African-Americans Shaping the California Desert: Murray's Ranch

Herb Jeffries and Artie Young on Murray's Ranch | Screen capture from The Bronze Buckaroo, 1939Though the history of African-Americans in the California desert contains more than its share of privation, backbreaking toil and discrimination, it wasn't all as bleak as the desert's dry lakes. At places like Murray's Dude Ranch in Apple Valley, in fact, the history of African-American people in the desert mainly involved kicking back, enjoying a break from the grind of mid-20th-century city life, and drinking in that clean, high-desert air.

Not that there wasn't hard work to be done on the ranch. When Nolie and Lela Murray bought their 40-acre spread at Waalew and Bell Mountain roads in 1922 -- for $100 -- they committed themselves to what turned out to be a lifetime of hard work. Just getting the ranch established involved construction, planting an orchard and hand-digging a 115-foot-deep well into the hard desert soil.

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The Murrays weren't the first African-Americans in the area. The desert near Bell Mountain had been a gathering place for black homesteaders for close to a decade when Lela Murray's respiratory ailments prompted the pair to leave Los Angeles, where they'd owned a pool hall and cigar store on East 9th Street. At first, they ran their ranch as a waystation for troubled youth, focusing on African-American kids but before long including the complete rainbow of skin colors. Kids that came to the attention of the courts through misfortune or delinquency, or a combination of the two, were sent out to live with the Murrays, where they helped run the ranch. As desert historian Richard Thompson says in his invaluable profile of the Murrays,

Regardless of why the children were there, each one was assigned chores, and if the duties were not completed, the youngster would be taken to task by Nolie. But stern disciplinary measures were not often needed, as Nolie was a big personable character and the children were anxious to please him.

By the time the late 1930s rolled around, the ranch held about 20 structures including cabins, a stable, and the main house; tennis courts, a swimming pool, and a windmill to draw water from the well, which was deepened another 100 feet. Beset by bills that weren't met by meager court funds for the childrens' upkeep, the Murrays began converting their spread into a dude ranch, hoping to draw traffic not only from Los Angeles, but from the new cross-country Route 66 a few miles west.

Herb Jeffries, second from left in white hat, greets Flurnoy Miller | Screen capture from The Bronze Buckaroo

The High Desert, like much of the rest of the United States in the first half of the 20th century, was subject to de facto racial segregation. There were no explicit "Jim Crow"-style signs barring African-Americans from businesses or lodging in the Victorville area, at least until the arrival of black troops in the area during World War Two made some white business owners nervous. Before then, the unspoken exclusion was just as effective. Though none of the towns nearby seem to have been "sundown towns," older residents quite clearly recall that African-American customers were made unwelcome from white-owned restaurants, taverns and hotels in Victorville and Apple Valley. Black families traveling cross-country found few friendly venues for food and lodging; Victor Green's best-selling Negro Traveler's Green Book was able to list a large percentage of hospitable businesses nationwide in just 90 pages, with ads, as late as 1956. When Green started publishing his listing in the middle 1930s, the hospitality landscape was even more limited.

It was in this landscape that the Murrays decided to launch their dude ranch as a desert oasis for the black traveler in the high desert. Despite having what was essentially a monopoly on the African-American tourism market in the high desert, business started off slowly. It was only in 1937, when heavyweight champion Joe Louis visited the ranch in the company of photographers from Life Magazine, that the Murrays' success was assured.

A clipping from the March 25, 1939 AfroAmerican

Within just a few months, the Murrays' ranch -- dubbed by Nolie Murray "The Overall Wearing Dude Ranch" -- became a favored vacation spot for the African-American glitterati. Aside from Joe Louis, who returned to the ranch on several occasions, guests included performers Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Hattie McDaniel, Nina Mae McKinney and Lena Horne, as well as architect Paul Williams and other notables of color. In 1938, producers Richard Kahn began to use the ranch for a series of "Negro Westerns" starring actor and singer Herb Jeffries.

Embedded here is the 1939 film The Bronze Buckaroo, co-produced with Jed Buell (best known for his all little-people exploitation western "The Terror of Tiny Town"). Though some of the movie -- to put it delicately -- has not aged well, especially in scenes involving Lucius Brooks' comic character "Dusty," the film does offer reasonably clear glimpses of Murray's Ranch, including the aforementioned windmill, stables, and the main house.

It wasn't all Hollywood notables at the ranch, though. The Murrays played host to people of more modest means as well. Historian Richard Thompson relates the text of a letter received by the Murrays early on:

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.

Thompson continues:

When told that the rate for a cabin, food, and use of all the recreation facilities was only $30 a week, the writer of the letter, like most folks, could not wait to sign up.

The ranch's kitchen, operated by chef Malcolm Keyes, was popular among locals of all ethnicities, but with the exception of one unnamed white writer, who Thompson says was subsequently "blacklisted" from white-owned ranches in the area, there were no white overnight guests in the early years of the dude ranch. That changed, however, when the Murrays were featured in an article in 1945 that was first published in a Southern California union newspaper and then saw wide reprinting in periodicals from Negro Digest to the Daily Worker. Lela Murray, who handled booking for the ranch, began to get inquiries from potential white guests. Thompson again:

Lela said they knew that many of the letters were from whites. "I could tell," she recalled, "by their names. 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 stated that for awhile the town taxi driver would try to warn off the white folks who requested to go to Murray's Ranch, asking, "You know you're going to a Negro ranch?" -- but he soon gave that up, because they always knew.

Lela Murray died in 1949, aged 58. For a time a disconsolate Nolie attempted to sell the ranch without success. Eventually remarried to a Los Angeles schoolteacher named Callie Armstrong, who dug into ranch work by his side for a few years, Nolie eventually sold most of the ranch to the wildly popular singer Pearl Bailey, who had visited in 1943 on a USO tour, and her husband Louis Bellson. On the remaining five acres, he and Callie built a motel which they operated until his death in 1958 at age 70.

Bailey and Bellson kept the place for a decade or so and got involved in local life, until people Bailey later referred to as "Hollywood freeloaders" prompted them to sell the land. By 1988, the ranch had been abandoned for some years, and rumors of a brown recluse spider bite -- almost certainly untrue -- prompted the owners to ask the Apple Valley Fire Department to use the remaining buildings for training. They were burned down shortly thereafter.

And so the physical legacy of Nolie, Lela and Callie Murray was wiped from the face of the desert. All that remains are photos in yellowing magazines and graying microfiche, and copies of Jeffries' film -- long thought lost, and rescued almost by accident from a storage barn in Texas. But the ranch still persists in the living memory of those who were there as a sanctuary from the American apartheid of the 1930s and '40s, and the dream of a couple who just wanted to get out into the clean desert air and make the world a little better in the process.

More in this Series
- African-Americans Shaping the California Desert: Homesteading in the Mojave
- African-Americans Shaping the California Desert: Coachella Valley

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every week. He lives in Palm Springs. Read his previous posts here.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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