Between the early 1950s and 1970s, Palm Springs, California, a leisure and resort community in the Coachella Valley, entered into a dramatic era of growth driven by an unlikely factor: golf. Exclusive and elite country clubs employed new forms of environmental and social engineering as they transformed the arid landscape into lush, emerald fairways. The rapid rate of growth meant that courses were built without concern for significant social and ecological side effects. In particular, golf’s arrival brought new power dynamics to the valley that displaced and disenfranchised local communities of color, including the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians and a neighborhood of low-income African Americans and Mexican Americans who lived in the path of development. This expansion-oriented program of development is an example of what we might call the “leisure-industrial complex,” in which private enterprise, public policy, and cultural norms combined to create an economic machinery that soon commanded the Coachella Valley. As such, the history of Coachella golf is not just the history of a sport, but the history of how leisure came to dominate the landscape, the environment, and the people of the California desert.

Tucked away in the western corner of the Colorado Desert, one hundred miles east of Los Angeles, the Coachella Valley has long been a hub for recreation and leisure. From the 1920s through the end of World War II, the valley’s capital of Palm Springs, California, was home to a small enclave of business elites and Hollywood figures. Attracted to the desert’s scenery and climate, they built a resort town that combined a rustic ethos with the sprawling charm of mid-century modern design. Beginning in the early 1950s the Coachella Valley underwent a dramatic transformation that was driven by an unlikely force: golf. Though the desert made an improbable home for the sport, it proved to be the fastest-growing attraction in the region. Before 1950, there were only two small golf courses across the valley; by 1964, there were twenty-one.1 In 2014, there were one hundred and twenty-four.2 Golf drove the development of land, the expansion of infrastructure, and the immigration—and exclusion—of people. As such, the history of golf in the Coachella Valley is not so much a history of sport; the tournaments, techniques, and players of the game fall outside this work’s scope. This is, instead, a history of how leisure came to command the landscape, the environment, and the people of the California desert.3

Coachella Valley development was one part of a wider postwar golf boom: between 1950 and 1969, roughly six thousand new courses opened across the United States, doubling the amount of land used for the sport.4 The phenomenon was also intimately tied to the landscape and the micropolitics of the Coachella region, which contained large tracts of Native reservation land belonging to the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians, and was home to an impoverished community of Mexican Americans and African Americans. As courses carpeted the valley throughout the 1950s and 1960s, they attracted scores of upper-class white investors, vacationers, and leisure-seekers, who saw the desert landscape not as a living ecosystem but as a blank canvas for their fairway dreams. The influx of capital and people put development at odds with both the valley’s ecosystem and local communities of color, who were excluded from and displaced by the golf boom.

The spread of Coachella golf requires understanding the sport as a site of environmental, cultural, and social power in its intensive use of space, grass, and water, its status as a sport and a leisurely pastime, and its historical association with wealth and whiteness. Deep-pocketed investment and the support of local, state, and federal government reinforced these aspects of golf to expand Coachella fairways and clubs. The social sphere of the country club was the beating heart of a system of growth in which all these modes of power, and those who held their reins, converged. Considered in its totality, we might call that system a “leisure-industrial complex,” a structure of commercialized leisure that reproduced networks of social class, encouraged capital development, enacted environmental transformation on an industrial scale, and established social and racial inequality as the status quo.

While historians have long recognized that leisure was a critical component in the alchemy of the postwar “American standard of living,” they have yet to explore the explosion of golf courses in that period. Among historians of leisure and tourism, a central debate concerns how these practices have figured in wider patterns of inequality. Much of the historical analysis of leisure and tourism takes a critical perspective, focusing on the exploitation of impoverished communities, natural resources, and people of color to provide recreation for the white and the wealthy.5 Some historians have sought to complicate this picture, examining both how elite forms of leisure sometimes opened up spaces for marginalized groups, and how working-class communities developed their own practices of leisure, recreation, and consumption to articulate meaning and identity.6 The story of Coachella golf both nuances this debate and places leisure into two critical new contexts: as a force for the reproduction of class and as a driver of intensive environmental change.

What neither side of this debate has captured is the transformation of the landscape that was an inherent part of postwar leisure development. Historians who have written about the intersection of environmental issues with leisure practices have mostly focused on the commodification and branding of natural beauty.7 While Coachella golf did create a unique vision of the valley as desert wasteland turned paradise, this cultural ideal was accompanied by the establishment of large-scale environmental infrastructure, including the industrial importation of non-native species and the development of aqueducts and power lines. With the spread of Coachella golf, leisure not only influenced the way Americans conceived of nature, but also reoriented the desert ecosystem itself around the human desire for recreation.

Furthermore, the social space of the country club was not just about recreation: it was about reproducing networks of power.8 To the members of Thunderbird, Eldorado, Indian Wells, and other exclusive golf clubs, the sphere of leisure was a place to preserve political influence among a small group whose membership in the clubs was vetted along class and racial lines. This network of the white elite altered public policy at city, state, and even federal levels in their favor. As such, leisure’s impact in the Coachella Valley of the 1950s and 1960s was anything but democratizing: it concentrated power in the hands of the privileged few. Despite this, however, Palm Springs eventually became a more diverse, middle-class hub of recreation in the 1970s—though inequality remained a key feature of its society.

The consequence of this exclusive social formation was a system defined by a cultural need for economic growth: the leisure-industrial complex. Enabled by the social proximity of the country club that brought together political leaders, industrial magnates, and celebrities, the leisure-industrial complex was a political apparatus that aimed not just to protect their exclusive country clubs, but to promote their future expansion. However, the steamrolling power of golf development highlighted the tenuous relationship between rapid urbanization and the conservation of rusticity. As golf became a widespread, middle-class phenomenon in the late 1960s, upper-class clubs struggled to maintain the spacious natural beauty and anti-urban aesthetic that was central to golf’s appeal.9 The economic system that resulted from their desire for reclusive, privatized leisure space grew out of their own control—and threatened many of the original aims of bringing golf to the Coachella Valley.10

However, while the elite perspective is critical to understanding golf, so too is the story of the excluded—the ones living on the fringes of someone else’s leisure. In a multiracial space marked by environmental, social, and political inequality, Coachella Valley golf is an unorthodox yet revealing window into both the parallels and the complex interplay between histories of urban minority displacement and Native American disenfranchisement.11 Fully half the land in the valley belonged to the Agua Caliente band, allocated in a checkerboard pattern that was a relic of federal subdivision in the 1870s. The Agua Caliente numbered around one hundred members and, while they suffered from endemic poverty, they also witnessed the potential value of their reservation skyrocket with the arrival of golf. Although they were often willing to work with white investors to lease their land for the sport, developers sought to deny them of the full worth of their property.

Amidst the wealthy enclaves of the valley, several thousand working-class people of color rented Agua Caliente reservation land and lived in slum conditions. Developers depended on their labor for course construction, maintenance, and services but also worked with Palm Springs city leaders to orchestrate mass evictions in the mid-1960s to pave the way for leisure industry expansion. While the creation of the leisure-industrial complex generally ran counter to the interests of Coachella Valley minority groups, their history is a complex one of both resistance and accommodation to the new commanding force in the California desert region.12

The leisure-industrial complex in the Coachella Valley was wider than golf—a complete analysis would include hotels, nightclubs, backyard pools, and numerous other facets of the leisure economy—but golf best exemplified its social and environmental impact. In a wider sense, the concept of the industrial complex sheds light not only on the particular scenario of Coachella golf, but on a fundamental mode of power in modern America.13 It is, perhaps, ironic that President Dwight Eisenhower, one of the Coachella Valley’s own denizens and a key architect of the leisure industry’s rise, first cautioned America against the dangers of an industrial complex. With the completion of Thunderbird Country Club in 1951, the gears that would comprise the machinery of the leisure-industrial complex began to assemble.

