Murray's Ranch:
Apple Valley's African-American Dude Ranch
Page 7


Most, if not all, of the Apple Valley guest ranches enjoyed the patronage of celebrities, but the star who drew the biggest crowds of all was Joe Louis, and the "Brown Bomber" made Murray's Ranch his headquarters on several occasions.

In March of 1939, there was an article in the local paper stating that Joe Louis had shipped his custom-built Cadillac to the ranch. Then came the announcement that Louis and his entourage, which included his trainer, dietitian, secretary and bodyguard, planned to take over the ranch for a period of two weeks to train for an upcoming bout with Jack Roper.

Photo of Lela, Joe Louis and his entourage

It was reported that the champ was "happy as a kid" while at the Murrays, where he satisfied his curiosity about all things Western. There was brilliant sunlight and azure skies, and Louis spent a lot of time in the saddle, wearing his boots and ten gallon hat. He hunted rabbits and coyotes on the desert, and ventured up into the mountains to chase wild mustangs.

A couple of years later, just weeks before Pearl Harbor, Louis once again stayed at the ranch while preparing for his bout with Buddy Baer. During this visit, Jack Brown, the sheriff's deputy assigned to the desert, visited the ranch and worked with Louis on pistol shooting with a six-gun. Deputy Brown was the father of Jack H. Brown, today's president and CEO of Stater Brothers markets.

The Champ was speculating at this time about joining the Army. The 10-million-dollar Victorville Military Airport, later renamed George Air Force Base, was then nearing completion. A Lieutenant from the base tried to talk Louis into joining an all African-American outfit slated for bombardier training once the facilities were completed, but Louis said he would join an artillery outfit at Fort Custer if he decided to join.

Many old friends came by to see Joe at the ranch -- Cal Godshall of the C-Bar-G, Gwen Behr of the Yucca Loma, George McCarthy, and numerous others -- and Joe, in turn, went over and visited with friends and admirers at the Yucca Loma Ranch. Not too long after, The Champ did join the Army and the next time he checked in for a two-week stay at Murray's, it was as Corporal Joe Louis.

Henry Armstrong was another boxer who spent considerable time at the ranch. Armstrong usually brought along his family to enjoy the fresh air and outdoor activities. He had held several championship titles at various weight classes, the heaviest being welterweight.

On one occasion he came to Murray's to train for an upcoming try at regaining his welterweight title. During his visit he put on a boxing demonstration at the air base. In 1942, shortly after his training session in the clean, dry desert air, Armstrong beat the current champ, Johnny Taylor, and recovered his world title.

The ranch, of course, catered to many more Hollywood personalities than it did sports celebrities. In 1938, within a year of the ranch's opening, several stars came to stay. One was Nina Mae McKinney, and though most people today have not heard of her, she was one of the most successful black actors of the late 1920s and 30s.

Nina Mae McKinney

She starred in the 1929 movie, "Hallelujah," directed by King Vidor of MGM Studios. It was the first sound film to feature black actresses and portray African-American life, and the first black production by a major studio intended for a mainstream audience.

McKinney's movements and command of the language made "Chick," the character she portrayed, come alive. The zest and acting ability she displayed was studied and used by subsequent black actresses. Despite her obvious talent, the time was not right, and she was relegated to playing stereo typical characters. Besides her movie career, she performed as a stage actress and toured all over Europe. In Greece she was known as the "Black Garbo."

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson also was a guest at the ranch. He was at the height of his career and famous throughout the land. During his stay at Murray's, he thrilled the other guests with his dancing. And being the showman that he was, he came in his Duesenberg. Clark Gable also liked to bring his Duesenberg to the desert guest ranches. He actually went hunting in it. So here we have at least two famous stars in their elegant auto mobiles bouncing around on dirt roads out in the desert.


Louise Beavers is another star that visited the ranch. Her career began in 1923, during the silent movies. She was a great character actor, usually playing roles such as maids, housekeepers and mammies, but always with a great deal of humor.

She was one of the most frequently employed actors of her day. Her career extended into the 1950s, when, during the 1952-53 television season, she starred in the situation comedy, "Beulah," the first nationally broadcast weekly series with an African-American in the leading role. Actually, Louise was the second to star in the role as "Buelah,"the first being Hattie McDaniel, who also happened to be a regular at the ranch.

Louise Beavers and Joe Louis

Remember, these are just some of the stars from 1938. There were many others through the years, and they were often repeat visitors. During World War II, there were a great number of celebrities who came to perform with the USO in Victorville, and many of these stayed at the ranch.

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