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After 50 Years in Amboy, Aging Proprietor Puts His Town Up for Sale

October 01, 1989|SHERYL KORNMAN | Kornman is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Herman Bazel (Buster) Burris spent 50 years building what he hoped would be a boom town in the barren desert northeast of Palm Springs, but the boom never came. At 80, Burris is set to sell out, walk away and, he says with a Jimmy Stewart crackle, "never look back."

"I hate to leave," he said, "but I'm ready any time."

The price tag on his life's work, Amboy (pop. 24), is $2.5 million--less than the cafe, motel, tire shop, service station, three homes, mobile home, artist's studio, post office, airplane hangar and 40 acres plus are worth, Burris said, but he's not interested in digging for gold at this stage of his life.

"I figure it inventories out at around $6 million, stock and everything--no livestock, just cats and dogs--but it wouldn't make a difference," he said, if he got more than the asking price. "At my age, I couldn't spend it anyway."

The biggest selling point for the tiny town on old Route 66, Burris said, is that life midway between Barstow and the Arizona border is still quiet, clean and simple.

Burris came to Amboy with his first wife and his in-laws in 1939, and through the years, as they passed on, his burden grew as he took over operation of the cafe, motel, service station and tire shop. He also kept watch on the family's 53-acre parcel 9 miles away, which he's selling along with Amboy.

It's been a hard life but a good one, and for Burris there has been no place like home. He has rarely left town for long, except to buy supplies, and he was happy there.

"The air is clean. We don't have all the noise and racket, and we don't have a bunch of gangsters or roughnecks like you do," Burris said. "It's good country out here: fresh air, no noise, no traffic. . . . You live 20 years longer here than where you are."

Burris said the decision to sell the town and the nearby undeveloped acreage, which he owns free and clear, was tough but inevitable.

"Six months ago, I decided I was just getting too old to handle it. I do most of the work myself. The tires are getting big and heavy. My eyesight's not that good. My wife does all the driving.

"If I was 20 years younger, I wouldn't sell--under no condition--but I'm not able to do the things that have to be done and I can't get people to do things. The younger generation doesn't want to work. They're not reliable."

'Special Type of Person'

Burris first put Amboy on the block 14 years ago, listing it at $350,000 with Joe Lovullo of Anchorage Investments of Dana Point.

Although offers came from a farmer in New Zealand and from California entrepreneurs with imaginative schemes, the amount of deferred maintenance discouraged some, and Burris decided not to do business with anyone he felt uncomfortable about. "Buster felt it had to be a special type of person," Lovullo said.

To prepare the property for this go-round, Burris has had new roofs put on all his buildings and refurbished the motel with new carpets, new fixtures and new furniture.

Although he would prefer to sell outright, Steve Lyle, manager of Lyle Realty's commercial division at 4741 E. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, which took the listing, thinks a trade "is the best way to go."

He's reviewing an offer from the owners of a shut-down pineapple cannery on Maui that Lyle thinks could provide Burris with some income if it were fixed up. He also suggests potential buyers consider the notion of an RV park.

Movie Production

But Burris has his own ideas. Amboy, with a 3-mile-wide inactive volcanic crater a few miles outside of town, would make a terrific movie location, he said, and a convenient and economical site for a permanent production facility.

Portions of "Journey to the Center of the Earth" were filmed at the crater in the late 1950s; a psychological horror movie, "The Hitcher," was filmed there in 1986, and Ford and Chevrolet shoot their car-in-the-wilderness commercials there every year.

Although business in Amboy has been up and down through the years, traffic through town is growing, Burris said. Laughlin, Nev., and Las Vegas are booming and more and more French, German and Japanese tourists stop to chat while filling their tanks en route north to gamble or on their way south to Palm Springs to relax.

Burris knows that Kim Basinger bought the family-owned town of Braselton, Ga., for $20 million in March, and he won't be surprised, he said, if some Hollywood type decides to do the same with his town.

Amboy was created by the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. in 1883 as a stopping-off point for telegraphers and linemen and as a watering hole for steam locomotives. It was followed by Bolo, Cadiz, Danby, Essex, Fenner, Goffs, Homer, Ibis and Java, named alphabetically, railroad officials say, to make it easy for rail workers to remember them. They still stand, intact, and almost entirely undeveloped.

Joined Air Corps

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