The completion of Thunderbird Country Club, Coachella’s first eighteen-hole course, sparked a period of rapid expansion that lasted two decades; by 1967, there were more than four hundred holes of golf between Palm Springs and Indio.14 A number of factors enabled the unlikely proliferation of golf, including economic investment, environmental infrastructure, and new forms of social engineering. Most importantly, as the rate of development increased, a growth-oriented attitude took hold among upper-class valley residents. The cultural and economic dimensions of this mindset reinforced each other: developers saw golf as a growing market and a surefire investment, and club members and golfers excitedly took part in what they saw as a reenactment of a mythic western settlement.

When Thunderbird was completed in 1951, many wondered why it had taken so long for an eighteen-hole, championship-quality course to be built in the valley. The answer was that the infrastructure required for the maintenance of a golf course simply did not exist. In almost every way, the Coachella Valley was not suited for golf: poor, rocky soil would not support grass; the valley’s flat floor made for unexciting terrain; frequent high winds blew sand onto courses and redirected shots. The desert region receives, on average, only fourteen days of precipitation per year, and has an average daily high of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.15 To maintain the greens and fairways of a golf course required an enormous investment of water; a single Coachella Valley golf course could guzzle up to 1,000,000 gallons per day in the summer heat.16 By comparison, the average American used 145 gallons per day in 1956.17 Thus, when Frank Bogert, owner of the Thunderbird Dude Ranch and later mayor of Palm Springs, looked out on his property and envisioned lush, green fairways, he knew it would take a “Herculean effort” to realize his dream.18 Bogert convinced a Los Angeles developer, Johnny Dawson, to invest. Dawson leveraged his connections with wealthy Angelinos, many of whom were dissatisfied with the limited golf available in their city, to spark interest and investment in Coachella golf.19

Figure 1.

Against a backdrop of mountains and palm trees, Palm Springs Villager placed golf at the heart of its vision of desert life. Source: Palm Springs Villager April 1959. Courtesy of Desert Publications, Inc.

Figure 1.

Against a backdrop of mountains and palm trees, Palm Springs Villager placed golf at the heart of its vision of desert life. Source: Palm Springs Villager April 1959. Courtesy of Desert Publications, Inc.

Close modal

With investment secured, Dawson and Bogert set to work in mid-1950. What made Thunderbird possible was their use of the Coachella Valley’s sizable subterranean aquifer, containing billions of gallons of mountain runoff. They dug a 350-foot well, the deepest in the valley, which could pump 2,250,000 gallons per day—enough to supply a city of 16,000.20 Construction crews laid eight miles of pipeline for irrigation and transported millions of pounds of soil from fertile mountain foothills so that grasses would take hold.21 To plant that grass, Bogert and Dawson reached out to a University of Southern California biologist, Dr. Robert McCormack, to find a species that would survive the desert heat.

McCormack imported a Middle Eastern species known as “chewing fescue” that was resistant to high temperatures and would survive the brutal summer months, though it required more water.22 It cost developers more than $20,000 to import the Arabian seed in sufficient quantities.23 Other clubs would later use fescue in combination with other imported species, such as Bermuda and rye grass, and kept them alive with chemical fertilizer and fungicide. This global ecological cocktail, used to define fairways, greens, and roughs, helped maintain long-term soil health but also introduced a number of non-native species to the desert ecosystem.24 Thunderbird thus combined scientific expertise, capital investment, and environmental infrastructure to turn an arid landscape into a luxurious retreat. In doing so, the club set the pattern which other courses would copy throughout the decade.

As Thunderbird’s prosperous opening season proved that desert golf was viable, an optimistic, growth-oriented mindset took hold. Both residents and developers saw green in the future of the valley: green in the spread of fairways across the desert, and green in the vast sums of money that could be made from them. To them, golf’s prosperous future seemed less an active project and more a preordained ascent to paradise. In March 1952, Thunderbird president Johnny Dawson wrote an advertisement in the Palm Springs Villager capturing the sense of golf’s inexorable future spread: “Where today desert flowers bloom, tomorrow, somewhere near, there will be another country club and golf course, and later still another, to fill the need that will come when America realizes that here is the perfect winter playground.”25 The Coachella Valley quickly picked up a new epithet: “The Winter Golf Capital of the World.”

The growth mentality was not unfounded; between 1950 and 1956, Palm Springs’ population increased by 60 percent, to 12,225.26 City planning reports from 1958 predicted that the Coachella Valley would receive more than 600,000 guests per year by 1970, compared to 160,000 in 1954.27 The assumption of future prosperity became deeply ingrained in the culture of Palm Springs and reinforced the rate of investment and development in the valley; as a result, an average of one course appeared every year throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, these courses increased their membership beyond the scope of the Los Angeles elite. They attracted the wealthy and the well-connected from across the greater Southwest and the West Coast, and increasingly offered northeastern and midwestern elites a winter retreat.

As each new course opened, they sought to outdo the previous country clubs in their redesign of the desert, resulting in an environmental “arms race” as the courses searched for a selling point. These new courses focused on increasing displays of abundance that contrasted the scarcity of resources inherent to the desert. Tamarisk Country Club, in 1952, imported a thick wall of Tamarisk trees to border their course; the trees’ dense foliage provided shelter from desert winds and created an opaque barrier—both social and environmental—between the club and the outside world.28 In 1957, Indian Wells Country Club dug two wells to support an enormous twenty-seven hole course.29 El Dorado, opened in 1958, planted 1,300 date palms, 4,500 grapefruit trees, and 250 grapevines around its thirty-six holes.30 Bermuda Dunes, also a twenty-seven hole design, built two lakes and an artificial waterfall in 1959.31 Not to be outdone, La Quinta Golf Club stocked its artificial lake with trout and attached fishing poles to their golf carts, so that golfers could pause their round to fish.32 Despite the limited quantity of water available in the valley, boosters and promoters remained optimistic about golf’s future. As Ernie Dunlevie, developer of the Bermuda Dunes course, exclaimed in 1962, the valley seemed to have “water, water, everywhere—and many a drop to spare!”33

While Coachella’s slogan, “The Winter Golf Capital of the World,” retained a cheery sheen, the region earned a more powerful nickname throughout the 1950s: the “Desert Empire.” The term, which had been in use since Palm Springs’ incorporation in 1939, spiked in popularity in the 1950s; Palm Springs’ Desert Sun adopted “The Desert Empire’s Daily Newspaper” as its slogan in 1956.34 The phrase was partially geographic, used to describe the growing patchwork of unincorporated settlements outside of Palm Springs’ borders, and borrowing the term from the nearby Imperial Valley. However, city planners, business owners, developers, and residents alike also used the term “Empire” to explain the Coachella Valley’s transformation as a reenactment of the mythical settlement of the West. Imperial imagery was common in advertisements and testimonials; course names such as “Westward Ho” and “El Dorado” themselves recalled mythical imperial projects.

