By Mark Gutglueck
Newton Bass, who was born in South Dakota in 1903, was a self-made millionaire in the days when a million dollars was a million dollars. His money would enable him to be the founder of Apple Valley, as it known today. Bass’s achievement was one made possible by his wealth but also by the time in which he lived. Today, government regulations and restrictions would make his far-sighted plans virtually undoable.
Since Bass was a creature of his time, there are aspects of his legacy that in modern retrospect do not hold up well, in particular the restrictions that in the 1940s, 1950 and 1960s were placed upon those deemed worthy of the privilege of owning property in Apple Valley.
Raised on an Indian reservation in South Dakota, Newt was a little bit too young to be a soldier in the First World War, which at the time was referred to as the Great War. By the time the Second World War began, he was a few years too old to be conscripted into the military. Thus, just as he was reaching the point where he could become a prime mover in the development of the desert, the decks had been cleared for him to do so, and he would settle in at Apple Valley, indeed at a point of wondrous vantage over it, where he embarked on a mission of community creation with virtually no impediments.
In 1921, at the age of 18 he moved to California, becoming a roustabout in the burgeoning oil fields of Long Beach’s famous Signal Hill and down at Santa Fe Springs. Bright, enterprising and energetic, he began drilling his own wells at the age 31.
Along the way, Bass came to recognize that Southern California real estate could be used for more than just extracting oil from, and he ventured some of the proceeds from his oil business into the development of the Hollywood Riviera Section of Torrance in the early 1930s.
By the time he was 40, he’d amassed a fortune that enabled him to get away from the daily grind in the oil fields. He came to Apple Valley in 1943. One version of events is that he had interested himself in what was then a rustic neck of the Mojave Desert not as a businessman looking at the development potential there but because it just might be the perfect spot upon which to establish a cattle ranch. A conflicting narrative is that the representation about a cattle ranch was merely a cover story and that Bass and his partner, Bud Westlund, a fellow oilman, were indeed scouting out business opportunities in the desert, albeit not real estate development. According to this rendition, Bass and Westlund were looking for black gold, petroleum, Texas Tea. If this report is to be believed, during geologic tests consisting of the sinking of exploration wells in the area east of Victorville known as Apple Valley, they encountered no oil but did hit water, lots of it.
Apple Valley had been given that name back in the 1880s because it would support the cultivation of apples and pears, which conversely to citrus, must experience freezing temperatures in the late winter/early spring for the blossoms to crack open, enabling the emergence of the fruit. Calling the place Apple Valley had proven a clever marketing tool with gullible Easterners before the turn of the 19th Century to the Twentieth Century and some hardy farmers had made a go of it by establishing producing orchards there. But by the late 1920s, the apple and pear orchards lay fallow.
Perhaps the talk about a cattle ranch was simply a ruse to prevent the landowners from seeking top dollar on land that just might have oil beneath it. Whatever the case, Bass and Westlund were able to arrange for the purchase of 6,300 acres of literally dirt-cheap land at $2.50 per acre. For a time, the cattle ranching cover story remained operative. At some point, either toward the end of the Second World War, or after it ended, the prospect of millions of GIs returning home to start families inspired Bass and Westlund to consider transforming a significant portion of that acreage into homes to house the nascent families of those now inactive soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.
Over the next three decades, Bass and Westlund would create a thriving desert oasis community from the raw and arid climate of the Mojave Desert. Bass and Westlund acted both deliberately and with foresight. Perhaps their best move was in employing Hugh Gibbs, an architect and urban planner, who had what was then a cutting edge vision for laying out large-scale community developments by creating and sticking to a master plan rather than engaging in hodge-podge exploitation of land to simply profiteer. Gibbs methodically laid out a 6,000-acre township.
Bass and Westlund were not desperate and they weren’t looking to make a fast buck and leave. Bass like Westlund had income from the oil business. One of his holdings was the Reserve Oil and Gas Company, which was engaged in oil and natural gas exploration and operated the Mohawk gas stations in California and Arizona. Bass was the chairman of the board of the Reserve Oil and Gas Company. This enabled him, along with Westlund, to underwrite infrastructure and utility improvements in Apple Valley in the millions of dollars.
