Twentynine Palms Historical Society
29 Palms, California
29 Palms Inn
The 29 Palms Inn—from the beginning...
by Paul Smith
Part One: The Michels Brothers and an old Chevy truck
You probably want to know what an old truck has to do with the history of the 29 Palms Inn. Well, the answer is: plenty!—but let's get to the beginning.
During the great railroad boom, the Southern Pacific Railroad acquired the Oasis of Mara and much of the land surrounding it in the area we now know as Twentynine Palms. This was part of Congress' way to reward the railroads for the risks and capital costs of "civilizing" the west. As Will Rogers said at a later time, "We got the best Congress money can buy."
At some time in the early or mid-1920s, WP. Roberts purchased the Oasis from the Southern Pacific. He formed a loose partnership with E.E. Chapman and A.E. Jones, and they hired the Michels brothers (George and Bob) to help them build the Gold Park Hotel.
The Gold Park Hotel was not exactly a magnificent structure; it was a loose association of small cabins located just east of the present day Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center. The lumber for the "hotel" was dropped off the train at Garnet and hauled on two old Reo trucks to the Oasis. The partners had the idea that the hotel would make good money from the miners and cattlemen passing through.
The Oasis with its water and inviting shade had become a haven for homesteaders, most of whom had come to the desert's pure environment for health reasons. They camped out while building their home places, usually sleeping in makeshift tents, cooking simple meals in the open and temporarily emulating the lifestyles of the neighboring Indians. In the words of one such homesteader, William Campbell, "Elizabeth and I were trying to get our first night's sleep here at the Oasis and the wild burros would not stop braying, snorting, and rooting around our supplies for their own kind of desert "dessert". Even though it was 1924 and we had arrived by automobile from Pasadena, it seemed like these wily miners' burros knew their way around the oasis better than anyone. There was water at the Oasis and that was one of the reasons why we stayed here when we first arrived. Elizabeth was concerned about the purity of the water, and rightfully so. It was a watering hole for numbers of wild animals, the offensive burros, and a scraggle of dirty miners and cattlemen who wound their way through here on their way to nearby mountains. We learned to purify it until we were able to get water from a deep well—
Some 400 yards east of our campsite were a few rough hewn primitive cabins which had been established about 1923 for the miners coming through. We met George Michels who had helped build those small cabins and he gave us great help and advice when it came time for us to move from the Oasis onto our own homestead several miles away. (Quoted by Elizabeth Campbell in her book, "The Desert Was Home".)
Sometime during the next several years, Roberts got rid of his partners. We don't know how he did it exactly—but it was apparently peaceful. Then he began to look more closely at the land he owned at the west end of the Oasis. He dug a well and found water at 14 feet—a good sign. The palms at that end were flourishing and the supply of miners and cattlemen customers at the other end, to the east where the Gold Park stood, was dwindling.
So Roberts again tracked down the Michels and hired them to move the hotel to the west end of the Oasis. Here is how they did it:
George had a wonderful 1-ton Chevy pickup. So they went to a lumberman friend and borrowed several heavy beams which they tied off at the back of the pickup in a sled-like arrangement. With wenches, jacks, and old fashioned common sense bred from desperation, they propped up the front of each cabin on the bed of the pickup, manipulated the back end onto the beams and, one by one, dragged them all travois style the one mile distance to the new location. Now Roberts was back in business and looking for tourists.
About this time, a Harry Johansing from Pasadena, at the suggestion of friends named Fitzgerald and Faries (about whom we will hear more later), began to visit the area.
The Serrano Indians had centuries earlier chosen the Oasis of Mara as a village site for a very good reason. The water was right on the top of the ground and they were able to dig a number of good channels and bring the water out into the fields just north of the palms. It was a great site for growing their crops. They called it "Mar-rah", the place of "little rain and much grass." At various periods, members of the Paiute, Chemehuevi and Cahuilla tribes also visited and occasionally lived there.
But Roberts liked it because it was a beautiful, shaded location which could attract visitors to the area. After moving the buildings from the old Gold Park Hotel, he hired the Michels brothers and Frank DeMent to build a few more cabins, scattered among the tall palms, and renamed the complex the 29 Palms Hotel.
For the next several years, the hotel served as the town post office, library, dance hall, and general all around gathering place for local gossip.
You can still stay at some of these Gold Park Hotel rooms, although a few coatings of paint, some electrical wiring and other things have changed their appearance a bit. Get your imagination wired up, and stroll the grounds looking for Gold Park, Faultline, #1, and The Hermitage.
Part Two: The first years of the new 29 Palms Inn
During the first few years of the 1928 version of the establishment, Frances Roberts, daughter of the owner, and Rae Chamberlin operated the 29 Palms Hotel. We suspect that the location of the hotel was a bit remote for the young and single Miss Roberts, and in 1930 she asked a close family friend, Grace Brock, to take over. Brock successfully managed the hotel for the next three to four years and we believe that it was during that period the name was changed to the 29 Palms Inn.
During her watch, Grace Brock added bathrooms to a number of the rooms—a real luxury at the time. Some of them, like #1 and #2, shared a bath. The Hermitage was originally the bathhouse for the wooden cabins that had been moved to the west end, all of which had only sinks for amenities. It seems likely that Brock was also responsible for bringing hot showers to the Inn.
