The Barbara Worth Country Club is a par-71, 6,500-yard golf course that spreads out on the fringes of Holtville, in California’s Imperial Valley. Like many desert golf courses, it has an apparitional quality: a square of deep green gleams against a surrounding landscape of ochers and grays. The fairways—“straight-up Bermuda grass,” explains course manager Steve Rogers—are pillared with palm trees. Ponds flank the greens, reflecting a powder-blue sky.
The course gets its heaviest use between October and May, when temperatures run in the 70s, as opposed to the 100s they reach in July. After their matches, golfers can head to Caddies Bar and Grill for a beer. A nearby hallway is crowded with framed, signed photographs of celebrities who played the course or performed at the adjacent hotel and convention center. John Travolta, Oliver North, Charo. Also displayed are photos from the club’s early years, after its opening in 1930.
The club’s nine-decade history and its forthright, sporty name may convince you that Barbara Worth was a real person—say, a pioneering female golfer, a contemporary of Patty Berg and Babe Zaharias who founded the club after a successful pro career. That is not the case. Barbara Worth exists in the pages of a novel and in a silent film. She was the creation of Harold Bell Wright, the most popular and influential California writer no one today has heard of. Together, author and heroine propelled California’s favorite story about itself: that given will and engineering prowess and water, the state can be whatever it wants to be. Whether that narrative still holds, in the Imperial Valley, in California, and across the whole American West, is the question.
The Imperial Valley lies 100 miles east of San Diego. If you study one of those plastic relief maps of California displayed in elementary schools, the valley looks as if someone had pressed hard on the plastic with a thumb: an oblong indentation sunk between two mountain ranges, the Chocolates to the east, the Lagunas to the west. On its north end, it’s bounded by the Salton Sea, at 325 square miles California’s largest lake. Its official southern boundary is the U.S.-Mexico border, although the valley continues into Baja California under the name Valle de Mexicali, running south toward the Gulf of California.
The valley is hot and dry. Annual rainfall averages three inches. Temperatures exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit more than 100 days a year. Despite the extreme climate, the area has for millennia been home to Cahuilla, Quechan, and Kumeyaay peoples. European and American exploration and settlement was halting: the Anza expedition traversed the valley in 1774, and the California gold rush brought argonauts seeking riches. It was a brutal trek through terrain that 19th-century journalist Bayard Taylor damned as “scorching and sterile—a country of burning salt plains and shifting hills of sand.”
It was an unlikely place for a preacher turned popular novelist to alight. But in the fall of 1907, that was what Harold Bell Wright did.
“He was kind of like the James Patterson of his day,” says Deborah Thornburg, a historian at the Imperial County Historical Society’s Pioneers’ Museum, which devotes a substantial amount of floor space to Wright. “Everybody read him.”
Wright was born in upstate New York in 1872 and—as detailed in the definitive Wright biography, Lawrence V. Tagg’s Harold Bell Wright: Storyteller to America—endured a childhood of soul-crushing hardship. Harsh, alcoholic father; loving mother who died young; the boy forced to quit school to eke out a living driving a grocer’s wagon and working as a housepainter.
What saved him was a love for literature and for Jesus—these and the ferocious work ethic that comes from growing up poor and wanting never to be poor again. Wright took a post as a preacher in a backwoods church in the Missouri Ozarks, then moved to a church in Kansas. He began to write devotional novels: That Printer of Udell’s, based on his hardscrabble childhood, and The Shepherd of the Hills, a tangled Ozark melodrama involving sin and art and redemption. Published by the Book Supply Company of Chicago, both were successful.
Then a leap to a church in California, in Redlands, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. And a second, more daring leap. Wright wearied of being a pastor; he could, he believed, spread the gospel to a larger audience through his fiction. He relocated with his family (wife, sons) to what would come to be called the Imperial Valley, where he built a ranch he named Tecolote, for the small owls that flitted around the property.
Walk through the Wright exhibit at the Pioneers’ Museum and you see what he made of his time in the valley: there are first editions, manuscripts, awards, and photographs, black-and-white images of his hand-built arrowweed writing studio and of Wright himself. Handsome “in an angular way,” judges Thornburg, “and look at those eyes.” Tall and rangy, he looks like a man at home on horseback, which he was.
