December 14, 2008

Mojave Desert historian keeps California's heritage alive

Dennis G. Casebier stands in front of the library in Goffs, Calif., that bears his name. The railroad depot replica holds the world's largest archive of Mojave Desert history. Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

Over the course of decades, Dennis G. Casebier has assembled the lost voices and hidden histories of a place largely washed clean of its past.

By David Kelly
Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Goffs, Calif. — Out on the great swells of the eastern Mojave Desert, that vast sand sea lying between Barstow and the Colorado River, there is no crumb of history, no tall tale, no arcane bit of knowledge too small to escape Dennis Casebier's notice.

"I'm fascinated by who ate rabbits," he said, sitting inside a library that will soon hold his life's work. "Did they eat jack rabbits or cottontails? Did they fry them or roast them? Did they grind them up or make stew out of them?"

"You see, that's the level of history we get into here," he said.

The soft-spoken retired physicist is a legend in this harsh land, a sort of Willy Wonka of the desert who transformed 70 acres of rock and scrub into the Goffs Cultural Center, his personal Xanadu of history and imagination.

In this tiny hamlet of 23 on the barren edge of the Mojave National Preserve, he and a group of volunteers carved roads and towed in ore carts, a defunct wooden post office, a caboose, windmills and boxcars. He bought a collapsing 1914 schoolhouse and turned it into a museum. His own Tales of the Mojave Road Publishing Co. has produced 26 books, 16 of which he wrote.

Yet none of it compares to his masterwork, the recently opened $1-million Dennis G. Casebier Memorial Library. Housed in a replica of the old Goffs Railroad Depot, the two-story, climate-controlled collection of thousands of books, maps, photos and tapes is the exclamation point on his arid passions.

Steve Mongrain, president of the Mojave Desert Heritage & Cultural Association, a nonprofit group that has helped raise money for the project, calls it "the most extraordinary historical collection of Mojave Desert history and culture in existence."

"There is nothing like it in the world," Mongrain said. "Anything that pertains to the Mojave can be researched there. It is unprecedented."

The association's 800 members donated $250,000 for the library, and the California Cultural and Historical Endowment provided the rest in grants.

Casebier, 74, has assembled the lost voices and hidden histories of a place largely washed clean of its past. The homesteads are gone, the mines closed, the tiny towns swallowed by sand.

Freight trains, some 6,000 feet long, still lumber through to Needles and beyond, but they rarely stop anymore because there are so few towns to stop in.

A 1920s picture of Rock Springs Land and Cattle Co. cowboys is one of about 108,000 photographs Casebier has collected. The library also has thousands of maps, oral histories and biographical files. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Gone too are characters such as gunfighter Bill Hollimon, who, when he wasn't shooting rivals, liked to pour gasoline down anthills and set them alight.

"The history is just everywhere, yet nobody is here. It's empty," said Casebier, an especially polite man who speaks with great precision.

"The people have gone, their life ways ended somehow. We are gathering the history of this forgotten land, and we have done so with a vengeance."

On a recent morning, Casebier rattled around the library, dipping in and out of the new filing cabinets. Each one contained dozens of subject files filled with personal histories.

Harrison Doyle?

"He's the oldest guy I ever interviewed, 103 or 104," Casebier said. "He was walking the streets of Needles in the early 1900s."

Llewellyn Barrackman?

"Former headman of the Fort Mojave Indians."

Betty Ordway?

"She was like the Rosetta Stone," he said. "She came here in 1914 and knew everyone and remembered everything. She knew the gunfighters and the homesteaders and where the stills were. She was the belle of the valley."

Tucked away in library cabinets are 3,000 biographies, 1,000 taped oral histories, 108,000 photographs, 6,000 books and 6,000 maps, ready for perusal by those Casebier believes demonstrate "an advanced interest in the desert."

Jo Ann Casebier, right, and volunteer Carol Brown sort historical documents. Thousands of soldiers were stationed in the Mojave during World War II, and many of their personal accounts are on file in the library. (Irfan Kahn / Los Angeles Times)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., consulted Casebier and used information from his collection when writing "Searchlight: The Camp That Didn't Fail," a book about his hometown.

"This book is better because of Dennis," he wrote in the preface.

Students working on master's degrees have come to study the homestead period and the military history of the region. Thousands of soldiers were stationed in the Mojave during World War II. Many of their personal accounts are on file in the library.

