While driving across the east Mojave with my brother about 35 years ago, we came to a lonely crossroads where one very sad-looking building sat baking in the sun.
The crossroads is called Goffs, and the building — a one-room schoolhouse — sat in ruins with its roof ready to collapse. We stopped only briefly, dismissing it as one of those nameless relicts soon to be swallowed by an unfeeling desert.
About the same time, Dennis Casebier also stopped there, but while I saw a wreck, he saw history and a future.
Because of his insight and a lot of help from volunteers, there will be a special celebration in Goffs this weekend marking the 100th anniversary of the opening of the school and bright prospects for its future.
The refurbished schoolhouse building — whose last class was dismissed in June 1937 — is the core of a remarkable complex known as the Goffs Cultural Center. Many miles from the nearest town, it houses an unsurpassed collection of written material, photos and mining and railroad equipment of the heritage of the eastern Mojave.
This weekend’s celebration is the 35th Mojave Road Rendezvous, a get-together by members of the Friends of the Mojave Road on whom Casebier has counted on in the creation of the center. Hundreds will attend to meet, greet, enjoy, share stories and appreciate the saving of the schoolhouse which has twice been left to die.
A century ago, Goffs — sitting at the very top of a Santa Fe railroad grade 2,000 feet higher than Needles 40 miles to the east — once boasted about 60 residents, mostly railroad employees and their families.
The parents of the dozen or so children there wanted a school so a petition went to the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors requesting one be opened. and the Goffs School District was soon formed. For $2,300, a local man named Tom Weir built the 800-square-foot classroom on donated acreage with instruction beginning in the fall of 1914.
By the Great Depression, however, Goffs was dying — in 1931 it actually was bypassed by Route 66 (now that’s a first) and then Santa Fe reduced its workforce there. After the school closed in 1937, what kids were left were bused to a new school up the highway in Essex.
The schoolhouse got a short rebirth in early World War II when Gen. George Patton trained thousands of troops in the desert for the invasion of North Africa. The school was briefly turned into a canteen where long lines of dusty soldiers could buy hamburgers, candy, cigarettes and cold drinks.
But when the troops left, the schoolhouse was left to rot.
On a March day in 1982, Casebier — then a Corona resident and employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Norco — wasn’t planning on becoming a resident of Goffs, as he is today, or building a cultural center. He was just out in his Jeep exploring when he stopped at the schoolhouse.
“I had a roll of film left and thought I’d better take some pictures because the next time I saw it, I figured it would be a pile of rubble,” he said.
But there were others also interested in the old place. Jim and Bertha Wold, who had worked at ranches in the area, actually went ahead and bought it. With a lot of work, they made it into their home.
Casebier as part of his hobby of collecting the stories and history of the eastern Mojave struck up an acquaintance with the Wolds. When they decided to sell the schoolhouse in 1989 due to ill health, Casebier, now retired from the Navy job, decided to buy it and its 113 desert acres.
The rest is, well, history.
The schoolhouse complex now boasts 10,000 volumes on Mojave and Western history, 120,000 historic photos and 6,000 maps of the desert. He had also conducted 1,300 oral histories of pioneers, ranchers and school children of the eastern Mojave’s past.
The special activities at Goffs get underway Thursday with the dedication of the American Boy stamp mill, a rebuilt multi-ton piece of mining equipment used in years past to crush rock from the mines. On Saturday will be the huge raffle that generates funds to operate the center as well as a barbecue dinner. There will also be off-road tours of the desert landmarks throughout the weekend. To participate: email firstname.lastname@example.org. There are some camping facilities at Goffs.
If you visit, remember Goffs is many miles from the nearest motel (Needles or Laughlin), inexpensive gas (same) or food (same again), but it’s worth the trip either this weekend or in the future to get a taste of the West of days gone by. It’s 100 miles east of Barstow via the 40 Freeway, then north on Goffs Road for 12 miles.