The Early Years

The Early Years

President Reagan_Nancy_Walter_Leonore Annenberg

It’s known as the “Playground of Presidents” — a 25-square-mile stretch of palm-dotted land in the heart of Southern California’s Coachella Valley. Dwight D. Eisenhower lent his name to the city’s renowned medical center. Gerald Ford lived here through the final days of his life. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all visited Sunnylands, the famous, pink-walled estate of the late publishing magnate and Ambassador Walter and Leonore Annenberg.

Rancho Mirage has a reputation as the birthplace of the modern country club, the star-studded home to a galaxy of Hollywood celebrities and captains of industry, and the favored destination of scores of U.S. and global leaders.

Since the City’s incorporation in 1973, leaders have made quality of life — luxury, community, recreation, and conservation— its top priority.

Rancho Mirage is celebrating its semicentennial amid the development of Cotino, a Storyliving by Disney residential oasis with a lagoon and a luxury hotel where magical moments are bound to create lasting memories for generations to come. The occasion also marks a moment to reflect on the City’s rich history.

Men w/woman at US Capitol

From the native Cahuilla people to the gold rush prospectors and early ranchers who gave way to a new world of country clubs, resorts, and restaurants, the trajectory of the City of Rancho Mirage is animated with pioneering characters and an eye toward luxury and an unwavering respect for the land.

Before there were ranches or country clubs or the name “Rancho Mirage,” there was the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, whose history and traditions were passed down over thousands of years, since time immemorial, through “bird songs” that connect past and present.

Agua Caliente is part of a constellation of Cahuilla tribes whose territory prior to European contact stretched from the Borrego Desert in the south to the San Bernardino Mountains in the north and from the city of Riverside to the west to the Colorado River to the east. Anthropologists organized the Cahuilla into three “zones”: (San Gorgonio) Pass, Mountain, and Desert. The Desert Cahuilla occupied the flat elevations of the Coachella Valley down to the Salton Sea.

The Agua Caliente Band is one of nine federally recognized tribes in the region and the only whose reservation checkerboards on land within the City of Rancho Mirage — and that was a long time coming.

Not long after the railroads put down tracks, non-Native American settlers came to capitalize on the Coachella Valley’s potential, disrupting the tribe’s way of life and threatening its ancestral homeland.

Grid map

In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant set aside land in an executive order allotting a checkerboard of even-numbered sections as the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation (odd-numbered sections went to the railroad), leaving the tribe with only small portions of their traditional territory. The following year, President Rutherford B. Hayes extended the reservation to cover the even-numbered sections in three townships. In 1891, the Mission Indian Relief Act authorized allotments from the acreage to individual tribal members; however, more than 50 years passed before the Secretary of the Interior approved the individually owned parcels. The Equalization Act of 1959 finalized those allotments.

Today, about 31,000 reservation acres and 7,000 off-reservation lands make up Agua Caliente land. The reservation stretches across parts of Riverside County and the cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City, and Rancho Mirage in a checkerboard pattern of landholdings that includes tribal trust land, allotted trust land, and fee land.

For the Agua Caliente, the surrounding Indian and Tahquitz canyons and water sources such as the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring are the foundation upon which the tribe continues to flourish.

The tribe has emerged as a political force locally and at the state and federal levels. It has also grown as a local economic powerhouse. In Rancho Mirage alone, the Agua Caliente Casino operates a luxurious resort with the award-winning Sunstone Spa, The Steakhouse, 360 Sports bar, Pívat Cigar Lounge, and The Show entertainment venue. Across the street Agua Caliente Fuel offers a convenient filling station and store with gaming off Interstate 10 and Bob Hope Drive.

The tribe also supports the city’s police and fire services, infrastructure projects, educational initiatives, and more through a variety of grants and partnerships — an intergovernmental relationship that
benefits the Agua Caliente tribe as well as the residents and visitors of Rancho Mirage.

Wonder Palms Ranch: The First Residential Property

After California won its independence in the Mexican-American War in 1848 and as U.S. expansion into the West gained momentum, President Lincoln gave emerging railroads incentives to connect the nation’s distant coasts. Southern Pacific Railroad surveyors arrived in Indio, the halfway point between Los Angeles and Yuma, Arizona, in 1872. Within four years, a Craftsman-style depot was operating there, largely supporting the burgeoning agriculture economy but also enticing visitors and settlers with its adjacent hotel that became the social nucleus of the day.

