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Desert Center, Riverside County, California, is a small town (population 962) located in the Colorado Desert of Southern California, between the cities of Indio and Blythe at the junction of Interstate 10 and State Highway 177. In the vicinity of Desert Center lie the Chuckwalla Mountains, Corn Springs, the defunct Eagle Mountain iron mine, and the town of Chiriaco Summit.

The town was founded in 1921 by Stephen A. Ragsdale, also known as “Desert Steve,” an itinerant preacher from Arkansas, and his wife, Lydia. They established a café, later joined by a market, Stanco gas station and drive-in hamburger stand, which were run for decades by their son, Stanley.

In the 1940s, when Desert Center had only 19 residents, the Army, under the direction of Maj. General George Patton, established the Desert Center Army Air Field to support operations in the California-Arizona Maneuver Area, an 18,000 square mile base whose purpose was to train troops for combat in the deserts of North Africa against the forces of Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The enormous operation came to a close in 1944, when the Allies were victorious in the North African theater. A museum honoring General Patton and his training complex is located in Chiriaco Summit.

After the military’s departure, the town became quiet again, remaining relatively unchanged as old Highway 60 was replaced by Interstate 10.

Today, though showing its age, the town is still bustling. In addition to supporting tourism by providing sparse amenities for travelers crossing the vast expanse of desert between the Colorado River and Indio, it is home to agricultural plantations, several RV parks frequented by “snowbirds,” and the posh Lake Tamarisk Desert Resort.

The 1980s saw a surge of growth in Desert Center as jojoba gained popularity. The brackish water, sandy soil and dry weather make the area ideal for cultivation of this hardy desert plant whose oil is used chiefly in cosmetic products.

In the early 1990s, Stanley Ragsdale commissioned the planting of several hundred palm trees in strange patterns on the town’s frontage with Interstate 10. When asked why, he said he always wanted a “tree-ring circus.” Since his death in 1999, the trees have fallen into disrepair and many have died.

Despite many changes in the modern world, Desert Center is a true survivor – a town that not only refuses to die, it thrives and continues to provide a safe haven for travelers. It is a fitting monument to its founder, who once said, “Even the woodpecker owes his success to the fact that he uses his head.”

Zip Code 92239


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