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Believe It or Not : Ripley Residents Trying to Bring Tiny Town 'Back From the Dead'

September 29, 1985|LOUIS SAHAGUN | Times Staff Writer

RIPLEY, Calif. — They can't afford trash collection services, or even their own cars to haul it away.

So some residents of this isolated town routinely violate county ordinances by piling refuse next to their homes, dumping it on vacant lots or burning it.

Early each morning, out of view of the local fire marshal, wisps of smoke curl into the air as some people chip away at their mountains of trash by tossing refuse into fires they build in oil drums.

Ripley (population 300), a speck in the desert 230 miles east of Los Angeles and 10 miles south of Blythe, is the poorest rural agricultural community in California, according to Riverside County officials. Few who have been here doubt it.

Left Little to Show

Some believe that little can be done to save a community like Ripley. Indeed, over the last 20 years, a parade of social workers, government poverty agencies and politicians have descended on the town, leaving little to show for their efforts.

Residents, however, contend that Ripley is worth saving and over the last seven years have persuaded Riverside County officials to pump $4 million in improvements into their town.

Ripley acquired a sewer system, natural gas, potable water, 50 low-cost housing units, a park and a few more paved streets. These represent the first serious signs of progress this unincorporated community has seen in 63 years.

What is more, the state Department of Housing and Community Development plans to provide inexpensive shelter and a day-care facility for 100 farm worker families.

This year, however, county largess dried up, and the Board of Supervisors plans instead to funnel aid to at least a dozen other poverty-stricken towns.

Joe Hernandez, an analyst with the county Housing and Community Development Department, which has spearheaded most of the Ripley projects, acknowledged that although the town "still needs lots of improvements," these are not likely to materialize in the "foreseeable future."

Need More Help

"It's Ripley's turn to pick up the ball," Hernandez said.

Ripley residents argue that they need more help.

"We're trying to bring Ripley back from the dead," said town activist, Rev. Samuel Powell, 72. "But we need the county to help us out of the grave."

Bisected by the heavily traveled California 78, Ripley has no school, sidewalks, street lights or adequate drainage system. The ground is so hard and flat that even mild storms flood the town and turn dirt streets into rivers of mud.

Ironically, Ripley was envisioned as a resort town for the wealthy when it was established in 1920 by the Santa Fe Railroad and real estate speculators.

By 1921, there was a $1-million, Spanish-style hotel, a train depot, post office, shops, restaurants and acres of cheap land, attracting homesteaders from as far away as Los Angeles and Phoenix.

A year later, the Colorado River overflowed its banks, forged a new course and washed away most of Ripley's buildings and its reputation as a boom town. After the flood, Ripley's economy began to deteriorate.

All that remains of its glory days is a broken five-story water tower--Ripley's landmark.

Today, it is a shantytown, where mostly Latino and black seasonal farm workers earn an average of $8,200 a year. Many workers are transients who travel from Mexicali and Yuma in search of work and then leave. A few dozen permanent residents live in well-kept mobile homes. But about 40% of the housing consists of dilapidated homes and battered trailers, many of them parked along dirt roads or hidden behind tall weeds.

"Our motto is, 'Ripley, believe it or not,' " joked Alfred Figueroa, a member of one of the region's oldest families who has made a personal crusade of improving the town he was raised in.

Comment on T-Shirt

There are three country stores in Ripley. One of them, Benefield's Department Store--home for the local U.S. Post Office--sells T-shirts that ask "Where the Hell Is Ripley?" on the front, and "Who Cares?" on the back.

Benefield's owner, Esther Rogers, 77, keeps a drawerful of credit receipts for customers who are strapped for cash. "In my business," said Rogers, who has lived in Ripley for 33 years, "you let your heart get ahead of you sometimes."

Children are bused 10 miles to school in Blythe, which is where most locals also travel to seek medical attention and buy gas and clothing. Ripley also lacks such amenities as Laundromats and movie theaters.

Others eke out an existence between local harvests of cotton, melons, alfalfa, lettuce and corn. For six months a year, low-paying jobs are plentiful. Off-season, the unemployment rate in Ripley climbs to 30%, said Herlis Denton, supervisor of the state Employment and Development Department in Blythe.

Like many here, Benjamin Crowder, 61, was waiting for the cotton harvest to begin in late October.

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