Spineless Books.

Phil Brigandi, BORREGO BEGINNINGS, EARLY DAYS IN THE BORREGO VALLEY, 1910-1960; Anza Borrego Desert Natural History Association, 150 pgs; $13.95.


Larry McCaffery

The Borrego Valley whose settlement in the first half of the last century is the subject of Phil Brigandi’s riveting, meticulously researched historical study, “Borrego Beginnings,” is today best known as the destination for the tens of thousands of visitors wishing to camp or hike within the magnificent desolation of the 600,000 square acre Anza-Borrego State Park (the largest such park in the lower 48 states) which almost entirely surrounds the valley. Most visitors arrive now by car in air-conditioned comfort via modern highways, with S3 entering the Valley across Pinion Ridge to the south, while S22 provides access from the west as it drops down over the rugged escarpments of the San Ysidro Mountains a vertical mile into the Valley and from the east as it traverses the fantastic labyrinth of rainbow-hued mud hills and deep slot canyons of the Borrego Badlands. These remarkable roads are themselves worthy of closer scrutiny, but the ease with which they whisk people today in and out of the Borrego Valley also makes it easy to forget what must have been involved in getting to this isolated cul-de-sac before the 1950s and 60s when these roads, along with the golf courses, accommodations, and even the tiny desert community of Borrego Springs itself, were first built. Brigandi devotes the second part of his study to this era of Borrego’s settlement, which began just after the W.W.II when the first large-scale farms were established in the Valley by grape-grower Robert DiGiorigo ( who brought in some of the first electricity and built some of the first paved roads in the Valley) and concluded in 1960s, by which time visionary developer A. A. Burnand and other financial backers had succeeded in subdividing most of the Valley and founding the resort community of Borrego Springs (in 1947), established the DeAnza Country Club (1954) and had generally laid down the pattern of development which has followed in the Valley up to the present.

Far more difficult for us to imagine today, however, are the conditions faced by the first wave of settlers in the Valley from 1910 until W.W.II, which Brigandi describes in the first half of his account. With the nearest supply source (Brawley) requiring a 2 1/2 day trip by buckboard over rough roads, with the only relief from summer heat at night available by sleeping outside in sheets doused periodically with water, with no grocery store, or gas station, or accommodations of any sort available, the Borrego Valley during this period was one of the most physically isolated and inhospitable areas in the entire state. Most of the earliest arrivals who endured these conditions were homesteaders, many arriving as a kind of spill over from the Imperial Valley boom that had begun in 1901 when the first irrigation water from the Colorado River began to arrive in an area previously best-known for its unrelenting, blistering summer heat and for being one of the hottest and driest places in North America (only Death Valley is drier).

Assisted by numerous rare photos from this era, Brigandi sketches in the series of “booms” that as early as 1913 were being heralded in the “Brawley News” as a “second Imperial Valley” and which resulted in the Valley’s population growing at near-exponential levels—which is to say, from around 4 in 1910 to 16 by W.W.I, and so on; spurred on by the opening of the first automobile road through Sentenac Canyon in the 1920s, the special homestead laws enacted for returning W.W.I veterans, and the founding of the Anza Borrego State Park in 1931, by the late 30s, the voting population in the several hundred square miles area had swelled to 48, 38 of whom turned out in 1938 to cast ballots for a hotly contested run-off election for justice of the peace which had earlier resulted in the two write-in candidates each receiving 17 votes (the eventual winner was Charles Ferny by a 21-17 margin).

Not all the booms produced such spectacular growth cycles. Consider, for example, that by 1929, the “Ramona Sentinel” was describing what was occurring in neighboring Clark Valley once all the suitable land in the Borrego Valley had been taken as being “A rush rivaling the famous Oklahoma land settler rush”; but by 1934, the rush had receded, leaving only a single determined homesteader to lament its passing. An even greater decline occurred in Little Borrego, a township formed in 1926 just south of present day Ocotillo Wells, which by 1934 was entirely deserted, excerpt for a lone figure who maintained a residence at the two story Miracle Hotel for a few years longer; by the 40s all traces of the hotel and its tenant had disappeared as completely as the fish who allegedly provided the basis for the naming of nearby Fish Creek Mountains. Overall, however, the population continued upwards, with the number of registered voters in the area increasing to 102 in 1948 and to 275 by 1960, the date where Brigandi’s account draws to its close.

