September 16, 2006

Preserving a town time almost forgot

Old railroad town, bypassed by Route 66, gets a helping hand from devoted couple

Andrew Edwards, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

GOFFS - "Hooch" Simpson has been dead for nearly a century, but this cantankerous desert character has not been forgotten.

In a photograph, Hooch's lifeless and shackled body hangs from a noose. A sign shown in the picture states that the dead man was hanged on Easter Sunday 1908 in Skidoo, a Death Valley mining town that no longer exists. The black-and-white image hangs on a wall inside a museum in Goffs, another desert town that itself could have been lost to history, but instead became a place where the past is remembered.

Goffs, once a railroad town west of Needles, is now the home of Dennis and Jo Ann Casebier and the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association. The Casebiers founded the association in 1993 and have restored the ghost town's red-roofed schoolhouse and transformed it into a museum that boasts a variety of Mojave Desert exhibits. Dennis Casebier said the association's collection includes 6,000 books, 50,000 photographs and the transcripts of 1,000 oral-history interviews.

"We've gotten ourselves embroiled in the history," he said.

Hooch, just one character in the Mojave Desert story, was executed after committing murder in Skidoo, Jo Ann Casebier said. Next to his picture is a display case containing a noose that, according to the museum, was the very instrument of Hooch's demise.

The National Park Service has more to the tale. According to its version, there is a desert legend saying that Hooch was hanged twice by townspeople. The first hanging killed him, but he was supposedly strung up a second time for photojournalists who weren't around the first time. You could call it an early version of the "perp walk."

Goffs has a story, too. The history of the town, as summarized by the association, is the tale of a railroad town that was founded in 1883 and owed the first decades of its growth to the Santa Fe Railroad.

National Old Trails Road also led to Goffs and became part of Route 66 in 1926. But five years later, Goffs began to fade. Route 66 was realigned about six miles south of the town and in 1937, the last classes were held in the schoolhouse that now houses the Mojave-themed museum.

During World War II, Army troops trained around Goffs, and inside the museum, a mannequin wears the green uniform of the 7th Infantry Division, a pack of Domino cigarettes tucked inside the band around his helmet.

"They trained here but they never went to the North African desert. They went to the Aleutian Islands and South Pacific," Jo Ann Casebier said.

Dennis Casebier, 71, grew up in Kansas and joined the Marines as a young man.
In a roundabout way, the military played a role in bringing him to the desert. He entered the service in 1953 before the end of the Korean War, but fighting a war on the other side of the Pacific wasn't in his future.

"The North Koreans knew I was coming so they signed the armistice," he said.

Instead of Korea, Dennis Casebier wound up stationed in Twentynine Palms, where he "got bit by the desert bug." After the Marines, he went back to college in Kansas, took a job in Norco and retired in 1990. He and his wife moved to Goffs that same year.

The Casebiers are visited in Goffs by volunteers who help maintain historical records. Jackie Ridge of San Diego is one of them. She said she comes to Goffs once a month to help catalog records. She began her work in the desert after the museum helped her find Brant, a place where her husband's great-grandfather worked as a railroad-station manager in the early 20th century.

Brant was east of Kelso, Ridge said. Kelso, inside what is now the Mojave National Preserve, was an old railroad stop whose depot still stands. Time has been harsher to Brant. Little remains except for what may have been a chicken coop and burro pen and a rock foundation for a house.

"The railroads have been regraded but it's amazing how close that house was to the railroad tracks," Ridge said. "It wasn't a quiet place to live."

Goffs is quiet, but Dennis Casebier is working to bring the noises of construction to the town. He wants to build a replica of Goffs' railroad depot to serve as a library. In 2005, he received a grant of about $500,000 for the project from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment. The groundbreaking for the depot project was in July, and Dennis Casebier said he's collected about $200,000 of the $250,000 he needs to fully fund construction.

One of Dennis Casebier's other priorities is interviewing as many Mojave Desert old-timers (or their descendants) as possible before their knowledge of desert living is lost.

"Oral history is a wonderful thing," he said. "We're trying to track down people who have first-time experience here."