Thursday, May 21, 2015

A History of Barker Ranch

In 2005 the National Park Service completed a Cultural Landscapes Inventory on the Thomason/Barker Ranch (known better generally as just Barker Ranch) as part of a continuing effort of cataloging the cultural resources of the Death Valley area. The resulting 77-page report included chapters on the chronology and physical history of the ranch, geographic information, an analysis and evaluation of the ranch's integrity, and ended with a determination that the ranch should be preserved and maintained and that it was eligible for listing on the National Register.

Portions of the report of interest to readers of this blog have been reprinted below. 

The front page of the report

National Park Service Cultural Landscapes Inventory 2005
Thomason/Barker Ranch
Death Valley National Park

"The 1930s witnessed an unprecedented migration of people desiring to escape urban life in order to experience a simpler and less restrictive existence in the remote desert. Others moved to the desert at this time in order to escape the consequences of the Depression by trying to eke out a living on the land rather than face urban soup lines. Since the 1930s the California deserts have provided a sanctuary for those seeking to escape from mainstream society. People have often been attracted to the secluded and wild environment that the desert provided because it created a feeling of isolation and freedom among those who were avoiding the law, those who wished to live away from other people, or for those who simply did not want to conform to conventional society. The desert attracted people who held to the belief that it was one of the last American Frontiers -- offering the maximum amount of freedom from social order and legal constraints. People of this mindset have settled in or drifted in and out of the Goler Wash vicinity over the past 70 years.

"It was during this initial era of escape to the desert that the Thomason/Barker Ranch was first settled. In 1937, Bluch and Helen Thomason, a retired couple from Los Angeles, moved to Goler Wash after filing a claim with Inyo County for a five acre mill site. This was the land on which they subsequently built their retirement retreat. As required under the General Mining Act of 1872, the development and use of residences on Government Law Office (GLO) managed lands depended on the owners' ability to show proof of their active use of the land for mining activities. The Thomasons' primary reason for moving to Goler Wash was to retire in the desert, and they used the provisions of the Mining Act of 1872 as a means to this end. For the same reason, the Barkers, who acquired mining rights to the ranch in 1956, moved to the area because of their attraction to the desert and their desire to retire in a secluded environment. They also used their mining claims as a means to legally occupy the government-owned land. This was substantiated by the testimony of Emmett Harder, a local resident and prospector who knew the Barkers during the period they lived in Goler Wash. 

"The Thomasons and the Barkers were not the only families who used mining claims as the basis for developing recreational ranches in this area. Four other families maintained retreats in the Goler Wash area, and a similar number developed retreats in nearby Butte Valley in the 1930s and 1940s. Like the Thomason/Barker Ranch, these residences were located on GLO-administered lands and were also legally occupied due to the owners' association with small-scale mining.

"In 1968, the Barkers ceased living on their ranch, and by 1971 they had completely abandoned the site. Many of the other family retreats in the area had been abandoned by this time as well. The exception was the Myers Ranch, which had been successfully patented under the General Mining Act of 1872 a decade earlier. Today, the Myers property has been completely reconstructed following a devastating fire, and its physical structures retain no historic integrity. It is, however, the only residential complex in the area that remains a family-controlled retreat.

"The Thomason/Barker Ranch reverted to BLM [Bureau of Land Management] management in 1971. Since that time, tourists and outdoor enthusiasts have used the area as an overnight destination. Despite decades of benign neglect, most of the buildings and structures remain intact but are in poor condition. As such, the Thomason/Barker Ranch serves as the only remaining example of a primitive recreational ranch and retirement retreat in Death Valley National Park."

Above: the site plan of the Barker Ranch

Below: a chronological history of the ranch

Besides covering the entire history of the ranch the report also has a lengthy summary of the activities of Charles Manson and his associates during their time in the area:

Charles Manson Family (1968-1969)

"The fall of 1968, the peaceful history of Thomason/Barker Ranch was forever changed when Charles Manson obtained permission from Arlene Barker to indefinitely occupy the ranch with his "Family." During this era, many of those labeled by the media as hippies and others associated with the counter culture were seeking solace and escape from the pressures of modern society. For these individuals, the secluded environs of Death Valley, like other remote areas, represented an alluring sanctuary far removed from the repressive trappings of the urban "establishment." In the eyes of many long-time Death Valley residents accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of prospectors and desert rats, the Manson Family appeared on the surface no more unconventional than other newcomers who frequented the desert byways and canyons.