Brigandi’s accounts of both eras are enlivened by a series of memorable character sketches, amusing anecdotes, and revealing episodes which collectively illuminate a way of living almost unimaginably distant from the one unfolding during the same periods just fifty miles away in the teeming popular centers of San Diego County . Many of the specific incidents are presented thorough the quirky voices and odd phrasings of first-person testimony--much of it culled with fastidious faithfulness from personal interviews with the Valley’s few surviving old-timers by Brigandi himself. A good example of how compelling and poignant this first-hand reportage can be is found in an early chapter devoted to the most celebrated of several larger-than-;life figures associated with the Valley’s early history, Alfred Armstrong “Doc” Beauty. Once a Bronc buster, a stage driver, a resort operator, Imperial Valley boomer and miner, Beauty brought his wife and six year old daughter Fleta into the Valley for their first look at their new home in January 1913. Many years later, Fleta recounted the incident as follows: I remember we came up the hill and we looked down there,. and Borrego Lake [[Sink] used to be as white as snow with alkali, and m dad came up to the wagon and he says, ‘Well, there it is.’ And Mama began to cry; I never will forget it. And she said that, ‘You told me it was farming land, what in the world can you farm on that?’

The post W.W.II period of development in the area doesn’t have the same exoticism as the earlier era, but it has it moments. Some of my personal favorites include: the brief period of “postal insurrection” in which the local postmaster, supported by Valley residents, responded to the Federal Government’s determination that the proper spelling of the Valley’s B-term should included two r’s (i.e., “Borrego” rather than the “Borego” spelling used until then) by refusing to deliver any mail in the Valley addressed to “Borrego”; there was the Saturday nights-out at the homemade drive-in theater in the 1950s; the crowd of listeners who assembled around a bonfire to listen to would-be prevaricators compete in the first annul Peg Leg Liars Contest in 1947, an event still held each April which is reputedly the oldest on-going tall tale contest in the U.S.. (incidentally, any real Borregoite will tell you that the most impressive credentials Brigandi brings to this study are not his previous books and articles about the area, or the fact that he is currently Hemet’s Museum Curator and Ramona Pageant Historian but the 4 first-places finishes in the Liar’s Contest); one Borrego traditional that hasn’t survived was the Sun Worshippers Celebration, a bizarre festival first held in 1955 which included floats and the crowing of a sun-goddess; this peculiar celebration recorded its highest temperature of 114 degrees in 1959 before being discontinued.
As is the case with similar accounts in the first half of his study, these incidents are often amusing and frequently provide insights into the daily lives of people that historical summaries simply can’t deliver. More importantly, they manage to put human faces and voices onto the lives of people struggling mightily to eek out an existence against a backdrop of cataclysmic physical forces so enormous, and operating on time scales so vast, that they constantly threaten to render any human dimension seem irrelevant.

Brigandi’s “Borrego Beginnings” thus makes a welcome addition to several other books published recently about the Borrego Valley and the Anza-Borrego State Park. Together with a growing number of other books about the area published recently--which include former cowboy Lester Reed’s memorable accounts of the life in the Borrego Valley in the late 19th century (“Old Time Cattlemen and Other Pioneers of the Anza Borrego Desert”), Lowell and Diana Lindsay’s comprehensive field guide to the area (“The Anza-Borrego Region”), Diana Lindsay’s “Anza-Borrego, A to Z: People, Places, and Things”), and (my personal favorite), Paul Remieka’s paradigm-smashing study of the area’s mind-boggling geological survey, “A Geology of Anza-Borrego: Edge of Creation”--Brigandi’s lively and highly informative historical survey offers readers a means to get better acquainted with this mysterious, awe-inspiring region and the people who settled it.

[CONTRIBUTOR’S NOTE: Larry McCaffery spent 15 years living in San Diego County before he caught his first glimpse of the Borrego Valley; he has spent the last 10 years living in Borrego Springs, where he has devoted himself to remedying the deficiencies of those early, Borrego-less years. Like many of the pioneers described by Brigandi, once he ventured into the area he has found it impossible to leave.]


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