Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Two Dreamers in the Desert- A Mojave Tale

"Crossing the Mojave , Joe came upon a rare creek. Leaning over that flow he caught sight of  a varmint's approach . " Howdy", bowled Otto F. Brant, and he honed for Joe an easy grin. "Will ya share that juice?" Joe dipped his Stetson in assent. After the sun began to drop the two men edged beneath a footbridge for the night. They saw the moon lift over the stars and it was a disk radically bright as found nowhere on earth except for strays crossing the soundless stage.  Otto F. Brant began to tell his life's story to Joe ...
Their talk dwindled as the sky fell purple and by midnight their tales began to intersect around the campfire's corona.... Otto F. Brant offered Joe insight on the desert canon, he spoke of what pioneers practiced in that place the padres revered as the "City of Angels"....."
From the "The Legend of Zhao-An Epic Fable based on  a True Story" , unpublished novel by Soo-Yin Jue.

My Auntie Soo Yin wrote to me recently about my post in which I discuss how Jue Joe and Otto Brant could have met in Los Angeles through the intercession of Brant's  houseboy Wong Joe :
"Nice job on your theory of how Jue Joe and Otto Brant met each other.  You gave excellent analysis about the individuals and set them against a historical backdrop of social, political, and economic issues influencing the time period.  Very conceivable,..... There is a question in my mind, however, as to why Ah Gung kept saying that Jue Joe and Otto Brant met in the Mojave and hoboed together to Los Angeles."

Yes... we keep coming back to the "Mojave question"  in our family oral history. My grandfather always told the story that Otto and Jue Joe met in the Mojave and they "hoboed" together to Los Angeles.  For years I have discounted that story as most patently a myth.  When Jue Joe arrived in the San Fernando Valley  he was employed as a houseboy on a Chatsworth homestead .  Otto Brant had just formed his title insurance company in Los Angeles. It was impossible for them to have met in the Mojave and hoboed together back to Los Angeles ..... or maybe not .  Let me tell you a little Mojave tale in which we weave together some facts and some speculation .

In early 1894 we know that Jue Joe made a railroad trip back to Sacramento California from Chatsworth  to get a new certificate of identity required under the new anti-Chinese legislation or face possible deportation.
He had thrown away his first certificate of identity which he had obtained while working in St. Helena and needed a new duplicate one with a picture ID. Since the Sacramento immigration office held the documentation of his original certificate he had to make the journey to Sacramento. At the time there was a branch rail line to Burbank which connected to the main Southern Pacific rail line which stretched across the Mojave desert through the town of Lancaster over the Tehachipi mountains and on to Sacramento.

At the same time in 1894. Otto Brant's new title insurance company business had weathered a very rocky  first year. A nationwide Depression hit the Los Angeles area hard in 1893 just as Otto's business was getting started.  According to his son, David, ... "they really had a hard time of it there.  Then the terrible depression came along , and they were just about to fold up ... when some subdivider came in and gave them a big job of writing policies for this subdivision ... "

Meanwhile the town of Lancaster in the Mojave desert, originally a refueling and watering stop on the Southern Pacific Railroad as it crossed the desert had been booming and was unfazed by the 1893 depression.

"The area in which the city of Lancaster is now located, which is now known as the Antelope Valley, was originally home to the Piute Indians. Lancaster's origins as a settlement start with the Southern Pacific Railroad, which is believed to first use the name 'Lancaster', where a station house, locomotive watering facilities and section gang housing were built when the railroad laid track through the town's future location. By September 1876 Southern Pacific had completed the main line through the Antelope Valley, linking San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The origin of Lancaster's name is unclear, attributed variously to the surname of a railroad station clerk, the moniker given by railroad officials, or the former Pennsylvania home (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) of unknown settlers. Train service brought passengers through the water-stop-turned-community, which, with the help of promotional literature, attracted new settlers. The person credited with formally developing the town is Moses Langley Wicks, who in 1884 bought property from the railroad for $2.50 per acre, mapped out a town with streets and lots, and by September was advertising 160-acre tracts of land for $6 an acre.

