Wikipedia describes Needles, California as ‘A city in the county of San Bernardino, founded in 1883, as a result of the construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, which sits along the western bank of the Colorado River, in the Mohave Valley sub-region of the Mohave desert accessible via Interstate 40 and U.S. Route 95.’
Needles, California, is known for being a major stop on the Historic Route 66 during the 1920′-1970’s and is considered the gateway to the Mojave National Preserve and often reaches some of the highest temperatures in the world in the summer, (132 degrees, June 20, 2016) although, Furnace Creek, Death Valley, California, still holds the world record (134.1 degrees, July 10, 1913). Needles claims the worlds’ hottest rainfall during a thunderstorm (115 F-44 C, 2012).
The small desert town (population: 4,890, 2012, Census) was named after a group of pinnacles and mountain peaks, ‘The Needles’ where the wind-blown holes can only be seen by boat on the Colorado River from the south end of the valley.
The Mohave Native American community also shares the town and the nearby Fort Mojave Indian Reservation.
Needles has been mentioned in songs, ‘Never been to Spain’, sung by Three Dog night and Elvis, Izzy Stralin’s album, ‘Ride On’ (1999), song titled, ‘ Needles, CA’, John Lowery (John 5) former guitarist of Marilyn Manson, CD, ‘Vertigo’ (2004) titled, ‘Needles’.
Needles has also been written about in books: John Steinbeck’s, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and seen in movies: The Grapes of Wrath (1940),
Two Lane Blacktop (1971), Convoy (1978) Repo Man (1984), Evicted (2000), Domino (2005), Criminal Xing (2007), Into The Wild (2007), The Road to Paloma (2013). On television: Route 66 (1960), The Amazing Race (2001), Mock National Security Workshop (2006), UFO Hunters (2009), National Pride (2010), Needles High School: ‘School Pride’ (2010) Sex and The City: Season 6, episode: ‘Out of the Frying Pan’, Route 66 Paranormal Investigations (2015).
And even in a cartoon strip: ‘Peanuts’ (Charles Schulz)
Yet, despite the empty parking lots, abandoned and burnt down buildings, and the fact the towns’ only grocery store closed in 2012, lifelong residents claim their memories of the once famous, nearly forgotten historic desert town, they call ‘home’—still shine–like stars in the desert night…
In the early 1900’s, famed Old West Lawman, Wyatt Earp, lived in the nearby town of Vidal, California, and would often travel with his wife to gamble in Ft Mojave, always stopping in Needles. He once was in a fist fight with Mr. Williams’ son, who owned the jewelry store, as a crowd gathered to watch, on Front Street. ‘Another time, (1930) my Father told me, when he was 12 years old, he saw Wyat Earp thrown out of a local saloon’, Rita Miranda, a Needles life-long resident, shared on ‘Needles Memories Past and Present’ FB page.
A new family moved into a house on Palm Way and Bazoobuth (1928-1930), near the railroad tracks and their son attended ‘D’ Street school. The little boy–Charles Schulz– would grow up to become the world’s most loved cartoonist who never forgot his childhood in the desert by colorfully illustrating brown pointed hills, cactus’ with big thorns, tiny white clouds, blue skies with a big bright yellow sun. He would later create memorable, endearing characters, including ‘Spike’ Snoopy’s long black-mustache brother who lived in the desert wilderness and would visit ‘his friends in Needles on the weekends’ and ‘run afoul with the coyotes at night.’
His father, Carl Schulz, worked as a barber in his Uncle Monte’s shop at 125 Front Street. ‘Sparky’, Charles Schulz’s nickname, along with his dog ‘Snooky’, a Boston Bull Terrier and his Dad and Mom, Dena, loaded up the family’s ’28 Ford in 1929. His Uncle ‘Frenchy’ and Aunt Ella (she would get a job as a “Harvey Girl’ at The Harvey House as soon as they had settled) along with his eight year old cousin named Shirley, followed close behind in their Model-T.