It was during this time that the Stubbs brothers arrived in Twentynine Palms and they built an adobe fireplace which became part of the main lodge. (That fireplace still stands prominently on the Inn's lawn as a survivor of a 1966 fire which destroyed the lodge.)
Grace Brock was well known as a friendly, hospitable person. There wasn't much money around during these depression years: Grace initiated a fifty-cents Sunday evening buffet that became popular among the early homesteaders.
Part Three: New owners arrive from the Pasadena area
Since the late 1920s, Harry Johansing, an insurance executive from the Pasadena area (remember our earlier planted mention of him?) had been visiting 29 Palms, first because he liked being in the desert and then with an eye for any business opportunities that might develop. He and his friends Fitzgerald and Faries formed a partnership and began buying land in the area. In 1929, they purchased the Inn from Roberts.
For the next several years, they hired Grace Brock to run the Inn and it was through her efforts that it's reputation as a tourist destination was established. From 1929 to 1935, the new owners hired the Stubbs brothers and Frank DeMent to built more cabins and some adobe bungalows. Many of them had private sun porches and "modern" bathrooms. You can still stay in many of those early cabins and step back in time.
In 1939, Johansing's daughter, Mary Claire Van Lahr, and her husband, Doc, moved to Twentynine Palms to handle the sales of land for the family interests. In 1940, with the depression still on and a war about to explode, Johansing, Faries and Fitzgerald divided their holdings. Johansing kept the Inn and asked Mary Claire and Doc to run it for him.
These folks had spunk: Doc was from a family of bankers in Cincinnati and had never before been to the desert. Despite her father's interest, Claire had never even visited 29 Palms until she moved there in 1939—why would a young USC co-ed want to wander out into the desert wilderness with her Dad?
But, these two tenderfoots decided to give it a try, jumping at the opportunity to run the 29 Palms Inn.
They ran the Inn pretty much as it was for the next 10 years. Doc and Claire's family had increased: Anne, Mary Janie and Leo now helped with the odd jobs, including lighting the kerosene lanterns when the electricity went out—which it often did.
In 1949, the kids got things properly turned around and talked Doc into putting in a swimming pool with an adjoining building, which now serves as the restaurant. Doc and Claire got ambitious again the early 50s and added units Fiddle Neck, Ghost Flower and Hedge Needle. (Doc officially designated them X, Y and Z—to put an end to things.) Throughout this period, the Inn operated on the American Plan. Meals were included in the package and families would sometimes stay for a month at a time.
Back in 1936, the Joshua Tree National Monument had been created by presidential Proclamation, through the efforts of Minerva Hoyt of Pasadena. In 1950, the Johansing and Faries families donated 58 acres at the east end of the Oasis to the National Park Service to be used as the Headquarters and Visitor Center for the Monument (now Joshua Tree National Park). The Park Service built a fine center and there is presently a cultural trail which runs through the Oasis of Mara from the Visitor Center, past the Art Gallery and Historical Museum, to the Inn at the west end.
Part Four: The next generations
In 1977, Jane Van Lahr Grunt and her husband, Ron, bought the 29 Palms Inn from Robert "Doc" and Claire Van Lahr. The fourth Johansing generation had arrived: Heidi, Brock, Hans, Gretchen and Christian were in the turn raised at the Inn. Jane and Ron brought an artistic touch, and some elements of whimsy to the Inn and over the next ten years it attained a reputation among artists and creative people as a unique and private place to escape from the city. When Ron died in 1991, the 29 Palms Inn lost a creative partner, but the momentum of unique creativity at the Inn did not end.
Over the next six years, the Inn initiated a premium sourdough bakery with the assistance of bakery chef Rusty Bristol of Vermont, and substantially upgraded the kitchen facilities. The Inn also acquired the historic Irene's Adobe, located next door, which was built in 1934 by Gerald Charlton. At one point in time the adobe served as the Twentynine Palms Art Gallery. In later years it was the home of Gerald's widow, noted water colorest Irene Charlton, who passed away in 1997 at the age of 95.
Most of Jane's kids have now been raised, although Christian is still finishing high school. In 1992, Jane married Paul Smith, an acquaintance of many years Paul, an unretired attorney, concentrates his Inn efforts on both the Sunday Brunch menu and the web site, making sure that both are entertaining and interesting.
In the spring of 1998, Heidi returned to work at the Inn, bringing her children: Morrigan, Aden, Nick and Ryan. On hot days you can usually find them near the pool, but you will also find them pitching in to help when the occasion arises (or they need the money!).
The Inn's garden has been professionally tended for a number of years and its products are continually featured on the restaurant's menu. The Inn currently has over 30 employees, many of whom have been working there a number of years. Mary Claire Johansing Van Lahr still lives at the Inn and is a "regular" at Sunday brunch with various and assorted members of her rather large family.
Some things at the Inn may have changed, but many have not— probably the very reason why people like to keep coming back.
The article above is an edited exerpt from "A History of the Oasis of Mara and The 29 Palms Inn at Twentynine Palms, California", written and unpublished by Paul Smith (unretired attorney, husband of Jane, and brunch-menu planner, to quote his own words) in August, 1998. It is used here with permission.
The 29 PALMS INN is located at 73950 Inn Avenue, 29 Palms, CA 92277. They have a web site at www.29palmsinn.com and may be contacted by phone (760) 367-3505, fax: (760) 367-4425, or email TheOasis@29palmsinn.com.
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