1000 Palms Oasis - A Brief History, by Paul Wilhelm
In 1876 the Southern Pacific Railroad company laid two steel rails down the length of the Coachella Valley. The members of the Cahuilla Nation were placed on various reservations. The United States government had promised the Southern Pacific Railroad Company every other section of land for twelve miles on either side of the railway line at the completion of the railroad project. For the Cahuilla people, life was confined, but not totally so, since seed-gathering, their main source of food, must continue. Thus it was that they remained semi-nomadic in search of various seeds and fruits in their season of ripening - until approximately 1915 when established agricultural pursuits by hopeful homesteaders offered employment and a new lifestyle.
Albert (Alkali) Thornburg, a young horse trader from east Los Angeles, entered the United States Army and was sent to southern Arizona. It was at the time when General Miles was establishing the borders of the Apache Reservation. Thornburg was made a "messenger on horseback" under the General. On three occasions Thornburg carried messages from Tubac, Arizona to Los Angeles. Following indian trails or stage coach roadways, he discovered Thousand Palms Oasis and rested his horse in cool shade where as well as by teamsters who, he later learned, had carried wagon loads of mining equipment to working gold mines in the eastern mountains. Upon completion of his army time, he took the train for his trip back to Los Angeles. Passing by race through the Coachella Valley, he looked east toward the lush oasis he had become emotionally attracted to; and in a moment of decision, he resolved that one day the remote oasis would be his. While at his home in Los Angeles he learned that President Theodore Roosevelt had declared a Desert Land Act, which awarded those who followed certain rules an 80- or 160-acre land parcel. The year was 1900 and Thornburg quickly visited the Land Office. If the markers could be found in the vicinity of the oasis, he was to report back to the Land Office.
In a matter of hours he was packed, ready for his trip. By train he rode to the small settlement of Edom, and then hiked northeast to the oasis. In a matter of days he located the markers one mile apart, placed by Henry Washington, a government surveyor, in 1855. For three years he lived up to the rules of the Land Act, returning to the oasis for his three-month stay within his future 80-acre homestead. Often he visited with nomadic Indians who came to gather mesquite and palm seed at their ripening. Many of the younger native Americans were students at St. Boniface Indian School in the San Gorgonio Pass. They were able to attest to the fact that Thornburg had sojourned for the required three-month period. By 1904, with the three-year period behind him, Alkali Thornburg became the owner of the 80-acre land parcel, which included the entire oasis. On March 18, 1905 he received his deed, signed by the President. But what to do with the oasis in the little hill valley? This question brought him back to the oasis in August 1905. On that visit, while pondering many questions, he built a shack out of palm fronds in the largest grove of towering palms. Spring waters gurgled nearby, making a beginning of a small creek. The days were idyllic, but there was a strange restlessness in the heart of Al Thornburg. Perhaps he had been too close to the lush palm grove and its environs. Or maybe the three-month stay for three successive years had taken away the wonder of this magnificent spot, this jewel of green in the brown desert.
Whatever it was, he was suddenly aware that someone, perhaps an Indian friend, was driving by team and wagon into the heart of the palm grove. Thornburg peered out from his palm frond shack; what he saw lifted his spirits. Drawn by two handsome mules was a new buckboard wagon on which sat a straight-backed man with reins in his hands. His blue eyes were taking in the groups of palms that made up Thousand Palm Oasis. Alkali Thornburg moved out of his lodgings and stood on a level piece of land. He called out "Welcome to my desert homestead!" The buckboard stopped; the man was speechless. That someone lived in this remote location was impossibility. " Do you own this oasis?" the man inquired. From his coat pocket Thornburg drew forth a rolled paper. "Here it is for you to see,' he said, "signed by our President." The man leaped nimbly to the ground, took the scroll and read it. When he looked up at Thornburg he asked: "Maybe you'd lease it to me. I need water and grass for stock." Thornburg said, "We'll talk about it."
Louis Wilhelm, a San Jacinto Valley stock rancher, had been concerned since the drought had begun in 1902 for his horses, mules, and jennies. No pasture meadows for feed, and the long drought still continued. On the advice of his foreman, Tom Acres, a former desert prospector, Wilhelm had hitched up his two prize mules to the new buckboard and headed east. After much searching he found the water stream in the Indio Hills foothills, followed it up north and came to grasslands and the large grove of native palms. It was a beautiful spot and ample pasture for a hundred head of his stock. At least he could save a third of his prize horses and mules.
When the homesteader offered the visitor a place to pasture his two mules, the invite was accepted. Together the two men returned to Thornburg's palm-shaded camp. The following day, August 5, 1905, the visitor was shown around the 80-acre homestead. Louis Wilhelm was greatly taken by the lush green of the large palm groves where spring water ran freely out of the little hill valley. It was one of those clear days with little breezes rustling fronds of palms as the two men ate their lunch in palm shade. "I greatly admire your two prize mules", Alkali Al Thornburg said, enjoying one of his visitor's sandwiches. "The new buckboard wagon is a classic, looks like it was made by an expert wagon builder." The visitor looked across at him. Before he could speak, Thornburg continued, "---so I'll tell you what; since you like the looks of my green waterpoint in these Indio Hills, I suggest we swap. I've always been an admirer of good stock and solid-built wagons, "how about your two mules and the buckboard for my 80 acres." So, Louis Wilhelm became the new owner of an incredibly beautiful jungle-like oasis of palms and springs and green pasture land in the desert. On their way into the County center at Riverside to legalize their swap, Thornburg, seated beside his homestead's new owner, wondered aloud, "Maybe I let the oasis go too freely; maybe it will amount to something one day." Louis Wilhelm was sometimes like a far-seer. He spoke now with pride in his new land ownership: "Whatever it will become, it is too beautiful to belong to one man. Perhaps one day it will be a park where everyone can enjoy it's cool refreshments and its peace and quiet."
When I was 9 years old in the 1920s, my Dad, Louis Wilhelm, brought some of us young sons and daughters out to see his Desert Holdings. What I saw , personally, riveted me. At nine years of age, I was taken by the green oasis in a setting of golden hills. Indian arrowheads were found in nearby sand dunes and the entire area seemed a new world of strange birds and animals. Looking back, I can now see that I was captured by this exotic terrain in a love affair that has persisted through many long years. On other camp outs with my Dad at the oasis of Thousand Palms, the wonder grew. This, I speculated, could be a home. I could be happy here and make a way of life. By 1940, with my Dad's permission and the help of my brother Pat, a little guest ranch thrived within oasis borders. My welcome signs included campers, picnickers, science students from colleges and universities, and Scout groups. My sandy road leading into the oasis needed monthly care and kerosene lamps were always being purchased for my six cabins, the last two financed by my Dad who relished occasional visits to the home of his 12th child.
When World War II intervened, even my nursery of seedling palms was closed down as well as niece Dolly's "Last Chance" restaurant in the large palm log Palm House. During the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, my brother Pat wrote that he had been out to see the oasis; "Part of it has been vandalized. But the main thing is that Dad has passed on and he has left the 80 acres to you." I resolved then to return to my desert heritage no matter what shape it was in. In the years following, with the help of a land
consultant, other nearby property owners were contacted. We united in a single purpose: to keep all land within, and surrounding, Thousand Palms Oasis intact.
Now in the hands of the Center for Natural Lands Management, the long-ago dream of the preservation of picturesque palm groves, golden foothills and mesas, white dunes, and silent canyons, including wildlife, that make this their habitat, has become a reality.