Wright arrived in the valley at an opportune time, transforming himself as the valley was transforming. The era of great western reclamation projects had begun—William E. Smythe proclaimed in his influential 1900 book, The Conquest of Arid America, “irrigation is a miracle!” Across the American West, dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, and canals would bring water from where it was—in rivers like the Colorado, the Owens, and the Snake—to where people wanted it, ensuring a new age of prosperity.
This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.
Few places were better suited to embrace this miracle than the soon-to-be Imperial Valley. The Colorado River flowed only 60 miles to the east. In 1901, the California Development Company made an initial cut—more would quickly follow—in the riverbank and directed the water into the valley. The developers gave the region its regal name and began to sell land. “People came from all over the world,” says Thornburg.
Then, calamity. The winter and spring of 1905 were wet, and the Colorado River rose and flooded, overwhelming the hastily engineered cuts and canals to reroute itself into the valley, washing away homes and townsites and cropland and creating a new large body of water, the Salton Sea. Flood after flood followed over the next two years.
Harold Bell Wright knew a good story when he saw one. Holed up in his writer’s studio, he plotted an epic tale of redemption through irrigation. His heroine, Barbara Worth, is orphaned as a toddler when her parents die of thirst trying to cross the desert. Rescued, she becomes the adopted daughter of the valley’s most prominent citizen, banker Jefferson Worth. The shrewd, dynamic Worth is a believer in reclamation but must battle eastern capitalists trying to wrest control of the valley. Also on hand are two rivals for Barbara’s affections: homespun local surveyor Abe Lee and suave eastern engineer Willard Holmes. And there is the Seer, a William E. Smythe–inspired character who embodies the faith Wright himself had come to hold: to reclaim the desert was to reclaim souls. There are gunfights and important telegrams, a biblical flood and the happy ending when Barbara, a bit surprisingly, chooses Willard over Abe.
Wright hit pay dirt. Released in 1911, The Winning of Barbara Worth was a phenomenon, becoming the third-bestselling book of the year. Over the next 15 years, sales would reach 2,800,000 copies.
To explain Barbara Worth’s success, historian Kevin Starr noted that the novel “tapped that amalgam of progressivism, profit, and religiosity so deeply lodged in the mainstream American identity of this era.” All of which is true but ignores one other key component: Barbara Worth. Not since Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1884) had a California heroine so captured America’s heart. An expert rider, fluent in Spanish, Barbara is an Imperial Valley aristocrat with a democratic touch. Gazing out from the novel’s cover, she is handsome rather than pretty, with strong features and piercing brown eyes, wearing a floppy sombrero and an expression at once dreamy and purposeful.
The Pioneers’ Museum exhibit presents artifacts from Barbara’s rise from literary figure to cultural sensation. There are the labels for Barbara Worth brand Imperial Valley grapefruit: “The Test Is in the Taste.” There is a sofa from the Hotel Barbara Worth, the opulent Spanish Renaissance establishment that opened in downtown El Centro in 1915, whose lobby featured 11 murals depicting scenes from the novel and whose dining room menu included chicken liver en brochette for 60 cents.
By the time the hotel opened, the Colorado River had been pushed back into its former course, and a new network of canals had been created. The valley prospered. Its cities—El Centro, Brawley, Calexico—grew. Across the state, major new reclamation projects were underway: Los Angeles pulling water from the Owens Valley, San Francisco making plans to draw it from Hetch Hetchy. Were Harold Bell Wright and Barbara Worth chiefly responsible for these and later engineered transformations of California? No, but they made reclamation heroic and romantic.
In the summer of 1926, shooting began on a film version of The Winning of Barbara Worth, produced by Samuel Goldwyn and starring Vilma Bánky as Barbara, Ronald Colman as Willard, and a newcomer, Gary Cooper, as Abe. It was filmed in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, now best known as the venue for Burning Man. The stars and the 150-person crew endured sandstorms and temperatures that rose into the 120s.
On October 14, 1926, some 200 elected officials, civic leaders, and reclamation experts from 13 western states gathered in Los Angeles for the conference “The Winning of the West,” where the focus was bringing water to the region’s arid lands. Among the highlights was the world premiere of Goldwyn’s film.
Nearly a century after the politicos applauded the opening of Barbara Worth, the valley the film and book made famous is in crisis. Its sole source of water, the Colorado River, is withering as warmer temperatures reduce the snowpack that feeds it, one effect of what is looming as a once-in-a-millennium megadrought in the American West. River flows are 84 percent of normal. The Colorado’s biggest reservoirs, Lakes Mead and Powell, are at record lows, skeletal versions of their prior muscular blue selves.
