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TOWN AT 'END OF THE WORLD' FRIENDLINESS RUNS DEEP IN REMOTE SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY DESERT HAMLET.

Byline: Wesley G. Hughes Staff Writer

Trona, Calif. - The green highway sign reads:

END OF THE WORLD 10

TRONA 15

In this hypersensitive world of the easily offended, few places or people have the cheek to take a joke on themselves, turn it around and adopt it as a virtual slogan.

Count among them the people of Trona. They have reproduced that ``End of the World'' sign on caps, T-shirts, coffee mugs, postcards, mouse pads and key fobs. They've even created an insulating cover for your beer or soft drink.

Little in this giant San Bernardino County seems more remote than this small desert town of fewer than 2,000 souls. The distance to the government seat in San Bernardino seems greater than the 139 miles separating them.

Slights - real or perceived - have given the town an undeserved inferiority complex. It has a history of magnanimity and fair play that still shines and goes deep.

In the rough and tumble early days leading up to World War II, workers at the chemical plant that is Trona's raison d'etre went on strike against then-foreign-owned American Potash and Chemical Corp. The primary goal of that dispute was a demand for equal rights for all employees, an almost unheard-of issue at the time.

White workers were quartered in decent barracks and well-fed in a company dining hall.

A large work force of Latinos was forced to live in tents. The area was segregated and they had to cook for themselves. In addition, the mostly Mexican natives were forced to work longer hours and in more difficult conditions than their white counterparts. Advancement was denied.

According to historians, neither group thought the treatment of the Mexican workers was right or fair. Whites stood shoulder to shoulder with the Latinos on the human-rights issue.

They lost the strike. But it was the beginning of the end of the unequal treatment. Latinos were integrated into the regular work force and some rose high in management and technical positions with the company as its ownership changed several times. It's now called Searles Valley Minerals.

Bottomless friendliness

Despite that noble history, Tronans tend to keep their guards up, as if expecting to be made the butt of some new joke by outsiders. But their seemingly bottomless friendliness doesn't let that last.

Margaret ``Lit'' Brush, Trona's de facto major domo, looks a reporter straight in the eye and asks: ``Are you going to make fun of us like all the others?'' But in the next breath, she's offering every kind of help possible: a look at historical records (among her many titles, she's museum curator), old photos, town memorabilia; even the use of her telephone - a definite plus in Trona.

There are only two pay phones in Trona. And forget about your cell phone. It won't work here. There aren't any signal towers.

If you need cash, don't look for an ATM. There isn't one.

But those lacks don't keep former residents from finding their way back. Perhaps there is some sort of spiritual magnetism in the minerals of Trona's ``dry'' Searles Lake.

Consider Ruthie J. Lancaster, 59. She moved away, only to return years later. Lancaster first came to Trona at the age of 4 with her folks and stayed until 1963.

Explaining her return in 1977, Lancaster said, ``I'm proud of my town. Some of the best people live here.''

Trona is not without problems. The population is in sharp decline because of cutbacks at the chemical plant, which means jobs are hard to come by. From a high of 1,450 employees in 1978, the work force has dwindled to 650 regulars and 100 so-called contractors, who do the same jobs but don't get the benefit of being full-time employees.

Homes still affordable

But it's one of the few places in California where you can still buy a nice four-bedroom home for $85,000 or less, and a fixer-upper can be had for as little as $10,000.

You can even get free burial in the community cemetery if you plan ahead and are a resident. Just ask Lit Brush. She's also on the cemetery board.

Trona is in the heart of Searles Valley, which got its name from John Searles, its discoverer and earliest promoter. He had been prospecting for gold in the Panamint Mountains near Death Valley. He stumbled on the lake while looking for water.

The lake water was undrinkable, so Searles moved on. He had the presence of mind, however, to take samples of the minerals he found there, according to information gathered by Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp., when it owned the plant. They proved to be as valuable in their way as that elusive gold.

The major products drawn from the lake these days are soda ash, sodium sulfate and boron.

In a surviving photograph, Searles and his younger brother Dennis look enough alike to be twins and they appear very Lincolnesque.

The lake is visibly dry most of the time, but things were different this year. Unusually heavy spring rains turned California's deserts into vast gardens of wild flowers and laid a real lake at Trona's feet.

The spring air was strikingly clear, setting the nearby hills and the distant snow-capped mountains in crisp relief. A fresh breeze rippled the surface of the 20-square-mile lake. The midday sun penetrated the shallows, revealing bright blues, intense yellows and rose hues painted on the bed by the chemicals. They vary in strength from place to place on the lake.

Another day in Paradise? Perhaps not, but it was a darn nice day in Trona.

Truthfully, Paradise and Trona are words one rarely hears in the same sentence.

The strong smell of sulfur can evoke thoughts of Hades, and sometimes in summer it has that feel when the regular triple-digit temperatures hover at 118 or thereabouts for days.

Rockhounds abound

Modern Trona may be best known for its annual Gem-O-Rama, an exposition sponsored by the Searles Lake Gem and Mineral Society. It draws rockhounds and gem hunters from throughout the West. The 64th in the annual string took place in early October.

