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 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.
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.