"What’s it like to live 30 miles from nowhere?"
Yes, it was rude, but I had to ask: What’s it like to live 30 miles from nowhere?
“We are here,” replied Dennis Casebier, founder of the Goffs Historic Cultural Center six miles north of Interstate 40 and half an hour west of Needles. “You are the one who lives far away.”
So it came as no surprise when, two seconds later, he admitted a fondness for “desert rats,” heirs to the original mountain men.
“Desert rats aren’t exactly rebellious,” said Casebier, 65. “It’s just that they won’t be told what to do.
“People who live in the back country unconsciously erect barriers to confound city folk. That barrier — whether 30 dogs or junk in the yard — serves as a filter.
“The average flatlander is intimidated. But once you pass the desert rat’s test, you can’t get away.”
Lamenting that the classic desert rats have all gone, Casebier blamed the Bureau of Land Management (“Once the BLM got interested in resource management, the desert rats were doomed”) but also the fact that “today it’s an unlucky combination to be both self-reliant and intolerant of regulations.”
This from a 30-year Navy man.
Goffs was established in 1883 as a siding for the Southern Pacific Railway. It increased in importance when, in 1907, a short-line railroad connected it to the rich mines at Searchlight, Nevada.
By 1911 there were enough children living in Goffs (sons and daughters of railway employees) to require a school. Classes began in a rented, frame structure.
Three years later, a handsome mission-style schoolhouse was built. It served a total of 412 students before closing down in 1937, supplanted by a new school in Essex.
Searchlight had fizzled by 1923. Route 66, which once brought traffic through town, was redirected six miles south in 1931.
By 1937, Goffs had gone bust.
But 20 years later, a kid from Topeka, Kan., was assigned to the Marine Training Center in Twentynine Palms.
“Kansas isn’t the desert,” Casebier conceded, “but it, too, is big and empty. And it, too, had been homesteaded — Twentynine Palms was settled by World War I veterans gassed by the Germans.
“Back then, you could still drive all over Joshua Tree National Monument, so a friend and I explored the old mines. We’d sleep out at night and, in the morning, dump scorpions out of our boots.”
No wonder Casebier fell in love with the desert.
In 1960 he returned to California to work as a physicist on the Navy’s guided missile systems. By then, however, Joshua Tree was choked with tourists and government regulations. So Casebier looked around and discovered the East Mojave.
“It reminded me of the desert I used to know,” he said. “But more desert, and more Joshua trees.”
His work for the Navy meant Casebier spent a third of his time in Washington, D.C. While there, he researched the East Mojave in the National Archives, combing through pension files and muster rolls:
“The Army’s muster rolls detail everyone who ever served here — what he looked like and what he’d been doing just before he enlisted.”
Casebier’s research focused on the 1850s through the 1880s, and especially the Old Mojave Road, an ancestor of Route 66 that runs 15 miles north of Goffs.
“Until 1883,” he said, “the Old Mojave Road was the major route through this latitude for people traveling between Prescott, Arizona, and the Port of Los Angeles.”
Over the course of 25 years, Casebier filled 50 reels of microfilm with records from the National Archives and the Library of Congress.
In 1981, while still living in Corona, he founded the Friends of the Mojave Road with fellow devotees of that road and other back-country trails.
Today the Friends boast 850 members, chiefly in California, Nevada and Arizona. “But the other day,” Casebier said, “someone wrote from Switzerland requesting a (newsletter) subscription.”
Why do people join the Friends?
“Because they think it matters to create something bigger than yourself.”
This “thing that matters” is the cultural center, built around the old Goffs schoolhouse on 113 acres bought by Casebier and his wife, Jo Ann, in 1989.
In 1993 the Friends gained nonprofit status as the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association.
Working from old photos and interviews with more than 40 former students — and funded by $133, 850, all from private donors — MDHCA volunteers restored the schoolhouse to its original, 1914 splendor.
That schoolhouse may be the centerpiece, but the cultural center boasts other gems as well: for example, the tiny Danby courthouse, which once stood next to Judge Johnny Neilson’s service station; a building from the Golden Queen Mine near Mojave; an Atlantic & Pacific boxcar, 100 years old, now used as a cookhouse; and a complete 10-stamp ore mill from Rosamond.
Casebier explained that gold miners used stamp mills to pulverize rock: “Stamp mills won the West, but they contained so much metal, most got scrapped out. Today hardly any are left.”
Another building at the site, now used as a library, has had a most adventurous life.
Built in the ’20s as a maintenance station for the California Division of Highways, it was moved 18 miles to Essex after the realignment of Route 66.
In 1992 the Friends moved it back to Goffs.
“In fact, there are two of these houses,” Casebier said. “The other, built under the same contract, is still in Newberry Springs.”
The library is home to MDHCA’s 6,000 volumes of desert lore, 35,000 historical photographs and 600 oral histories.
Of those oral histories, half were done by Casebier, and half by Harold and Lucile Weight of the late, great “Desert Magazine.”
“The Weights were doing oral histories a generation before I started,” Casebier said. He also acknowledged the work of volunteers who transcribe recorded interviews.
The center’s purview stretches from Barstow to Las Vegas, Arizona and Twentynine Palms. “Vegas is just at the edge of our turf,” Casebier said, “though if I heard of a 97-year-old with a clear mind who lived in Vegas in the ’30s, I’d certainly interview them.”
He’s even interviewed people younger than himself, “if they were significantly involved in a core business or in the highway itself.”
Any tips on collecting an oral history?
“During the interview itself,” Casebier said, “I talk as little as possible.
“We start with vital statistics, such as the person’s full name. If that name is unusual, I’ll ask about it. Then we go on to where and when the person was born, their parents’ names, etc.”
When he interviews an elderly woman, her grown daughter — worried about having a strange man in the house — may sit in the same room. “Then,” Casebier said, “the daughter may finish her mother’s sentences instead of giving her time to collect her memories. That’s hard.”
At other times, two may be better than one:
“I interviewed a man and a woman who’d gone to school together in 1914 — in Lanfair Valley, an elevated, better-watered valley north of here that enjoyed a homestead boom starting in 1910.
“By interviewing them separately, and then together, I got much more than I could’ve out of either one alone.”
Should scholars approach him, asking to read a transcript, Casebier first tries to discover their intentions. “Especially until someone passes on,” he said, “I feel responsible for what they have told me.”
Sometimes friends or family suggest a really good interviewee. Then Casebier sends the prospect an MDHCA newsletter, “to let them see what we’re up to.”
At other times subjects show up on his doorstep:
“During World War II, 16,000 troops were stationed at Goffs. Every once in a while, a guy will come by looking for his roots.
“We’ll sit on the porch and I’ll ask him, ‘Could you see the water tanks? How far were you from the railroad? How would you get into Needles?’
“From this I can figure where his particular camp was.
“You can still see rock streets those boys built during the war.”