Edwards Air Force Base is home to a large collection of flight test history including many of the achievements of female aviatrix Pancho Barnes, born Florence Lowe in 1901.
It was in 1935 that Barnes purchased the Rancho Oro Verde, which later became home to the legendary Happy Bottom Riding Club. At the ranch, Barnes established a flying school which graduated several female pilots who went on to join the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots during World War II.
However, the school was shut down in 1941 after the government placed a ban on private flight within 150 miles of the coast.
“The Rancho Oro Verde and its Happy Bottom Riding Club became a refuge for service members, aviation industry executives, civilian pilots and support personnel stationed at the Muroc Army Air Corps Base, which later became Edwards AFB,” said Reymundo Chapa, 412th Civil Engineering, Base Historic Preservation officer.
According to Chapa, the ranch once had riding stables, rodeo grounds, a landing strip, dance hall, swimming pools, guest rooms and a restaurant and bar. At its start, the ranch was open to the public, but eventually gained enough attention to require membership to access the facilities. Chapa noted that at one time the ranch had 9,000 members including John Wayne, Howard Hughes, Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers, Gen. Hap Arnold, Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, Gen. Carle “Tooey” Spaatz, and Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg.
“Pancho’s home and business provided not only food and trash removal services to the base, but also a place to socialize at a time when the base was more austere and isolated than today. Base personnel frequented the establishment until the 1950s, when the installation commander put the place off limits because of its sordid reputation and a souring relationship between base leadership and its outspoken entrepreneur,” said Dr. Joseph Mason, chief historian, Air Force Test Center.
In 1953, a fire destroyed the property’s main structures and the ranch was abandoned.
“When the federal government purchased land to expand Edwards AFB in the 1950s, the Air Force purchased Rancho Oro Verde by eminent domain. A fire had destroyed many of the buildings. Pancho’s property went from being part of the fabric of the early flight test community to one of many historical structures now on government property,” said Mason.
Today, the site has been recommended as eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and was given the site designation CA-KER-531H.
According to Chapa, the designation is an acknowledgement of the site’s significance to Edwards and United States history that comes with certain legal protections and obligates Edwards to preserve and protect the site as a national treasure.
Recently, archaeologists with 412th Test Wing Civil Engineering noticed car tracks circumventing the site’s locked gate. In response, a photographic study was conducted to monitor the site and identify any unauthorized vehicles. The pictures showed various privately-owned vehicles, along with easily distinguishable license plate numbers. CE delivered those results to the 412th Security Forces Squadron and together they have started discussing ways to stem the flow of unauthorized entry onto the site.
The Historic Preservation Working Group, which includes the Base Historic Preservation officer, the Flight Test Museum curator and base historian, is concerned that unauthorized entry will result in relic-hunting and ultimately diminish the materials that tell the complete story of Pancho Barnes.
“Artifacts such as bottles, broken plates and animal bones may appear as trash to the untrained eye, but for the trained professional they hold the key to understanding how Rancho Oro Verde evolved and functioned on a daily basis,” said Chapa. “For instance, these artifacts might help us understand the economic wealth of Pancho Barnes at different points in its history. It might shed light on what sorts of beverages were consumed most commonly in the club and they may indicate what aviation pioneers were eating during their quest to shape history.”
Prior to purchasing the Rancho Oro Verde, Barnes served in the Mexican Revolution. Disguised as a man, she worked on a freighter transporting contraband guns. It was during the months spent in Mexico that she earned her nickname.
In 1928, Barnes learned to fly and by the following year she was flying in the Powder Puff Derby. During the 1930 Derby, Barnes set the women’s world speed record at 196 miles per hour, beating Amelia Earhart’s previous record of 181 MPH. Barnes also flew as a stunt pilot for several movies and helped create the Associated Motion Picture Pilots Union.
“Pancho Barnes was both a respected and infamous figure in the early days of flight test. A wealthy socialite from Los Angeles, Pancho was also record-setting aviator who earned the respect of the pilots who flew dangerous and too-often deadly test missions in the 1940s,” said Mason. “Archived documents, museum display aircraft and other artifacts, and historical buildings and archeological sites are important to preserving the legacy of Edwards and bringing to life the story of the sacrifices of the men and women of the developmental test community.”
Chapa added, “Edwards AFB seeks to balance its obligations to educate the public, and protect and preserve the site. Civil Engineering offers guided tours to inform the public about the site’s importance. The Rancho Oro Verde site is situated on an active range, so precautions and protections have to be arranged beforehand. CE can make those arrangements and facilitate any number of participants.”
Individuals and parties interested in the Rancho Oro Verde site may arrange tours by contacting the Base Historical Preservation Office at (661) 277-1413, or (661) 277-1401.