“The Colorado River basin is aridifying,” says JB Hamby, a member of the board of directors for the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) and chair of the Colorado River Board of California. “It’s going to be permanent in nature.”
Despite its initial refusal to be redirected and reclaimed for irrigation, the Colorado River has been very good to the valley. The All-American Canal—the 1940 replacement for the earlier system—annually carries 3.1 million acre-feet of water from the river, starting just below Imperial Dam and continuing 80 miles west to Calexico, with branch canals sending water farther north in the valley.
The canals have their hazards. On a hot summer day, jumping into the cold, fast-flowing water can be tempting but deadly: across the valley, you see billboards on which a cartoon duck warns, “stay away, stay alive. never swim in canals.” But the river water has made the valley one of the most productive agricultural regions in the nation, adding $4 billion to the Imperial County economy annually. Top crops include alfalfa, for cattle feed, and winter vegetables—spinach, lettuces. When you buy a packaged salad mix in February, there’s a good chance it comes from the Imperial Valley, harvested by farmworkers who cross the border each day from Mexico.
The drought imperils that economy. At December’s Colorado River Water Users Association conference, Camille Calimlim Touton, commissioner of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, said that the Colorado River basin’s current system of dams, reservoirs, and canals is no longer tenable in a hotter, drier West: “It was built in the last century, and so the way that we operate for this hydrology doesn’t work.” The bureau is demanding enormous cuts in water use—ranging from two million to four million acre-feet—all across the basin, which takes in seven states and 40 million people. These cuts need to be made quickly and will be allocated through negotiations among the entities—states, irrigation districts like the IID and the Central Arizona Project, basin Indigenous tribes, others—that draw on the water. Historically, Colorado River negotiations have been notoriously fraught: in 1934, a squabble between Arizona and California over construction of the new Parker Dam led Arizona to call out the National Guard. Current negotiations may be worse, says Hamby. Coming up with these volumes of cuts, he says, is “extraordinary and huge.”
The IID has a unique place in the fight. Western water law generally gives the first entities that take water from a river the right to keep taking it. Because the IID was one of the first to draw water from the Colorado, it controls 3.1 million acre-feet of its water—about 20 percent of the river-water rights in the United States. This is why Sammy Roth, who covers water and energy issues for the Los Angeles Times, calls Hamby and the other IID board members “five of the most powerful people in the American West.”
Their power isn’t limitless, though. When the Colorado River Compact—the landmark agreement allocating the river’s water—was drawn up 100 years ago, Arizona had 330,000 residents; Nevada, 77,000. They now have seven million and three million respectively, with correspondingly increased water demands and political clout. Critics of the IID argue that the valley receives more water than is fair. They note that across the basin, agriculture accounts for 70 to 80 percent of river-water use, while cities draw much less. If you need to save two million to four million acre-feet of water, an agricultural valley might be the place to start.
That puts the valley, and the IID, in a difficult position. Hamby, a valley native who became fascinated by Colorado River issues when he was a student at Stanford, says, “The volumes are massive and nothing anybody’s ever dealt with before.” What he worries about most is pressure to pull land out of production—an idea being floated as part of the Colorado River allocation negotiations—by paying farmers not to grow crops and thus not to use water. Some valley farmers would accept that deal, he thinks. But if you take too much land out of production, you could decimate the local economy—the tractor dealers and crop-dusting
pilots and hardware stores and “all the other community impacts that are hard to define, when you just don’t have money in circulation and things just get less vibrant.”
What happens when a farming valley no longer farms? Hamby says, “There’s nothing really to replace it.”
Drive north from El Centro and you will come to the Salton Sea, created by the floods of 1905–07. These deluges provide the climax for The Winning of Barbara Worth and allow Wright to indulge in his most grandiloquent prose: “The roar of the plunging waters, the crashing and booming of the falling masses of earth that were undermined by the roaring torrent were heard miles away.”
The Salton Sea is also the story of today’s Imperial Valley. From a distance, it is still oddly entrancing: a silvery-blue disk floating on the desert floor, a reminder of what it was like for much of the 20th century. Then it was a Ripley’s Believe It or Not!–worthy oddity, frivolously entertaining and environmentally important. It was a key stop for waterfowl migrating on the Pacific Flyway. It was a quirky but lovable tourist attraction, with visitors spending weekends at seaside towns like Bombay Beach and gathering at the North Shore Yacht Club hoping to catch glimpses of Jerry Lewis or the Beach Boys.