Bass and Westlund employed Bud Seagondollar and Francisco Artigas as architects and Bennington & Smith General Contractors, owned by Hal Smith and Jack Bennington, to build homes and commercial buildings in Apple Valley.
Bass and Westlund established the Apple Valley Development Company and the Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company, which was intended to sink a sufficient number of wells into the desert floor to provide adequate water to allow the community they were developing to thrive.
It is for a somewhat uncomfortable historical fact that the inception of Apple Valley embodied what by contemporary social standards is recognized as out and out bigotry and racial prejudice. For the most part, it has since been conveniently forgotten or disregarded, but at the time it was no secret that Apple Valley was intended to be an exclusive community, one which would be populated only by Caucasians. Apple Valley was referred to as “Palm Springs for white people.” That meant no Jews and no blacks. Evidence of this disquieting reality can be gleaned from the restrictive covenants put in the titles to property in that era that barred sale of the homes to Jews or blacks. Interestingly, the barring of home ownership to Latinos was not recorded.
A perhaps subtle, perhaps not so subtle indication of this was a sign that greeted those entering the town. It read, “Welcome to Apple Valley – A Better Way of Living.” In the district of Desert Knolls, which was at the doorstep to Apple Valley but technically at that time not considered to be part of Apple Valley proper, no such ownership or ethnic restrictions were in force.
Bass and Westlund developed the Apple Valley Inn, which became a centerpiece for the community.
Bass intended the Apple Valley Inn as a resplendent hotel that would serve two purposes: as a means of drawing the rich and famous to Apple Valley and thus raising its profile; and second, as a place where the common man and wife who were contemplating buying a house in Apple Valley could spend the night in Apple Valley at a reasonable rate in between the tours of the model homes for sale in the yet-to-be-completed Apple Valley subdivisions, and perhaps rub elbows with some of those rich and famous Hollywood stars and starlets who just happened to be in residence there that very evening.
Bass sunk nearly a million dollars into constructing the Apple Valley Inn, a considerable layout in those days. And he again utilized Gibbs, not in his capacity as an urban planner but rather as an architect, in designing it. Even in siting the Inn’s 28-acre grounds, Bass took great care, locating it near a hillside on the desert landscape that featured several colossal and majestic boulders that equaled or outdid the images associated with the best work of John Ford, John Wayne or Gabby Hayes. Gibbs succeeded in evoking the ambience of the Old West by having the Inn itself – the main venue for public meeting and congregation – composed of walls made of rough hewn-but-varnished planks and adobe canopied by a heavy beam ceiling. Augmenting it was the floor, consisting of nearly blindingly polished red clay and cut stone tiles. Surrounding the Inn were private bungalows that fell just short of being luxurious, thus allowing the occupant the illusion that he was in Old El Paso, Santa Fe, or Yuma.
Those visitors to the Inn who were interested in gambling could, if they knew the discreet code words to use, get into the private casino on the grounds there.
When the time came, Bass abandoned his Long Beach mansion and moved to Apple Valley, taking up residence in a newly built mansion, the Hilltop House, which offered a panoramic view of the Mojave Desert. It was designed by the architect Franscisco Artigas. It was constructed on a 20-acre site in the hills above the Apple Valley Inn.
It offered, according to a 1960 issue of Pictorial California “A view so vast that outer-space high is the feeling when standing within.” From the perch one gazed immediately down upon Apple Valley and the Victor Valley, with the San Beranrdino Mountains and Antelope Valley yet visible in the distance. Among its many amenities was a swimming pool that was both inside and outside the house, a glimmering azur gem atop the hill.
Newt was able to watch over Apple Valley’s phenomenal growth both literally and figuratively from the spectacular vantage that home offered.
Artigas innovatively and adaptively incorporated a part of the hill itself into the internal space of the house, such that an unaltered boulder outcropping was part of one side of the home’s living room and another side of the dining room. Artigas was wholly responsible for the houses external shape and design and shared credit for the internal design, including that of the furniture, with designers Jim Richardson, Fred Miller and Joel Harper of Albert Parvin.
In 1961, an episode of the Perry Mason television show, which aired on December 30, was filmed on location in the Hilltop House.
The Hilltop House was also used as the board of director’s room for Reserve Oil and Gas.
