Twentynine Palms Historical Society
29 Palms, California
Red Barn Realty
73665 Twentynine Palms Highway
Researched and written by Jennifer Thornton
The Red Barn Realty building has a long and colorful history. Throughout the years, it has seen people and businesses come and go, and has become a distinctive fixture on Highway 62.
The building began its life as a general store commissioned by Roy D. Lay in 1936. Already the owner of a successful grocery store in Beaumont, Lay believed Twentynine Palms was the perfect place to expand his business, and purchased a 60 by 160 foot lot near Four Corners, the intersection of Adobe Road and the Twentynine Palms Highway.
Local contractor Walt Berg won the bid to build Lay’s General Store. A German immigrant, Berg had led a varied life as a professional wrestler, race car driver, and contractor prior to moving to the desert in 1928. Berg soon found steady work building many of the early structures in Twentynine Palms, including the Campbells’ large stone home, the town’s first drug store, Bagley’s Market, the old Post Office building, the Twentynine Palms Hard-top Theatre, the Azure Motel, Kenney’s Drug Store, Thomas Ince Memorial Hospital, the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, Foster’s Freeze, the Paint Pot, the Roller Rink at the Smith’s Ranch, the 1950s office of the Desert Trail, the Bowladium, the Elks clubhouse, and Dr. Luckie’s vacation home, among others.
Construction on Lay’s store began in April of 1936, and work was completed in May. When the building was finished, it looked nothing like it does today. The simple, frame building was 24 feet by 30 feet, with a plain gable roof and a side entrance. The building’s one extravagance was a large bay window facing the highway.
The Lays hosted a dance in their new building to celebrate, and the Desert Trail remarked the building’s “exceptionally smooth cement floor” provided the perfect surface for “both round and square dancing.” The dance, held May 14, 1936, featured a band from Beaumont and attracted a large crowd.
The Lays then set themselves to the task of filling the empty building with merchandise. Mrs. Lay spent the summer driving back and forth between Los Angeles and Twentynine Palms, purchasing stock for the store. In addition to dry goods and groceries, the store carried a line of “sport togs,” or athletic clothing, and planned to offer a selection of fresh meats. The Lays hoped to build a storage structure and a house next to the grocery store one day, and also purchased a lot elsewhere in town where they intended to build a home. As their time was divided between their store in Beaumont and the new business in Twentynine Palms, the Lays hired a man named George Young from Hollywood to manage the Twentynine Palms store. The grand opening for the new business was held on June 20, 1936.
Despite the fanfare surrounding Lay’s store, the business did not last for long, and by 1938 Lay’s building became the office of real estate developer Ole Hanson. Like Berg, Hanson had lived a full life before making the move to Twentynine Palms. He had served as the mayor of Seattle, and was responsible for major developments up and down the West Coast. Most famous of these was the community of San Clemente in Orange County, which Hanson had designed as a Spanish-themed seaside resort.
In 1934, Hanson visited Twentynine Palms upon the advice of Paul Witmer, who worked as a U.S. Land Register. Hanson was impressed with the area’s healthy climate and cheap land. He formed the Desert Homes Company and started developing Twentynine Palms’ first subdivision in 1935. The tract’s official name was the Desert Homes Subdivision, but it was more commonly known as the Hanson Tract. Hanson’s goal was to create “an ideal desert community, in which architectural planning would bring unity and beauty to the area, in contrast to the haphazard building he had found here.”
Hanson sold his Desert Homes Company to his son-in-law, Trafford Huteson, in 1937, but still remained active in Twentynine Palms real estate. At the time of Hanson’s death in 1940, approximately 50 people had purchased lots in his original Desert Homes Subdivision, which now featured graded streets and water reservoirs, as well as power and telephone lines.
After Hanson’s death, his office building was converted into a gift shop, which had many different owners over the years. The first was Barbara Page, who moved her Desert Gift Shop to the building in 1940. By 1950, Page had moved out and the building became the home of Gaunt’s Gifts and Flowers. One year later, the Gaunts were replaced by Mrs. Elizabeth Frazier’s gift shop. Mrs. Frazier kept her store until 1954, when health issues led to her retirement.