In the next decade, daily trains were shuttling visitors to and from “America’s Winter Playground” from points east and west. Eventually, the ubiquitous advertising of the Southern Pacific Railroad made the desert a world-renowned destination, setting the stage for an influx of new residents.

Los Angeles developers began purchasing land from the Southern Pacific Railroad and subdivided it into 10-acre farms for “gentlemen farmers” — in other words, city escapees. Some enthusiastic buyers bought up to 80 acres, giving them greater opportunities to hone their farming skills.

Wonder Palms Rancho BrochureBy 1912, Everett Knox DaVall had purchased a half-section of land, planted 250 date palms, and established Wonder Palms Ranch. Incidentally, in 1956, Avenue 38 was renamed Wonder Palms Road to honor the first residential property in what would become Rancho Mirage. (The street name changed again in 1971 to recognize Frank Sinatra. Tamarisk Country Club was developed in the 1940s on what had been DaVall’s acreage, and in 1954, Sinatra bought a William F. Cody–designed house on the 17th fairway of the club’s golf course. DaVall’s legacy was hardly swept under the rug: DaVall Drive’s southern terminus, at Frank Sinatra Drive, lies only .2 miles west of the Tamarisk Country Club entrance.)

Vintage postcard

Ronald Button and Magnesia Falls

William Everett established the second ranch after buying land at the northeast end of Magnesia Falls Drive in 1925 and dubbing it Eleven Mile Ranch because it sat that equidistance from Palm Springs and Indio. After four years, he sold his property to Southland Land and Realty Company, which intended to create a subdivision styled after Egypt’s Nile Valley, going so far as to incorporate camels and pyramids and naming streets Tangier, Tunis, and Sahara roads.

Alas, the Great Depression trampled the ambitious project until the mid-1930s, when Los Angeles real estate man Laurence Macomber along with Louis Blankenhorn, the founder of Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs, bought the nascent subdivision plus several hundred more acres. They developed “modern attractive small homes”’ designed by Pasadena architects Van Pelt & Lind, whose desert-based designers were John Porter Clark and Albert Frey. Blankenhorn, Macomber, and local Realtor Don Cameron also sold lots, advertised as “15 minutes from Palm Springs.” Blankenhorn’s wife, Ruth, suggested naming the enclave “Rancho Mirage.”

Solitude-seeking types were attracted to the open desert, among them actor Frank Morgan (The Wizard of Oz), who in 1938 built one of the first half dozen adobe-style homes, which still stands today. With the onset of World War II, development again came to a standstill.

Man on horse at ranch

An enterprising Hollywood attorney, A. Ronald Button, came to the rescue in 1944, buying the subdivision and expanding his land holdings into Magnesia Falls Cove. A graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School, he was a corporate and business lawyer known for representing film stars in expensive divorce cases and for his political connections. Button’s daughter, Barbara, was often alongside him and in awe of the celebrity-filled parties at her parents’ home in the Outpost Estates enclave of Hollywood. She also accompanied her parents to Palm Springs. At that time, the town was becoming a getaway for the movie industry, and Button had an eye for opportunity.

In a jaunt past the inhabited edge of Palm Springs, Barbara recalls, “We were in the car, and as he drove out, we saw this land in the middle of nowhere. Nothing was around it. He decided to buy it. My mother thought he was out of his mind, as did everybody in Hollywood. It was a high risk.” Button saw the potential in land that captured the romantic beauty of the West. “He had the foresight, and he was determined, as he was with everything in life.”

Button began buying acreage in Magnesia Falls Cove to develop speculative homes and sell lots to individuals, including film star Hedy Lamarr, as well as multiple lots to developers who built tract homes.

Advertisements extolled the virtues of the setting: “A spot where worries fade and time stands still.”

Button partnered with actor Dave Culver to herald new subdivisions and apartment buildings. “They bought [almost] 2,000 acres,” Barbara recalls. His plan was to acquire more land as part of a larger vision to create a city. To do this, he needed other investors. In 1945, the two men purchased three sections (three square miles of land) that would eventually become Rancho Mirage.

Button partnered briefly with his brother-in-law, radio and TV personality Art Linkletter, to develop some of the most striking homes, saving the best lot for himself — a two-acre parcel high up Dunes View Road, where his “Linkletter” home still overlooks the Coachella Valley. Linkletter was an entrepreneur, but not so much when it came to the desert, so he eventually bowed out.

