Susie Keef Smith took a job as postmaster at the lowest elevation post office in the US, on the northern edge of the Salton Sea, in 1926. She wore a full leg brace due to childhood polio and was picked on by her peers because of her disability. For escape, she looked not to nearby Palm Springs and its budding Hollywood scene, but to the empty desert to the east: The Big Unknown.
The charismatic woman who walked with a lurch began exploring this landscape and taking photographs of its few inhabitants. She turned the photos into postcards she sold on the Mecca Post Office spinner rack. Among her subjects were the last of the burro prospectors, surveyors on the Colorado River Aqueduct and the All-American Canal, the newborn Salton Sea and the Orocopia and Chocolate Mountains. Soon, her solo adventure ("Wild" for the 1920s) morphed into a buddy story when she was joined by her 21-year-old Tennessee cousin and fellow photographer Lula Mae Graves.
Susie Smith's 1,500 photographs of the early desert were almost lost to history. When she died in Leucadia in 1988, a San Diego county estate administrator tossed her life's work into a dumpster. A quick-thinking archaeologist leapt into the bin and rescued what we now know to be an unparalleled portrait of a neglected corner of the California desert.
It's a land known as the Chuckwalla or affectionately, The Chuck. Given the current popularity of the desert with ad-makers and Instagrammers, you wouldn't think there could be a neglected corner of the desert. But think of that big featureless stretch after you pass Indio on the I-10 and head over Chiriaco summit toward the Arizona state line.
In a new book — “Postcards From Mecca: The California Desert Photographs of Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves, 1916-1936” — and an accompanying exhibit at the La Quinta Museum through May 11, 2019, you can see a portrait of this lost land made by two heretofore forgotten documentary photographers of the 1920s. In the following excerpt from the book, Susie and Lula discover a bohemian paradise at Corn Springs in the Chuckwalla Mountains.
When Susie and Lula first visited Corn Springs in 1929, Susie was 29, Lula 21. They departed Mecca via a dirt road through Box Canyon, a place that impressed early desert writer J. Smeaton Chase as "a charm of color, a mystery of design … there has been some wild work here in some heroic age of Geologics." Subject to flash floods that wash cars down to the Salton Sea to this day, the canyon was Susie and Lula's entryway to the bigger desert.
Once they hit the main road (now Interstate 10) they continued on dirt. Formerly known as Chuckwalla Road, the highway was described as "two ruts across 90 miles of blow sand" in a 1938 Desert Magazine article. It took nine hours of concentrated driving to cover the distance.
The only stopping place was at "Desert Steve" Ragsdale's store in Desert Center. Steve was a poet, an eccentric and a former Missouri minister. Once called "a young volcano in the pulpit," he founded the town of Desert Center and would become a member of Susie and Lula's bohemian enclave.
Ten miles east of Desert Center, the two turned off the main road and continued eight miles over a rough track to the Corn Springs palm grove. Everything still wild in the desert seemed to converge at Corn Springs, an oasis named for the multicolored corn that came up every summer, planted by previous generations of Indian residents.
Corn Springs was in the middle of the Chuckwalla, one of the largest California gold districts outside the Mother Lode country. In the 1880s, miners drifted in by the hundreds establishing mines with evocative names like Red Cloud, Lost Pony, The Good Luck, Morning Star and Iron Chief.
The boom had faded by the time Susie and Lula arrived, but they encountered the hardcore stragglers, the die-hard treasure-seekers who never gave up the hope for gold. The Chuckwalla remained frontier long after the frontier closed. It remains frontier to an extent today.
Along with gold, The Chuck was dense with lost mines and legends. The Orocopia — one of the ranges Susie and Lula roamed — means “gold in abundance.” For those inclined to look, you can still search here for Peg Leg's lost gold and the Lost Ship of the Desert — a Spanish galleon or pearl ship rumored to be sunken in the Salton Sink — along with myriad other lost items.
Corn Springs in the 1920s was not even close to being a village, but rather a gypsy camp of oddball desert rats. John de la Garza lived here full-time. The so-called Mayor of Corn Springs (a title he traded off at times with Gus Lederer), he had crossed the desert on foot from Nevada to work the Morning Star Mine. Another regular, Martin Augustine, struck gold near Chuckwalla Spring in 1917.
In meeting this eccentric cast of characters, Susie and Lula also struck gold. Given their mutual unhappiness at home, they were like teenagers running away together. At Corn Springs, they found fellow Peter Pan castaways and their own Neverland.
Here they created an idyllic world (for those of similar tastes) of hammocks strung between full-crowned palm trees and writing desks under the palms, all in a campsite encircled by more than 600 petroglyphs. Corn Springs was the nexus for a network of Indian trails that led throughout Southern California and Arizona. The Indians who traveled here — Chemehuevi, Cahuilla and Yuma — drew human and animal figures and abstract designs (thought to be made in trance states) on the rocks. The profusion of petroglyphs gave an aura of importance to the oasis. It was as if every campfire here was overseen by the ancients.
The campground was surrounded by dozens of fan palms, thickets of ironwood, mesquites, catclaw, desert willow and smoke trees, with displays of ferns, lilies and purple aster to brighten the wet seasons. (Today the palm trees number only 21, as a depleted aquifer has thinned the grove.)
In Lula's notes, written when she was in her 50s, she described a gothic assortment of misfits including Cahuilla cowboys and a former jockey from England who had his face kicked in by a horse. The women's nearest neighbor at Corn Springs was the legendary prospector and painter Gus Lederer. He lived in the abandoned assay office and painted portraits of bighorn sheep and the surrounding desert. Gus — who died in 1932 of a black widow spider bite — baked each of his burros a supersized pancake for breakfast.
Up the canyon, three miles in Aztec Well, was the former haunt of the prospector Little Tommy Jones (he was five feet tall). When Jones died he was buried near his cabin with a plaque that read: May He Strike It Rich In the Great Beyond.
While cleaning up Tommy's cabin, his friends found a book of Robert Burns poems, along with Tommy's own verse pasted on the board walls. Tommy's epic on the desert wind that serenaded Corn Springs noted the "singing singing singing, whistling whistling whistling..."
I am the desert, I give peace... I give strength, I give power. I give peace for every hour. I am the desert giving giving giving. Come to me, you who are weary of living.
Another Corn Springs regular, prospector Frank Coffey, had worked every mine in the area and found Corn Springs "the prettiest place you ever saw." In the tradition of early desert rats who were wed to their pack animals, he confounded visitors by referring to his burro as Mrs. Coffey. He brought in loads of fig trees in his donkey cart and the figs took root and proliferated over the camp. Frank and Tommy spent decades at Corn Springs, eternally faithful to the "mineral possibilities" of the place.
As the newest members of this community, Susie and Lula were as focused as any WPA photographers on assignment. They were intent on recording the people, the time and place — as if they knew very well the time of flapjacks and burros was soon to end.
The photographs of Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves are on display along with landscape paintings by Lula's grandson, artist Warner Graves, through May 11, 2019 at the La Quinta Museum. The book "Postcards From Mecca: California Desert Photographs of Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves, 1916-1936," is available via Amazon. postcardsfrommecca.com
Top Image: Mr. Brant, the Cactus Candy Man of Mecca, appeared in this postcard called Trail Breakers of the West. | Susie Keef Smith postcard. Warner Graves Collection.