GOODBYE DESERT CENTER

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.

24 thoughts on “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.

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    • 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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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

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  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.

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  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 🍔

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  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.

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  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.

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