The café and service station in Desert Center has long been one of my favourite stops, although it’s been shut up for years. The café has remained just as it did on the last day of business in 2012, with condiments on the tables and coffee mugs on the counter. For years a note on the door informed customers it was temporarily closed for building maintenance.

The iconic neon sign of the Desert Center Cafe.

The only food place for 50 miles, the café and service station was built by town founder Stephen A Ragsdale in 1921 and his advertising for the café claimed ‘We lost our keys – we can’t close!’, a boast that the café had been open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year since it opened. Desert Center went onto become the birthplace from which Kaiser Permanente, the world’s largest managed health care system, would rise. Despite being a noted businessman, Ragsdale’s reputation was shot down in 1950 when he was accused of a dalliance with one of his employees and he retreated to a log cabin in the mountains where he lived out his days. The café, meanwhile, featured in films and adverts and even a video game, but it never reopened after that final day seven years ago, I-10 rushing by just yards from its back door.

The bar stools sold for $300 and everything behind the counter (except for the milkshake machine) for another $300.

Last weekend, almost all the contents of the Desert Center Café and Service Station (not to mention the farm equipment and the cars in the junkyard which also belonged to the late owner of the town, ‘Desert Dave’ Ragsdale, grandson of Stanley) were auctioned off in an online estate sale, including the old cars and replica of a train that you could only previously see by peering through the dusty windows or holding a camera up to the window. The classic cars or the American LaFrance fire engine didn’t make much money, although the porcelain Eagle Mine Mountain sign that has been outside for years raised $3300 and four Texaco hand cloths printed with the Desert Center address made $250. The seven gas pumps which stood outside the service station made a reasonable $3300, but the wonderful old neon sign sold for a seemingly paltry $7400. You could have bought a a full-size wood and fibreglass replica of a Southern Pacific GS-4 steam locomotive, built as a prop for the film Tough Guys, for just $130. A Coke vending machine went for a mere $10, but a Los Angeles Times newspaper rack for $270. The nine bar stools which, the last time I was there, still butted up to the counter, fetched $300. Behind the counter, the whole backline of stainless steel tables, cupboards, Kelvinator freezer, soda fountain and coffee maker made $300, the whole kitchen set-up including the stove, fryer, griddle and prep stations just $375. Another lot consisting of deep friers, ovens, refrigerators, various cooking utensils, steamers and a deep freezer fetched just $40.

And there it is, everything gone from Desert Center, every last glass, every bit of scrap metal, every sign the café and service station ever existed. I guess they found those keys after all.

One of the seven National pumps which stood outside the gas station and were sold as a group lot for $3300.
The cafe had remained untouched since it closed in 2012. The wooden phone booths in the background sold for $1500.

This sign had been propped up against a tree at the back of the cafe for years. It fetched $3300.
This sadfaced 1959 GMC 550 dump truck made $700.
The 1950 Ford cargo truck saw $1400.
I knew where this porcelain sign was and I’m surprised it had escaped the light-fingers, but it made $800.
If you’d wanted a plywood replica of a train – and a movie prop no less – this one would have set you back just $130.
This 1948 caboose was one of the big sellers (the biggest was a 1930 Indian motorcycle which reached $42,000), going to a new owner for $4500.
This sign wasn’t listed in the sale so perhaps it had already ‘found’ a new home.
Neither were the tables and booths listed for sale, indicating that they will just be ripped out when the building is demolished as no doubt it will be at some point in the future.
Goodbye Desert Center.


  1. There was so much potential there to not only develop some area around the cafe to make money, but to convert the cafe/garage into a museum interpreting the history of the inland desert regions. Now, that will never happen.


    • You’re absolutely right, Steve. It could have been a fantastic museum with local history, the Salton Sea, the history of Kaiser Permanente and Desert Center itself, to name but a few. I believe the family couldn’t agree among themselves what to do with the place and so it went to probate.


  2. My mother worked at the cafe and my dad at the gas station and later in the mine in the sixties. Several families in our clan lived and worked in Eagle Mountain, Lake Tamarask, and Desert Center for several decades.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is sad. I went to Eagle Mountain school from elementary school to the 10th grade and the last time I was there is when my brother passed away about 10 years ago and I needed to use the restroom and we stopped at the gas station and it was shut down. All I could do was look around and cry. So many memories and now just a ghost town.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I lived in Desert Center in 66/ 67, attended the elementary school. Loved that town and it’s history. Visited many times thru the years and will truly miss it. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Growing up in a small desert town, I can still hear the semi trucks engines idle parked next to the old store across from the cafe where drivers would stop in for a juicy greasy burger and a piece of pie. The creaking of the general stores flooring, hot summer nights watching the girls at the gas station that was headed for havasu lake or the Colorado river. Hide and seek in the vast desert. A life most are not fortunate enough to grow up like that. Turns out all that will be left is memories. They cannot be sold but can be told, I encourage all the desert rats to tell their stories.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I stopped by there yesterday on way back to Phoenix. Only thing open was the US Post Office. A few tourists around, and some locals going in and out of the PO. I also stopped at the deserted gas station between Eagle Mountain Road and Rice Road. Does anyone know about a murder that happened there during a robbery? This must have happened in the 1960’s or1970’s assuming it was open then. I would be curious to connect with anyone who might know of this. Thank you –

