April 10, 2018

In Search of the Mother Lode Along the Mother Road

When you visit a town that's been named "Oro Grande," you'd expect to find some "big gold" there.

But most of the year, you won't find much of anything in Oro Grande except about 600 living residents and a few dead ones who were buried in the local cemetery that's one of—if not the—oldest in the High Desert.

And if you didn't already live in Oro Grande, why would anyone ever go there—or even drive through it?

Well, the Old National Trails Highway—a.k.a. Route 66—cuts right through it and leads you straight to Elmer Long and his Bottle Tree Ranch.

In fact, I would've said I'd never been to Oro Grande until this past weekend for its 4th annual "Oro Grande Days" festival, but that wouldn't be true.

Because if I'd been to Elmer's Bottle Tree Ranch twice before, then I'd driven through Oro Grande twice before as well.

I just must've thought I was still in Victorville.

And in a way, I was, as Oro Grande isn't officially recognized as anything but an unincorporated community in the Victor Valley. Some might call it a ghost town.

And parts of it certainly look like an abandoned settlement ripped from the pages of a book about the Old West.

That is, except for during Oro Grande Days.

If Calico is any indication, there are tourist dollars to be had for an old mining town that becomes a roadside attraction.

And although miners never struck the "mother lode" in terms of gold along this stretch of "the Mother Road"...

...they did find a bonanza of limestone, marble, silica, and materials that contributed to a thriving cement-making business that's still in operation today.

Although it may seem like "the middle of nowhere" now, when Oro Grande was founded in the mid-1800s as a trading post, it was strategically located by the Lower Narrows of the Mojave River—which made for easier crossings for the Mohave tribes, the Mormons, and the Spaniards who all forged their trails in the area.

Now, though, it's mostly freight trains that run through Oro Grande. Passenger rail service stopped years ago.

And until the 1950s, the "last stop" for many of those travelers and early settlers was the Oro Grande Cemetery—formerly known as Bennette Memorial Park, named after a turn-of-the-century rancher.

It's not generally open to the public, so you can't get in without the help of its caretaker since 2010, Joe Manners.

Too much vandalism occurred in the 1970s to ever leave the gates unlocked and unattended for any period of time again. (And unfortunately, there were no gates to be locked back then—so the vandals just walked in.)

The cemetery (sometimes called the Rodriguez Cemetery in honor of Lt. Manuel P. Rodriguez, a decorated war hero killed in the line of duty in 1942) was then placed under the jurisdiction of the County of San Bernardino...

...but it's really Joe, unofficial honorary "mayor" of Oro Grande since the 1980s, who cleans up the headstones, replaces the missing crosses, and tells the stories of those who are interred here.

The oldest headstone reads 1899, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the oldest burial there.

In some cases, markers are barely readable even if you throw some water on top of them.

Other headstones have been stolen or damaged beyond repair (or some version of both).

So, Joe may know who's buried at the Oro Grande Cemetery, but no one is exactly sure where everybody is.

And while the use of ground-pentrating radar has helped the community discover some unmarked areas where the soil has definitely been disturbed (presumably for a casket), one big cross was erected in the back to honor those whose precise plot coordinates have been lost or forgotten.

And most of Mayor Joe's efforts seem to be focused on making sure nothing gets worse—and nothing  else bad happens inside those gates.

Improvements would cost money that the town of Oro Grande just doesn't have, with the pittance it currently receives from the county. And Mayor Joe pays out of pocket for repairs and other maintenance costs when donations run short.

It was the lure of a haunted cemetery that made me stop in Oro Grande rather than just driving through, but when I go back, it'll be to see which new businesses are now occupying the derelict historic buildings like the service station, motel, bank, jail, and former Gold Rush Saloon/Club 66.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Bottle Tree Ranch (Updated for 2018)
Photo Essay: Grand View Memorial Park - Closed to Public, Neglected, and For Sale
Photo Essay: Verdugo Hills Cemetery - Deteriorated, Vandalized, and Washed Away

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