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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Life on Keys Ranch

Adapting to and Changing an Environment
Bill Keys thrived in the desert because of his resourcefulness and the diversity of tasks he performed. He built a ranch house, work sheds, and guest cabins out of wood, and he quarried rocks to build walls. He raised goats, chickens, and cattle for food, and grew fruits and vegetables. He owned at least 30 mining claims where he mined for gold and gypsum (a soft mineral used for ornamental objects). To make money, he operated a stamp mill (a machine that crushes rock in order to remove gold or other minerals). Area miners brought their ore to Keys who crushed it for a fee. None of these activities alone could have supported his family, but combined, they provided for their needs.

Lack of water was the first and most constant obstacle Keys faced. He dug deep wells by hand, constructed windmills, and dammed up the rocky canyons surrounding the ranch to create a lake. The lake irrigated the orchard and vegetable garden through a sophisticated system of piping and served as an emergency supply of drinking water if the wells dried up. It also provided recreation in the forms of fishing, swimming, and ice skating.

Keys' ability to repair machines and household items often came in handy. Since the ranch site was far from town, the family rarely threw anything away that they might use to fix a broken item. Keys scavenged abandoned ranches and mines for rails, wire, pipes, household items, old cars, and tires left behind by less successful people. He even purchased an entire junk yard and organized it into neat piles on the ranch to use as a supply yard.

The Keys family knew the importance of working as a team. With the nearest doctor more than 50 miles away, the family depended on each other for treatment of minor afflictions. They traded or bartered with local homesteaders and business owners in Twentynine Palms for items they could not produce on the ranch such as salt, coffee, flour, and sugar.

Relations with Ranch Neighbors
Most of the surrounding homesteaders and miners viewed Keys' ranch as the center of their desert network and its owner as a helpful friend. Miners appreciated his knowledge of mines in the area and his milling capabilities. Keys built a one-room school house for his children and others in the area to ensure they received a proper education despite their isolation. He provided the teacher with a cabin on the ranch. The family also hosted many visitors at the ranch including well-known writer Erle Stanley Gardner, and famous botanists Phillip Munz and Edmund Jaeger. Jaeger, while identifying new desert plant species, named a flower "Keysia" (Glyptopleura setulosa) in honor of the kindness the Keys family showed to so many desert travelers.¹

Like the typical self-reliant 19th-century homesteader, Keys adamantly protected the needs and interests of his family. This attitude sometimes caused him to be at odds with people around him. Disagreements over water rights led cowboys working for a nearby cattle company to label Keys a troublemaker. Keys acquired large sections of land surrounding public water sources. Access to the water was cut off once Keys fenced the land, but the cattle company still ran 300-400 head of cattle there causing damage to Keys' fences and putting a heavy strain on the water supply. The cowboys further retaliated by cutting his fences, shooting his cattle, or driving them to market with the company's herd.

Another problem arose in 1936 when a citizen-led campaign to preserve the unique desert environment of the region resulted in the creation of Joshua Tree National Monument. This new unit of the National Park Service (which became Joshua Tree National Park in 1994) completely surrounded Keys Ranch. Keys had a volatile relationship with Park Service personnel because new regulations limited his cattle grazing, opened his water holes to the public, and restricted his homesteading and mining activities. Keys, who had lived in the area for 25 years, resented the government regulations.

Keys had more serious problems with another neighbor, Worth Bagley. He had built a road leading to one of his mining claims on land Bagley later purchased. Despite repeated warnings by Bagley, Keys believed the road belonged to him and continued to use it. To retaliate, Bagley set up an ambush for Keys one day in 1943. Keys proved to be a better shot, however, and the confrontation ended in Bagley's death. Believing he had acted in self-defense, Keys turned himself in to the authorities. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in San Quentin prison. After his release from jail in 1948, Keys worked to earn a pardon, which finally came eight years later.

The Retirement Years
Bill Keys returned to the ranch at the age of 69 to resume the active life he had left behind. In his 70s, he built two more dams behind the house, enlarged the orchard and garden areas, assessed his mining properties, and temporarily reopened his mill. He even played the role of a prospector in the Disney Company's film The Wild Burro of the West.

When his wife died in 1963, Keys sold the ranch to Henry Tubman who traded the property with the government for federal land elsewhere. Thus, the ranch became the property of the National Park Service. Keys lived on the ranch until his death on June 28, 1969. While the world outside the ranch had changed dramatically, Keys' way of life had remained remarkably constant. In 1994, the town of Twentynine Palms commissioned a mural to commemorate Bill Keys and to illustrate the impact he had on the area. (See Getting Started photo.)

Questions for Reading 2

1. Why was the Keys family successful in the desert? Give some examples.

2. How did Keys modify his environment? How did he adapt to it?

3. How did the creation of Joshua Tree National Monument affect Keys' life?

4. Why did Keys spend five years in prison? How else might Keys and Bagley have resolved their problem?

Reading 2 was adapted from Robert Cates, Joshua Tree National Park: A Visitor's Guide (Chatsworth, Calif.: Live Oak Press, 1984); Reino and Wendy Clark, The Desert Queen Ranch (Twentynine Palms, Calif.: Joshua Tree Natural History Association, no date); Linda W. Greene, "Historic Resource Study: A History of Land Use in Joshua Tree National Monument," U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1983; and Richard Vidutis, "Historic American Building Survey No. CA-2347, Desert Queen Ranch," U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1993.

¹Edmund C. Jaeger, Desert Wild Flowers (Stanford University Press, 1940), 314.

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