All that’s gone now, as visitors immediately understand once they actually reach the sea, shrunken, surrounded by dry lake bed, most of the tourist attractions boarded up. It depended on excess water from the Colorado River. As that water vanishes, so does this so-called sea.
As Salton Sea program director for the Audubon Society, Frank Ruiz has spent the past six years advocating for a sustainable Salton Sea that would provide critical habitat for birds and at the same time protect the region’s health and economy. He can quickly enumerate the environmental losses the sea has endured in recent years. It has become more saline, drastically reducing fish populations. That in turn has reduced populations of migrating waterfowl. Earlier in the sea’s life, Ruiz says, “400 different bird species used it.” That number is down by a third. The Salton Sea, he says, “is at the brink of a major ecological collapse.”
Ruiz came to environmental work after careers as a church pastor and in mental health, which inclines him to take a holistic view of the crisis. Human beings, he explains, are being harmed too. The valley already has one of the highest rates of asthma in California. As the sea recedes, exposing more cracked, dry lake bed, valley air will grow dustier, making asthma rates worse. As for the prospect of paying valley farmers to take land out of production, he asks, What about the valley’s farmworkers? Will they get money too?
He warns that the crisis is a foreshadowing of crises across the West. “The Salton Sea, it’s just the tip of the iceberg of the many other Salton Seas that we are going to be dealing with in the West,” he says, “such as the Great Salt Lake, Mono Lake.” He doesn’t even call the current crisis a drought. “This is the new normalcy. We need to learn how to adapt to the circumstances, because things are not going to get any better.”
Even in the Imperial Valley, there are no longer many people who read The Winning of Barbara Worth or any of Harold Bell Wright’s novels, or who know who he is.
“We’ve forgotten him, really,” says Thornburg of the Pioneers’ Museum. When she was growing up in the valley, she says, “everybody still talked about The Winning of Barbara Worth.” There was the hotel, there was Barbara Worth Junior High School in Brawley, there was Barbara Worth Road, there was the country club. Today, the former middle school teacher says, “most of the kids do not know.”
There are reasons for the neglect. Reading Barbara Worth today can be a frustrating experience. It continually threatens to be a better book than it is. The melodramatic plot keeps you reading; the main characters are compelling enough. These strengths are swamped by Wright’s fevered, adjective-clogged prose. His stereotyped ethnic characters—volatile Irishmen; gentle, subservient Mexicans—are even more off-putting.
But Wright was never going to be admitted into the pantheon of great American writers. Barbara Worth was just the start of his enormous commercial success. By the end of his life, his books had sold an estimated 10 million copies, making him one of the nation’s bestselling authors. Still, four years after Barbara Worth was published, The Virginian author Owen Wister damned Wright in the Atlantic Monthly as a writer of “quack novels” that were “stale, distorted, a sham, a puddle of words.” Wright was even less popular among Jazz Age literary critics. H.L. Mencken wrote that Wright’s novels touched “such depths of banality that it would be difficult to match it in any other country.” More caustic was a review in Time: “He is a Moses for morons.”
There are still people in the Imperial Valley who value Wright and Barbara Worth, though. The IID’s Hamby read the novel when he was in college, looking to learn more about his valley’s history. He appreciates the way Wright established the importance of the Colorado River to the valley and of the valley to California. “So much of the history of the river and the way that the river is managed and operated, the rules, the law of the river, is because of what happened in Imperial Valley,” he says.
And some people see Barbara Worth and Harold Bell Wright as talismans of a gracious, vanished valley that in real life might never have accepted them. John Cabrera grew up knowing nothing of the book until he learned about the ornate hotel that had stood in downtown El Centro before it was destroyed by fire in the 1960s. “If you’re in the valley,” he says, “there aren’t a lot of historical landmarks. I thought it was fascinating to have something so big and beautiful and awesome, but no longer here.”
Cabrera works for the Imperial County Office of Education and for AmeriCorps, overseeing a program that places tutors in Imperial Valley schools. In his spare time, he collects Wright memorabilia—copies of the novels, postcards featuring the vanished hotel. He has come to be captivated by Wright. “A conflicted man,” Cabrera says. “I really believe that, because of his upbringing, the instability, the abuse, you could imagine.”
