Murray's Ranch:
Apple Valley's African-American Dude Ranch
Page 2


It was not by chance that a black-owned ranch came to prominence in Apple Valley. There had been an African-American presence in the Bell Mountain area since early in the 20th Century.

Delilah Beasley, in her book The Negro Trail Blazers of California, tells of The Forum, a civic club that began in Los Angeles in 1903. One of The Forum's endeavors was to convince ordinary laborers, whose causes the group championed, of the need to become landowners. To that end they sought black families to homestead government land in the Bell Mountain and Sidewinder Valley areas. According to Mrs. Beasley, "The Forum was instrumental in the settling of a small colony on government land...near Victorville."

Sidewinder Valley, located a couple of miles north of Bell Mountain, takes its name from the Sidewinder Mine, which opened in the 1880s. The mine was a major producer, and a 10-stamp mill was erected in Victorville in 1887 to handle the ore. However, the mine had periods of inactivity, so it would have been a sporadic source of work for the Sidewinder community.

Map of Bell Mountain area

The main concern, of course, was water. David Thompson wrote about Sidewinder Valley in his Water Supply Paper 578: The Mohave Desert Region, published in 1929. He mentions several wells in the area, including the Sidewinder Well, which was a roadside watering place. It was only 33 feet deep, with water standing at 30 feet, and it had a hand pump for the use of travelers. However, as Thompson pointed out, the tributary watershed was small and resupply would probably be a major concern as the water table drew down.

Access to the Sidewinder settlement was via Stoddard's Well Road, now called Stoddard Wells Road, which winds its way through the desert as it connects Victorville to Daggett. In the 1880s this was the major road to the mines such as Calico and Providence, but when the railroad came in 1885 on an alignment near the Mojave River, most traffic moved back to the old road along the river, which means prospects were rather bleak for substantial commercial development around the new colony.

The earliest black homesteaders received patents beginning in 1914. Some of them, like many settlers on the desert, blacks and whites both, arrived with practically nothing in the way of money or possessions, and built homes for themselves through hard work and perseverance.

One of these was Carrie Story, whose land was about a mile north of Stoddard's Well Road, and she was quite an interesting individual. Carrie was born the daughter of slaves in Homer, Louisiana, in about 1860. She did not know her birth date, but she guessed that she must have been four or five years old at the end of the Civil War, based on the fact that "they were fighting when I first began to remember things. The Yankees tried to blow up Jeff Davis at Vicksburg, but he escaped" .

When she took up her homestead she was already over 50, and all she had when she came to the desert was her daughter Eleanor. "It is a dreary prospect confronting one when settlement is first made," observed the editor of the Victor News-Herald, in writing of Carrie's final proof for her homestead. He went on to describe how she had cleared 37 acres, planted a small orchard, dug a well, and built a four-room house with a good barn.

The wonder of it all is that Carrie did almost all of the work herself, and what she couldn't do she paid for with earnings received from domestic work, mainly cleaning and washing. She also had a sturdy horse, which she used to take her to her various washing jobs. It was definitely a tough place to make a living, and sometimes, she told the editor, she just barely made it:

Many a time I've been hungry and couldn't get work, but the Lord was with me. One morning I got up and found nothing to eat in the house, so I prayed.... Along about night I see an auto coming, and it came right to the house with a lot of groceries and $8 in money. The woman I used to work for a long time was bringing them and I sure know she was the Lord's angel, for the Lord told her I was hungry.

After proving up her homestead, Carrie moved to Victorville, where she worked for different families, cooking special dinners and doing laundry work. She had a gregarious nature and a sense of humor, which is shown by her obituary in 1938:

She was a natural showman, and loved to walk down the main street, with a basket of laundry balanced upon her head and a number of parcels in her arms, thrilled by the attention she attracted among the tourists and other spectators. On one occasion as she performed this difficult feat, a small dog, excited by the strange sight, ran along yapping at her heels. "Get away from me, you dog-gone Democrat," shouted Carrie, but she maintained her equilibrium, and the basket remained balanced on her head.

Some of the settlers arrived in much better financial circumstances, such as George W. Bright. His homestead was located south of what is now Quarry Road, and the patent on his 240 acres was issued in 1923. George was a retired fire captain from the Central District in Los Angeles.

He built a squat, cube house of fireproof concrete blocks, two stories high, according to author Edwin Corle, plus he added a penthouse on top, making three stories altogether. Corle said it could be seen from miles around, and with its red tile roof, it had the "delicacy and subtlety that a wart would have on the nose of La Gioconda."

George had selected land that was quite a ways off to the east of the Sidewinder settlement, so in order to encourage people to come to his part of the desert, he proposed a plan to give away 2 -acre parcels to anybody who was willing to build a house and live there. However, it does not appear that the proposed "Bright colony" met with any success.

The community continued to grow, and by the 1940s there were 37 families in the settlement. The Bell Mountain District Improvement Association was formed, whose members industriously held fund-raisers, took donations, and sold advertisements, until by 1949 they had collected enough money to build a community center.

Commerce in the area included a convenience store that provided sundry items and also served double duty as the Bell Mountain Post Office, established in 1953, with Mrs. Creola B. Banks serving as the first postmaster. There was a feed store owned by Mrs. Ivece Thomas, and two other firms supplied the area's hog ranches by going into Victorville and collecting food scraps from the restaurants. The community had two churches, the Faith Home and an unnamed building, which housed a multi-faith group, referred to simply as the "little pink church."

During the time the area north of Bell Mountain was attracting settlers, several African-Americans acquired land on the south side, one of whom was Arthur Cook. Arthur purchased 40 acres at the northwest corner of present-day Waalew Road and Dale Evans Parkway (formerly Bell Mountain Road). This was government land, not a homestead but paid for in cash, and it was patented in 1914.

Two miles east was the ranch of Elmore and Harriet Corwin, a white couple who had settled on the desert after Elmore's retirement. Evidently the two families got along well together. One of the Cooks, a well-digger, helped the Corwins with their well.

Also, even though the Corwins had no school-aged children, they were involved with the founding of the Bell Mountain School District (1913-1921), and the beneficiaries of their efforts included the Cooks and other black, and white, families in the area. The Corwins' son George, who lived adjacent to his parents, built a schoolhouse on his property, so the children had a neighborhood school to attend.

Photo of Bell Mountain School 
Photo courtesy Mohahve Historical Society

George was one of the first trustees of the school district, and Elmore Corwin also served as trustee. The Cooks had at least two youngsters in school during the early years of the district, which is indicated by a November 1915 news article that lists two Cook children as having perfect attendance the previous month, not even being tardy once.

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