HARRY OLIVER in BOREGO
April 4, 1888 - July 4, 1973 - American humorist, artist, and Academy Award nominated art director of films from the 1920s and 1930s. by Phil Brigandi
Harry Oliver's first home on the desert was in the Borrego Valley, in northeastern San Diego County. Harry and a group of Hollywood pals founded the Borego Valley Growers in 1929, and took up four adjoining homesteads in Section 24 in the northeast part of the Valley.
more on Harry Oliver:
The date 1916 sometimes shows up for the start of Harry's desert activities, and that may be true, but probably not in Borrego. Most of the Borrego folks he later writes about didn't come to Valley until the mid-1920s, not long before he arrived. In general, the dates in Harry's life seem to drift quite a bit -- usually backwards. Too many people relying on his Desert Rat Scrapbook for facts, I imagine.
Anyway, the Borego Valley Growers -- "an organization of motion picture people in Hollywood and Beverly Hills who plan to develop a section of land in Borego" -- consisted of Harry Oliver, president; Oscar J. Brodin of United Artists, and Fred Sersen and Walfred Pallman of Fox. Each had 160 acres, sharing a common well, put down in 1930. That same year, the partners bought another 140 acres adjoining their ranches. Later Paul Widlicska of United Artists joined in, taking up land northwest of Section 24. (There might be a few letters out of place in that name, which the papers at the time spelled in various ways.)
Since these folks were all working in Hollywood, most of them -- including Harry -- only came down to their ranches from time to time -- usually in the winters. The rest of the year, they had ranch managers looking after their interests. Harry's brother-in-law, John Fernlund, was the first to look after Harry's place, known as the H.O. Ranch. My old friend Lelah Porter, who homesteaded in Borego in 1927, recalled that Fernlund "played harmonica, guitar and drums for dances."
In the fall of 1930 Harry began construction on an adobe ranch house on his place -- "a real first class, old time Spanish residence" and "surely a credit to the valley" according to the local newspaper correspondent. Lloyd Cannon, another Fox employee, supervised the work. Presumably Harry did the designing. It was completed that December, and the Fernlunds moved in.
Harry gave the Valley its first street names back in 1929, and erected rustic, painted signboards at many of the intersections. None of his "picturesque and historical names" survive.
Harry held on to the place until at least 1936. At that time, his father-in-law, George Allen, was living on the place. Some of the land was planted to alfalfa, but the Borego Valley Growers never launched any major agricultural efforts. Oscar Brodin was the only one who held onto his ranch. He came back to the Valley in 1948, and reportedly bought Harry's old quarter section. He died in 1960 at the age of 83.
Will Rogers was not too far wrong when he wrote in 1935 that Harry "has a place away out on the desert". The Borrego Valley was about the most isolated part of San Diego County in the 1930s, with no paved roads, no outside electricity, and no telephones. There was a little homesteader community there of about 300 people at the start of the decade, but the population dwindled as the Depression wore on. The modern community of Borrego Springs there was not founded until 1946.
Harry's last big contribution to Borrego was the Pegleg Smith Liars Contest, officially launched in 1948. I will write more about the contest in a later missive. The last time I know of Harry visiting the Valley was in October of 1960, when an official, genuine California State Historical Landmark plaque was dedicated in honor of Pegleg Smith. "I have a lump in my throat so big it will take at least two bourbons to wash it down," Harry told the crowd that day.
After Borrego, Harry ran a trading post in San Juan Capistrano, not far from the old Spanish mission -- a phase of Harry's life strangely missing from most biographies. Perhaps it was just too far from the desert. It was only in the 1940s that Harry moved to Thousand Palms.
(Randall Henderson's daughter recalls exploring the east side of the Coachella Valley with her father right after World War II when there wasn't anything much out there -- "except the wind," she says.)
It was during his Borrego days that Harry's career as a desert humorist really got under way. In June, 1932, the Borego Valley correspondent of the Ramona Sentinel, Lloyd Kelsey (who pops up ocassionally in Harry's later writings), noted:
"Harry Oliver, well known motion picture director and land owner of Borego, is writing a series of stories appearing in Life magazine. Borego valley is prominently mentioned in the stories which are of more than usual interest. `Hay Wire Johnny,' `Borego Valley Scott' and `Eliminating Lem' are characters which have appeared so far, which to one who reads the story can be identified as living individuals of Borego. Mr. Oliver is well known for his keen sense of humor."
Harry later said he sold six stories to Life (not Luce's big picture magazine, but an earlier humor mag) and got $300 for them -- his first big sale. "Two months later it folded up," he said.
Harry's yarns were first collected in his book, "Desert Rough Cuts. A Haywire History of the Borego Desert", published in 1938 [not 1937] by the Ward Ritchie Press of Los Angeles. Copies today are both fragile, and expensive.
(By the way, Borego was almost always spelled with just one "r" by the old timers, even though the proper, Spanish spelling has two. It was not until Borrego Springs came along after the war that the correct spelling was made official.)
Harry, as the storyteller, sets himself up as the keeper of the mythical Busy Bee Emporium in Borego. He does make a few genuine references to Valley history -- like Anza coming through in 1774, and everybody working on the Truckhaven road past 17 Palms to the highway [1929-30]. But despite Lloyd Kelsey's assurances, I cannot at this late date identify any of his characters with any real Valley settlers (and I think I am safe in saying I know as much about early Borego as anyone now living). He does mention "Old Doc Beatty" [sic - Beaty] in Rough Cuts, and later in the DRS. Doc was the king of the homesteaders in Borego, arriving in 1912 soon after the first settlers came into the Valley, and living there until his death in 1949. His late daughter was a friend of mine, and his grandson and namesake (A.A. McCandless) was a United States Congressman in the 1980s and `90s.
Harry's adobe still stands in Borrego, not far from the Pegleg Monument. But I will warn you right now, the current owner does not take to trespassers, and does not want anybody poking around the old place. Seriously.
Keep `em coming!