      Liked by 1 person

      • The story I remember is that about 1971 a driver who was headed south on SR-177 stopped at the old gas station that was on the east side of the highway about three miles north of I-10. He left without paying. The owner chased him down Oasis Road to Kaiser Road, where he was shot and killed.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That murder took place on 18 December 1970. Two youths stopped for gas at the Eastside Service Station on Rice Road (the building is still there but empty, right opposite Parker Towing and Storage) at about 6pm and then drove off without paying. The station owner, Thomas Shorter, went in pursuit of them in his pickup truck and his body was found four hours later near Desert Center, beside the Eagle Mountain Road. Guy Seniceros and Felix Aguilera turned their stolen car off the road in an effort to shake off their pursuer and promptly got stuck in soft ground. When Mr Shorter approached them, they shot him several times with a .25 calibre pistol.
        When they were captured (now driving Mr Shorter’s Ford truck), Aguilera was convicted of car theft but a murder charge was dismissed, while Seniceros pled no contest to second degree murder. I don’t know how long her served, but he was certainly a free man again in 1978.
        Tom Shorter died for $6.92 worth of gas.


  6. Marvin Denton.I lived in Ripley California in those days. My uncle and aunt would take us to Desert Center to visit Lolo and Jessie. They lived there and always treated us to a great 🍔

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I grew up in that area and used to work at the Desert Center Cafe. It is so sad: In the 80’s the Kaiser Mine closed and Eagle Mountain, the town, became a ghost town, and now another piece of history is dying.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Stuff from D. November 10th, 2019 – Darryl's Drive In

  9. The Indian motorcycle was a very rare 4-cylinder model so it’s auction price is not surprising. Several years ago a circa 1946 Indian Chief (74 cu in) was also in the garage portion, but don’t know what happened to it. It was not in the auction.


  10. So sad to see this i knew dave sorry to hear he passed away pauline still around ??? Yes the town has lots of history with desert steve starting the town in 1921 ….a long time ago but the town did have a good run ..just wish it could have continued ….


  11. We spent three weeks at Lake Tamarisk this winter (2021) and were sad to see all the relics gone. What has happened to the land that was owned by the Ragsdales? Was that also auctioned off? I’d love to see that exit off I 10 developed. Semi’s still pull off to take a break, even though there’s no gas or cafe.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I met Stanley while shooting a film for Kaiser Permanente in Desert Center and often returned for visits and also long phone calls with Stanley.

    It was not unusual for me to be sitting in the cafe at 2:00 AM and there were always interesting people on the road at that hour. I loved hearing their stories.

    I liked sitting at the counter. There was a little depression in front of each of the seats, a reminder of the literally tons of hot food that had rested there over the decades.

    Stanley took me through the warehouse several times over the years, always to show me some new finds. He was particularly proud of a motorcycle that he’d found on the Desert Training reservation. I believe it was a Harley Davidson. It had cats-eyes on its head and taillights, a rifle scabbard, a dispatch case, and a case for carrying grenades. Presumably, this was for a dispatch rider. After Stanley’s death, on a return trip to Desert Center, I took a photograph through the window of the bike. Later I learned it had been stolen.

    I don’t know if there is a connection but the movie prop of the diesel engine was left from the movie, Tough Guys that starred Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Years later, Stanley bought the palm trees that became a feature of Desert center from Lancaster’s widow who was selling the date farm to a developer and was glad to get rid of the trees.

    Stanley loved getting out in the desert and hunting for “stuff”. Along an old dirt road that had zigzagged across the valley from oasis to oasis, abandoned when Route 60, The Sunkist Highway, paved and straight opened up, (today it is buried under I-10) Stanley found some roadsigns. They were not painted enamel, they were galvanized plaques with the road information punched out in a series of nail holes. This was because, Stanley explained, that the sandstorms would grind off any paint leaving travelers lost in a very hostile environment.

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  13. I lived in Desert Center from 1938 until probably 1940. We had lost a farm in Ripley, CA right after the depression and with a Model T Ford and $7.00 to their name, my mom and dad ended up in Desert Center with my dad being a fry cook in the cafe and my mom the maid for the few cabins that Steve Ragsdale rented. Part of the pay for their labors was we were given our cabin to live in. As young as I was, I still vaguely remember Steve Ragsdale. He had gone into prospecting and his son, Stanley, ran the cafe and gas station. He would come down from the mountains very rarely but I remember a Christmas party he gave for his employees and at around a year old he picked me up and I was scared to death of him with the long beard and hair on his face. It was a hard life especially in the summer time when temps get 100 and above and, of course, no air conditioning in those days and no refrigeration. You tried to keep your drinking water cool by putting in an olya(sp?) which was a huge pottery jug first used by the Indians. Of course, there was nothing to do for entertainment and the big treat of the week was to go to the cafe and get a 5 cent ice cream cone on Sunday. Also, we would walk out into the desert and build a little fire and roast weiners on a stick, me, my mom and little dog, Popeye. My dad had worked in the cafe all week and this was his day of rest so he wouldn’t join us. I am very sad to hear of the demise of the cafe and gas station at Desert Center. We left around 1941 and went to Northern California to stay with my mom’s sister and family until we could get relocated.

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