in a home without electricity, phone, or television. Kerosene lamps furnish their light.

"My wife is secretary and bookkeeper of the outfit. I ain't worth a damn at that," Blair said.

There are 10 boys and 4 girls in the family: Milton Jr., 26. Joe, 24, Mary, 22, Susie, 21. Eddie, 19, Melissa, 17. Luke, 16, Dan, 14, Annie, 12, Austin, 9, Mark, 8, Johnny, 6, Mike 4, and Matt, 2. The Blairs have a three-bedroom home and bunkhouse. They use the work stove for cooking and warmth.

"The real chore is keeping track of our cows. They're scattered all over hell and gone," said Joe Blair. "We lost 25 head last year to spot-lighters." Members of "varmint clubs" drive out to the desert in pickup trucks and armed with high-powered rifles. "They use spotlights on their pickups to look for coyotes, bobcat and fox. They see an eye and WHAM! They shoot. Twenty-five pairs of those eyes last year belonged to our cows," Joe Blair said.

The biggest excitement of the week for the Blairs is the 40-mile drive into town (Needles) every Saturday. "My wife and two of the girls spend a couple hours at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and a couple hours shopping. The rest of us wait for them at the Hungry Bear Cafe," Blair said. "We sit and drink coffee waiting for the women. Then we hop back into the pickup and head for the ranch."