This is Part 3 of a 5-part series of posts entitled, The Wonders of Willow Creek. To read the previous post, CLICK THIS LINK. To read the next post in this series, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!
In 1844, Kit Carson and John Fremont passed through here and spent the night, while on an exploratory expedition for the U.S. government. They watered and grazed their horses at Willow Creek, and Fremont noted in his journal that this was the best grazing since entering the Mojave Desert. It’s presumed he learned this from his horses, and did not sample the grass himself.
By 1848, this route became known as the Mormon Road, and provided respite and water to settlers and soldiers, passing through the arid Mojave. And by 1849, the gold rush had created such a demand for mules and horses in California, that the Los Chaguanosos had to give up their trade, and leave the trail to more honest travelers.
In the late-1840s, the Donner Party had become famous for freezing to death and eating their own in the high Sierras of California. And so to avoid that fate, dozens of parties of 49’ers, bound for the gold fields during the winter months, skirted the Sierras to the south and traveled the Mormon Road through Willow Spring.
These 49’ers were feverish for gold, which was not abundant in this land to the east of Death Valley. So they kept traveling and apparently did not pay much attention to all the white stuff, veining the nearby hills. But eventually, somebody noticed.
Miners infiltrated the land beginning sometime around the 1870s. They pilfered the white veins, and poked many holes, finding minerals such as borax, talc, gypsum, and sodium nitrate. Mule trains transported these substances to civilized places where they were appreciated and held value. Then, around 1907, the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad constructed a line that put the mule trains out of business.
Sometime in the 1890’s, a Chinese man named Ah Foo, who had worked many years in the borax mines of Death Valley, came to Willow Spring. Here he established a ranch and planted fruits and vegetables. He sold the food he raised to local mining camps, and his spread became known to his customers as the Chinaman’s Ranch.
Then in 1900, a dastardly fellow by the name of Morrison, drifted onto the scene. Nobody’s quite sure what happened, but one story claims he bought the ranch from Ah Foo for $100 in gold coins. But according to another story, Morrison ran the Chinese man off at gunpoint, stealing the ranch by deforce, and claiming it as his own.
Regardless, the locals continued to call it the Chinaman’s Ranch. Apparently, the name had stuck for good, and in fact even today it’s called the China Ranch Date Farm.
Morrison sold out after a few years, and the Chinese ranch began to change hands like a hot potato tossing contest. It went through many different owners, who pursued many different enterprises. Some raised sheep, some cattle, some hogs. Some grew figs, and some grew alfalfa. But the most significant crop started with a newlywed couple named Modine.
Vonola Modine was the daughter of Ralph and Celestia Fairbanks, who were Death Valley area pioneers, and who had founded the town of Shoshone, about nine miles north of Tecopa. She was also the sister of Stella Fairbanks. Stella married a man named Charles Brown, who eventually became an influential state senator.
Vonola’s marriage was to a man named Alexander. Soon after their marriage, they ambitiously acquired the Chinaman’s Ranch. It had been abandoned and neglected, so they had to work hard to make it operational and productive again. Alex worked in a local mine, to raise funds he needed for the ranch. It seems they were a young couple with big dreams.
One day, Vonola read a magazine article about a new kind of crop growing in California’s Coachella Valley, called dates. She’d never seen a date, nor even a date palm, but she was curious, so she sent away for some seeds. She planted these seeds in two long rows that she envisioned would line a driveway for a house that she and her husband might someday build.