Desert Cowboys never made the desert; the desert made them. Among the notable desert ranchers is William Keys. I had the privilege of riding with his great grandkids.
Bill Keys came to this area in 1910 to work as an assayer and watchman at the Desert Queen Mine. When its owner died, he received the mine and its 5-acre millsite in payment for back wages. His five acres grew to 160 when he homesteaded adjacent property to become his Desert Queen Ranch.
I consider him a “desert rat”: one of those characters who strive on surviving and creating a code of ethics in an inhospitable land. In this rock-rimmed canyon using ingenuity, patience, and hard work, Bill built a life for himself. He soon married Frances May Lawton, who left the comforts of the city to move to the Mojave Desert ranch and start a family. The couple had seven children between 1919 and 1931, three who died during childhood.
Together the Keys family tackled the hardships of isolated desert life. Eventually, the Keys’ homestead included a ranch house, store, two school houses, a home for a teacher, outhouses, sheds, a stamp mill, a corral, supply yard, orchard, cement dam and lake, windmill, irrigation systems, rock retaining walls, and a cemetery. He raised a family and coped with the harsh realities of the desert. To the ranch, miners brought ore to be assayed, neighboring homesteaders brought their children to be educated, and countless visitors came to enjoy the family’s hospitality. Their old wooded-wheeled mining truck was frequently seen in 29 Palms at Pioneer day parades.
Keys’ ability to repair machines and household items often came in handy. Since the ranch site was far from town, the family rarely threw anything away that they might use to fix a broken item. Keys scavenged abandoned ranches and mines for rails, wire, pipes, household items, old cars, and tires left behind by less
successful people. He even purchased an entire junk yard and organized it into neat piles on the ranch to use as a supply yard.
Most of the surrounding homesteaders and miners viewed Keys’ ranch as the center of their desert network and its owner as a helpful friend. Miners appreciated his knowledge of mines in the area and his milling capabilities. Keys built a one-room school house for his children and others in the area to ensure they received a proper education despite their isolation. He provided the teacher with a cabin on the ranch. The family also hosted many visitors at the ranch including well-known writer Erle Stanley Gardner, and famous botanists Phillip Munz and Edmund Jaeger. Jaeger, while identifying new desert plant species, named a flower “Keysia” (Glyptopleura setulosa) in honor of the kindness the Keys family showed to so many desert travelers.
After Frances death in 1963, Bill sold the ranch to eventually become part of the Joshua Tree National Park. He remained on the ranch until his death on June 28, 1969. While the world outside the ranch had changed dramatically, Keys’ way of life had remained remarkably constant. He was buried beside his wife in the family cemetery to become part of the canyon he loved and labored for during 60 years of residence.
When I lived on the mesa in Pioneertown, the Keys extended family had settled in a deep canyon near Pipes Canyon. The ranch was earthy, low-slung and wood-heated most of the year. There were several out buildings and horse corrals near the main driveway. Once you got past the main wooden gate that was usually standing open, several dogs with Mrs. Keys came out and greeted you. Johnny Keys, up in his 60s at that time, was always a busy man.
His two daughters, Johnna and Debbie, were close enough to my age that we often went horseback riding up into the boulder-lined ravines. Up canyon, the piñon and juniper grew rich with their nuts and the scrub jays and quail often ran underbrush just ahead of us.
It was a great time to be out in the wild. Sometimes we’d go scout out new trails, other times when the heat got unbearable, we’d jump in a natural spring and soak our clothes to stay cool for the ride home. Johnna was the hell-raiser of our group, and loved to go skinny-dipping.
One time after a spring rain, we had trailed a set of cougar prints into the upper ravine, and being adventurous, thought we might spook it out of the timberline. The desert holds traps for young adventurers. Debbie soon found out that the sandy arroyo near the rocks was not solid. Her horse panicked and began post-holing, leaping and bounding in the quicksand, eyes fearful, head flailing. It was a disastrous
I tossed a rope to her while staying on my saddle. That rope provided just enough tension to help her horse seek a route out of the mire. She stayed on and coaxed him to the edge where he finally got solid footing.
We were all waiting, shaking, and watching the poor fellow shiver from the adrenaline rush. We all felt done in. Deb got off and wiped her mount down with her shirt to let him relax and cool off. It was awhile before we decided to head back and leave that cougar for another time.
Note: 1917 Keys Cattle Brand is Capital B with stylized horizontal F sticking out of the center like a key in a lock.
Partial info retrieved from mural series in 29 Palms