Tribute to the intrepid women who built Palm Springs

In 1948, just two years before her death, Nellie Coffman, the most important woman in Palm Springs history, wrote to another hardworking villager, Melba Bennett: “You, as a woman whose every moment of life is so full of pressing responsibilities, I know you’ll be one of the first to understand why I didn’t write to you fully… more) expensive… However, I know that you will rise to the occasion. Just remember that you are neither steel nor iron, and one day you will feel the results if you keep going too hard. Relax a little, girl, relax.

Last week, March 8, International Women’s Day, brought recognition of women and their pressing responsibilities and onerous duties and celebration of their achievements despite enormous hardship. Nowhere is the courage of women more evident than in the story of the desert.

Coffman, through sheer determination, created the notion of a desert resort with his creation of the Desert Inn. She arrived in 1909 and settled at the foot of Mount San Jacinto to open a sanatorium with her physician husband and a lodging facility. She is reported to have said that “with good food, clean accommodations and warm hospitality, roads and automobiles would come”.

Soon she was right, and Palm Springs’ tourist trade began in earnest. By 1914, it was clear that her hotel business was superior to her husband’s medical practice, and remarkably, they separated, leaving Coffman a single mother with a business to run. His dedication to quality was evident and made the hostel a remarkable success, taking the whole town with it.

Coffman had been preceded in the small village by the McCallum women. Emily Freeman McCallum loved the refinements of city life and decidedly despised the desert. She tolerated it for her children who had been stricken with typhoid fever, with the eldest boy Johnny relapsing from pneumonia. Doctors have suggested that moving to a warmer, drier climate will help the children recover. The family left the civilization of San Francisco to set up camp and build an adobe brick house under a fig tree in the middle of nowhere. The place was close to a stream of water dripping from the Tahquitz Canyon.

McCallum and her daughter Pearl regularly bathed in the hot mineral water that was only a short distance from their home. As her father began to amass a lot of land, over 6,000 acres, Pearl became captivated by the desert and devoted herself to it. The end of the 19th century decimated his father’s dreams of development. Twenty-one days of rain followed an 11-year drought, resulting in the death of his father in 1897.

By 1914, four of the McCallums’ adult children had died, leaving the youngest, Pearl, and her mother with title to her extensive real estate holdings and controlling interest in the Palm Valley Water Company. Pearl believed that her father had sacrificed his own life to hold on to the land he had so diligently earned. She will devote the rest of her life to the service of her dream.

After her mother’s death in 1914, Pearl met and married Austin McManus, a realtor who worked in South Pasadena. The couple moved into their adobe family and started a real estate business called Pioneer Properties, building the village’s first apartment and housing estate. Pearl was the shrewd negotiator and Austin was the cheerful salesman. She made the deeds of her properties restrictive and reversible, giving her control over the land she had already sold. His perseverance was only surpassed by his philanthropy years later.

Frances Stevens and her husband PT came to the desert because of her failing health in 1912. Frances’ health improved with her stay at the Desert Inn, and PT purchased over 1,000 acres north of the village. Water was crucial and PT decided to find a way to provide it reliably and at a reasonable cost.

Frances has embarked on a mission to build a new school. She teamed up with Rose McKinney, mother of several sadly unruly children, and they formed the first school board in the desert. The Stevens family donated the land to Alejo and Palm Canyon and most of the money for materials. The villagers provided the work. In 1927, Frances’ dedication and vision resulted in an elegant building that was the proud achievement of the whole village. After his death, the school was named in his honor.

Professor Cornelia White came to Palm Springs, not to teach but to escape the chaos of the Mexican Revolution with her sister, Dr. Florilla White. With trailblazer Carl Lykken, strong women packed what they could onto a railroad handcart and began pumping their way to the United States. Many sections of track were destroyed by the revolutionaries, and the women had to unload the handcart up to 30 times and push it until they found a usable track.

Arriving safely in the desert from San Diego, the thought of returning to their home country of cold-weather North Dakota seemed out of the question. Cornelia bought the Palm Springs Hotel in Welwood Murray, and with the property came the lease for the bathhouse across the street. The sisters were wealthy and had the luxury of leading recreational lives. They were both part of the group of women interested in the construction of infrastructures including a public cemetery, a library and a museum. Neither sister got married and, surprisingly, they both preferred to wear pants instead of dresses. Cornelia said “she had a dress, she just saved it for the funeral”.

Zaddie Bunker preferred overalls. She had arrived in Palm Springs with her husband Ed and their daughter, Frances, in 1913. Zaddie took a correspondence course to learn how to fix cars because there was no garage between Banning and Indio and she had the intention to change that. She was the first woman in California to earn a driver’s license, supplementing her income by ferrying visitors from the train station to hotels.

Zaddie saved and bought a property downtown which she rented out to a movie company that wanted to build a western town for the movie they were shooting. She agreed to lend them money on the condition that they include plumbing in the town they erected. After the film was completed, she rented these buildings, eventually owning a good portion of the town’s commercial buildings, including a pharmacy, the first cinema, and the Chi Chi nightclub. According to Zaddie, her husband, Ed, “has replaced her with a new model.” She never remarried, but at age 65 she earned her pilot’s license, the oldest woman to do so.

And Bennett, the hardworking heiress who had been warned by Coffman in 1948 to relax and not work too long or too hard, founded the Palm Springs Historical Society in 1955 preserving the good stories of the good women who helped her. preceded.

Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Memories Thanks column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to him at