 The following year, the Lancaster News started publication, making it the first weekly newspaper in the Antelope Valley. By 1890, Lancaster was bustling and booming, and thanks to adequate rainfall, farmers planted and sold thousands of acres of wheat and barley. The early '90s were years of heavy rainfall and so were prosperous ones for the farmers. Mr. Ward shipped the first carload of alfalfa. As many as two hundred horses and mules could be seen lined up on Tenth Street feeding or waiting their turn to unload the harvests. 1893  - Seems to have been a banner year. Sixty thousand acres skirting the foothills were planted to wheat and barley. Some 730 carloads were brought to Lancaster to be shipped to Los Angeles.

 1894 - Opened a series of dry years. The cattle were the first to suffer and were driven north in such numbers that the stage road was trodden with dust. The town was devastated by the decade-long drought that began in 1894, killing businesses and driving cattle north, though fortunes improved somewhat in 1898 following the nearby discoveries of gold and borax, the latter to become a widespread industrial chemical and household cleaner.... "

 Early 1894 before the drought hit , when Jue Joe made his trip to Sacramento might also have been a good time for Otto F. Brant to scope out the Mojave around the burgeoning town of Lancaster for real estate opportunities as well as opportunities to expand his Title insurance business into the area. The rail line lead directly out from Los Angeles into Lancaster and the Mojave.   Now is it really possible for Otto and Jue Joe to have met out in the desert on the outskirts of that Lancaster boomtown? ... maybe ... some hints come from the character of both men's subsequent actions.

 Jue Joe was the first Chinese farmer in the San Fernando valley farming potatoes in that hardscrabble earth of the Chatsworth area rather then in areas closer to Los Angeles or better irrigated. He looked for opportunities where others had not already gone.

 Later in his career after Otto Brant had become successful... his son David remembers how he met Harry Chandler, of the LA Times and how Harry Chandler tried to get Otto to go with him to the Colorado River Desert to tour the land there and go in with him on investing..... Otto declines Harry's invitation and decides to do a little exploring on his own ... "So I asked Mr Chandler ... "How did you and my father get together?" Well, he said that father was doing such a terrific job developing Title Insurance and Trust company, and " I heard he was a strong man.. so I just went down to his office and introduced myself and told him my story and offered to take him down"... And he said , "your father said to me... 'I,ll go down and take a look at it , but I don't want you there throwing the bull at me. So I'll go down alone.'"...

 And Otto doesn't just make a little trip of it ! David Brant writes "Mother, of course, was very frightened at the prospect of father going away out there in that desert... So father told her that he would leave word in Yuma as to where he was going; and if they wired his party, they'd send Indian runners out onto the desert and locate him and bring him back. So I remember that very well. And we all prayed. Mother got us all down on our hands and knees praying for a safe return. He came back with a couple of ollas. They were big balls made by the Indians. Made out of clay, they were unglazed, they were porous. They would bury those where there was a showing of water in the sand, had a neck just big enough to get your hand in with a cover on that , and they would cover those up with sand . They had some way of locating them. I don't know what that was but had one of those dug up and brought it up. We had it in our library on Figueroa Street.... Another thing he brought back- somebody had castrated a bull , and had taken his scrotum , his pouch and filled it full of sand and one thing and another so it was up like this. And they'd put a red baby ribbon on the top and filled it with cigars. Father used to embarrass my mother holding this thing out offering everybody cigars. He and Mr Chandler were always full of fun and joking with each other, even though things were terribly serious always......"

 So could Jue Joe have been out in the Mojave around Lancaster on his way back from Sacramento just getting a feel for the land and seeing if it was a good place to build his dream of a farm of his own? ... and did he just happen to meet another dreamer in Otto Brant just poking about in the desert and getting a feel for it's possiblities.?.. yes just maybe ! And what about hoboing it back to Los Angeles ?. Southern Pacific railroads of the time often had three classes of rail cars on their line .. plush first class cars for the wealthy , second class for regular travelers , and "emigrant" cars with the cheapest fares which were often little more then converted boxcars with bench seats.... Jue Joe of course would have emigrant car tickets... and Otto, of course, being the kind of guy he was would have no qualms of joining his new found friend in the converted boxcar back to LA... two unlikely dreamers "ho boing" back to Los Angeles after meeting in the desert ........

David Brant's memories of his father can be found here.

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