It doesn't look like much, but the town of Banning dangles like a canteen on the horizon for anyone who navigates the San Gorgonio Pass.
The basic signs of civilization--the promise of food, water and lodging--draw weary desert travelers into town these days. It's what drew even wearier travelers into the old stagecoach stop back in 1854.
The San Gorgonio Pass, about 1 1/2 hours east of Los Angeles, is squeezed between the foreboding twin peaks of the San Jacinto and San Gorgonio mountains. Though the mode of transportation across the desert has certainly improved since the stage rumbled into town from the mid- to late-1800s, Banning's legacy as something of an oasis in the pass remains intact.
The town hasn't changed all that much since it was a mere rest stop on the trail from Yuma, Ariz., to Los Angeles. The grub is a little different--the slick restaurant row includes just about every fast-food joint in existence--but the character is much the same. Lots of small stores, friendly people, breathtaking views and a healthy climate, though townsfolk occasionally contend with L.A.'s smog--which fortunately blows in and out of town almost as quickly as its residents.
But what city types don't see as they zip up and down the easy-off, easy-on ramps is that a part of California's history and certain aspects of that way of life are preserved here. To showcase the fact, the town holds a week of Stagecoach Days--which culminate this weekend--to celebrate its history.
Banning is about as close as one can get to living out romantic fantasies of the Old West. Most of the streets are paved and you'll find all the modern conveniences. But you'll also see a way of life that is slow-paced, a little old-fashioned and, some might say, down-right neighborly.
Folks here tend to shun the fast track. They are more likely to choose Western boots over designer sneakers, drive four-wheel-drive trucks instead of Fieros--and don't expect to walk down Main Street without someone nodding and saying hello.
Cattle graze here, automobiles bear bumper stickers that say "My Other Car Is a Horse." The Morongo Indian Reservation borders the town, and some residents--especially those who live in the canyons, spend more time on dirt roads than paved ones.
Part of the adobe foundation of the first building in Banning, which was the official stage stop, still stands. The adobe was built in 1854 on the Gilman Ranch, and was a stagecoach stop until the Southern Pacific railroad was built in 1875. The property was turned over to the county and will soon open to the public as a park. About 120 acres remain of the Gilman Ranch--which originally stretched "from mountain to mountain," says Lucille Wade, a Banning resident who sits on the Riverside County Parks Commission.
Most of that land was covered with orchards in the early 1900s, irrigated by spring water from the canyons, says Leonard Covington, who was born in Banning in 1910. There were only about 600 residents then, Covington recalls, in a town that has been culturally diverse throughout its history.
The orchards provided a livelihood for many of the laborers in town. "There were orchards all through here--almonds, apricots, peaches, olives," remembers Luciano Becerra, who as a boy, picked almonds for 25 cents an hour, along with his seven brothers and five sisters.
Once the San Joaquin Valley got water, the competition dried up Banning's future in the fruit market. But, once more, new opportunities presented themselves--this time, in the way of real estate. "People started moving in after World War II," Becerra said. "They tore the orchards down and started building."
With Route 66 doubling as the town's main street, Banning's motels, restaurants and stores boomed after the war.
"Banning has had a slow growth; it's conservative," said Wade. "But it's been gradual up, not too much down. As far as I'm concerned, it's a very friendly town, a community-minded town."
"Quality of life and location," are the reasons Patricia Siva, a former Hollywood stunt rider-turned realtor, gives for moving to Banning in 1952. "It was so gorgeous here with the mountains, farm land and lots of almond trees."
Palm Springs was a popular destination in the 1950s, Siva said, who lives on a horse ranch with her husband Alvino, a full-blooded Cahuilla Indian. But 40 years ago, because there was no air conditioning--and it took six hours to get from Hollywood to Palm Springs--people spent their days in Banning, only traveling to the desert at night.
When the Interstate 10 came through, it was devastating to the town. "We were off the freeway," said Wade, a resident since 1946 who, with her husband, owned and operated a motel. "The town went through a lot of growning pains. It was bad for us for awhile."