November 29, 2018

Walking Box Ranch: Where Clara Bow and Her Hollywood Cowboy Husband Became Real Cattle Ranchers

I think part of the appeal of Walking Box Ranch in Searchlight, Nevada was how hard it was to get into.

It had been nearly a year since I'd first heard about it—and after several attempts, I finally got to the former grazing grounds of the Rock Springs Cattle Company...

...through the gate fashioned out of old railroad ties...

...past the old ice house...

...(which was regrettably locked)...

...and right up to the historic red barn...

...whose cattle corrals were also made of railroad ties.

But cattle isn't what brought me to see Walking Box Ranch. It was Clara Bow—the silent film-era "It" girl whose husband, movie cowboy Rex Bell, bought the ranch in 1931 and became a real-life cowboy there. 

He named it after a box camera mounted on a tripod, ubiquitous in Hollywood at the time.

But Clara Bow couldn't really survive the emergence of the "talkies"... when she moved to Searchlight with her husband, she wasn't leaving much Hollywood work behind.

Of course, the remoteness of the area (the closest post office was Nipton) cut her off from moviemaking even more...

...though she became quite the celebrity around Searchlight.

Their Spanish Colonial style home provided accommodations suitable for a celebrity getaway...

...not only for its owners and permanent residents but also superstar guests like Clark Gable and Errol Flynn.

But the faded "it girl" didn't last at the Walking Box Ranch...

...leaving her husband and two sons behind in the mid-1940s.

After her departure, Bell got into Nevada politics—eventually becoming Lieutenant Governor in 1954.

By then, he'd already sold Walking Box Ranch—the surrounding property in 1949 and the house in 1950.

It operated as YKL Ranch for the next four decades.

In 2000, it went up for auction, having been restored by a gold mining company that needed to unload it as its claims were drying up.

The Bureau of Land Management acquired it in 2004 and currently conducts limited tours of the property, by advance reservation only. (Sometimes, way in advance.)

Nearly a century after her heyday, most modern moviegoers probably don't know Clara Bow by name.

They don't know that the phrase "it girl" was coined because Bow starred in a silent film called It, which launched her career into the stratosphere.

But everybody knows the cartoon character that Clara Bow inspired: Betty Boop.

Walking Box Ranch, though seven miles from the center of town, still feels incredibly secluded and quiet. It's become a critical habitat for the desert tortoise, so it's a priority to preserve the property and the natural environment (which also includes a cactus garden).

Although all the furnishings are long gone, many of the lighting fixtures, hardware, bar, and fireplace are all original (including the security bars on the windows of the young boys' room, a response to the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. from his crib).

The cluster of structures and features was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009 as a historic district—as an example of early 20th century ranching history as well as Spanish Colonial architecture and of course the cultural history of its most famous residents.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Oakridge, An Old Hollywood Celebrity Ranch
Photo Essay: The Wild Goose, Upon John Wayne's Birthday

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