Bass remained dedicated to Apple Valley his entire life. His approach is contrasted with that of Penn Phillips, who on April 22, 1954 consummated the purchase of a 36-square mile tract seven miles south of Victorville, representing roughly 90 percent of the entire township of Hesperia for $1.25 million from the Appleton Land and Water Company and the Lacey Estate, which had owned the land jointly since 1888. Phillips set about putting in a minimum amount of infrastructure to support some scattered subdivisions, built a smattering of house, obtained entitlements to build more, which he never built himself, sold lots and more lots, turned a substantial profit and got out, moving to another place where he would do the same.
Bass, conversely sought to build Apple Valley into a full-blooded community. He founded the Bank of Apple Valley. He arranged for the licensing for and financed the construction of the Apple Valley Airport. He donated the land for and partially defrayed the cost of building St. Mary Desert Hospital. He established a radio station in Apple Valley. He convinced western movie icons Roy Rogers and Dale Evans to move to Apple Valley, along with champion golfers Lloyd Mangrum and Billy Casper and world renowned opera singer John Charles Thomas.
Bass indulged his wife, Fran, in establishing the Buffalo Trading Shop, which sold Old West art, jewelry and curios. It was located proximate to the Hilltop House and the Apple Valley Inn.
Bass relished tooling around the wide open desert roads in his black Cadillac at high speeds, smoking a cigar and sometimes letting his son drive.
He prized the Western ambiance Apple Valley provided, and icons and reenactments of the bygone era of the transcontinental migration were recurrent elements in the social life Bass engaged in. These included Conestoga wagon races out in the desert on occasional Saturday afternoons, with sleepovers involving a roaring campfire Saturday night and chuckwagon breakfasts on Sunday morning.
At Apple Valley Airport, he constantly had a plane at the ready, one that could take him at a moment’s notice to Las Vegas, or Long Beach, or Reno, or Albuquerque, or Texas.
As with other great men of vision and accomplishment and humans in general, there were contradictory elements in Bass’s nature, character and personality. He undeniably was a man of dynamic energy, accomplishment and generosity, had a civic conscience and cared about people. He was also capable of a callous meanness. Those who came to know him or have experience with him either genuinely liked him, perhaps even loved him, or did not like him at all. And if Newt Bass became acquainted with someone, he either had affection for that person or did not care for him or her at all. There was no middle ground. He could be manipulative. His attempts at manipulation could be grossly carried out. Remarkably, he sometimes sought to manipulate others for a good cause. There was a certain degree of ambiguity to his religious orientation. To some it seemed he was an atheist, or at best, agnostic. But others suspected he may have been a Catholic, either an apostate or one who actually practiced the religion. For sure, Bass had a close and abiding relationship with Monsignor William Van Garsse. Bass shared with Van Garsse a vision for a Catholic hospital to serve Apple Valley. Bass and the monsignor were the prime movers in having St. Mary Desert Valley Hospital built in Desert Knolls. Together they coordinated with the Sisters of Immaculate Heart of Mary, and convinced Reverend Mother Regina, Mother General, to have her order to assume management and full, permanent responsibility for the facility once it was dedicated on November 19, 1956 and up and running.
Years later, when he was felled by health problems and had taken up residence in one of the rooms at the hospital, he would commission the most talented chef he could find to cook up a grand meal, and invite some of his wealthiest acquaintances and associates to join him for dinner. After everyone was in the dining hall with the sumptuous feast before them, Bass would say, “Alright, you sons of bitches, you know why I invited you here. How much are you going to give to the hospital? After everyone in the room pledged a generous endowment, Bass would say, “Okay. Let’s eat.”
Bass’s name was known to be Newton T. Bass. On one occasion, someone asked him what the T stood for. Instantaneously Bass replied, “Turdbird.”
In his mid-to-late 70s, Bass’s health deteriorated. His diabetes grew acute and he developed blood poisoning, leading to the amputation of both of his legs. He wanted to remain in the Hilltop House, with caretakers there, but as he developed what was then referred to as “organic brain syndrome,” signs of encroaching senility, it was insisted that he be taken to St. Mary Desert Valley Hospital, where he was put in a room in the acute care wing. It was there that he died in 1983 of complications related to advanced diabetes.
By Mark Gutglueck