By Ruth Musser-Lopez
June 20, 2014 Believe it or not! As extraordinary as it may seem, our county is the home of a little known and apparently quite sturdy and long-lasting home construction technology that does not require metal or nails and surprisingly involves the use of a native arrowweed for the walls. The technology is credited to our San Bernardino County local Native Americans, the Pipa Aha Macav (People of the River)—the Mojaves. Reportedly, in 1910, it was adapted by Euro-Americans, the Tryon Family in Needles, who stretched the technology to the limits, creating a large, long standing, three-story framed, 22 room structure using what appears to be arrowweed rods or wattle for walls, located at the end of “Dead Dog Road” which eventually became one of the busiest intersections in town, River Road and K Street, a block from the bridge crossing over into Arizona.
In our county, along the lower Colorado River where it often forms dense impenetrable thickets, Pluchea sericea, commonly called arrowweed was used by the Mojave for rancheria type home construction long before the arrival of Euro-Americans in the 1700s.
Mojave winter homes were partly subterranean which allowed for natural insulation against the cold of winter. The walls of the upper portion of the dwelling were built of the rhizomatous evergreen shrub, the arrowweed, harvested from the surrounding riparian shorelines and backflows of the Colorado River. Arrowweed, characteristically straight and strong, was commonly used in prehistoric times for arrow shafts and for thatching the roof of dwellings as well as for wattle or rod-shaped lath in the walls.
The colorfully dressed Mojave women in calico skirts, who sold bead necklaces, decorated clay dolls and vessels at the Needles train depot during the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s may have returned to traditional homes such as the “wattle and daub” dwelling shown at right made of arrowweed rod wall frames covered over with a clayish river mud and roofed with arrowweed thatch. These homes were mainly occupied in the winter; partially subterranean, they were naturally insulated and easier to keep warm than the Euro-American Victorian style homes downtown Needles with all of their “gingerbread” trimmings.
The Tryon property has repeatedly changed hands over the years and recently in the past several months, the new owner Needles Mayor Edward Paget has sought information about the property and showed to me the photos of the house being constructed circa 1910 saying that the house is built of arrowweed.
Though tests were not available to prove that arrowweed is actually behind the green plaster walls in the Tryon structure, providing some evidence that arrowweed was used for the wall support framework, the diameter of the horizontal wall rod frame material roughly matches the diameter of the arrowweed used in the various wattle and daub structures shown in the images provided here as well as the diameter of the arrowweed being collected and carried by Mojave women in the historic photo image above.
In the 1970s, Gerald A. Smith of the San Bernardino County Museum worked with Fort Mojave tribal chairman Llewellyn Barrackman in providing an ethnographic documentation of the prehistoric past life ways of the Aha Macav. He included in his publication, “The Mojaves” numerous photographs of “pole and mud” dwellings taken along the banks of the Colorado River that had been archived at the Museum of American Indian. Smith called these structures “superior to those made by many of the other tribes of Southern California.”
Smith describes the winter house as this: “They were rectangular in shape and covered with a sloping roof. A shed-roofed structure projected from the front of the house to form a portico or covered porch. Large cottonwood logs were used for the frame and for the horizontal beams of the houses. Arrow weed was used for the roof thatch, and over this a covering of river mud was added. Some of the houses were called mud and wattle houses because the walls made of logs and arrow weed, were filled solid with mud from the river sands. The houses were constructed on sandy soil and were from twenty to thirty feet square. The roof was very strong, and the Indians spent much time on top of the houses. There were no windows, and, with the exception of the smoke hole, the door was the only opening. Most of the fires for cooking were built outside of the houses. The people spent most of their lives outdoors or in the shade of their ramadas.”
Having different dwellings for winter and summer was not uncommon for the Mojave since seasonal flooding of the Colorado River forced evacuation of the river bottom farm land. For insulation and warmth, the winter house was made by excavating soil a few feet deep and building a cottonwood pole beam frame with arrowweed wattle and daub walls, and a roof of arrowweed thatch as Smith described above.
The Tryons large three story dwelling is also partially subterranean but apparently they did not take a lesson from the Mojaves and instead built a winter style home on the Colorado River floodplain. According to a 1981 account published in the Needles Desert Star, when the Medleys owned the property during the period of 1947 through 1951 it was reported that the basement was often unusable due to frequent flooding. Davis Dam was completed in 1951 creating Lake Mohave and channeling the Colorado River through the Mohave Valley at the east perimeter of Needles, thus controlling the river flow and for the most part eliminating floods.
Smith asserts that several families, ten to thirty individuals, could live together in an arrowweed winter house. If someone died during the winter in the house, it might be burned down along with the individual’s personal property. In the summer, people moved to be close to their farm lands on the river bottom where crude sheds were erected to provide protection from the sun while tending the crops.
The “pole and mud” or “wattle and daub” technology using arrowweed was still alive and well at the turn of the 20th century when the “Denair Subdivision” was laid out in Needles where the Tryons purchased their property.
According to the Needles Desert Star account (1981), “The House at the end of Dead Dog Road” was constructed by Claude and Anna Tryon after they purchased a quarter acre in the subdivision from John Warren in 1910. It took 4 years to complete what was to become “The Desert’s Largest House” with a reported 3,600 square feet and “a total of 22 rooms, including 4 bathrooms, 2 kitchens, 5 bedrooms and 67 windows.”
“The Tryon Family remained the owners until 1947” the account went on to say. “It was between 1914 and 1947 that the house acquired its notable reputation as a brothel, a gambling room, a speak-easy, and a haunted house.” (We’ll save the details of the haunt for the Halloween edition of the Glimpse).
It is interesting to note that the period of time that the Tryon family owned the home co-occurred with a rather reckless period in the wild west. The gold mines at Oatman were performing at full blast and Needles was, at the time, a hub of gold mining activity servicing Oatman and was also the center of transportation across the desert and up and down the river. During the prohibition and the “roaring 20s” Needles became what could be called “bootlegging central” as well, with whiskey stills and hide outs at surrounding springs. Evidence of an underground tunnel, now collapsed, has been reported which obscure thoroughfare is said to have once connected the Tryon basement with the business district around the railroad depot and is said to have been used to make unnoticed approaches and quick escapes to and from a reported brothel and whiskey supply. After World War II, the Tryons apparently moved on, reportedly selling the house and property to the Medley Family. The property changed hands numerous time over the years that followed.
It is unknown exactly when the plaster was applied to the arrowweed wattle—but sometime before 1963 when a new owner painted it and installed a tin roof. The structure has had a coat of green paint at least since 1980 when I moved to Needles and it has over the years become locally referred to as “The Big Green House.”
In the early 1980s there was an attempt to commercialize it, and a new owner turned the first floor into a clothing apparel shop, “Clouds of Clothes,” with plans to open a bar and restaurant later. New windows, floors and woodwork were to have been installed, but the enterprise was short lived. During the 1980s, new markets were booming on the Arizona side of the river where sales tax isn’t as high, thus out competing markets on the California side. That pattern has continued even into the present day.
The “Big Green House” property, a block away from historic Route 66, continued to change hands with the latest transaction being a sale by Anthony “Tony” Frazier, a Needles city council member, to the new proud owner, Mayor of Needles, Dr. Edward “Ed” Paget and his wife Jan. Believe it or not, it may be safe to say that the beloved doctor-mayor, who has been actively looking to develop roadside attractions in Needles along Route 66, now owns what may become the biggest tourist attraction in Needles of all: “The arrowweed ghost brothel and secret tunnel.”