Friday, August 25, 2017

Wyatt Earp's Lonely Desert Cottage in Vidal, California

Wyatt Earp Cottage, Vidal, California
(c) 2017 MJ Miller

On a flat expanse of chaparral-dotted dirt in the Mohave Desert near Parker, Arizona - and not a whole lot else - is a tidy white cottage with baby-blue trim. Save for the traditional western design and the historical marker in front, you wouldn't take much note of it. Here is where the legendary Wyatt Earp and his third wife, Sadie, spent their final winters together. Glancing around the "town" of Vidal, California, you're likely to wonder why Wyatt chose this still-remote site to settle down in what the historical plaque informs us was their only permanent home together in their years of marriage. The little house had been site-built in the town of Calzona, where the Earps had lived until 1922 when Calzona met the fate of so many desert towns and burned down. The house survived the conflagration, and the Earps had it moved to Vidal.

Copyright (c) 2017 MJ Miller

Wyatt and Sadie - better known as "Josephine" to the public, but "Sadie" to her friends in a version of her middle name, Sarah - lived in Los Angeles during the hotter months, but traveled to Vidal so Wyatt could work his mining claims. The tiny house there had previously been the home of Wyatt's brother, Morgan.  Wyatt, long weary of curious visitors seeking him out to discuss the Tombstone days, sought the solitude of the lonely place. He maintained a wooden cabin a few miles north of Parker at what was then called "Drennan," in closer proximity to his "Happy Day" copper and gold claims. Sadie and Wyatt were known for taking their four-mule team and wagon out prospecting along the Arizona - California border.

Earp, California
(c) 2017 MJ Miller

The tiny town of Drennan, a former signal station for the Santa Fe Railroad line servicing the Phoenix to Cadiz route, adopted the name "Earp" after Wyatt's death in homage to the elderly miner who'd been a local fixture in his later years. Consisting of not much more than a post office and a couple of local businesses, the community commemorates Earp with his portrait on a building's side and a mock grave in front of the post office. Earp's rustic cabin has long since been razed. 

Faux Grave at Earp, California
(c) 2017 MJ Miller

Wyatt Earp passed away at age 81 on January 13, 1929 at his summer home at 4004 West Seventeenth Street, Los Angeles. His funeral was a who's who of fading western figures. Bill Hart, Major Tom P. Clum (first mayor of Tombstone, and founder of the famed Tombstone Epitaph), William Mizner, and Tom Mix served as pallbearers. Other attendees represented various and distinct phases of Earp's amazing life:  Jack Cochrane, who knew him during Earp's time mining in Alaska; Dr. George B. Calnan, who met him in El Paso; Joe Treest, who knew him while Earp mined in Tonopah and Goldfield (California); Tom Grady, E. A. Speegle, M. C. Beckwith, and Dr. D.K. Dickinson, all of whom knew him during his Tombstone days; and Frank E. Cline, who knew Earp during his twenty years in Los Angeles. Pallbearer Hart knew Earp in Dodge City.

After Wyatt's death, Sadie continued on at the cottage at Vidal for a couple of seasons, summering in Pasadena. She lived at the Grand View Hotel at the river's edge in Parker for two years as well, ultimately returning to Los Angeles where she served as a technical advisor for the film version of Wyatt's Tombstone years. Sadie died December 20th, 1944 at age 75.

About four miles from the Colorado River, the town of Vidal peaked during the building of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the 1930s, boasting 435 residents. Wyatt and Sadie were already gone by the boom. The town was originally homesteaded in the 1880s by Anson Brownell. Brownell operated a trading post for local ranchers, miners, and Indians, leaving his estate to his son Charles. Charles ran a poker table in the general store, and Wyatt, lifelong gambler, was known to frequent the table.

Charles sold the property to the Sparling family. In 1931, the Sparlings developed it into 575 individual homesites, building the first houses in 1932. By 1933, the San Bernardino County Sun described Earp and Vidal as two of the four "booming" villages along the aqueduct. Vidal even had a Justice of the Peace court, necessary for the execution of justice in the rowdy town: the town was essentially a large labor camp for the dam builders and aqueduct construction crews, and proved troublesome during the violent union agitation days. The I.W.W. sent agitators to the town, and many were arrested for rioting and tried at the Vidal J.P. court.

The J. M. Heacock Building, Vidal, California
(c) 2017 MJ Miller

By 1935, the area had no less than 28 liquor establishments, the paper describing them as "hangouts for river toughs and equally tough women."  The then-lone law enforcement officer of the area, Deputy Sheriff Hal Oxnevad, had a job referred to by the paper as the "suicide" job of the county.

Across the railroad tracks from the Earp cottage is a desolate cemetery. No doubt on a quiet night you can sense the presence of the Holly Ghost within its barbed-wire expanse.

(c) 2017 MJ Miller

(c) 2017 MJ Miller

Buried within the Holly Cemetery is the man who served as Deputy Coroner of Vidal in the early 1930s, John Harger. 

(c) 2017 MJ Miller

Veterans and prospectors have ample room in the cemetery. Most plots are either unmarked or unfilled. The few marked graves are rendered all the more poignant for the solitude.

(c) 2017 MJ Miller

Prospector Peter Hulsman's marker lovingly depicts his tool-in-trade, a rock-hammer, fashioned of local rock fragments and bits of ore. Pardon the errant photographer's arm in the picture - bear with my inability to add the edited image into the sequence!

Just beyond the cemetery is a vestige of more recent history - a small collection of debris from the mid-1900s comprised of old cans, tobacco tins, and broken glass.

(c) 2017 MJ Miller

The Great Depression destroyed the promising town of Vidal. At some point, Anson Brownell's estate reverted to ownership of his son, Charles. When Charles died in 1943, Hal Oxnevad, the deputy who'd worked the area during its roughest years, bought the 100 acre townsite. Oxnevad, who'd risen to the rank of Undersheriff, may have purchased it with affection for the town's history. Oxnevad kept the land for over 20 years.

In September, 1967, the San Bernardino County Sun enthusiastically wrote of the town's pending revival. At the time it had nearly 35 residents. Most of the houses were already gone, either torn down or moved to other locations. Retired Undersheriff Oxnevad sold the land to two Blythe men who planned to build vacation homes for boaters and fishermen from the fast-growing Los Angeles area. Their plans unfulfilled, the desert oasis of Vidal never came to fruition. By 1970, Vidal had only 15 residents, their age averaging 70.

For those of us who seek out authentic traces of the west we love, it's for the better. Spend time at Vidal and you'll have a sense of the sheer remoteness you won't find in Tombstone, Dodge City, or Wyatt's other more famed haunts. You can appreciate the J. M. Heacock building and its masterful hand-crafted early 1900s stone construction, without skyscrapers or gleaming condominiums to distract from what was certainly then anything but humble. In its ruins, Vidal is arguably unruined.

(c) 2017 MJ Miller

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