Field trips for gemologists and other visitors were planned to the lake, the nearby Pinnacles National Landmark and Searles Valley Minerals' plants in Trona and nearby Argus and Westend.

The big money in Trona comes out of the depths of the lake, which holds 99 of the 103 chemicals on the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements familiar to most high school students. It's pumped to the surface as a rich chemical-laden brine and piped to the plant where the currently most salable chemicals are extracted and shipped off to market by truck and rail - 1.75 million tons of finished product each year, said Arzell Hale, executive director at Searles Valley Minerals.

Besides profits for the owners, sales return enough money to Trona to pay a $40 million annual payroll to the workers who keep the plant operating around the clock, 365 days a year.

But it doesn't appear that much of the profits find their way back to this dry and dusty desert town. Life isn't easy here.

Sun Capital, the current owner, took over in 2004. It is an investment company that specializes in turnarounds. It expects to be gone with a profit in three to five years, Hale said.

There are lots of crystals in and around Trona. Some are pretty, others plain. Many are water soluble, requiring special care to keep them from melting away. Others - the human variety - break down in alcohol or other soul-corroding substances, putting them almost beyond hope.

Human jewels

But there are some too tough, too resilient, too spirited to allow themselves to be done in by booze or drugs or adversity.

These are the real jewels of Trona.

Martha Shoaf is one. At 85, she has traveled the world bringing education to generations of mostly fourth-graders.

She started her career in a less than idyllic spot - Manzanar - where she taught little, mostly American kids. Because of their Japanese heritage, they were interned by the U.S. government during World War II at that infamous spot off Highway 395 in Inyo County.

Another is the 78-year-old Brush. She's almost the backbone of the community. Brush was 9 months old when her family moved to Trona.

Her dad was an athlete and the company was looking for workers who could play baseball for the town's semipro Trona Tigers. The Tigers played against major league farm clubs.

Brush has pretty much done it all. She's managed the water company and Valley Wells recreation area with its huge saltwater pool a couple of miles north of town.

The pool no longer operates - it was shut down by the state a few years back because it has sloping sides and the water was not being recirculated frequently enough - but it's an oasis that is sorely missed by everyone who remembers it. It was Trona's fun spot and social center.

Now Brush is preserving Trona's history. And don't forget the cemetery board, which is down to a handful of members, most of them at least somewhat elderly - and they also dig the graves.

Not all of Trona's human gems are senior citizens. Take Alex Tsubota, just 18 and a recent graduate of Trona's Christian Fellowship Academy. He's a composer, musician, computer guru and decent human being.

Alex is a piano player. He's been taking lessons from the same teacher since he was 3 years old. When Alex's dad, Alan Tsubota, was asked whether Alex is still taking lessons, he said, ``Not really. His teacher has cancer and he goes to her home to play for her.''

That's 30 miles away in the Kern County city of Ridgecrest.

Alex has written, performed and recorded a disc of songs. Maybe he'll be discovered.

And consider Marty Dickes, who works for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Dickes said she never expected to own a home again after she lost the first one when her marriage collapsed.

Gloom turned to joy a couple of years ago when she acquired one of the bungalows built for employees when Trona was still a company town. She got her fixer-upper for $8,000. She's proud of its three-sided porch and its large kitchen. Dickes rambles happily about redwood construction and oak underflooring.

Now, it's hour after hour of scrape, sand, paint. But those are good things. A Trona jewel is tough and can take it.

Declining work force

Many of Trona's problems stem from the declining work force at the plant. Fewer jobs mean fewer people. What once was a flourishing community of about 5,000 has an estimated population of between 1,700 and 2,000 clinging to life in the valley like lichens on a desert rock.

That's why many of the houses built when Trona was a company town stand empty, and 30 or so of those are fire-damaged or destroyed by vandalism or vagrants. It also explains why housing in the town is so inexpensive.

The available housing also is at the root of a widely held suspicion in Trona. Regulars say the county has made Trona a dumping ground for life's losers.

They say the Human Services System has been placing welfare recipients in houses in Trona because it's cheap, despite the lack of job opportunities. It has led to an increase in crime, they say.

Other evidence that something might be going on, which a school official confirmed, is that 80 percent of the children in Trona's public schools are on public assistance.

The San Bernardino Sun looked into those suspicions that the county is using Trona as a dumping ground and found nothing to substantiate them.

It's true that housing is a bargain in Trona, and that by itself is probably the biggest reason for the presence of an influx of people on public assistance.

Human Services provides money to its needy clients. But it doesn't provide housing, a spokeswoman for the agency said. If a client can find cheaper living accommodations, more money is left over for other things. So some beat a path to Trona.

If your quest to find Trona begins in San Bernardino, head north on Interstate 215 to I-15 through Cajon Pass. A few miles farther up the freeway, take U.S. 395 north to just past Red Mountain, turn right onto Trona Road and follow it to State Route 178, turn right and Trona is about 15 miles farther.

Oh, by the way, you won't see that ``End of the World'' sign on your way into town. It's safely stowed behind a door at the Old Guest House.

It never had an official spot on the shoulder of any road to Trona.

The San Bernardino Sun is a member of the MediaNews Group News Service.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 16, 2005
Words:2135
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