He links his fascination with Wright to memories of his childhood, when he would join his gardener father on jobs trimming the lawns of wealthy valley residents, all of them white people. He would look at their big houses, wondering what it would be like to live in them. Wright and Barbara Worth gave him entry into that world, where you could dine at the Hotel Barbara Worth and order the chicken liver en brochette.
The demographic of Barbara Worth collectors is not the demographic Cabrera grew up with. But, he says, “where the collection and the connection comes is like, Hey, I’m part of your community, even though technically I don’t belong. I’m the only Mexican there; everybody else is white and older. And yet they accept me.”
One of the things that surprise people about the Imperial Valley is how beautiful it is. Not everywhere. There are the sunblasted strip malls and the highways too wide for anything they lead to. But then, in the distance stand the sculpted mountains. There’s the desert with its ocotillos and smoke trees, the sudden appearance of irrigated verdure: a kelly-green alfalfa field; a languid side canal snaking past a grove of date palms, something from The Arabian Nights. It’s easy to understand Cabrera when he says, “I love the Imperial Valley.”
What would happen if it all went away? It’s hard not to wonder that while driving the valley after talking with Hamby and Ruiz and reading the newspaper stories about megadroughts and political battles and the new, arid normalcy. What happens when the Salton Sea shrinks to nothing, when lettuce fields are abandoned and towns fade?
It is, as Ruiz says, a question not just for the Imperial Valley but for other valleys across California, across the West, all the places that bet big on the romance of reclamation pictured in The Winning of Barbara Worth. So much of California, of the West, is built on romance, from Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona to Bing Crosby’s “San Fernando Valley” to Tupac’s “California Love.” What happens when the romance ends? In a region where water is scarcer than we ever imagined it could be, which places do we keep and which do we abandon? It’s easy to say about an old book, This is something we no longer need. It’s harder to say that about somewhere people call home.
Wright stayed less than a decade in the valley that made him famous. In 1915, he was injured while horseback riding, then developed tuberculosis. He moved to Tucson, then known as a haven for health seekers. He built a hacienda on acreage east of the city and continued to write. His fame would transfer to Tucson maps: streets on the land of his now-subdivided estate are named for his books, among them Barbara Worth Drive.
Yet one can argue that Wright’s most lasting legacy springs from earlier in his career. His second novel, The Shepherd of the Hills, has had a surprising afterlife. In 1960, it was turned into an outdoor pageant, performed in the small Missouri Ozarks town, Branson, where the story is set. The Shepherd of the Hills Outdoor Drama became the first attraction at what is now a major tourist destination. The pageant has expanded into Shepherd of the Hills Adventure Park, with its Vigilante Extreme ZipRider and 230-foot-tall Inspiration Tower.
Near the end of his life, though, Wright returned to the Southern California he most loved, this time to Escondido. He kept writing, slowed by failing health, until his death in 1944. His remains are in a courtyard in the Cathedral Mausoleum in San Diego’s Greenwood Memorial Park. His ashes were placed inside a copper urn shaped like a book, set in sand from the Imperial Valley, beside a stone tablet inscribed with words from Isaiah: “And the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose.”
At the Barbara Worth Country Club, manager Steve Rogers and owner Eddie Mejorado are working to bring back the luster the club had in its heyday, restoring greens and fairways in the hope of drawing new generations of valley golfers. Even now, if you stroll the course in the late afternoon, when the low sun slants on the palms and ponds, it retains a kind of magic, as does the valley. It is possible to imagine a world where the land Harold Bell Wright dreamed of became the land that still is, where Barbara Worth and Willard Holmes enjoy the happy ending Wright wrote for them.
Say they’re in their 60s now, still vital and fit, but they’ve stepped back a bit from Barbara’s business interests and Willard’s engineering firm to let the kids take over, to have more time for fun. They ride horses; they drive up to the Salton Sea for gimlets at the North Shore Yacht Club.
And they come here, to the country club that bears Barbara’s name. She’s a scratch golfer, better than Willard, but he’s a good sport about it. She stands at the first tee, swings her MacGregor driver in an assured arc, hitting the ball so true that it lifts over the watered greens and fairways, the shimmering canals, over a valley that has and will always have all the water it ever needs. The ball soars as if it could go on forever. •