Indeed, within the “Desert Empire,” the central commodity was the golf course. It earned the nickname “King Golf,” parodying “King Coal” and other resource industries, indicating the sport’s importance to the growing economy of the Coachella Valley.35 In a more fundamental sense, however, the construction of golf courses was understood as a parallel to the settling of the West. Describing the development of Thunderbird in 1951, for example, the Palm Springs Villager wrote of “the task of transforming rugged, virgin desert sand and silt into a finished golf course.”36 Boosters drew on the Western mythology of “making the land productive” to sell property. One advertisement for country club real estate quoted the nineteenth-century minister, Henry Ward Beecher, who had himself advocated “duty of play”: “LAND is part of God’s estate in the globe; and when a parcel of ground is deeded to you, and you walk on it, and call it your own, it seems as if you have come into partnership with the Original Proprietor of the earth.”37 The invocation of older myth gave golf course development a spiritual and moral overtone that combined the older, Protestant sense of the “gospel of leisure” with a Hollywood-inflected love for glamour and excess.

While golf was central to the growth of the “Desert Empire,” it was not the sport alone, but the lifestyle it promised, that brought infrastructure, investment, and wealth to the Coachella Valley. As the centerpiece of the country club, the golf course was the heart of a social world. This hinged on a new design first conceived in Thunderbird Country Club that became the standard for other Coachella clubs: the residential country club, in which members lived in homes that bordered the fairways. These golf clubs promised recreation and relaxation as well as guaranteed inclusion in a tightly knit, homogenous community. That community was defined by opaque boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, vetting membership along class and racial lines. Both the course and the club were thus highly designed, artificial spaces: the course mimicked a sense of the “natural world,” engineered for recreation; and the club sought to recreate an older village-style community predicated upon a social familiarity bred through homogeneity.

The social and economic functions of the country club reinforced each other. Classified as 501(c)(7) nonprofit “social clubs,” they paid no federal tax on the sizable income derived from their membership dues.38 Within the clubs, the line between developer, investor, and club member was always blurred; members resembled both stockholders and customers of the country club. Moreover, clubs funded their own construction by selling land, homes, and membership in advance of their opening, meaning that investors in club development often became members themselves. The country clubs’ ambiguous stature as neither business nor charity meant that they could function both as a collectivist social organization and a profitable capital venture.

Figure 2.

The design of the new residential country club intertwined homes and fairways, offering members inclusion in a community centered around the golf course. Source: Palm Springs Villager, January 28, 1959, 14. Courtesy of Desert Publications, Inc.

Figure 2.

The design of the new residential country club intertwined homes and fairways, offering members inclusion in a community centered around the golf course. Source: Palm Springs Villager, January 28, 1959, 14. Courtesy of Desert Publications, Inc.

Close modal

The layout of the residential country club characterized the social world that developers sought to engineer. The clubs cut a stark contrast between inside and out: oases of green fairways and modern ranch houses sat amidst undeveloped expanses of desert. From the exterior, the country clubs themselves were rendered invisible to nonmembers through tall, dense hedges or high walls, and made private by guarded gates. Inside, the intertwining streets and fairways gave the clubs an inward-facing quality, where golf was the shared center of social space and the club became more than a retreat, but a way of life. Yet the social space of the country club was designed to be a homogeneous world, for within the private sphere of the club, all was public. Club-insider magazines like the Palm Springs Life and Villager, for example, made their business by delivering intimate details on the social life of club members, policing the culture of the “country club set.” Because selling memberships meant selling guaranteed inclusion in a tight-knit social sphere, membership was predicated upon attracting the “right kind of person.”

To the Coachella clubs, the most important requirement for membership was wealth. J.E. “Dad” French, the so-called “patron saint” of golf in Palm Springs, told the Desert Sun in 1952 that instead of “all the cheap weekend tripper business we seem bound and determined to stimulate,” Palm Springs should shoot for a higher echelon of consumer: “Golf is the vacation interest of the successful business man and his wife. If the golf is good, you will find him here with his family!”39 Similarly, the Palm Springs Life, a magazine dedicated to the sporting life, boasted that its readers were “America’s #1 Income Group…top-drawer consumers who travel, play golf, own their own pools and sports cars and generally set the pace for America’s leisure class.”40 The gated residential country clubs that sprung up throughout the valley were thus an attempt to create a reclusive retreat for the upper class. Though reclusive, however, the clubs were also ostentatious displays of wealth, fame, and power.41 Indeed, country club membership rolls read as a “who’s who” of Hollywood: Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Harpo Marx, Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, Walt Disney, Dinah Shore, and Bing Crosby, among many others, frequented the Coachella courses.

Clubs also actively sought to create an exclusive sphere of whiteness. From the outset, Thunderbird Country Club set limits on its membership when it opened in 1951: no non-whites or non-Christians would be permitted to join. Yet Coachella’s proximity to Hollywood, home to a somewhat more diverse cast of elites, meant that racial exclusion was not as straightforward.42 Tamarisk Country Club, built next to Thunderbird in 1953, was funded by Jewish figures in Hollywood who resented their exclusion.43 While Tamarisk exemplified the broader boundaries of whiteness that characterized postwar America, whiteness was nonetheless the status quo of country club living.44 Even without explicit membership restrictions, applications for membership were by invitation from a preexisting member only, an effective measure of reproducing social bonds based on race and class. De facto measures of exclusion became the norm in the Coachella Valley.

The importance of race to Coachella club culture was evident in galas, parties, and ceremonies that drew on racialized, exoticized themes. Indian Wells Country Club, for example, held a four-day “pow-wow” in which members donned exotic costumes and wore scanty clothing, using tropes of the “savage” to bypass their own cultural norms. “Oriental,” Polynesian, and Hawaiian galas were frequent occurrences.45 In 1960, the Riviera Country Club hosted a “Safari Ball,” importing a “tribe” of “African dancers,” complete with “African warrior shields, spears, and ceremonial masks.” Husbands enjoyed pretending to rescue their wives from a “Cannibal Cauldron.”46 While such displays were not uncommon for the time, they represented a significant practice of racial boundary-making. By play-acting in a carnivalesque scenario as a racialized “other,” the country club set defined markers for what was not their culture—and, in doing so, reciprocally marked themselves as exclusively white.47

As a whole, the social and environmental projects of golf were not altogether dissimilar: both masqueraded as “natural” forms of living but were in reality highly engineered. In fabricating a community, golf clubs attempted to create a village retreat that contrasted the density and diversity of urban life. In this light, golf courses were not a just field of play, but a vehicle by which its players could return to “nature,” albeit one that was constructed and maintained by human intervention.48 However, the attempt to engineer an anti-urban setting extended beyond the course itself. City planners, for example, set out to ban billboards from all streets and highways in the valley in 1957, to retain its rustic look.49 One guiding ethos of development planning was to retain “much of the village feeling which prevailed back in the days of less congestion.”50 However, to the country club set, that “village feel” meant homogeneity. The optimistic, preordained, growth-oriented mindset of the golf community in the valley was indistinguishable from—and enabled by—its homogeneous makeup. That ethos, however, quickly encountered barriers as golf continued its course of expansion.

