On a lonely stretch of desert road smack dab between Phoenix and Los Angeles sits a tiny town (population 216!) consisting of a handful of storefronts straddling a solitary block just steps from Interstate 10. Cars still regularly pull off the freeway and into the gas station there, though the pumps haven’t been filled with petrol in years. A sign in the café window reads, “We apologize for being closed temporarily for building maintenance,” though one look through the chalky windows and it’s clear the “temporary” shuttering is anything but.
Desert Center, as it is known, has been compared to both the charming Route 66 hamlet of Radiator Springs from “Cars” and the treacherous Nevada town from “The Hills Have Eyes,” but the truth of the place lies somewhere in between.
The remote site was the brainchild of preacher Stephen Ragsdale, who fortuitously broke down in the area while traveling from his hometown of Palo Verde Valley to Los Angeles in 1915. Upon being rescued and towed to a mechanic by a local landowner, an idea was born. Figuring the region needed a decent rest stop, Ragsdale purchased the good samaritan’s acreage and, along with his wife Lydia, proceeded to build a gas station, auto repair shop and restaurant along the dusty main drag which became known as Ragsdale Rd.
Desert Center was officially founded in 1921 and just as Stephen, who took to calling himself “Desert Steve,” had envisioned, it evolved into a popular pit stop for travelers making their way between California and Arizona. The entire Ragsdale clan had a hand in the operation. As historian Steve Lech told The Press-Enterprise, “He [Stephen] would run the tow truck and pump gas. His wife would run the cafe and do the cooking. He had two sons and a daughter and they would do auto repairs and work at the center.”
Incredibly, the town remained in the Ragsdales’ hands up until just last month when its 1,034.78 acres were sold for $6.25 million to Balwinder S. Wraich, a transport company owner based in Riverside. The selling price might seem scant for an entire town, but by the time of the transaction, the place had become a virtual shell of its original self.