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HARRY OLIVER in BOREGO

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  • Phil Brigandi
    Harry Oliver s first home on the desert was in the Borrego Valley, in northeastern San Diego County. Harry and a group of Hollywood pals founded the Borego
    Message 1 of 2 , Nov 27, 2002
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      Harry Oliver's first home on the desert was in the Borrego Valley, in
      northeastern San Diego County. Harry and a group of Hollywood pals
      founded the Borego Valley Growers in 1929, and took up four adjoining
      homesteads in Section 24 in the northeast part of the Valley.

      The date 1916 sometimes shows up for the start of Harry's desert
      activities, and that may be true, but probably not in Borrego. Most
      of the Borrego folks he later writes about didn't come to Valley
      until the mid-1920s, not long before he arrived. In general, the
      dates in Harry's life seem to drift quite a bit -- usually backwards.
      Too many people relying on his Desert Rat Scrapbook for facts, I
      imagine.

      Anyway, the Borego Valley Growers -- "an organization of motion
      picture people in Hollywood and Beverly Hills who plan to develop a
      section of land in Borego" -- consisted of Harry Oliver, president;
      Oscar J. Brodin of United Artists, and Ferd Sersen and Walfred
      Pallman of Fox. Each had 160 acres, sharing a common well, put down
      in 1930. That same year, the partners bought another 140 acres
      adjoining their ranches. Later Paul Widlicska of United Artists
      joined in, taking up land northwest of Section 24. (There might be a
      few letters out of place in that name, which the papers at the time
      spelled in various ways.)

      Since these folks were all working in Hollywood, most of them --
      including Harry -- only came down to their ranches from time to time
      -- usually in the winters. The rest of the year, they had ranch
      managers looking after their interests. Harry's brother-in-law, John
      Fernlund, was the first to look after Harry's place, known as the
      H.O. Ranch. My old friend Lelah Porter, who homesteaded in Borego in
      1927, recalled that Fernlund "played harmonica, guitar and drums for
      dances."

      In the fall of 1930 Harry began construction on an adobe ranch house
      on his place -- "a real first class, old time Spanish residence" and
      "surely a credit to the valley" according to the local newspaper
      correspondent. Lloyd Cannon, another Fox employee, supervised the
      work. Presumably Harry did the designing. It was completed that
      December, and the Fernlunds moved in.

      Harry gave the Valley its first street names back in 1929, and
      erected rustic, painted signboards at many of the intersections. None
      of his "picturesque and historical names" survive.

      Harry held on to the place until at least 1936. At that time, his
      father-in-law, George Allen, was living on the place. Some of the
      land was planted to alfalfa, but the Borego Valley Growers never
      launched any major agricultural efforts. Oscar Brodin was the only
      one who held onto his ranch. He came back to the Valley in 1948, and
      reportedly bought Harry's old quarter section. He died in 1960 at the
      age of 83.

      Will Rogers was not too far wrong when he wrote in 1935 that Harry
      "has a place away out on the desert". The Borrego Valley was about
      the most isolated part of San Diego County in the 1930s, with no
      paved roads, no outside electricity, and no telephones. There was a
      little homesteader community there of about 300 people at the start
      of the decade, but the population dwindled as the Depression wore on.
      The modern community of Borrego Springs there was not founded until
      1946.

      Harry's last big contribution to Borrego was the Pegleg Smith Liars
      Contest, officially launched in 1948. I will write more about the
      contest in a later missive. The last time I know of Harry visiting
      the Valley was in October of 1960, when an official, genuine
      California State Historical Landmark plaque was dedicated in honor of
      Pegleg Smith. "I have a lump in my throat so big it will take at
      least two bourbons to wash it down," Harry told the crowd that day.

      After Borrego, Harry ran a trading post in San Juan Capistrano, not
      far from the old Spanish mission -- a phase of Harry's life strangely
      missing from most biographies. Perhaps it was just too far from the
      desert. It was only in the 1940s that Harry moved to Thousand Palms.

      (Randall Henderson's daughter recalls exploring the east side of the
      Coachella Valley with her father right after World War II when there
      wasn't anything much out there -- "except the wind," she says.)

      It was during his Borrego days that Harry's career as a desert
      humorist really got under way. In June, 1932, the Borego Valley
      correspondent of the Ramona Sentinel, Lloyd Kelsey (who pops up
      ocassionally in Harry's later writings), noted:

      "Harry Oliver, well known motion picture director and land owner of
      Borego, is writing a series of stories appearing in Life magazine.
      Borego valley is prominently mentioned in the stories which are of
      more than usual interest. `Hay Wire Johnny,' `Borego Valley Scott' and
      `Eliminating Lem' are characters which have appeared so far, which to
      one who reads the story can be identified as living individuals of
      Borego. Mr. Oliver is well known for his keen sense of humor."

      Harry later said he sold six stories to Life (not Luce's big picture
      magazine, but an earlier humor mag) and got $300 for them -- his
      first big sale. "Two months later it folded up," he said.

      Harry's yarns were first collected in his book, "Desert Rough Cuts. A
      Haywire History of the Borego Desert", published in 1938 [not 1937]
      by the Ward Ritchie Press of Los Angeles. Copies today are both
      fragile, and expensive.

      (By the way, Borego was almost always spelled with just one "r" by
      the old timers, even though the proper, Spanish spelling has two. It
      was not until Borrego Springs came along after the war that the
      correct spelling was made official.)

      Harry, as the storyteller, sets himself up as the keeper of the
      mythical Busy Bee Emporium in Borego. He does make a few genuine
      references to Valley history -- like Anza coming through in 1774, and
      everybody working on the Truckhaven road past 17 Palms to the
      highway [1929-30]. But despite Lloyd Kelsey's assurances, I cannot at
      this late date identify any of his characters with any real Valley
      settlers (and I think I am safe in saying I know as much about early
      Borego as anyone now living). He does mention "Old Doc Beatty" [sic -
      Beaty] in Rough Cuts, and later in the DRS. Doc was the king of the
      homesteaders in Borego, arriving in 1912 soon after the first
      settlers came into the Valley, and living there until his death in
      1949. His late daughter was a friend of mine, and his grandson and
      namesake (A.A. McCandless) was a United States Congressman in the
      1980s and `90s.

      Harry's adobe still stands in Borrego, not far from the Pegleg
      Monument. But I will warn you right now, the current owner does not
      take to trespassers, and does not want anybody poking around the old
      place. Seriously.

      I will add a picture of Harry's Borrego adobe still under
      construction to the photo section of this Yahoo group. It comes from
      my recent history of the Valley (Borrego Beginnings, 2001).

      Keep `em coming!
      Phil Brigandi
    • 0rpheus0
      ... That s a GREAT account, Phil! We re looking forward to follow-ups. Meanwhile, I ve done a fair amount of upgrading to my HOFC/DRSB site which is now at
      Message 2 of 2 , Nov 29, 2002
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        --- In DRSB@y..., "Phil Brigandi" <ockid@h...> wrote:
        > Harry Oliver's first home on the desert was in the Borrego Valley

        That's a GREAT account, Phil! We're looking forward to follow-ups.

        Meanwhile, I've done a fair amount of upgrading to my HOFC/DRSB site
        which is now at http://sonic.net/~ric/hofc/hofc.htm -- some new
        links, some new images, and better navigation. I'll probably add
        more new material over trhe next couple days. Y'all enjoy. --Ric
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