Late in the night of Sunday, September 22, 1968, a groundskeeper at the Indian Wells Country Club entered the course and emptied several containers of gasoline over the green of the thirteenth hole.51 The immaculate grass of the famous championship course shriveled and died, the soil underneath it rendered unusable. Indian Wells groundskeepers, members of the Riverside-based Local 1184 of the Laborer’s International Union, had been on strike for several weeks, yet their demands for a forty-cent raise went unheard by the club.52 Amidst mounting frustrations, the groundskeeper’s act of protest proved disastrous for the strikers: Indian Wells sued the Local 1184 for $2.7 million in damages to their property, and the union buckled under the pressure.53 For workers in Coachella country clubs and resorts, the strike—though unsuccessful—inspired several others throughout the valley over the next year. To the wealthy members of Indian Wells, it was a reminder that their beloved course was more than just a site for recreation, but also a landscape involved in wider social conflicts.

While those inside the social bubble of the country club may have seen it as a self-sufficient miniature world, golf clubs had social consequences that impacted the lives of all Coachella Valley residents. As the sport grew in popularity and expanded across the landscape, golf clubs became a central player in networks of power in two interrelated capacities. First, they played a central role in creating a system of social inequality in the Coachella Valley that continually disadvantaged residents of color. Second, they wielded their wealth and influence to alter public policy in their favor, becoming a political bloc in themselves. As such, Coachella golf courses were more than just the physical means of controlling the landscape and who had access to it; they reproduced networks of power based on class and racial lines.

Beginning in the late 1950s, the growth-oriented golf industry began to encounter resistance to its expansion. Most significantly, the sport’s sizable land and water requirements meant that developers found a shortage of usable real estate. The federal government had subdivided the Coachella Valley into a checkerboard in the 1870s, eventually granting the even-numbered squares to the Agua Caliente as reservation land.54 As the availability of land in the odd-numbered squares decreased, developers began to eye the 23,000 acres of Agua Caliente reservation. While the Agua Caliente, many of whom were impoverished, were willing to work with whites to make their land profitable, Coachella politicians and developers leveraged their connections to lease reservation land but deny the Agua Caliente both the full value of their land and real negotiating power. Furthermore, it was not only the Natives who were denied the riches flowing into the valley; throughout the 1960s, Palm Springs evicted roughly 2,500 low-income Mexican Americans and African Americans from their homes in the city, in what state officials later called a “city-engineered holocaust.”55 Conflicts such as these—though occurring outside the privatized landscape of the golf course—were a product of the growth-mentality that the arrival of golf had fostered.

While a wide array of powers played a role in minority displacement and disenfranchisement, including several private industries, city leaders, state politicians, and federal officials, there was, in practice, little distinction between them. A private, invitation-only group called the Round Table held much of the power in the Coachella Valley and actively influenced the decisions about Agua Caliente land. The group met in an exclusive gated community called Smoke Tree Ranch that, while not a golf club, used the same upper-class model of member-homeownership. Its members included the state judge who presided over changes in Agua Caliente land use policy, city council members, and private landowners. One former Palm Springs City Council member noted that “most anyone with a vested interest in developing in Palm Springs will make a presentation to the Round Table.”56 Although it was neither a sole nor a unified voice in the debates over development, the Round Table demonstrated the interwoven and exclusive white alliance of powers in Palm Springs.

In paving the way for the takeover of Native property, developers and city leaders lobbied the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to change federal policy governing the Agua Caliente reservation. They had a powerful ally: President Eisenhower, himself an avid golfer, vacationed in Palm Springs throughout the 1950s and bought property in the new Eldorado Country Club in 1957. Eisenhower was close friends with local notables Jacqueline Cochran, who had built a nine-hole course near Indio in 1944, and her husband, Floyd Odlum, an industrialist with significant investments in Coachella development. Cochran, in particular, had played a role in convincing Eisenhower to run for president in 1952.57 Nor was Eisenhower the only politician to have an investment in the Coachella Valley; California senator Thomas Kuchel, among numerous others, vacationed there regularly. Coachella developers leveraged their social proximity to Eisenhower—a proximity forged out of the social realm of the golf course—to convince his administration to change BIA regulations.58 On the same day in 1959, Eisenhower signed the Agua Caliente Equalization Act and the Indian Leasing Act, which divided reservation land equally among members, and allowed those members to lease it for up to ninety nine years.59

The acts gave each member of the Agua Caliente a parcel of land worth $330,000, but it also appointed each parcel a guarantor or conservator. Ostensibly meant to protect Native interests, the conservators—largely consisting of lawyers and judges with ties to the Round Table—brokered unfair deals for the Natives and smoothed the road for exploitation of their land. For most Agua Caliente, the pressure to lease their land was immediate and immense. In 1960, Palm Springs lawyer and guarantor Howard Simon wrote a lease giving 450 acres of land in the sheltered Palm Canyon to the First National Realty Company.60 It was signed by the Agua Caliente in February 1961, and by December, First National had developed the land into the Canyon Country Club, with two eighteen-hole courses.61 Several other golf courses were built on Native land throughout the Coachella Valley over the course of the decade.62 Some members of the Agua Caliente did prosper from the leasing of their land, but conservators took an average of 44 percent of the profits. Often, band members had to sell their land merely to afford the conservator fees.63

The most dramatic result of the Equalization and Leasing Acts was the clearance of Section 14, a square-mile patch of land adjacent to downtown Palm Springs. The Agua Caliente owned Section 14, but rented out most of the land to low-income minority residents who could not otherwise rent in the Coachella Valley because of economic and racial restrictions. Though it was within the city’s borders, Section 14 paid no taxes to Palm Springs because it was reservation land. City leaders thus felt no obligation to provide the district with municipal services, including water, electricity, and waste removal. The district quickly became a blighted area: wealthy residents reportedly used it as a dump, and inhabitants were served by a single ¾-inch pipe for water.64 Only a half-mile from the lush fairways of the O’Donnell Golf Club, minority residents—many of whom were digging the wells, laying the irrigation tracks, and serving the drinks in country clubs—had to carry buckets of water to their own ramshackle homes.65 In Palm Springs, access to environmental resources was the primary axis of class and racial inequality.66

In the late 1950s, city leaders began a program of removal to pave the way for development of Section 14.67 They hired Simon Eisner and Associates, a Los Angeles urban planning firm, to create a plan for the city. Eisner’s recommendations cemented the growth-and-expansion mindset from public attitude into public policy and placed the clearance and development of Section 14 as the city’s highest priority. His plan argued that the presence of minority residents was harmful to the “healthy expansion of business areas…The history of American cities has repeatedly proven that the mixture of incompatible uses tends to generate blight.”68 In the same plan, Eisner also noted that Palm Springs residents’ biggest desire was for more golf courses. The plan recommended the city build six more eighteen-hole courses within its boundaries to accommodate demand, yet it offered no advice on building low-income housing for those who would be displaced out of Section 14.69 The aim of Section 14 development was not to make room for golf; Eisner’s plan zoned it for residential and commercial uses. However, it reflected the rapacious desire for both recreational space and capital development, a desire whose home in the Coachella Valley was the private country club.

