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The 1930s California Dude Ranch That Broke Racial Barriers

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The empty lot where Murray's Ranch once stood. Photos by Hadley Meares.

In 1937, press from all over the country descended on Victorville, CA, at the edge of the Mojave Desert, to cover the town's star-studded annual rodeo. The rapid growth of Los Angeles in the 1920s and '30s meant that millions of city slickers found themselves itching to escape to a simpler, more rustic time. A precursor to today's "experience-based tourism," the working dude ranch was enormously popular. Only 90 or so miles away from Los Angeles, these ranches—with names like the Lazy W, Yucca Loma Ranch, C Bar G Ranch, and Three Sage Hens—were centered primarily around Victorville and neighboring Apple Valley. While LIFE magazine photographers had originally been sent to these ranches in '37 to cover rodeo-going stars like Clara Bow and Tex Ritter, they quickly honed in on a more interesting story. Heavyweight boxing champion and Wild West enthusiast Joe Louis was in town, and he was spending a lot of time at a place called Murray's Dude Ranch. Besides the fact that Louis was one of the most idolized men in the world, this visit was of particular interest to the white mainstream media for two reasons: Joe Louis was black, and Murray's Ranch was billed as "the only Negro Dude Ranch in the world."

The history of African-Americans in Apple Valley begins long before Joe Louis's highly touted visit in 1937. As early as 1903, a Los Angeles civic club called The Forum encouraged working class blacks to become landowners. Since most of Los Angeles was reserved for whites only, often through racially restrictive real estate covenants, The Forum focused on an area in Apple Valley surrounding picturesque Bell Mountain. In 1914, several black families began homesteading in the unforgiving desert of Apple Valley.

One of the most prominent men in the community was Arthur Cook. Like many people in Bell Mountain, he retained strong ties to Los Angeles. Two of his good friends in LA were a respected couple named Lela and Nolie Murray. Nolie was a strapping six feet, with a larger-than-life personality. He ran Murray's Pocket Billiard Emporium and Cigar Store on East Ninth Street, and was praised for his "honest and just methods of dealing with patrons," which had earned him a "large following of friends." Lela, a registered nurse, was less than five feet tall, with a sweet disposition and tireless drive to help the less fortunate. By the early 1920s, Lela's frequent colds and lung ailments were making life in Los Angeles difficult for the Murrays. Arthur Cook, always on the lookout for potential quality neighbors, offered them 40 acres of Apple Valley land for free. But Lela worried about the legality of such a gift. "I wanted the land to be a legal deal," she said, "so I insisted on paying Mr. Cook $100 in cash and having it recorded as a bona fide sale. That was in 1922, and I moved up shortly afterward."

The Murrays dreamed of making the ranch a haven for troubled and underprivileged children and began building the infrastructure to support this mission. While Lela homesteaded at the ranch, Nolie commuted back and forth to their business interests in LA. Slowly, the ranch took shape—there were bungalows for the children, a deep fresh water well, stables, chicken coops, and a windmill. Nolie moved to the ranch full-time, and the Murrays began accepting children of all races, who were sent to them by the courts. At any given time there were around a dozen children at the ranch, some who stayed for up to seven years. A story in the LA Times illustrated the guidance Lela and Nolie offered:

Clyde, a young black boy, was always picking fights with white children. One day Lela sat him down and said: "You like flowers, don't you?"
He nodded.
"You don't like just pink roses? You like white, yellow and red roses because they are all beautiful, right?"
Again, Clyde nodded.
"Why then should you like only Negro children?" Lela asked. "People are people, just as flowers are flowers, whether they are white, yellow or black."

Despite their tireless work ethic, in the mid-1930s the Murrays found themselves in financial trouble. Though they received a little money from the state for the children's care, the Depression and the cost of running the ranch had wiped out their savings. Inspired by the increasing number of dude ranches springing up all around them, they began to convert their property into a Class-A guest ranch.

The Murrays were financially on their last leg when Joe Louis appeared, bringing a string of LIFE photographers with him. Thousands of tourists swarmed the ranch, hoping to catch a glimpse of their hero. After a six-picture spread of Louis at the ranch ran in November 1937, the Murrays' theoretical guest ranch was now a fact. The county and other ranchers supported the creation of a "Negros only" dude ranch. (Explicit segregation was not the law of the land in California, and customers could theoretically patronize whatever business allowed them in. But communities often self-segregated through local ordinances, real estate covenants, and societal pressure.) The Murrays began promoting the ranch, and the county widened the road leading into the ranch. The property soon included more than 20 buildings and amenities including tennis courts, stables, a dining hall, a baseball field, and a swimming pool.

Celebrities and prominent members of LA's African-American community flocked to the ranch. Legendary architect Paul Williams and his family stayed there frequently while he was working on designs for the nearby Arrowhead Springs Hotel. Joe Louis, always "happy as a kid" at the ranch, returned to train for upcoming matches. Other famous fighters soon followed suit. In 1938, Herb Jeffries, "the black singing cowboy," filmed two movies—The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range—at the ranch. Thanks to The Bronze Buckaroo, clear images of the property's main house and windmill, and views of Bell Mountain, are preserved for posterity. Lena Horne, Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Nina Mae McKinney were also frequent guests. Here, they enjoyed a "most beautiful and restful desert oasis," where they could lounge on screened-in porches or take evening horseback rides in the moonlight, far away from Hollywood.

