There are some quintessential names when it comes to the original pioneers of the desert. Names like Death Valley Scotty, Seldom Seen Slim, John Hilton, Marshal South, Marjorie Reed, Ma Preston and many many more. But one name that should always be close to the top, is the incomparable Harry Oliver, the King of the Desert Rats. Harry was born at Hastings Minnesota in 1888 and was raised in a more rural environment. With all of the characters most people wished they grew up with, like trappers, guides, steamboat workers, and woodsmen, Harry himself became a noted guide and canoesman. As a young child Harry began work at a small print shop, so that he could learn to spell according to his father, and eventually worked making posters for Ringling Brothers, and even made some for the Seattle Worlds Fair after his family moved there in 1909. It’s in Seattle where John B. Stetson gave him his trademark hat. His family then moved to Santa Cruz California a short time later, but Harry returned to Minnesota to marry Alice Elizabeth Fernlund and they would have two daughters together, Amy Fern and Mary Alice.However he quickly returned to California.
“Last year I showed the visiting animals (tourists), my extraordinary new lighting bug. I reasoned by crossing moths (which always fly towards light) with lighting bugs (which give light), the outcome would be moths with lights on their tails. In theory these Pinwheel Bugs, as I call them, would fly around in circles, chasing their tail.” Harry Oliver Oct./1960
In 1911 Harry began working in Hollywood as a set painter, but ended his nearly forty film, and almost thirty year career as a set designer, who was twice nominated for the Academy Awards. Some of his films include the original Ben Hur, Scarface, 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Viva Villa. His very first nomination was for 7th Heaven, which also was the first year that the Academy Awards were given out, but unfortunately he did not win. Harry’s architecture style was in demand and popular, and in a way, it can still been seen today. Some of the most famous would be the Tam O’ Shanter Inn, which is still in operation, the original design for the Van de Kamps windmill, their now world renown trademark. Also, every Halloween people still gather around to see the Spadena Witch House in Beverly Hills. It has also been said that he may have been an inspiration for Walter Knott’s Calico Ghost Town, in a way. In 1935 he designed and built the 21 acre ” Gold Gulch”, for the California Pacific International Exposition. Gold Gulch could was a complete reproduction of old western mining camp and ghost town and according to rumor, Harry had conversations with Mr. Knott, but was not officially connected to the Calico Ghost Town .
Harry and some of his Hollywood friends began to visit the desert sometime in the mid to late 1900’s, and by 1929 he decided to settle in the young town of Borego Springs (Borrego was originally spelled with only one “L”). His original adobe home is still there, directly across from the Pegleg Smith Monument. In January of 1935, Alice has passed away, and Harry was now left with the task of raising two girls, and he did the best he could. In 1952, the girls would later write a book about Harry entitled “Harry Oliver THE OLD MIRAGE SALESMAN”. Harry would move from Borrego Springs to Thousand Palms just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He spent his wartime growing rubber and working for the Army at the Palm Springs Airport. When after the war, Harry desert stories that were published in a variety of magazines to include New Mexico, The Gold Miner, , The Grizzly Bear,Todo, Desert Magazine, and others. Afterwards wrote columns for Desert Magazine, Arizona Highways, and dailies for a variety of California and Arizona newspapers. “But my writing wasn’t in demand until I became my own publisher”. So so Harry decided it was time for a new and different publication, and he began to publish the Desert Rat Scrap Book, “The only 5-page newspaper in America, and the only one you can open in the wind.” The collection totals 46 issues, but the last two were not published by Harry. These issues were filled with the humor and philosophy of a desert, complete with treasure stories, and Harry’s unique vision of the world, politics and life as he saw it. Harry was even cited in the Treasure of Western Folklore by B. A. Botkins, which to some, is considered the anthology western folklore and myth.
Here is an example of one of Harry’s tales, entitled Whiskey Joe:
He was also was instrumental in advancing the Lost Pegleg Mine yarn, he had carved out nearly 60 peg-legs out of wood, and planted them throughout the desert. Only to sit back and wait for someone to excitedly bring one to town, and watch them yelling about being how close they were to finding Peglegs gold. When asked why he did it, Harry replied “Oliver says the Government stocks trout streams for fisherman, why shouldn’t I stock the desert with peglegs?” In November of 1947 Harry and other fellow desert pioneers got together and formed the Pegleg Smith Monument. The sign simply reads ” Let those who seek Peglegs gold, add ten rocks to this pile”, a quote from Harry himself. The idea was that eventually people would be too lazy to bring any rocks, so they would simply move some from one side to the other. Then Harry would have the first ” moving” monument. He was also one of the very first people to be involved with the Peglegs Liars Contest, which began on January 1st 1949. The “trophies” were made out of a combination of old trophies from the second hand store, pieced together. But how great would it be to actually find one! Maybe you know someone with one, or have a picture of one? If you do let us know! On a side note, according to lore, Walt Disney said that it was Harry Oliver who invented the term “litterbug”…
Sometime right after the war, Harry began to build Old Fort Oliver, which was located at the corner of Ramon and Varner Rd in Thousand Palms California ( Bob Hope exit ). It was just like an old western movie set, a western outpost completely made out of adobe and with a giant horned toad named Lena, a flagpole, Mexican cart, his old 29 Ford truck, and his trusted dog Whiskers. Harry loved his old Ford truck, and it was even the first vehicle over the “Fort Oliver Bridge” (Ramon Overpass), in March of 1962.
I was very fortunate, in that about five years ago, I was able to sit down and talk to Betty Stohler, author of A Kiss for the Desert, from Harry Oliver. Betty’s husband used to restore old Ford trucks, and he was the one who restored Harry’s, which I’m told is still in good running shape in San Diego somewhere. She also has an AMAZING collection of items from Harry as well as some other well known desert characters. Among her collection was the last unfinished wooden pegleg, his nameplate from his desk, even his Gold Gulch sheriff’s badge. I will always be indebted to her and her family for all the information they shared with me…
On July 4th, 1973, one of the desert’s most beloved pioneers passed away. He was known to be a newspaper columnist, publisher, desert character, designer, showman, joker, mirage salesman, and even a press agent for a ghost (Pegleg Smith). But to me he will always be one of the dynamic people who was at the right place at the right time, although I’m sure Harry have hold a different opinion….
For the most information one can EVER find about Harry Oliver, please check out Ric Carter’s GREAT site at http://www.klaxo.net/hofc/hofc.htm