The combined result of the Leasing and Equalization Acts and Eisner’s plan was the clearance of Section 14. The Acts gave developers and the city the ability to lease the land, and Eisner’s plan mandated it as an essential phase of development. Waves of demolition from 1959 through 1965 displaced the 675 African American and 1,800 Mexican American residents of Section 14, destroying much of their property in the process.70 City officials, with permission from the conservators, conducted the demolitions in a hurried and careless manner; Palm Springs Mayor and Thunderbird founder Frank Bogert received several complaints from Section 14 residents that they had returned home from work to find their home bulldozed without any prior notification.71 Furthermore, the city was unwilling to provide assistance for the displaced residents to find new housing; most moved out of the valley to surrounding towns, such as Banning and Indio. Many African American evictees resettled in Garnet, northwest of Palm Springs, an area without water or electricity that, in the windy and dusty San Gorgonio Pass, received constant wind speeds of twenty to fifty miles per hour.72

Certainly, Mexican American and African American residents of Palm Springs resisted the continual efforts to exploit their labor and evict them from their homes. Yet resisting the leisure-industrial complex was a difficult endeavor, for there was never one single oppressor: was it the Agua Caliente, who, on paper, owned Section 14; the federal government, which dictated the terms of that ownership; the city of Palm Springs, which coordinated the removal; or private enterprise, which drove the desire for development? The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) targeted the city, suing Palm Springs for discrimination in public housing in 1952. The city was able to deflect these accusations onto the private real estate market.73 Yet when Mexican American groundskeepers struck for higher wages at Indian Wells and La Quinta in 1968, the private country clubs could count on state support: the California Highway Patrol guided replacement maintenance workers through picket lines.74 Such was the nature of power in the Coachella Valley. The alliance of Palm Springs’ white-controlled institutions was able to deflect, counter, or ignore most attempts to challenge it. Resisting the leisure-industrial complex—a unified system marked by the semblance of separated institutions—proved difficult.75

However, the world of Coachella golf left its trace on more than just the valley; it quickly impacted all of California. In 1960, golf developers and boosters from Los Angeles and Palm Springs began to test the waters of their political influence by placing Proposition 6 on the ballot. It proposed exempting golf courses from highest-use taxation, which would assess their values in relation to potential value, based on the density of surrounding development. In essence, Proposition 6 would decide if golf could exist in urban space in California; under highest-use tax assessment, some courses saw their taxes increase by 600 percent as development occurred around them.76

Bob Hope, an avid golfer and the “honorary mayor” of Coachella golf, served as the face of the bill and co-authored its ballot argument. In it, he wrote that “Proposition 6 is designed to save these courses and their benefits to you and your family as wooded, planted open space areas giving greenbelt breathing space to California’s growing cities.”77 Due to Hope’s immense popular appeal, as well as the endorsement of newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, the proposition passed in a landslide.78 The vast majority of Californians who voted for it, however, were never allowed access to the privatized greens that saved billions in taxes. Proposition 6 thus created a state-sanctioned sphere of privilege, ensuring that the wealthy and the white could claim continuing and exclusive access to urban space.

A 1971 lawsuit made explicit the law’s ties to whiteness. The suit challenged the policy’s legality on the grounds that clubs could racially discriminate in membership, yet still receive the tax exemption.79 The California Court of Appeals upheld the tax policy, noting in its opinion that “prejudice and bigotry are regrettable, but it is the constitutional right of every person to close his home or club to any person…on the basis of personal prejudices, including race.”80 The privatized country clubs of Coachella, and across California, were thus granted legitimacy in their goal of maintaining an exclusive and homogenous environment.

As golf courses expanded the web of infrastructure, property, and people throughout the Coachella Valley, they had indeed lived up to the narrative of imperial conquest. In its wake, middle-class weekenders, retirees, and business retreats flooded into the valley in the mid-1960s and 1970s. The population of Palm Springs, only 7,660 in 1950, increased to 13,468 in 1960 and to 21,507 in 1970. The valley as a whole increased its population from 38,517 to 63,825 between 1960 and 1970, not including tourists and vacationers.81 However, its growth revealed an essential conflict in the project of bringing golf to the valley: the country club community believed wholeheartedly in unrestricted expansion, yet also desired a rustic retreat free from the density of urban life. The two ideals could only coexist for a short time without conflict. In the face of this dilemma, the narrative of the “Desert Empire” and of the triumphant conquest of the valley disappeared in the late 1960s. What replaced it was an ethos of controlled growth and conservation—of the valley’s natural resources, but also of the private sphere controlled by the wealthy country clubs.

The limitations of golf’s expansion in the desert were, first and foremost, environmental. Several years after optimistic golf boosters had proclaimed that the subterranean Coachella aquifer was enough to sustain growth until the 1980s, it began to run out. Yet the golf industry had developed momentum and sought to continue course expansion nonetheless. To address the need, local water companies merged into the Desert Water Agency (DWA) in 1962 and began to purchase water from the Colorado River aqueduct, which passed through the Coachella Valley en route to Los Angeles.82 Bolstered by Colorado River water and freed from the local limits of the aquifer, the golf industry continued its rapid pace of growth. By 1969, the Coachella Valley was drafting 100,000 acre-feet of water from the aqueduct every year—more than 32 billion gallons of water, nearing the volume of the entire valley’s subterranean aquifer.83 One quarter of this water went to golf courses.84

As development continued unabated, however, the expansion-enamored culture of the “Desert Empire” evaporated. Residents feared that uninhibited growth had ruined the original “village” feel of their resort paradise. A 1973 valley-wide survey reported that 53 percent of the population viewed unrestrained economic growth as the valley’s most significant problem.85 Most of the other respondents’ concerns related to population growth, as well, such as traffic congestion, overpopulation, crime, and smog. In a sharp 180-degree turn from the previous affinity for development, residents turned to local government to stifle urbanization in the valley; 73 percent favored governmental restrictions on economic development.86

The focal point of anti-growth sentiment was the preservation of “natural beauty.” A 1970 city report on the economics of growth in the Coachella Valley proclaimed that “it is the abundant ‘gifts of Nature’ that have afforded the American society the opportunity to historically prosper and progress in economic ways. And now, in the crossroads decade of the 1970s, we find that it is Nature attempting to survive against the onslaught of urban-industrial man.”87 The scenic beauty of the valley had always been the primary selling point for Palm Springs and its neighbors; city leaders thus sought to limit the signs of human presence throughout the valley, including roadside billboards, industrial pollution, agricultural burning, and vehicle emissions.88 Within this dynamic of “controlled growth,” golf occupied an unsteady middle ground. As ostensibly “natural” use of the land, some saw the expansion of golf courses as protecting the beauty of the landscape against an encroaching urbanity. However, as an intensive project that taxed the valley’s environmental resources, it was also a part of the problem itself.

The impulse to “conserve” natural beauty by limiting growth, however, often failed to see that golf had already made the Coachella Valley a distinctly different ecosystem, for it was not only humans who felt the impact of golf in the Coachella Valley. By the early 1970s, the density of golf courses—close to 50 percent of the land in some parts of the valley—had lowered the average temperature of the valley floor by at least two degrees, and almost eradicated wind-blown dust.89 The introduction of invasive species such as Bermuda grass and Tamarisk trees threatened the diversity and vitality of native flora and fauna. Some native species, including several lizards, have been placed on the endangered species list since the advent of Coachella golf.90

Not all of golf’s effects were destructive. The increasing availability of water and vegetation rewarded some plant-eating species. For example, the endangered Nelson’s Bighorn Sheep, which live in the mountains surrounding the valley, used courses and lawns for grazing. Yet this development itself had mixed outcomes, increasing the sheep’s exposure to harmful chemical fertilizers and creating new vectors for the spread of disease.91 As such, golf had a complex and multifaceted effect on the Coachella Valley.92 The landscape was no longer “natural,” in the way that many defined it, but rather an ecology built to satiate a growing demand for fairways and greens.

