The road seemed the same as it had been in 1974 when this future desert wanderer began my sojourns to the Northern Mojave. A shortcut to “my desert,” it followed the old Randsburg stage road from Jawbone Canyon on Highway 14 and shortcuts to Highway 178 and the town of Trona.
The town was, and is, the last stop for supplies before climbing over the Slate Range Pass and dropping into the hostile environment of deep and desolate natural troughs named Panamint, Eureka, Saline and finally Death Valley. In most cases, the turn around the mountain into Trona and Searles Valley is preceded by the pungent smell like rotting eggs from sulfur and other chemicals. Trona sits on the edge of the lake named for John Searles, who established mining around the dry lake in the 1870s. In the early 20th century the town began to flourish with the mining company building basic housing, a school, and a grocery store where only company-issued paper and coin money (“Trona money”) could be used.
Trona became a company town in 1913. The initial mining boom happened during World War I when, thanks to Germany’s embargo, Trona became the only reliable American source for potash, a very important element used in the making of gunpowder. Mining companies seem to come and go at Trona. First there was the American Potash and Chemical Company, then Kerr-McGee and others. Currently Searles Valley Minerals operates facilities in Argus, Westend and the original Trona plant, all on the western edge of the lake. They process brine solutions from Searles Lake to produce boric acid, sodium carbonate, sodium sulfate, several unique forms of borax, and salt.
The Jeep I drive to the desert, and almost all automobiles, contain many products made with soda ash and borates such as window glass and windshields. Other products are used by dye and detergent makers. The plant workers unionized long ago and led strikes in 1941 for better housing, wages and an end to racial discrimination. Newsreel footage of the time shows the strike ended July 29, 1941, but ill feelings among townsfolk (some workers crossed the picket line) lasted decades. The workers walked out again in 1970 resulting in the shooting of a striker by a guard. In 1981 another strike led to numerous arson fires in town and death threats against the “upper management” personnel. Molotov cocktails were hurled at the homes of the bosses.
But about all I remember of Trona in the 1970s and 80s was a Chevron gas station in the middle of town. The same old guy was always there. I never asked his name, nor he mine, but we laughed and talked as he pumped my gas to the tune of 69 cents a gallon while living in what he called “the armpit of the world.” Through the years he would always recognize my Jeep and its personalized license plates when I pulled into the pumps. Gradually, as the price of gas rose, my friend got older. One day, I stopped and the station was closed, deserted and ghost like. I never found out the old guy’s name, but I won’t forget him. The station has never reopened.
Over the years I have mentioned Trona several times in my desert “Meanderings,” and have been surprised to discover there are current Maderans who once lived in the desolate town. One of them is Pam Sanders, wife of former highway patrolman and city councilman Bud Sanders who sings with the Shades of Grey Band. She has vivid memories of living and going to school in Trona during the mid-1950s.
In Trona, the middle school and high school are combined, meaning from 7th through 12th grade you attended the same school. It is home to the Trona Tornadoes and their infamous (for visiting teams) sand and gravel football field known affectionately as “the Pit.” Pam played clarinet in the school band and enjoyed escaping out of town to away games.
Local entertainment consisted of an open air theater with benches, a screen, and a canvas roof. Today, in the Trona Museum there is a photo of Pam in the band playing at the theater.
“While I was in high school, Fox (Entertainment) came in and built a new theater,” said Pam. Once a year the company held a Family Day for the entire town with barbecues. games and dancing
Before the new theater, weekends meant using your own imagination to have fun. “We would go out in the desert and build forts, dig holes, and drag old lumber and brush over it,” said Pam. She and friends also built their own pet cemetery because they thought the animals that were hit on the main road through town should have a proper burial.
After school, it was playing and partying in the homes of family friends. “We were more or less left for ourselves and when the whistle blew at the plant signaling the end of the day shift we knew it was time to go home for dinner,” said Pam.
The blistering summer heat of 110 degrees or more meant a lot of time spent at Valley Wells pool just north of town. It was a large reservoir and a building with a television the parents could watch while the kids enjoyed the water.
Because of the high salinity of the soil, there is no grass in the yards of homes in Trona. Only the hardy Tamarisk (Salt Cedar) and Athel trees are known to provide some shade for the town’s residents.
Today, Trona is still considered a company town. However, the last census showed a dwindling population of little over 2,500, and the high school student population at less than 150. Even their football team has been reduced to playing in an eight-man league. There is a museum and the Searles Lake Gem and Mineral Society holds an annual Gem-O-Rama mineral show that draws hundreds from southern California.
Driving through town, the old Chevron station is gone. So is the small Ford dealership and Jenny’s Restaurant, along with the Searles Lake Yacht Club, a local bar on the edge of the dry lake that once displayed an imaginary painting of sailboats and watercraft on Searles Lake.
Maybe someday Trona will join the desert ghost towns of Ballarat, Skidoo and Rhyolite. But for now this old desert wanderer will keep passing through Trona with the occasional stop at the market for supplies before heading over the pass to my desert.
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Originally published in the MADERA TRIBUNE Saturday, March 30, 2013
Reprinted with the permission of Leon Emo.
READERS MAY CONTACT LEON EMO BY EMAILING LEON_EMO@YAHOO.COM OR WRITING THE MADERA TRIBUNE.
Trona on the Web Editor’s Notes:
Joe Brangwin, the gas station owner in Leon Emo’s story was selected to to be honored as a World War II veteran and will be flown to Washington on April 26, 2123. Follow the link to the story below.
Joe Brangwin, 87, was tapped as one of many World War II veterans to be flown to nation’s capitol in April as part of the Honor Flight Kern County to visit the World War II Memorial.