Bernard Johnson brought back more than souvenirs from his trip to Algeria in 1903. His baggage contained offshoots from that North African country's famous date palms.
He planted them in the Coachella Valley, the beginning of a commercial agricultural venture that has made California this nation's major producer of that prized fruit.
And because the valley is home to 95% of the state's date crop, it's been proclaimed the Date Capital of the United States. (In world date production, only Iraq tops the Southland.)
A 10-Day Shindig
To help celebrate the end of the annual harvest, a 10-day shindig will be held in Indio beginning Friday. You're welcome to join in the fun of Riverside County's 40th National Date Festival.
Families especially are drawn to this midwinter county fair that features everything from 4H exhibits to a carnival midway and cowboy rodeo. Traditional highlights of the festival are unpredictable ostrich and camel races and a colorful Arabian Nights Pageant.
Even if you miss the fair, on an outing to Indio you can visit the new Coachella Valley Museum and Cultural Center and also some date gardens.
Get to Indio from Los Angeles by driving east on Interstate 10. Go past the Palm Springs turnoff about 30 miles to Monroe Street and exit south toward central Indio.
Turn left on the main thoroughfare, Indio Boulevard (California 86), then go right after a few blocks on Deglet Noor Avenue at a sign to the fairgrounds. After you pass a city park and reach Miles Avenue, look to the northwest corner for the entrance to the Coachella Valley Museum.
Park on the street, then go behind the stucco walls to the 1926 home and medical office of Dr. Harry Smiley. Later Dr. John Tyler lived and practiced dentistry there until 1984 when the property became the local historical museum and cultural center.
Begin your visit in a room that once was Dr. Smiley's two-bed clinic and displays artifacts of the Coachella Valley's early inhabitants, the Cahuilla Indians. They've lived in the area for more than 500 years.
Another room traces the history of dates, their arrival in California, and the water system from the Colorado River that irrigates the palms and 50 other commercial crops in the valley. Look for the model of the "submarine," nickname for water-cooled and partially underground living quarters used by early aqueduct and railroad workers in the desert.
Works of Artists
Besides historical exhibits, the works of area artists are on display. Featured until mid-March are the oils and watercolors of Mexican subjects by Lois Hammer.
In the gift shop you can buy desert-themed items as well as baskets and walking sticks made from parts of palm trees. Dates and citrus are for sale, too.
Walk outside the house to view vintage farm machinery, each labeled with its role in valley agriculture. The yard also has Japanese and rose gardens.
The Coachella Valley Museum is open Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. and the rest of the week except Mondays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (In summer it's open Friday and weekends only.) Admission is $1; senior citizens and children under 12 pay 50 cents.
Continue south on Deglet Noor Avenue three blocks to the Moorish-looking county fairgrounds just across California 111. Gates will be open for the date festival from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Feb. 14-23; carnival rides operate until midnight.
Admission is $4 for ages 12 and older, $2 for children 5 through 11. The daily 1:30 p.m. ostrich and camel races and 6:45 p.m. Arabian pageant are included.
Also free is continuous entertainment, from marionettes to a Guinness-record foot juggler, staged around the grounds. And there's no charge to enjoy country singer Bobbe-Llynne who performs Wednesday and Thursday at 3 and 8 p.m., or Eddie Raven who sings at the same times on Friday and Saturday.
On the weekend you'll pay $4.50 (kids $2.50) extra to watch the bucking broncos, bull riding and other rodeo events.
A festival parade through Indio is set for 10 a.m. on Presidents' Day (Feb. 17). It starts opposite the museum along Miles Avenue, goes down Oasis Street to California 111 and past the fairgrounds to Monroe Street.
A parking area for the date festival is behind the fairgrounds and reached via Oasis or Arabia streets. The $2 fee includes a shuttle tram to the fair entrance.
If you plan to stay overnight, book one of Indio's two dozen lodgings in advance. Closest to the fairgrounds is the Royal Plaza Inn on California 111, while opposite the museum on Miles Avenue is El Morocco Motel Hotel.
Other nearby accommodations are the Comfort Inn on Monroe Street south of the Interstate 10 exit and the Date Tree Motor Hotel west on Indio Boulevard.
When you're hungry, try the dining room of the El Morocco or Anthony's Steak House at the Royal Plaza. Locals also like the Mexican fare at Teresa's Cafe and El Portal restaurant, both on Towne Street between Miles Avenue and California 111.
Driving west from the fairgrounds on California 111 toward Palm Springs takes you to one of Indio's most popular date gardens. It's Jensen's, with a botanical show garden planted with date palms and dozens of trees. Look for the citrus tree that's produced 14 varieties of fruit. In the showroom you can buy fresh dates and other date products, as well as oranges and grapefruit. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
For the return trip to Los Angeles, continue on California 111 through La Quinta, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City and Palm Springs to rejoin Interstate 10. Or join the freeway earlier by turning north on Jefferson Street just beyond Jensen's Date Gardens.
Round trip from Los Angeles for a date in Indio is 270 miles.
Readers are advised to confirm the hours of attractions, restaurants, etc., before embarking on any trip.