To the members of the elite and exclusive residential country clubs scattered throughout the valley, however, “conservation” meant something different. They viewed the increasingly middle-class, diverse popularity of Palm Springs as a threat to their tight control over the homogenous social order of their clubs. To combat the continuing encroachment, country clubs pursued a policy of incorporation for their hamlets. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, numerous miniscule towns such as Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, and Desert Hot Springs incorporated across the Coachella Valley. These were country clubs turned into towns, in name and in spirit. In the town of Indian Wells, the city council met in the Indian Wells Country Clubhouse; in Rancho Mirage, the council districted the town so that each of its four country clubs received one representative.93 These municipalities represented not so much an attempt to expand the power of the country clubs, but rather an effort to consolidate the political influence they had enjoyed since their inception.

As incorporation continued, the imagery of the “Desert Empire” shifted from the growth-centered narrative to one focused on conservation of privacy. In particular, the rhetoric of bringing civilization to a virgin valley flipped on its head: the project of country clubs was to protect natural beauty from the corrupting advance of urban civilization. One advertisement for the Indian Palms country club boasted that “you won’t have to pioneer a wasteland” to live at their club, explicitly contradicting the adventurous frontier sensibility that had dominated prior attitudes towards growth.94 Dick Hyland, a local writer, offered a new metaphor to explain the country club state:

Is it pure fantasy to foresee the future of Coachella Valley as a modern miniature version of the multi-fractured Greek Peninsula of some thirty centuries ago? Is it fantasy to see the people of the Valley living as did those of the ever-defensive small Hellenic towns that sought protection from encroaching despoilers behind their enclave’s fortifications?95

Indeed, the landscape of the Coachella Valley began to resemble a series of walled-off country clubs as more appeared in the 1970s. Their own social project remained the same: in Hyland’s words, “each of these municipalities would have the most homogeneous population possible.”96 The clubs defined themselves in opposition to Palm Springs’ urbanization, contrasting their own traditional, rustic feel with the “gloss, glitter, congestion, and bad planning” of the valley’s central hub.97

However, despite the cultural backlash against the ethos of growth, the rate of golf development was only temporarily slowed. A pause in new course construction in the mid-1970s, mirroring national trends, had passed by the end of the decade, and the rate of development increased once more.98 Throughout the 1980s, a new golf course opened, on average, every one hundred days, adding a total of thirty-four new courses across the decade.99 The Coachella Valley retained one of the highest rates of course density across the country.100 Public opinion against unrestricted expansion made little difference in the rate of growth. The leisure-industrial complex had come of age.

Ultimately, the goal of country club construction in the Coachella Valley was founded on a contradiction: engineering a paradise based on homogenous, anti-urban ideals, while simultaneously developing those oases into dense, urban spaces that would attract a wider and more diverse populace. Indeed, the paradise they sought to fabricate was itself a simulacrum—a replica both of the natural world of the desert and of a mythicized village community.101 The courses, for a time, reveled in those contradictions, as replicas whose beauty was somehow enhanced by the unlikelihood of their very existence, invoking contrast between beautiful but inhospitable desert scenery and a technologically induced lushness. Yet the obsession with uninhibited growth would be their own undoing; the cultural focus on expansion built an economic machine that grew beyond its creators’ control.

While Coachella golfers cheerily used the term “Desert Empire” to describe their project, the term may have been accurate in more ways than they intended. It would seem easy to dismiss the claim that Coachella golf development created an empire, for it was, in some ways, a fantasy created by Hollywood figures, who perhaps found it difficult to distinguish the romanticized West they portrayed in film, radio, and television from the desert landscape they retreated to for leisure. Yet, as historian Paul Kramer has noted, “empire” is not simply something the United States is or has, but rather a specific dynamic of power relations.102 Golf, as the primary driver of land development, brought with it many such dynamics: capitalistic land and infrastructure development, the disenfranchisement of Native Americans, the use and abuse of inexpensive nonwhite labor, and the narrative of turning a frontier wasteland to a productive paradise.

In a wider sense, golf in the Coachella Valley is an example of how leisure has mediated relationships between power, culture, and the landscape in modern America. The development of the valley was itself an exercise in power, over an environment that had to be forcefully transformed to host emerald expanses and palm-lined fairways, and over people who were positioned in the way of growth. It relied on a powerful array of infrastructure and technology to make the desert bloom—and bloom it did, into a distinctly new ecology centered around the human desire for leisure. Indeed, the history of the human impact on the environment—through heavy extractive industries—often remains separate from histories of the cultural construction of nature in national parks, ski resorts, and other such retreats. Coachella golf complicates this divide. It was an environmental transformation on an enormous scale, predicated upon a particular understanding of natural beauty.

Here, Coachella golf courses acted as a critical nexus in reproducing larger networks of power, as locales where the wealthy and well-connected could meet in a casual, informal, yet gated environment. Here, too, the space of leisure and the sphere of power became indistinguishable. In Coachella, the elite were not an abstract force wielding distant political and social influence, but a tight-knit community that actively decided the future of the valley. In doing so, however, they created a leisure-industrial complex with immense consequences for local communities of color, the ecology of the California desert, and, indeed, their own dream of a reclusive, upper-class space. Nor was the system they built bound to Southern California, as residential golf communities have spread across the United States, and the sport has become a staple of middle-class recreation. The history of golf in the Coachella Valley is a history of how leisure came to the center of postwar American life, and how politics accompanied it there. Leisure, it seems, is never just leisure.

My deep thanks to Professors Alice Echols, Steve Ross, and Lon Kurashige for their insight at various stages of this article; to Renee Brown at the Palm Springs Historical Society; and to my classmates whose encouragement and support for this project was invaluable. Much appreciation also for the editorial staff at the PHR and to the anonymous referees whose feedback significantly bolstered this article.


“Golf Has Become Vital Cog in Economy of Desert Area,” Desert Sun, November 30, 1967, C10.


John Strege, “California: How to Reconcile a Drought with 124 Desert Golf Courses,” Golf Digest, April 19, 2014.


For an early academic study of golf, see Robert Adams and John Rooney, “Evolution of American Golf Facilities,” Geographical Review 75, no. 4 (October 1985): 419–38. For golf and racial exclusion, see George Kirsch, “Municipal Golf and Civil Rights in the United States, 1910–1965,” Journal of African American History 92, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 371–91; Ronald Mitchelson and Michael Lazaro, “The Face of the Game: African American’s Spatial Accessibility to Golf,” Southeastern Geographer 44, no. 1 (May 2004): 48–73.


Darrell Napton and Christopher Laingen, “Expansion of Golf Courses in the United States,” Geographical Review 98, no. 1 (January 2008): 25.


See Hal Rothman, Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998); Larry Youngs, “Creating America’s Winter Golfing Mecca at Pinehurst, North Carolina: National Marketing and Social Control,” in Sport in America: From Colonial Leisure to Celebrity Figures and Globalization, vol. 2, ed. David K. Wiggins (Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 2010).