Realtor Chet Knee purchased the building from Mrs. Frazier, with plans to convert it once again into a real estate office. Born in Denver, Colorado in 1902, Knee was the son of a railroad worker. In 1922, Knee moved to California and fell in love with flying. Saving his money, he was able to buy his own airplane, an eight-cylinder, 90-horse power, WWI plane he named “Jenny.” His love of flying brought him to Twentynine Palms in 1942, where he worked as a pilot and instructor at Condor Field. After a brief stint in Ontario as a flight instructor, Knee returned to Twentynine Palms in 1947 and started working in real estate. His first job was with WWI veteran, homesteader, and real estate man Bob McCown. Knee later worked for Harvey Mixon as a sales agent for four years before deciding to go out on his own.
Knee joined the Twentynine Palms Realty Board and became a broker in July of 1954. Opening a temporary office in the Hastings building on Adobe Road, Knee set out to transform the Frazier Gift Shop into the Red Barn Realty. The renovations provided Twentynine Palms residents with sidewalk entertainment, as a crowd gathered to watch contractor Bill Watkins remove the building’s characteristic bay window. Watkins also removed the front cactus garden, closed up the side entrance, added a central front door and large windows, extended the front gable over a faux hay loft, covered the building in board-and-batten siding, painted it bright red and white, and crowned it with a cupola.
The Desert Trail compared the drastic remodeling to decorating a Christmas tree, saying “as the evergreen turns into a thing of beauty after adding the lights and decorations at Christmas time, so it was with this building.” The end result was “the most unique and attractive building in Twentynine Palms.” The inside of the building was decorated with a Western flair, including leather drapes and an oak desk inscribed with cattle brands. Knee ran the Red Barn Realty for many years, and, according to the Desert Trail, was one of the area’s most successful realtors.
In addition to real estate, Chet Knee and his wife Lois owned horses on their ranch, which they christened El Rancho Poco Bueno. Skilled riders, they participated in countless parades and events, and were even invited to ride in President Eisenhower’s inaugural parade in Washington, D.C.
In 1964, Knee sold the Red Barn Realty to Harvey and Elene Mixon. Mixon had come to Twentynine Palms in 1944. Over the years he managed the Union Oil Station, worked for the Desert Electric Cooperative, and was the owner of Mixon Lumber Company. Starting in the late 1940s, Mixon also started working in real estate, and had employed Chet Knee as a sales associate from 1948 until 1952. After selling the Red Barn Realty to his former boss, Knee went into semi-retirement in order to have more time to spend with his family and pursue his other interests. He continued to work in sales for Mixon at Red Barn Realty, but only on a part-time basis.
Today, the Red Barn Realty building, located near the Four Corners intersection of Adobe Road and the Twentynine Palms Highway, continues to house a real estate business. The small structure still looks much the same as it did after it was remodeled in 1954.
The Desert Trail
“Mercantile Store in New Townsite is Being Erected”, April 3, 1936.
“Lay’s New Store Now Complete; to Give Dance Thursday,” May 8, 1936.
“Big Crowd at Dance,” May 15, 1936.
“Roy Lay to Open New Store in 29 Palms Sat., June 20”, June 12, 1936.
“Lay’s New Store Will Open for Business Tomorrow,” June 19, 1936.
“Hanson Purchased Large Hillside Tract Adjoining and at Entrance of Joshua Tree Nat’l Monument,” Nov. 26, 1937.
“Chet Knee Opens Business”, July 1954.
“C-Chet Knee at the Red Barn”, probably October 1954, Section 3, p. 1, column 1-3.
“Open House Held at Red Barn”, October 14, 1954, p.1, column 7.
“Mixon Buys Knee Realty Business”, January 15, 1964, p. 1.
“Pioneer Walt Berg Dies Here Sept. 24”, October 3, 1974, p. B4.
“'Desert Homes’ was Ole Hanson Creation” by Lucile Weight, June 1, 1978.
The Adobes of Twentynine Palms, second edition, Twentynine Palms, CA: Desert Spirit Press, 2009.
Images of America: Twentynine Palms, p. 83 and 86.
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