Sparky began second grade in the heat of the old wooden primary school, a three story Victorian surrounded by barren lots. Townspeople called it, ‘The Castle on the Hill’. He felt a singular passion for a girl in his class named ‘Marie Holland’, a brown haired daughter of a railroad engineer. ‘She was cute’, he would say, seventy years later. But besides her beauty, what made Marie exceptional was her intelligence. Sparky and her were the only ones in class that made the honor roll. Few words passed between them during the school year, but that was precisely the point: with her, there was ‘no need to talk’. Sparky delivered the popular ‘Liberty’ magazines to his neighbors, but would send his cousin Shirley to the door because he was too timid and shy to collect the money. Once the cousins earned 10 cents they bought booklets on ‘How to Draw’. ‘He could draw right away…’ Shirley later said. ‘He had a knack for it…’
One evening Marie and him met each other outside his house on Palm Way. Dusk had streaked the desert sky a vibrant blue and pink. They ran to the corner and back. He later recalled a wild sense of drawing close, of being whole and complete instead of feeling as he often did, ‘lost and alone’. He was smart in school, although he felt ill at ease with himself and others. ‘I wasn’t very friendly. I didn’t have any friends.’ He had no memory of ever seeing Marie Holland again. In adult life, he tried to look her up through the Needles Chamber of Commerce and throughout his life on the rare occasions and whenever Charles Schulz crossed paths with someone who had lived or visited the desert town between the wars, his first words would always be, ‘Did you know a Marie Holland from Needles?’ (Excerpts from the book: ‘Schulz & Peanuts’: Biography by David Michaelis).
In the 1940’s, on West Broadway, was General Patton’s office, whom headed the Desert Training Center throughout the Mohave Desert. Gena B. Russell-Strembough shared on ‘Memories of Needles Past and Present’ FB page, her daughter’s friend lives in the house General Patton lived in on Washington Street, ‘One room added and designed by him with hardwood floors…’ The Army barracks were directly down the hill on ‘Army Road’.
General Patton often ate at the Harvey House, which was considered at the time, the ‘Crown Jewel’ of all of the Harvey Houses in the United States. In the Golden Age of Train Travel, the Santa Fe Super Chief was known as the ‘Train of Stars’. Mr. Soto, 86, another lifelong resident, recalls many celebrities, including Mickey Rooney, Yul Brenner, Clark Gable, Carol Lombard travelling through the tiny town and dining where he worked.
Famed magician, Harry Houdini’s wife & assistant, Bess, died while on a train, in Needles in 1943. Country singer, Skeeter Davis lived in Needles in the mid-40’s then traveled to Nashville to make it big, with her hit single, ‘End of The World’.
Jim Elling, remembers in 1958, he was working the late shift at Locke’s Texaco Station when the actor Charles Coburn, wearing his signature monocle, drove up in a white chaffeured Cadillac limousine on his way to Vegas. ‘He was such a nice, old gentleman…’
In the late 50’s, early 60’s, Vincent Price, Ann Landers and First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt were part of a lecture series at Needles High school. Mr. & Mrs Bender and their children, also long time residents, hosted the First Lady while they dined with Mr. & Mrs. Max Rafferty, Superintendent of Needles School District, whom later became California Superintendent of Public Instruction (1962-1970).
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt
Teddy Kennedy stopped and gave a speech at Santa Fe Park in 1960, another local, Michael Wilson recalls. ‘It was on Halloween night…a month before JFK was elected…’
Senator Ted Kennedy presented with a hand beaded bola tie from Mrs. Minerva Jenkins / Ft Mojave Indian Council
Actor Raymond Burr, at the height of his career (Perry Mason) in 1960, was on vacation with another gentleman and decided to stop at the drug store on Front Street. Ronnie Davis said his Mother remembers Raymond Burr talking to her about the weather, then noticing her holding Ronnie in her arms and asking if he could hold him, because he ‘just loved babies.’
Elgin Gates, the famed Hunter and Adventurer, traveled and hunted the world over, claimed, ‘Needles as my ‘home’. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were his friends and would vacation just outside of Needles to get away from the Hollywood movie lots— to fish, hunt and enter the Annual Boat Races on the Colorado River.
Steve Brown, Elgin Gates, Clare Brown
They dined at Valenzuela’s Cafe on the corner of Chestnut & Elm Street, resident Raul Cristerna Luna remininsced: ‘ My Mother, Maria Natividad Luna, her sisters, Guadalupe and Chona, my Tia’s, were the cooks that night.