Everyday Americans also frequented the ranch, which boasted very reasonable rates. In 1940, a couple could stay at the ranch for only $5 a night, while a single person could stay for $3. The ranch often hosted around 100 guests a week from May to September, and became particularly popular with honeymooning couples (no doubt pleased with cottages that were "far removed from each other") and civic groups. It fulfilled a need for recreational activities for middle class African-Americans, who were barred from most vacation opportunities. Lela shared one letter she received that highlighted this problem:

I am a bachelor. I like to ride horseback very much. I have always wanted to spend a few weeks on a dude ranch. Being colored, I doubted that I would ever have the chance. I was happy to learn about your ranch. Please let me know the cost of a vacation with you.

While the ranch hosted guests from all over the country, its bread and butter continued to be visitors from Los Angeles. An ad from the 1940s appealed particularly to time-strapped Angelinos:

Leave your business Saturday afternoon. Take a two hour and twenty minute ride up through Cajon Pass on Highway 66 to Victorville. Get a nice large airy room with every modern comfort of home at Murray's Ranch. Have a cup of hot coffee or fruit juice served to you, early before arising for breakfast. Or you may ride early as you wish. Get your good country breakfast, including milk, butter, and eggs produced on the ranch. Swimming, golf, tennis, and other amusements as you wish. Have your Murray's famous chicken dinner about 2:30 or after. Return home late Sunday evening rested and fresh for the next week's business.

The Murrays continued to be remarkably colorblind when it came to staffing. One friend noted, "The ranch has its own fair employment practice policy and hires cooks, pantrymen, yardmen, stable attendants and maids for their ability, not their color. There are three white employees, four colored and one Japanese." White locals often came to the ranch's popular restaurant, which featured the comfort food of popular chef Malcolm Keys. Lela organized an Easter Sunrise service on nearby Catholic Hill that attracted thousands of SoCal worshipers for many years. Local children of all races often "snuck in" to use the ranch's heavily chlorinated pool, joking with Nolie, who was forever reaching for nuts stuffed in the pockets of his overalls to nibble on while he chastised the kids.

White guests did not spend the night until 1945, when a Workers Union newspaper in Southern California profiled the ranch. Soon many white people were writing to Lela, asking if they could come and stay. "I wrote back, telling them they had made a mistake, that the ranch was owned and operated by Negroes. But then the people wrote right back, saying that was fine with them, when could they come, what were the rates and questions like that," Lela said. And so the ranch became integrated, long before most of the country followed suit.

By the time Lela died in 1949, the Murrays were beloved members of the Victorville/Apple Valley community. Lela was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, and volunteered both her time and the ranch's facilities to such organizations as the Red Cross, the USO, and various children's charities. After Lela's death, Nolie remarried and continued to run the ranch, but the decline of the popularity of dude ranches, rising cost of living, and increasing recreational opportunities for SoCal African-Americans made the early '50s difficult. No doubt he was relieved when entertainment legend and noted humanitarian Pearl Bailey revisited the ranch with her husband, the drummer Louie Bellson, in 1955, looking for a respite from the fast life. "We fell in love with the place," Pearl recounted, "and this Murray fellow says, 'You want it?" Well, we bought 35 acres for $65,000. And we're still paying!" Nolie kept five acres and built the Desert Heart Motel on the property, which he ran until his death in 1958.

Pearl renamed the ranch "The Lazy B," a name born from her legendary wit. "I told Louie people would pass by and look at this huge ranch and say to themselves, "There are actors in there, leading a glamorous life. I wonder what those 'Lazy B's are doing there." In between gigs across the country, Pearl became a dedicated Apple Valley housewife, renovating the property's rundown buildings and inviting many Hollywood friends to stay on the ranch. Much like Lela before her, Pearl relished being an active citizen, joining the Chamber of Commerce, serving as a den mother for the local cub scouts, and doing all the chores life on a large ranch entailed, including chasing snakes and pulling weeds. "So much is there," she said. "The earth where food can be planted, the lovely sunsets, the air, and all that space to wander away and get with God."

Pearl's family lived at the ranch for nine years, until work obligations and "freeloading" permanent houseguests from Hollywood slowly pulled them away. The ranch was eventually sold, and by the late 1980s, the buildings were abandoned and supposedly infested with brown widow spiders. The buildings were burned in a training exercise conducted by the Apple Valley Fire department around 1988.

I recently visited the ranch, which is now nothing more than an empty desert lot, filled with scrubby trees, low foundations, and bits of rusted barbed wire fence. Bell Mountain loomed over the barren land, where the outlines of the ranch's trails and roads were faintly visible in the dust. I passed two men in overalls and cowboy hats, one black and one white, cutting across the lot to the gas station across the street. Further into the lot, all I found was a lizard, a colony of ants, and a feeling of peaceful solitude, far away from the pollution and prejudice of the city.
—Murray's Ranch ads from the LA Sentinel.
· Murray's Ranch [empirenet.com]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]