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In An Earthly Manner brings desert history to life through art

In An Earthly Manner, by Chuck Caplinger

Watch the interview with Chuck Caplinger at the bottom of the page!

Artist Chuck Caplinger made Twentynine Palms his permanent home in 1998, and fell in love with the hi-desert. He's a huge fan of what he calls his "best neighbors" - the local wildlife that visits his dome home near the Utah Trail entrance to Joshua Tree National Park.

Chuck ("Cowboy") runs his Desert Art Studio & Gallery at his dome home (open by appointment), and many of those neighbors he loves so much have become the subjects of his popular paintings. He is a co-founder of the Morongo Basin Cultural Arts Council, and its annual Open Studio Art Tours, now the Hwy 62 Art Tours. He's served as planning commissioner and co-founded the Art in Public Places and the Public Arts Advisory Committee for the City of Twentynine Palms.

As an artist, Chuck has a long and fascinating career, both in and outside of the desert. He worked as an illustrator and art director for a company that served NASA, created entry art for Busch Gardens, produced movie posters for Lone Star Pictures International and other companies, and has had his art featured in public and private collections nationally, as well as in the Hollywood Entertainment Museum and the Edward Dean Museum. He has created murals across the country, from Atlanta and Miami Beach, to Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. In Twentynine Palms he produced murals of a lizard and roadrunner for the Smoketree Building, as well as the Desert Wildlife mural and the Desert Storm Homecoming & Victory Parade murals as part of the city's Oasis of Murals project by Action Council for 29 Palms.

Since his arrival in Twentynine Palms, Chuck has received numerous awards, both for his artwork, and his contributions to the community. Now, with his November exhibit at the 29 Palms Art Gallery, In An Earthly Manner, Chuck is turning his talents to portraits and images of local history.

In An Earthly Manner is an exhibition of oils and giclees on canvas that reflects the closeness of the desert's early settlers with the earth. His works for this exhibition include local homesteaders and their stories, as well as works portraying the Chemehuevi who called the Oasis of Mara home.

In An Earthly Manner runs from November 1 through 25, with an opening reception on Saturday, November 3, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the 29 Palms Art Gallery. The reception is part of the Art Cruise 29! on the first Saturdays of the month. The 29 Palms Inn is a sponsor of In An Earthly Manner.

The Oasis of Mara, by Chuck Caplinger

The Oasis of Mara

The Oasis of Mara in Twentynine Palms is central to In An Earthly Manner. The oasis, with its native Washingtonia filifera palm trees - and a year-round supply of water - has supported human habitation for thousands of years.

In 1856, government surveyor A.P. Green visited the Oasis of Mara and noted, "There are some large palm trees which the springs take their name." At the time of Green's visit, he likely encountered Serrano Indians. In the late 1860s, a small band of Chemehuevi migrated to the oasis after fighting with the Mohave along the Colorado River.

By 1898, nearly 1,000 men were prospecting for gold east of the oasis in the Dale Mining District, and the surge in population brought cattle, horses, and burros to the oasis for water and grazing.

By 1909, the year of the Willie Boy incident, the Chemehuevi were forced to move from the oasis and were given 160 acres of land south of the oasis. The land had no water and offered little to sustain life, but they survived. Their descendants now operate the successful Tortoise Rock Casino on that land, and the Spotlight 29 Casino near Indio.

In 1923-26, E. Chapman built the Gold Park Hotel at the east end of the Oasis of Mara. In late 1926, he sold the property to William Roberts. In addition to living quarters, the Gold Park had five other rooms and four cottages. The hotel also operated a grocery store, gas station, and post office.

In 1928, Roberts moved the hotel to the west end of the oasis and renamed it the 29 Palms Inn. In early 1929, Harry Johansing of the Twentynine Palms Corporation, bought the 29 Palms Inn and 480 acres from Roberts. Shortly afterwards his daughter, Mary Claire, and her husband, Robert Van Lohr, took over operation of the Inn.

The Van Lohr's daughter, Jane, and her husband Paul Smith, are the current owners of the 29 Palms Inn, with daughter Heidi, as a key partner.

The Chemehuevi

Chemehuevi Boy.

The Chemehuevi lived at the Oasis of Mara before white settlers arrived in numbers. The Chemehuevi adored their children and tribal teachers taught them through oral tradition, repeating stories and lessons about literature, economics, science, history, and art.

Billy Mike is the grandfather of the contemporary Chemehuevi leader, Jennifer Mike Estima. The painting is from a 1909 photograph by Randolph W. Madison, taken at the Gilman Ranch in Banning, from the special collections and archives of the University of California, Riverside.