Some of Roy’s group went back to the kitchen to see how they made the food. All the kids in the neighborhood brought their guitars for Roy to play and sing, but he declined, so they all started asking, taunting, for Gene Autry…”
Gary Mc Cary received a call from his mother, Irene Mc Cary (owner of Irene’s Burgers 1950-1970’s) to: ‘Hurry! Get down here, quick! You’ll never believe who just pulled up and ordered burgers, shakes and fries!’ He remembers his brother and him running as fast as they could down ‘D’ street to the corner of West Broadway to meet Desi and Lucy Arnaz, the famous Hollywood couple who were talking sweetly to gawkers underneath the awning with picnic tables.
Alice Notley, named, ‘America’s Greatest Living Poet’ by The Poetry Foundation, was born in Bisbee, Arizona, but grew up in Needles and left for New York to attend Barnard in 1963. Later, she included Needles in her poetry and wrote extensively about her childhood in her book, ‘Tell Me Again.’ (Am here, 1982)
Born and raised, Needles’ own hometown hero, Jim ‘Jimbo’ McConnell competed in his first outboard race boat on the clear blue waters of the Colorado River at the age of 13.
HIs wife, Cathy McConnell recently, shared: ‘We were going together in 1964 and we got married in 1967 when he came home from Vietnam…Needles was where his career started, and took him places we could never imagine in the Professional Circuit, ending when the V-8 Outboards were the ‘hot’ stuff. Many of his records still stand. His most memorable moment was on July 15, 1979 when he became the ‘Fastest Outboard in the World.’ From the Stock Outboards to the biggest Outboards produced in OPC Racing.
One thing for sure, neither of us ever forgot Needles. Wherever racing took us…Europe, South Africa, Norway, Belgium, France, Germany, UK, Holland, Canada and all over the United States, we were always proud to say we were from Needles. That is why in 1987, we chose to come back ‘home’ after Jimbo’s near fatal racing accident that happened in 1985 in downtown Sacramento. Jimbo and I have always told others, ‘Never make an excuse for not reaching your dreams and goals, even if you’re from a small desert town…’
Reggie Kenner, remembers sadly, in the 60’s, when he was a DJ at KSFE, the very popular group, ‘Anthony and The Imperials’ stopped by the station to promote their records. ‘But I couldn’t play such music at the time…’ Linda Smith’s sisters also met ‘Sam the Sham and The Pharoahs’ (‘Wooly Bully’) at Foster Freeze ‘when that song was all you practically heard on the radio and jukeboxes.’
Diane Peden shared online: ‘My parents, Barney and Ethel Shepherd told me Jose Feliciano played his guitar and sang in the bar at Leisure Lanes Bowling Alley in the early 60’s. They talked about how great his voice was and my mother would get so excited whenever she heard one of his songs come on the radio.’
Elvis Presley, stayed at Rainbo Beach in 1962, just after being released from the Army and started to prepare to headline in Las Vegas. The King wanted quiet and seclusion so few residents knew he was there.
Kathy Garver, actress, ‘Sissy’ on the TV series, ‘Family Affair’ attended Needles High School between 1960-1962. ‘I remember her in my gym class, ‘ Kippy Poulson, shared on ‘Memories of Needles Past and Present’ FB page.
‘How the West was Won’ (1963) actor, John Wayne and ‘Journey to The Center of the Earth’ (1959) actor, Pat Boone, both starred in movies that were filmed just outside of Needles. Joe Blizzard, recalls his Mother and Dad, along with Coach Aitken and another couple, met John Wayne in Oatman, Arizona for dinner. ‘My mother grew up with ‘The Duke’ and actor, Ward Bond, in Yosemite, where they both played football for USC…’ He also mentioned two brothers from Amboy, the eldest, driving Pat Boone back and forth through the desert to where the movie was being shot, ‘The whole time Boone complaining about the heat…’
In the late 60’s, Brandon Lyon remembers his mother entering several beauty pageants and all the contestants had a luncheon in Needles, with actress, Susan Anton, who was ‘Miss California’ at the time.
Charlene Allen, also reflected, on FB of those years: ‘ Karen Valentine, Dustin Hoffman, Cat Stevens, Apollo 13 ground crew all stayed at The Lad River Motel. The Hell’s Angel’s Motorcycle Club stayed every year when they came through town. They just loved my Mom…’
Another lifelong resident, Rita Chavez, remembers as a child, how she liked to peek through the fence to watch her neighbor, a Mohave Indian woman, named Annie Fields, make clay pots, till one day, she caught her watching and told her to come over and ‘sit’. Annie Fields would collect the clay each time it rained from the side of the desert hills in buckets and empty it on a wheel then slowly spin and mold the wet clay with her hands. Today, Annie Fields’ masterful works of Indian clay pottery, beadwork and Indian dolls are displayed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
In 1971, Greg Morris, one of the actors of the hit Suspense Tv series, ‘Mission Impossible’ stopped in Needles on a Saturday Night at the Needles Theatre on West Broadway.
