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Desert Hamlet Is Filled With Memorabilia

Retiree compiles more than 700 oral histories, 4,000 maps and 40,000 photos for a genealogy of the High Desert.

April 20, 2002|JANET WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GOFFS, Calif. — There are no babies in this hamlet headed for ghostdom on the edge of the Mojave Desert, population 23.

"Study the Past" reads the inscription above the swinging gate into Dennis and Jo Ann Casebier's compound, otherwise known as Goffs Cultural Center.

If the desert has an attic stuffed with memorabilia, this is it. Along a dirt road christened "Boulevard of Dreams" sits a collection of outdoor mementos--abandoned outhouses, gold-mining machinery, a rusting John Deere tractor, a cannon, all donated and trucked in from across the Mojave.

But the real treasure is tucked away inside two trailers, a library and the freshly repainted Goffs schoolhouse. Stored there are more than 700 oral histories, 4,000 maps and 40,000 photographs.

For close to 20 years, Dennis Casebier, a retired naval physicist, has been searching out old-timers in nursing homes and trailer parks across the United States and Canada, tapping into their memories to construct a genealogy of the High Desert.

"It's hard to imagine today, but this whole valley was once dotted with farms and railroads and post offices and stores," he said, gazing at the wind-blasted landscape.

There are half a dozen lonely little towns like Goffs scattered across the eastern Mojave Desert and scores more fading rural outposts in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah.

Originally brought to life by homesteads, railroads and mines, many blossomed when Route 66 was built. Long after interstate highways reduced the "Mother Road" to a meandering byway, some of the mostly empty towns somehow hang on.

"If you drive that old route, you can see remnants of these little communities," said Dennis Schramm, assistant manager of the 1.6-million-acre Mojave National Preserve, which Goffs borders. "I've seen 'em in Utah, and off the 395 headed up to Mammoth."

Goffs was founded in 1883, when a railroad siding was built at the top of a hill here. Route 66 came through in 1926, along one edge of what is now the Casebiers' place. Goffs flourished until 1931, when the road was realigned six miles away.

In the nearby Lanfair Valley, homesteaders began arriving in 1910. Anyone who "dry-farmed" for three years--planting crops without imported irrigation from the Colorado River--got free title to the land from the federal government.

For a few rainy winters in the 1900s' and early teens, peach trees and beans and watermelons flourished in the desert. But years of drought devastated the farms, and most people moved on.

Goffs enjoyed a revival of sorts during World War II, when 10,000 soldiers at a time were stationed here and living in tents. They burned up most of the old buildings, piece by piece, to stay warm.

Now, 11 bumpy miles from Interstate 40, Goffs is a smattering of manufactured homes and trailers next to the railroad tracks. Freight trains still roar past.

"We're ghosting," Dennis Casebier said matter-of-factly.

Casebier said he fell in love with the desert while in military training in Twentynine Palms during the Korean War. During his naval career, whenever he was in Washington, D.C., he would hole up in the National Archives at night, poring over land patent files, old maps and photos of the desert.

When he retired in 1990, a ranching couple who had moved into the decaying Goffs schoolhouse offered to sell it and 113 acres to the Casebiers for $100,000.

The earth here looks bare and dusty, but kick it around and you'll come across a fragment of the multilayered past--a soldier's dog tag, a grinding stone used by the Paiute Indians or a railroad "date" nail with the year it was made pounded into the top.

Using the Internet, property and voter registration records, and word-of-mouth, Casebier has tracked down hundreds of east Mojave old-timers and captured their memories on tape.

There is the voice of Sara Dean, the daughter of black homesteaders from Arkansas who said her family didn't experience prejudice here, though they never went to the picnics or dances held regularly at the schoolhouse. Dean died about two years ago, Casebier said.

Many people spoke of gunfighter Bill Hollimon, whom Casebier has dubbed the "Robin Hood of the Mojave."

According to Casebier, Hollimon, an excellent marksman, took on the wealthy owners of the Rocky Springs Land and Cattle Co. because they refused to share water with their farming neighbors and allowed their cattle to stampede across others' property.

Hollimon would ride through the night with a pair of .45-caliber pistols, Casebier said, and wherever he stopped, there would be fresh Rocky Springs beef hanging on a post next to a farmer's house at dawn. Hollimon died of old age, Casebier believes. He is still looking for descendants of Hollimon and the Rocky Springs owners.

Casebier doesn't miss much. When he had a heart attack in 1997, he noticed while being rolled into an operating room that the orderly's name tag said Nay.

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