Bill Keys And The Desert Queen Ranch

Joshua Tree National Park

by David Taylor

After taking the Desert Queen Ranch Tour, an attraction operated by the National Park Service in the Joshua Tree National Park, I can honestly say that if I could accomplish in my lifetime a tenth of the things Bill Keys did in his, I could die a happy man.

Desert Queen Ranch Joshua Tree NP

Keys and his wife, Francis, didn't just survive here in their desolate lonely ranch, now surrounded by the park, they thrived. The ranger collected our tickets and had us drive through the gate until we were all in and at 2:00 p. m., she closed the gate and led us into the ranch proper. About half a mile in, the caravan circled around for its exit, and we all piled out, right at a weathered wood building that was the original Joshua Tree Elementary School.

Desert Queen Ranch Joshua Tree NPThere seems to be some disagreement about where Bill Keys came from. A Park Service brochure says that he was born in Russia in 1879 as George Barth and that his family moved to Nebraska when he was fourteen. According to Robert Cates' book about the area, Keys was born in Palisades, Nebraska. It is agreed, however that Bill Keys left home when he was fifteen, and he changed his name from George Barth to Bill "Key" when he joined Teddy Rosevelt's Rough Riders, although nobody hazards an explanation of why the name change was necessary. Just before shipping out for Cuba, he broke his leg and got left behind. Much later he would add the 's' to the name "Key" to avoid confusion with another Joshua Tree pioneer, John Kee.

Keys started out as a caretaker for the Desert Queen Mine around 1910. He took up residence at the now-dormant mill, the site of the tour. In 1915, the absent landowner, William Morgan, who had never actually paid Keys for five years of service, died. Keys filed against the estate for payment of back wages, asking for the Desert Queen Mine and the mill site. Having that, he then filed a homesteading claim for an additional one hundred and sixty acres.

In 1918, Bill lured Francis May Lawton out of Los Angeles into his pioneer life. It was fifty miles to the nearest center of civilization. She was the perfect partner for Bill: creative, productive and smart. Over the next fifty years, Keys mined, ran stamp mills for other miners, farmed, raised cattle, built five dams out of the local stone and little else, improved upon existing dams, built roads (including one still bearing his name), explored the desert extensively, and started the first grade school in Joshua Tree.

Desert Queen Ranch Joshua Tree NP

Meanwhile, Francis gave birth to seven children, buried three and raised four. Pictures of her garden make me green with envy. She canned four hundred quarts of food from that garden every year. In 1936, the Joshua Tree National Monument was created, completely encircling the Keys' ranch.

Bring water and a hat for the tour. Although the brochure urges you to bring sturdy hiking boots and a jacket, the hike at best requires comfortable tennis shoes, and on the day we went, we left the jackets in the Bronco. The tour is ninety minutes long. You walk down to the main area of the Desert Queen Ranch, taking a peek into Keys' work shop, where he fabricated tools and mastered ways to fix and mold the things he needed, and then visiting his orchard, his rough-hewed home, and his small stamp mill.

Desert Queen Ranch Joshua Tree NP

There is an imposing dam he built behind his home where the water was known to stretch back two miles. It would freeze over in winter, and his kids would go ice-skating. It was occasionally stocked with fish. There is yet another unfinished dam behind his house, and here Ranger Miriam showed off Keys' masterful methods of masonry with few tools, working with the grain of the stone to break even, neat squares with little effort.

Desert Queen Ranch Joshua Tree NP

Finally, you see another one of Keys' secrets to success; he was an organized and meticulous packrat. When others failed and gave up, he would go to their homesteads, determine that indeed the property was abandoned, then strip it of anything that might be useful. Surely, to leave it to rot in the sun or be ruined by vandals would be wasteful, a luxury not allowed in the desert. He picked up entire structures and hauled them back to his ranch. Tools, bolts and screws of every size and description were laid out so that prospective buyers could quickly and easily find what they needed. Ultimately, with the growing numbers of tourists coming to the park area, Francis opened a little store, rented out cabins for people who wanted out of the cold, even providing stoves for women sick of cooking over open fires.

Desert Queen Ranch Joshua Tree NPIn 1943, in something from a Western Dime Novel, a former deputy sheriff named Worth Bagley ambushed Keys just outside Keys' ranch. Bill returned fire and shot Bagley to death. The trial was a mockery of justice, with perhaps some powerful cattle ranching competitors tweaking the results against Keys. Bill was found guilty of murder and sent to jail.

At age sixty nine, after five years in prison, with friends he had made throughout California rallying to his defense, Keys was released from prison. Without a hitch, he went right back to work, rebuilding what had decayed while he was away. Five years later he was given a complete pardon. In 1950, he and his children finished the last improvements on Barker Dam. You can see their inscription on the dam today. In time, Bill became a source of stories about the area. He had known everyone, done most every thing in the park.

Desert Queen Ranch Joshua Tree NP

The last stop on the hike is the schoolhouse. Francis and Bill knew there was a world outside of their hard-won oasis, and they wanted their children to have the option to explore it. Education, they believed, was the tool. Bill hired a teacher and built a place for them to study. Pretty soon all the local homesteaders were sending their children to the Keys school, and shortly the county took over responsibility for the Desert Queen Elementary School.

All of the Keys children left their parents' desert paradise and went on to long successful lives. In 1963, Francis died, and six years later, on June 28th, 1969, Bill Keys joined her.

As we started out of the Desert Queen Ranch, I spotted a fresh, clean American flag snapping in the building breeze. Below it, a wrought iron fence surrounds the graves of the Keys Family; Francis , Bill and three of their children. How appropriate, it seemed, that even the headstones acknowledging each grave, including his own, had been cut by Bill Keys himself.

Desert Queen Ranch Joshua Tree NP


To reach the Desert Queen Ranch entrance, where the tour begins, turn into the Hidden Valley Campground (one of nine campgrounds in the park), then almost immediately turn right down a dirt road. If you're in the campground proper, you've gone too far. Follow the dirt road until it ends at a "T," then turn left. Shortly, you will come to the closed gate to the Desert Queen Ranch. A ranger will meet you there.

The entrance fees are $5.00 for adults, $2.50 for kids six to eleven, free for kids under six, and $2.50 for Golden Age and Golden Access passport holders. Tours are only offered Fridays and Saturadays at 2pm and Sundays at 10 am, Oct 15 through May 20. Ranch Tours are suspended in the summer and will resume in October. Plan to arrive about fifteen minutes early for introductions and explanations. Tickets are no longer sold at the ranch gate.

For more information see the Park Website.

Click for Joshua Tree, California Forecast

For additional information about Joshua Tree National Park, located about one hundred and twenty miles east of Los Angeles.

Desert Queen Ranch Joshua Tree NP

There is no lodging in the park, however there are near by motels, hotels and many camping sites in the park, for more information or for on-line camping and motel reservation click here.

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