Maria Mike & Baby. Between the 1860s and the early 1900s, the Chemehuevi living at the Oasis of Mara experienced dramatic changes as prospectors, settlers, and others, moved into the region.

Chemehuevi Basket Maker is painted from a photograph taken in 1897 at the west end of the Oasis of Mara.

The Campbells at the Oasis of Mara, celebrating their wedding.

The Campbells, from a photo, circa 1917-18, taken in celebration of their wedding.

The Campbells at the Oasis of Mara

The Campbells are one of the most fascinating couples to have settled in Twentynine Palms. William H. Campbell was an orphan from Los Angeles, and Elizabeth Warder Crozer was a daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia banker and manufacturer. The two met at the wedding of a mutual friend in Pasadena.

Not long after their meeting, Bill enlisted in the Army in 1917, and later was sent overseas to join the American forces in World War I. Two days before the Armistice, Bill was exposed to mustard gas and returned to America, and Elizabeth, in poor health.

The couple married in 1920, over Elizabeth's parent's objections. Her parents cut the newlywed couple off financially.

"We were young, devoted and eager. So much beckoned ahead. Our hearts were singing with love, youth, and the promise of a happy future."

The couple sought help for Bill's health and chanced upon Dr. James B. Luckie. Luckie had been treating other veterans who had been harmed by mustard gas. The good doctor, who later became known as "the father of Twentynine Palms," sent around 300 ailing veterans to the desert to benefit from the restorative effects of higher altitude, a warm and dry climate, with clean air and water. The Campbells joined the others and headed to the desert with little more than basic camping gear, a couple of folding chairs and a card table, all packed in their used Franklin car.

"The day before we had driven in a howling, choking sandstorm that was bad for Bill's lungs. The clouds of dust were so thick that at times we had to get out and hunt for the pavement to be sure we were still on the road. "Finally, on an old man's recommendation we followed a dim wagon track, which, twisting through mountains and valleys, brought us to a line of springs in a desert valley, where we found shelter from the wind."

Elizabeth and Bill camped at the Oasis of Mara during the winter of 1924-25 for nearly three months in the company of cattle, wild burros, prospectors, bootleggers, and cattlemen. Everyone came to the oasis for its life-giving water. Bill's health improved and they decided to homestead in the area when his military pension was approved. The couple now had a tidy sum of $95 a month to live on.

The couple chose a homestead location, struck water in their well, and began building a stone house from large rocks they gathered from the desert. In 1925, Elizabeth received news her father had once again included her in his will while on his deathbed. The Campbell's stone manor house, modeled after Elizabeth's childhood home, was finished in 1929.

Williams became known as "Lucky Bill," for his ability to locate Native American artifacts. The Campbell's homestead in Twentynine Palms housed many catalogued artifacts and served as the Desert Branch of the Southwest Museum of Los Angeles. Much of the Campbell's collection is now at the Joshua Tree National Park curatorial facility inside the park's Oasis Visitor Center.

Campbell Ranch, the most elegant home in all of Twentynine Palms in the mid-1930s, was the site of numerous teas and social events - a role it continues to this day as the Campbell House Inn.

Bill McHaney (courtesy of Paul Smith)

William "Bill" McHaney and his brother, James, moved from Missouri to the area around Big Bear Lake in 1875, but accused of cattle rustling, the brothers were soon ousted from the mountains. Bill arrived at the Oasis of Mara in 1879 and lived there and in outlying locations in Music Valley and the Desert Queen Ranch area (now Joshua Tree National Park) until his death in 1937. He managed to outlive his unsavory past and became a respected local citizen.

Bill McHaney was a good friend of local Native Americans who showed him where to find water, trails, and even gold. The Desert Queen Mine was a rich gold mine discovered in 1904 by Frank James. The mine ended up in the hands of Bill McHaney and his brother. Later, Bill Keys became owner of the mine.

The Fiddlers

Fiddlin' Phil Sullivan came to Twentynine Palms in 1898, and provided fiddle music for the boys in camp. Sullivan had an interest in the Anaconda and other area mines, and was a partner in the Taylor Sullivan Mining Company formed in 1907. Sullivan Road in Twentynine Palms is named for Phil, and served as the main road into town until Highway 62 was constructed. The painting is from a 1924 photograph, courtesy of George V. Michaels.

Eagle Eye McFarland was another local character who could be found out at the Dirty Sock Mining Camp at County Well on the road from Indio to Twentynine Palms. The camp was named for the old socks miners often used to strain the mercury-gold amalgam. This portrait is from a circa 1912 photo, courtesy Joshua Tree National Park.