Lifelong resident, Jamie Lucas, recalls: ‘The show was ‘The 101 Dalmatians’ and he was ambushed by the crowd asking for autographs, mostly on popcorn boxes, he left his family and went and sat in the projection room. After the movie, we all followed him and his family to The Imperial 500 Motel…’
I watched Pamela Anderson do a Playboy photo shoot at the ‘66 Motel’ on the corner of Desnok and East Broadway, ‘ Johnny Stark shared on ‘ Memories of Needles Past & Present’ FB page.
‘And I also remember when I was in high school, I was at the Texaco visiting a friend who worked there, when we watched a red Pantera drive up to his work bay and out stepped John Snyder, (Dukes of Hazzard) and asked us to please close the door as he was being chased by the CHP , then stayed and talked to us for about two hours and left as quickly as he came…’
Right before ‘I Never Been to Spain’ came on the radio and hit #5 on the record charts, Three Dog Night played ‘impromptu’ one night at ‘The Rock-Inn’ after the band’s bus broke down and rumor was a band member fell in love that night with a girl from Needles.
‘Iron Eyes Cody’ was the famous Indian pictured everywhere throughout the 70’s, on posters, billboards and tv commercials with a tear drop rolling down his cheek standing in garbage, pleading to ‘Keep America Beautiful’, came to Needles one weekend to be the Grand Marshall in the ‘Indian Days Parade’. He drove a red Cadillac with red leather seats, waving proudly through the sun roof, to the bystanders. Some say, after the festivities, a few Mojave Indian men became in a heated argument with Iron Eyes Cody and started throwing beer cans, until he finally sped away in his red Cadillac with his entourage following close behind him into the Mojave Desert sunset.
In 1977, Jami Aitken, resident, was paid $30 a day, along with other locals, to be an extra in the filming of the movie, ‘Convoy’, starring Kris Kristofferson and Ali McGraw. In the movie, there’s a scene of the beloved Old Bureau Bridge being blown up. which many residents have fond memories of diving or jumping off, as a kid in the summertime. Cheryl Smith, still has a piece of wood from the bridge that drifted down the river that day, as a momento, displayed in her home.
‘I remember driving across the old bridge when I was a kid…it had a couple of holes in it. My Dad liked to mess with people and make them go back, saying our car didn’t have reverse! It was was sad seeing it blown up in the movie…’ Carole Chapuis, shared on FB.
Rising to fame quickly, comedian, Sam Kinison, died in a car accident just outside of Needles on his way to perform in Laughlin, Nevada. His wife was injured and stayed in the Needles hospital for about a week. Larry shared on rosewritesallday.com, recently: ‘On April 10, 1992, I was standing in Valet at the Riverside Resort in Laughlin, Nevada…a young Security Training Officer waiting for Sam Kinison to arrive to escort him to the DCT, where he was to perform. ‘One of my favorite comedians. I was very bummed that night…’
Sam Kinison, Rodney Dangerfield
In 2013, ‘ The filmmakers of the movie, ‘The Road to Paloma’ focused on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation in Needles. They were looking for a tribe who wanted to participate in the making of the film, which the Mojaves did and clearly demonstrated’, Tessie Villegas-Garcia shared in ‘Memories of Needles Past and Present’ FB page. ‘The Mojaves allowed the filmmakers to photograph their gatherings, games and record sacred hymns which had never been photographed or recorded before by anyone outside of the tribe. They also taught the actors how to speak their native language…’
In 1972, Comedian and TV personality, Flip Wilson, drove up to Yee’s Village Chinese Restaurant on Front Street driving a light blue Rolls Royce with the license plate: ‘KILLER’.
‘He made many local friends with his warmth and humor’, The Needles Star reported, then posed for a picture with the owner, Mr. Wing Yee and gave Yee’s cook an autographed message that read: ‘What I saw was what I got. -Flip Wilson’
‘Special Thanks’ to The Needles Desert Star, The Needles Regional Museum, The Fort Mojave Tribe and all the Needles lifelong residents, who contributed to this article. Without you, it couldn’t be written. 🌹