Button turned over management of the developments to Mel Anderson while he served as California state treasurer from 1956 to 1959 but then resumed his activities and headed Rancho Mirage Community Association until February 1965.

Over the years, Button, who died in 1987 at age 83, sold most of the land to Beverly Hills developers Desser & Garfield. They continued to build homes throughout the 1960s.

Rancho entrance
As for Eleven Mile Ranch, Jack and Helen Dengler bought the property in 1946 and opened White Sun Guest Ranch. The Denglers paid $250,000 for 10 acres “of sand and some weathered old ranch buildings,” Helen wrote in White Sun: Memoirs of a Desert Guest Ranch. Over the years, they expanded to 50 acres and added a pool, badminton and shuffleboard courts, a pitch and putt golf course, and tennis courts. In 1957, the year he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, Yul Brynner stayed at White Sun and routinely enjoyed breakfast with staff before a morning ride.

Vintage postcard

Dengler recounts actor Henry “Biff” Wilcoxon, during one of his frequent White Sun visits, was horseback riding when he stopped to explore the acoustics of a standpipe, a freestanding pipe with a tap that dispenses water where there’s no other running supply. At the time, he was associate producer on Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Before long, a Paramount Studios crew arrived with equipment and Moses portrayer Charlton Heston, who spoke into the standpipe for his lines as God speaking to Moses at the burning bush.

The Denglers sold their ranch in 1980 to a Long Beach company that turned it into a gay resort called The New Lost World. The land where the resort sat is now a gated community of some 50 homes called White Sun Estates.

Rio Del Sol Estates and Other Pioneers

Rancho-style home

R.P. “Bert” Davie and E.E. McIntyre began buying 80-acre parcels in 1924 and then sold the land — mostly to their friends and business peers in Santa Monica. Davie gouged out a road across the Whitewater River flood channel, which he dubbed Rio del Sol, to serve residents of what became known as Rio del Sol Estates. Leslie and Helen Clancy, arriving from Santa Monica, built the first ranch, with an adobe ranch house, there in 1932, planting dates, grapefruit, and grapes on their 10 acres. Clancy Lane is named for them. Helen Clancy recalled that when they moved to the desert, it was “nothing but sand, and if you ever got out of your [track] rut, you got stuck.” Today, what was Rio del Sol Estates is known as the Clancy Lane neighborhood and the street as Bob Hope Drive.

The oldest houses belonged to the Follansbees, who built three houses from river rock in the early 1930s. They too have a road named for them, and one of their rock houses, Ranchito Chiquito, was relocated stone by stone in 2004 to Whitewater Park (now Rancho Mirage Community Park) in recognition of it being the oldest existing home in Rancho Mirage. It was built in 1934.

Man & woman in front of rancho-style home

Among more famous early residents was film star John Warburton. In 1937, he bought the 160-acre Red Roof Ranch from Philip Boyd, Palm Springs’ first mayor. Ruth Warburton kept the property after their divorce, in due course selling acreage to Thunderbird Country Club to provide additional land for the golf course.

Desert Air Hotel

Desert Air logo
Los Angeles architect Henry “Hank” Gogerty was looking for a winter retreat — “a quiet place where cars wouldn’t be whizzing by” — when, in 1936, he bought 10 acres at the end of the sandy Rio del Sol (now Bob Hope Drive), as he recollected in a 1980 Palm Desert Historical Society interview. The site of Rancho Hankaru sat at the corner of what’s now Country Club Drive, making him McIntyre’s neighbor. Gogerty began building a house on the property on Thanksgiving weekend of 1939 and ate Christmas dinner in it. He began buying adjoining acreage, eventually amassing some 600 acres.

Interior of restaurant w/view of airplanesActor Gordon MacRae and others enjoy a meal on a Desert Air Hotel breakfast ride 1957

After flying his own planes between his Los Angeles and desert homes, Gogerty leveled land to build an airpark where he could land his small plane as well as Desert Air Hotel, which opened in early 1951. Its rental cottages and swimming pool became so popular with aviation-minded celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, James Stewart, and Edgar Bergen that a second runway was eventually added, and it was alternately used as a polo field. Visitors enjoyed the convenience of landing near the hotel’s restaurant and walking the short distance to their stylish lodgings, all while mingling with celebrities such as Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe and heads of state like Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Desert Air Hotel closed in 1968 and was razed in the early ’70s, making way for the developments that exist on the site today, including the Rancho Las Palmas Country Club, Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa, and Rancho Las Palmas Shopping Center.

Vintage airplane