See Lawrence Culver, The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870–1920 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983); Denis Cosgrove, “Modernity, Community and the Landscape Idea,” Journal of Material Culture 11 (2006): 49–66.


See Culver, The Frontier of Leisure; Andrew Denning, Skiing into Modernity: A Cultural and Environmental History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014); Susan Sessions Rugh, “Branding Utah: Industrial Tourism in the Postwar American West,” Western Historical Quarterly 37, no. 4 (Winter, 2006): 446.


See Jessica Sherwood, Wealth, Whiteness, and the Matrix of Privilege: The View from the Country Club (Washington, D.C.: Lexington Books, 2012).


See Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001); W. Clark Davis, “From Oasis to Metropolis: Southern California and the Changing Context of American Leisure,” Pacific Historical Review 61, no. 3 (May 1992): 357–86.


For more on the tendency of commercialized leisure to “vulgarize” its landscape, see David Engerman, “Research Agenda for the History of Tourism,” American Studies International 32, no. 2 (1994): 3–31.


For urban renewal and displacement, see Francesca Ammon, Bulldozers: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Elsa Devienne, “Urban Renewal by the Sea: Reinventing the Beach for the Suburban Age in Postwar Los Angeles,” Journal of Urban History 45, no. 1 (2019): 99–125. For conflicts over Native American reservation land, see Andrew Needham, Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014); Marsha Weisiger, Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009).


The historian Ryan Kray has written extensively on the history of racial minorities in Palm Springs. See Ryan M. Kray, “The Path to Paradise: Expropriation, Exodus, and Exclusion in the Making of Palm Springs,” Pacific Historical Review 73, no. 1 (Feb 2004): 85–126; Ryan M. Kray, “Second-Class Citizenship at a First-Class Resort: Race and Public Policy in Palm Springs” (PhD diss., University of California Irvine, 2009).


In this respect, scholars have applied the idea in a multitude of contexts beyond its military origins, including a suburban-, spiritual-, science-, medical-, and, most notably, prison-industrial complex. See, for example, Rome, Bulldozers in the Countryside, chapter 1: “The Suburban-Industrial Complex”; Jonathan Herzog, The Spiritual-Industrial Complex: America’s Religious Battle against Communism in the Early Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Julia Sudbury, ed., Global Lockdown: Race, Gender, and the Prison-Industrial Complex (New York: Routledge, 2013).


“Golf Has Become Vital Cog in Economy of Desert Area,” Desert Sun, November 30, 1967, C-10.


National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Online NowData, Palm Springs Area. NOAA weather records for Palm Springs date from 1922 to 2018,, accessed 8/4/2018.


“Golf Courses Are Thirsty,”Desert Sun, March 27, 1959, 10; Gail Wadsworth, “Case Study: Water Use in the Coachella Valley,” California Institute for Rural Studies (April 2014).


“Ike Submits Vast Water Shortage Cure,” Desert Sun, January 17, 1956, 9.


“Thunderbird Country Club, The Story of a Dream Come True,” Desert Sun, October 4, 1955, 9.


Larry Bohannan, Palm Springs Golf: A History of Coachella Valley Legends & Fairways (Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2015), 34.


“Cool Water Gushes from Biggest Well,” Desert Sun, September 22, 1950, 2.


“Rapid Progress at Thunderbird,” Desert Sun, October 6, 1950, 9.


“Thunderbird Country Club Experiments with New Grass,” Desert Sun, June 1, 1951, 6.


Adjusting for inflation, $20,000 in 1950 is now equal to more than $200,000. Culver, The Frontier of Leisure, 190.


Bermuda and rye grasses are used in golf courses across the country. Bermuda grass, a hardy, heat-loving species, is native to Africa and is considered an invasive species in both Bermuda and the American Southwest. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, s.v. “Cynodon Dactylon (Bermudagrass),”, accessed 3/24/2019.


“Wildflowers Today…Green Fairways Tomorrow,” Palm Springs Villager, March 1952, 30, Palm Springs Historical Society, Palm Springs, Cal.


Palm Springs Planning Commission, “Analysis of Land Use,” Simon Eisner and Associates, 1958, Center for International and Public Affairs Planning Documents series, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Cal.




Tamarisk trees, although they were considered a unique desert spectacle, are an invasive species from Eurasia that can devastate local flora because of their high water demands.


“Golf Has Become Vital Cog in Economy of Desert Area,” Desert Sun, November 30, 1967, C10.


Desert Sun, October 15, 1957.


“Second Lake Completed at $20 Million Golf Club,” Desert Sun, October 13, 1961, 7.


“La Quinta—A Majestic Course,” Desert Sun, January 30, 1961, 19.


“Underground Wells Key to Bermuda Dunes’ Success,” Desert Sun, November 29, 1961, 9.


Desert Sun, January 25, 1956, 1.


Palm Springs Life, June 1958, Palm Springs Historical Society.


Palm Springs Villager, January 1951, 21.


Palm Springs Villager, February 1952, 11; Daniel Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850–1920 (University of Chicago Press, 1978), 102.


Jim Langley and Conrad Rosenberg, “C. Social Clubs—IRC 501(c)(7),” 1996 Exempt Organization Continuing Professional Education Text. Internal Revenue Service, 1996,, accessed 10/1/2019.


“Dad French Says Palm Springs Is Now Golf Center,” Desert Sun, February 28, 1952, 10.


Palm Springs Life, June 1958, 15.


As Donald Mrozek described late nineteenth-century East Coast country clubs, “In this passion for exclusiveness, the very rich…often made the criticisms of Thorstein Veblen seem a miracle of understatement.” Donald J. Mrozek, “Sporting Life as Consumption, Fashion, and Display: The Pastimes of the Rich,” in Sport in America: From Colonial Leisure to Celebrity Figures and Globalization, vol. 2, ed. David K. Wiggins (Champaign, Ill: Human Kinetics, 2010), 131.


A number of Jewish Hollywood figures joined Coachella clubs, and Desi Arnaz, a Cuban, was one of the most recognizable Palm Springs celebrities. Very few African American celebrities, however, partook in the Coachella golf craze.


Bohannan, Palm Springs Golf, 39.


For shifting definitions of whiteness in the twentieth century, see Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1999).


Palm Springs Villager, May 1951; Palm Springs Life, June 1958; Palm Springs Life, March 28, 1959, 21.


Palm Springs Life, April 15, 1960, 21–23.


These exoticized galas thus fall into the long history of using blackface minstrelsy and “playing Indian” to create a white national identity. However, the presence of a sizable Jewish population in the country clubs meant that this was not universal; significantly, Tamarisk Country Club did not hold racialized parties. See Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999); Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).


In this sense, the Coachella Valley exemplified the troubled divide between “civilization” and “wilderness,” or between “human” and “nature.” See Cosgrove, “Modernity, Community and the Landscape Idea,” 59–60; William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness, or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History 1, no. 1 (January 1996): 7–28.


Palm Springs Planning Commission, “Streets and Highways Report,” Simon Eisner and Associates, 1957, Center for International and Public Affairs Planning Documents series.


Palm Springs Planning Commission, “Central Business District,” Simon Eisner and Associates, 1958, Center for International and Public Affairs Planning Documents series.


“Links Damage Noted at I.W.,” Desert Sun, Monday, September 23, 1968, 1.


