Historic Oasis of Mara

In deserts around the world, the presence of water, that rarest of desert commodities, allows life to flourish and provides an oasis for natural and human activity. The historic Oasis of Mara in Twentynine Palms is a cornerstone of the Joshua Tree National Park story and has been a source of life-giving water for thousands of years. Before the community of Twentynine Palms existed, a landmark line of Washingtonia filifera palm trees stood on the horizon near the oasis and signaled water and shade for Serrano, Chemehuevi, and Cahuilla Indians, gold prospectors of the late 1800s, and the first desert travellers and homesteaders of the early 1900s. Today, the Oasis Trail and a series of palm trees mark the line of original springs that once stretched along the Pinto Mountain Fault from today's JTNP Oasis Visitor Center to the historic 29 Palms Inn, the site of the last remaining pond of water, and on to the west.  Learn more about the Oasis of Mara at the Joshua Tree National Park website ... and contact the 29 Palms Inn at (760)367-3505 about Oasis Walks with naturalist Pat Flanagan on Saturday/Sunday mornings.

A Brief History of 29 Palms

Oasis of Mara (Harlow Jones, 1940s)
Desert Highway (Bill Hatch, 1930s)

Where once a lush oasis drew tribes of Indians and the promise of gold lured lonely prospectors, now the largest military base in the United States, the main entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, a sturdy business community and those beautiful sunsets have all helped establish the City of Twentynine Palms.


Arrowheads from hunters of the Pinto Culture have established that people lived in Twentynine Palms and in nearby Joshua Tree National Park 4,000 to 8,000 years ago.


In the centuries (at least 400 years) before the arrival of United States explorers, American Indians, mostly Chemehuevis, lived near a natural spring in an area they called "Marrah," meaning "land of little water." White explorers later described finding cultivated land, huts, baskets and other evidence of civilization.


According to Joshua Tree National Park literature, by 1913, the Indians were no longer to be found at the Oasis of Mara and surrounding areas.


They were replaced by intrepid homesteaders and prospectors who set up camps in the area and struck claims looking for gold, silver and iron. It's said that these early settlers and explorers first used the name Twentynine Palms, counting 29 palm trees around the oasis, which one mining claim described as "29 Palms Springs."


World War I veterans who had been victims of mustard-gas attacks moved to Twentynine Palms to breathe in the warm, dry air. Others settled here to claim the 160-acre parcels given away by the government, drawn by an advertisement that read, "We bet you 160 acres that you can't live on it for three years." They had to drill their own water wells or haul in water along with other supplies, and many didn't last long - but others found happiness in the desert environment and the tiny community.


By the 1930s, the homesteaders, lung patients and miners had built themselves a schoolhouse and general store and by 1940, Little Church of the Desert had been built; services are still held there today. The first edition of The Desert Trail newspaper rolled out on April 18, 1935.


The area's importance to the United States military began during World War II, when it was used by the Army and Navy for aviation training and bombing practice. In 1952, the Marine Corps began building a base there. Today, the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center is the largest Marine Corps base in the world. Its Marines and sailors support the City of Twentynine Palms in a variety of ways, from spending money at local businesses to volunteering with youth sports and distributing toys at Christmas.


Beginning in 1994, a group of Twentynine Palms residents have sought to attract international interest and tourism by commissioning murals painted on business walls and advertising the city as the "Oasis of Murals." Murals honor the miners and homesteaders of the city's past, its magnificent sunsets and diverse wildlife. Two honor the Marines - one depicting a welcome-home parade after Operation Desert Storm and another showing local Marines' actions including toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein in the war in Iraq.


The modern-day Twentynine Palms is proud of its history; the original schoolhouse where homesteaders' and miners' children rode horses to class still stands today, a museum of the area's past maintained by the historical society. Nearby, Joshua Tree National Park offers tours of the Oasis of Mara, the site of the original Indian settlements.


It is a pride in past and a belief in the future that permeates life in Twentynine Palms, a growing community that is still very much an oasis in the desert.


Source: Hi-Desert Star


Esther Williams, The Movie Star

MGM movie actress and American swimming star ESTHER WILLIAMS, 1921-2013, was part of the history of Twentynine Palms. Her brother, Dave Williams, owned a home and plumbing business here in the early days, and she used to visit often. In fact, she and her second husband, Ben Gage, were active in community activities in the late 1940s. She was proclaimed Honorary Mayor of Twentynine Palms on March 7, 1948, by Chamber of Commerce President M.G. "Watty" Watkins during a ceremony at the Oasis of Mara. Esther Williams died in Los Angeles on June 6, 2013, at age 91.

Photo from 29 Palms Historical Society collection by Eddie Adams; reprinted in the book "Images of America: Twentynine Palms" by V.Waite, A.Gartner, P.Smith, Arcadia Publishing 2007.

James Cagney & John Hilton, The 29 Palms Connection

Movie star, Academy Award winning actor, and artist JAMES CAGNEY, 1899-1986, had a connection to Twentynine Palms, CA -- he had a desert retreat home here. Cagney frequented the 29 Palms Inn, attended receptions and gatherings at the 29 Palms Art Gallery, and spent time in the 1950s-1960s studying and practicing art with his artistic mentor and friend, renown landscape painter JOHN HILTON. Cagney is seen in this photo sketching Hilton (right), while Hilton is at his easel painting one of his famous desert landscape oils. Cagney enjoyed painting and is claimed to have said in his autobiography that he might have been happier as a painter than a movie star, if somewhat poorer.

Photo from 29 Palms Historical Society collection by Burton Frasher; reprinted in the book "Images of America: Twentynine Palms" by V.Waite, A.Gartner, P.Smith, Arcadia Publishing 2007.


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