"Favorable descriptions of Goler Wash were provided to Manson by 17-year-old Cathy Gillies, a recently inducted Family member and grandchild of Barbara Myers. Agreeing that the location would likely meet their needs, the Manson Family began a phased move to Goler Wash. The first of many forays to Goler Wash consisted of seventeen adults and two babies, journeying from Los Angeles in a reconditioned school bus. They hiked the arduous last five miles from the mouth of the canyon to the Myers Ranch, their original destination. Their school bus would later be driven to the Thomason/Barker Ranch by way of the eastern route over Mengel Pass, an equally challenging and (for the bus at any rate) debilitating accomplishment. Manson eventually selected Thomason/ Barker Ranch rather than the Myers Ranch as the Family's base of operations. He went so far as to seek Arlene Barker's permission to stay at the ranch, deluding her that he was the composer/arranger for the Beach Boys musical group and only intended to stay there a short while with a few others. He later offered to buy the improvements from her, but his inability to demonstrate his financial wherewithal quickly brought an end to the negotiations.

"Charles "Tex" Watson, a member of the Manson Family currently serving a life-term in prison for the Tate-LaBianca murders, described his initial perception of Goler Wash and the Barker and Myers Ranches when the family first arrived in 1968:

"The wash, even by day…. was unbelievably rugged. It could take a good half a day to work your way up on foot, and even the toughest jeep would have a hard time against the boulders and narrow turns. The ranches themselves were about a quarter of a mile apart. Myers Ranch was in very bad condition, rundown and vandalized, but Thomason/Barker Ranch had a solid little stone ranch house and a swimming pool, even sheets on the beds. Later the the place would be described as derelict and dilapidated, but we had less exacting standards." (*)

"The secluded desert setting was conductive to Manson's ultimate objectives of inculcating his followers with his bizarre messianic prophecies of "Helter Skelter," the notion that an imminent race war between blacks and whites would consume the nation. According to his beliefs, he and the Family, as the chosen elite, would weather the violence in a subterranean world in the desert. They would consequently emerge and take control of the black population whom he considered inferior but who would be the initial victors of the race war.

"It was while they were living at Thomason/Barker Ranch that members of the Manson Family made a foray back to Los Angeles and murdered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four of her house guests. Then, in the same night, they entered another home and killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. The Tate-LaBianca murders would cause mass fear and paranoia among Los Angeles residents who could not begin to predict when the next murder might occur or who the next victims would be. 

"In September 1969, about one month after the still unsolved Tate-LaBianca murders, members of the Manson Family were apprehended by a team of California Highway Patrol, Inyo County, and NPS law enforcement personnel at Thomason/Barker Ranch on suspicion of theft and arson, ending their year-long occupation of the ranch. It wasn't until the Manson Family was incarcerated that the magnitude and horror of their violent acts were fully revealed. 

"During the Manson Family occupation of the ranch, the entry roundabout area was expanded to the west to create more parking space for the bus and the dozens of other vehicles that the group had acquired. Because they were only at the ranch for a short period of time, the physical character of the site did not differ greatly from when the Barkers inhabited it. There are accounts that the Manson Family used the swimming pool as a giant makeshift washing machine and that they vandalized and left extensive debris throughout the site when they were incarcerated, but other than the expanded parking area, no permanent change to the character of the site occurred."

(* Watson is clearly confusing the two ranches here.  GS)

*      *      *

The main buildings of the Barker Ranch were destroyed by a fire accidentally ignited by a careless visitor in May of 2009. Not only did the ranch itself go up in smoke, but so did the tens of thousands of dollars that the National Park Service had spent restoring the ranch to a condition suitable to its historical significance. Today, all that remains of the structures are the bunkhouse, the chicken coop, and the stone walls of the main house and its outbuildings. 

Above: the ruins of the Barker Ranch house, April 25, 2015
Below: a National Park Service sign at Barker Ranch