Casebier's own history in the desert began in 1954, after he left his home state of Kansas and enlisted in the Marines. He was stationed in Twentynine Palms and spent his free time poking around what is now Joshua Tree National Park.

"It was love at first sight when I saw the desert," he said. "It's different for everybody, but for me it was the wide open spaces and maybe the simplicity."

He returned to Kansas in 1956, got a degree in physics from Washburn University in Topeka, and returned to California in 1960. He worked on guided missile systems for the Navy and lived in Corona.

Meanwhile, his passion for the desert led him into the eastern Mojave, where he was smitten by what he dubbed "the forgotten country" encircled by the Colorado River and the I-40 and I-15 freeways.

There, he found an awe-inspiring emptiness.

"All the people had moved away. The schools went away. Everything went away," he said. "You would think that people would be swarming all over this area looking for its past, but they weren't."

Casebier's Navy job often took him to Washington, D.C., where he spent evenings at the National Archives and the Library of Congress photocopying records and maps about the eastern Mojave.

At one point he found a defunct wagon trail stretching 131 miles from the Colorado River to Camp Cady, east of Barstow.

Casebier formed a volunteer group that turned the dirt track into the four-wheel-drive Mojave Road. Soon he was leading caravans down it.

Chris Ervin first toured the road in 1988.

"It was a really fun, educational and a socially uplifting experience," said the Orange County resident, who works on the archives as a volunteer. "Dennis single-handedly rediscovered the Mojave Road and got thousands of others involved. He is an inspiration and a visionary."

In 1990, after he retired, Casebier and his wife, Jo Ann, moved to Goffs and bought 113 acres that included the old Goffs Schoolhouse. Working with the Mojave heritage association, he set to work saving the school and building the cultural center, which he donated to the nonprofit.

At the same time, he traveled the country interviewing former desert residents for his oral histories, persuading many to part with photographs and personal papers.

His disarming approach put people at ease.

"I'd say, 'So, how did a nice girl like you end up in the desert?' "

Some subjects were duds, but others, he said, were "bell ringers." He interviewed Curtis Springer 54 times. In 1944, Springer founded a spa and resort in an area he named Zzyzx, just south of Baker. A road bearing the name still exists.

Betty Ordway was another bell ringer. Casebier, who found her in Auburn, Calif., was so impressed that he put her entire 155,000-word interview into two bound volumes.

"She had 500 photos and she cast light on the big things and the little things," he said. "We had gunfights out here between ranchers and homesteaders, who would help themselves to a cow once in a while. A 1925 shootout killed two gunfighters, and Betty knew both men."

And she liked her rabbit fried like chicken.

"You could see her salivate when she remembered," he said. "I just loved that. Maybe because I'm such a nut or maybe because I wish I lived back then."

With his research constantly expanding and scattered everywhere, Casebier came up with the idea of a central library.

The grants arrived in 2006 and the building was completed in July.

Archival material is still being moved in, and the rules on how people can use the library are still being worked out.

Casebier, who still does oral histories, said anyone interested in visiting must make arrangements first.

"We are targeting researchers of desert history, those who are writing books or papers or scholarly works," said Ervin, the library's project manager. "Our focus is how do we make sure this thing lasts longer than all of us? We are trying to get an endowment -- maybe $10 million -- to pay for and support all these wonderful materials in perpetuity."

Back in Goffs, Casebier hopped into a golf cart and motored down his complex's Boulevard of Dreams. He passed a Justice of the Peace office that once served the towns of Amboy and Ludlow, and pulled up in front of an old library built in 1927.

There are hundreds of books inside that have not been moved to the new library just up the road.

For desert aficionados it's a small, if dimly lit, slice of heaven. Books with titles such as "The Great California Deserts," "Our Desert Neighbors," "On Desert Trails" and "Desert Treasures" stand in dark wooden cabinets behind glass doors.

Casebier likes to sit in the back room and read. If he should ever get bored, which is highly unlikely, he could open the window and drink in unlimited blue sky.

He has spent the better part of his life studying the desert. For years people have asked him why.

"I want people to know the tremendous respect I have for the human beings who lived here and the tremendous respect I have for their self-reliance," he said.

"They were a special breed. I don't want that story to disappear."