Jack Meek, Dale and Pinto District miner.

Jack Meek's mining camp was known as Meek's Center. Meek had a reputation as a lawman, gunman, and all-around colorful character in Twentynine Palms from the 1920 until his death in 1951. His mines in the Dale District included the Jack Meek East Group and the Desert King Mine.

Meek is shown in Caplinger's painting with Ada and Elizabeth Hatch. Meek gave each of the two young Hatch girls a gold nugget. The painting is from a 1947 photo. Courtesy of Liz Meyer.

Hatch's Model A Ford

Bill Hatch, a California Institute of Technology graduate, arrived in Twentynine Palms in 1932. He maintained the light plant at the 29 Palms Inn. He decided to settle in the desert and became a leading citizen of Twentynine Palms, using his surveying skills to lay out the cemetery, the town, and the homesteads. He later helped create the flood control channel that diverted raging flash floods from the center of town.

Bill Keys in the "Keysmobile."

William F. "Bill" Keys was born in 1879 and left Nebraska at the age of 15 to pursue a life of mining, ranching, and adventure. He served as a member of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, and as deputy sheriff of Mohave County in Arizona. He arrived in Twentynine Palms around 1910 and worked with Frederick Morgan as assayer and caretaker of the Desert Queen Mine. When Morgan died, Keys filed on the property for unpaid back wages and became the mine's new owner. He also acquired nearby property as a homesteader.

Keys married Frances Lauton and together they raised a family at their Desert Queen Ranch. Bill Keys became one of the hi-desert's most colorful characters, participating in the staged robbery and assault on a group of investors in Death Valley Scotty's mysterious (nonexistent) gold mine. Keys was sent to prison for the murder of Worth Bagley, but was later freed through the efforts of Erle Stanley Gardner, the desert-loving lawyer who became famous for writing the Perry Mason series.

Bill Keys drove his "Keysmobile" in the 1940 Pioneer Days Parade. The iron-wheeled truck was originally built by the Chase Company in 1910 for the Paymaster Mine and was later modified by Keys for use at his Desert Queen Mine. Helen Bagley recounts a collision between her husband Frank and Bill Keys on the road near Twentynine Palms in her excellent local history, Sand in My Shoes. This painting is from a photo from the Hatch collection.

Bill Keys in 1910 Chase Vehicle, from photo courtesy of WIllis Keys.

Bagley Store, circa 1927.

The early business district of Twentynine Palms was comprised of the Bagley home and store in 1927. The area would later become known as the Plaza. The 18-by-18-foot garage served as the family home at night and a general store during the day, after the double bed was rolled outside to make room for visitors and customers.

Frank and Helen Bagley, and their three boys, aged six, three, and four months, made their garage more than just a temporary home and store. It eventually expanded to become the local post office and a community gathering place. Helen helped run the store and pumped gas while caring for the children, and Frank assisted arriving homesteaders in finding property, and grubstaked miners. The store often carried struggling settlers on its books, with the life of the local community well documented in Helen's book, Sand in My Shoes.

By 1939, the Plaza had become a busy shopping center with a number of stores and a village atmosphere.

"We saw Twentynine Palms in the spring of 1927," Helen Bagley wrote in Sand in My Shoes. "We had driven from the highway at Whitewater across a single track road which dodged Joshua trees, boulders, even greasewood bushes. When we chose the site for our homestead and store, a few months later, we reached it across untracked sand."

In An Earthly Manner portrays the lives and tenacity of those who made their homes in Twentynine Palms, around the Oasis of Mara. His paintings bring historic personalities and the desert landscape to life in earth tones and muted colors.

Ever since 1994, when Chuck decided to settle in Twentynine Palms after a motorcycle trip through the hi-desert, he has created hundreds of captivating paintings and drawings in his dome home studio near the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park.

"On a daily basis I enjoy the panoramic desert views," Caplinger noted. "That and my interaction with the local wildlife has generated the most often painted subjects for my oils on canvas."

Inspired by the theme for this year's Pioneer Days in Twentynine Palms - "Fortune Favors the Bold," this new series of work depicting the area's early settlers displays their closeness with the desert itself.

"Our desert community's close identity with our past is ingrained in our every day lives," he said. "We embrace the tenacity and spirit of the early Morongo Basin settlers in many ways."

In An Earthly Manner runs from November 1 through 25, with an opening reception on Saturday, November 3, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the 29 Palms Art Gallery. The reception is part of the Art Cruise 29! on the first Saturdays of the month.

The 29 Palms Inn is a sponsor of In An Earthly Manner.

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