HARRY OLIVER in BOREGO
April 4, 1888 - July 4, 1973 - American humorist, artist, and Academy Award nominated art
director of films from the 1920s and 1930s.
Harry Oliver's first home on the desert was in the
Borrego Valley, in northeastern San Diego County. Harry and a group
of Hollywood pals founded the Borego Valley Growers in 1929, and
took up four adjoining homesteads in Section 24 in the northeast
part of the Valley.
more on Harry
The date 1916 sometimes shows up for the start of Harry's desert
activities, and that may be true, but probably not in Borrego. Most
of the Borrego folks he later writes about didn't come to Valley
until the mid-1920s, not long before he arrived. In general, the
dates in Harry's life seem to drift quite a bit -- usually
backwards. Too many people relying on his Desert Rat Scrapbook for
facts, I imagine.
Anyway, the Borego Valley Growers -- "an organization of motion
picture people in Hollywood and Beverly Hills who plan to develop a
section of land in Borego" -- consisted of Harry Oliver, president;
Oscar J. Brodin of United Artists, and Fred Sersen and Walfred
Pallman of Fox. Each had 160 acres, sharing a common well, put down
in 1930. That same year, the partners bought another 140 acres
adjoining their ranches. Later Paul Widlicska of United Artists
joined in, taking up land northwest of Section 24. (There might be a
few letters out of place in that name, which the papers at the time
spelled in various ways.)
Since these folks were all working in Hollywood, most of them --
including Harry -- only came down to their ranches from time to time
-- usually in the winters. The rest of the year, they had ranch
managers looking after their interests. Harry's brother-in-law, John
Fernlund, was the first to look after Harry's place, known as the
H.O. Ranch. My old friend Lelah Porter, who homesteaded in Borego in
1927, recalled that Fernlund "played harmonica, guitar and drums for
In the fall of 1930 Harry began construction on an adobe ranch house
on his place -- "a real first class, old time Spanish residence" and
"surely a credit to the valley" according to the local newspaper
correspondent. Lloyd Cannon, another Fox employee, supervised the
work. Presumably Harry did the designing. It was completed that
December, and the Fernlunds moved in.
Harry gave the Valley its first street names back in 1929, and
erected rustic, painted signboards at many of the intersections.
None of his "picturesque and historical names" survive.
Harry held on to the place until at least 1936. At that time, his
father-in-law, George Allen, was living on the place. Some of the
land was planted to alfalfa, but the Borego Valley Growers never
launched any major agricultural efforts. Oscar Brodin was the only
one who held onto his ranch. He came back to the Valley in 1948, and
reportedly bought Harry's old quarter section. He died in 1960 at
the age of 83.
Will Rogers was not too far wrong when he wrote in 1935 that Harry
"has a place away out on the desert". The Borrego Valley was about
the most isolated part of San Diego County in the 1930s, with no
paved roads, no outside electricity, and no telephones. There was a
little homesteader community there of about 300 people at the start
of the decade, but the population dwindled as the Depression wore
on. The modern community of Borrego Springs there was not founded
Harry's last big contribution to Borrego was the Pegleg Smith Liars
Contest, officially launched in 1948. I will write more about the
contest in a later missive. The last time I know of Harry visiting
the Valley was in October of 1960, when an official, genuine
California State Historical Landmark plaque was dedicated in honor
of Pegleg Smith. "I have a lump in my throat so big it will take at
least two bourbons to wash it down," Harry told the crowd that day.
After Borrego, Harry ran a trading post in San Juan Capistrano, not
far from the old Spanish mission -- a phase of Harry's life
strangely missing from most biographies. Perhaps it was just too far
from the desert. It was only in the 1940s that Harry moved to
(Randall Henderson's daughter recalls exploring the east side of the
Coachella Valley with her father right after World War II when there
wasn't anything much out there -- "except the wind," she says.)
It was during his Borrego days that Harry's career as a desert
humorist really got under way. In June, 1932, the Borego Valley
correspondent of the Ramona Sentinel, Lloyd Kelsey (who pops up
ocassionally in Harry's later writings), noted:
"Harry Oliver, well known motion picture director and land owner of
Borego, is writing a series of stories appearing in Life magazine.
Borego valley is prominently mentioned in the stories which are of
more than usual interest. `Hay Wire Johnny,' `Borego Valley Scott'
`Eliminating Lem' are characters which have appeared so far, which
to one who reads the story can be identified as living individuals
of Borego. Mr. Oliver is well known for his keen sense of humor."
Harry later said he sold six stories to Life (not Luce's big picture
magazine, but an earlier humor mag) and got $300 for them -- his
first big sale. "Two months later it folded up," he said.
Harry's yarns were first collected in his book, "Desert Rough Cuts.
A Haywire History of the Borego Desert", published in 1938 [not
1937] by the Ward Ritchie Press of Los Angeles. Copies today are
both fragile, and expensive.
(By the way, Borego was almost always spelled with just one "r" by
the old timers, even though the proper, Spanish spelling has two. It
was not until Borrego Springs came along after the war that the
correct spelling was made official.)
Harry, as the storyteller, sets himself up as the keeper of the
mythical Busy Bee Emporium in Borego. He does make a few genuine
references to Valley history -- like Anza coming through in 1774,
and everybody working on the Truckhaven road past 17 Palms to the
highway [1929-30]. But despite Lloyd Kelsey's assurances, I cannot
at this late date identify any of his characters with any real
Valley settlers (and I think I am safe in saying I know as much
about early Borego as anyone now living). He does mention "Old Doc
Beatty" [sic - Beaty] in Rough Cuts, and later in the DRS. Doc was
the king of the homesteaders in Borego, arriving in 1912 soon after
the first settlers came into the Valley, and living there until his
death in 1949. His late daughter was a friend of mine, and his
grandson and namesake (A.A. McCandless) was a United States
Congressman in the 1980s and `90s.
Harry's adobe still stands in Borrego, not far from the Pegleg
Monument. But I will warn you right now, the current owner does not
take to trespassers, and does not want anybody poking around the old
Keep `em coming!