For labor organizing on golf courses, see Ian MacMillan, “Strikes, Bogeys, Spares, and Misses: Pin-Boy and Caddy Strikes in the 1930s,” Labour/Le Travail 44 (1999): 149–90.


“Strike Talks Stalled,” Desert Sun, September 13, 1968; “Club Asks 2.7 Million in Suit against Union,” Desert Sun, September 26, 1968, 1.


Kray, “The Path to Paradise,” 38–39.


Ibid, 120.


Kray, “Second-Class Citizenship at a First-Class Resort,” 325.


Cochran was best known as one of the few American female pilots during World War II. Jacqueline Cochran Papers, Eisenhower Campaign Series, Box 2, Eisenhower File—Correspondence with General Eisenhower, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, Abilene, Kans.


Ryan Kray noted that “city officials enjoyed a private audience with Eisenhower [during his visit in 1954]. Presumably, city administrators had taken Eisenhower on a tour of the city’s sites (including Section 14) because a few months later, with Eisenhower’s approval, Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay appointed a special Citizen’s Committee of eight prominent Palm Springs residents to investigate the city’s Indian land problem.” Kray, “Second-Class Citizenship at a First-Class Resort,” 300–1.


Kray, “The Path to Paradise,” 106; Kray “Second-Class Citizenship at a First-Class Resort,” 322.


Renee Brown, “When Canyon Country Club Opened in 1961, Wind-Free Play Was One of Its Selling Points,” Desert Sun, January 26, 2018.


“Indians Sign Golf Course Lease,” Desert Sun, February 18, 1961, 1.


“Dealing with Indians? Sibbett Says It’s Easy,” Desert Sun, March 12, 1968, 1.


Kray, “The Path to Paradise,” 107.


Ibid, 97.


In a survey of Section 14 residents, construction was among the most common occupations. Eisner’s data for Section 14, however, was skewed, as he only received back 2 out of 200 surveys from the most “blighted areas” of Section 14. Those 200 were likely Mexican Americans who did not speak English. Palm Springs Planning Commission, “Community Survey,” Simon Eisner and Associates, 1957, Center for International and Public Affairs Planning Documents series.


For the connections between golf, water, and human rights, see Richard Hiskes, “Missing the Green: Golf Course Ecology, Environmental Justice, and the Local ‘Fulfillment’ of the Human Right to Water,” Human Rights Quarterly 32, no. 2 (May 2010): 326–41.


The clearance of Section 14 resembled countless cases of displacement in urban centers stretching from the deserts of the Southwest to the northeastern reaches of the continent. The clearance of Africville, Halifax, for example, offers a parallel narrative to Palm Springs. See Ted Rutland, Displacing Blackness: Planning, Power, and Race in Twentieth-Century Halifax (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018).


Palm Springs Planning Commission, “Analysis of Land Use,” Simon Eisner and Associates, 1957, Center for International and Public Affairs Planning Documents series.


“General Plan Announced,” Palm Springs Life, December 27, 1959.


Kray, “Second-Class Citizenship at a First-Class Resort”, 343–44; U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Palm Springs Population, 1940–1960,” General Population Characteristics, California.


“Must Notify Owners: PS Council Curbs House Burning,” Riverside Press-Enterprise, June 15, 1961.


Kray, “Second-Class Citizenship at a First-Class Resort,” 302.


Ibid, 297.


While it is difficult to establish the racial and ethnic makeup of the groundskeepers, all of the strikers mentioned had Hispanic names, such as Jose Moya, Rudy Terrones, and Alfonso Saliz. “Golf Course Workers Strike at Indian Wells,” Desert Sun, September 11, 1968, 1; Julie Baumer, “Violence Brings Assault Charge against Picket,” Desert Sun, February 3, 1969, 1; John Beath, “Pickets Restrained in La Quinta Strike,” Desert Sun, February 4, 1969, 1.


For a more detailed investigation of the complex and drawn-out clearance of Section 14, see Kray, “Second-Class Citizenship at a First-Class Resort,” chapter 5.


Jerry Reynolds, “Rich Golf Clubs Face Tax Ballot,” Desert Sun, October 20, 1960, 8.


California Ballot Propositions and Initiatives, “Proposition 6: Assessment of Golf Courses,” (1960), University of California Hastings Scholarship Repository, San Francisco, Cal,, accessed 7/30/2021.


The proposition received 3,262,442 votes “yes,” and 2,063,458 “no.” “State Propositions,” Los Angeles Times, November 10, 1960, 10.


In the case, a group of Jewish Californians sued the Los Angeles tax assessor, claiming that the tax policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Stevens v. Watson, 16 Cal. App. 3d 360 (1971).


The judge was quoting a precedent from Bell v. Maryland, 378 U.S. 226 (1964).


U.S. Bureau of the Census, General Population Characteristics, California, 1950–1970.


“Desert Water Agency Merger Put on Ballot,” Desert Sun, March 14, 1962, 1.


“High Water Quality, New Sources a ‘Must’,” Desert Sun, October 29, 1969, 3. An acre-foot of water is a measurement used to quantify large volumes; it is the amount of water required to cover one acre in water one foot deep.


Gail Wadsworth, “Case Study: Water Use in the Coachella Valley,” California Institute for Rural Studies (April 2014).


“Controlled Growth and Quality Services are the Bywords,” Palm Springs Life, September 1973, 50.


Ibid, 53.


“Environment, Ecology, and Economic Development in the 1970s,” Palm Springs Economic Review, June 1970, 39, Center for International and Public Affairs Planning Documents series.


“The Problem of Growth in Palm Springs,” Palm Springs Department of Community Development, 1973, Center for International and Public Affairs Planning Documents series.


Robert C. Balling and Nina K. Lolk, “A Developing Cool Island in the Desert? The Case of Palm Springs, California,” Journal of the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science 23, no. 2 (1991): 93–96; A.M. El-Aghel, “An Analysis of Wind-Blown Sand and its Relation to Land-Use Practices in the Coachella Valley During the Past Twenty-Five Years,” (PhD Diss., Department of Geography, University of California–Riverside, 1984).


Cameron Barrows, “Population Dynamics of a Threatened Sand-Dune Lizard,” The Southwest Naturalist 51, no. 4 (December, 2006): 514–23.


Jack C. Turner et al, “Determination of Critical Habitat for Endangered Nelson’s Bighorn Sheep in Southern California,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 32, no. 2 (2004): 427–48.


Golf courses, as a wider ecological phenomenon, are a contradictory issue: though they often destroy preexisting ecosystems, they also provide crucial green space for endangered species in urban settings. For more on the ambivalent effects of human-impacted natural landscapes, see Richard White, The Organic Machine (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995).


Palm Springs Life, September 1973, 207, 214.


Ibid, 118.


Ibid, 214.




It is likely that the reference to “glitter” hinted at the growing popularity of Palm Springs among gay men, a topic which requires further research. Ibid, 118.


Napton and Laingen, “Expansion of Golf Courses in the United States,” 25.


Bohannan, Palm Springs Golf, 139.


On the statewide level, Florida eventually claimed the highest density of courses. On a smaller regional basis, however, the Coachella Valley remained near the top. Napton and Laingen, “Expansion of Golf Courses in the United States,” 33.


For the concept of the “simulacrum,” see Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004).


Paul Kramer, “Power and Connection: Imperial Histories of the United States and the World,” The American Historical Review 116, no. 5 (December 2011): 1348–91.