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Paving the way

November 6, 2012

Newton T. Bass built the homes, lived the life that put the High Desert on the map

By DON HOLLAND
EDITOR

If Newton T. Bass’ contribution to the creation of Apple Valley had ended with his brilliant marketing of homes and lots, his place in High Desert history and lore would be secure.

But Bass’ vision extended far beyond simply making a quick buck selling desert property to urbanites hungry for a taste of the “real West.”

Unlike other developers of the day, Bass sold not just places to live. He sold a genteel Western lifestyle in a planned resort community that was every bit his own creation. It’s no exaggeration to say Apple Valley would not exist without Bass and his business partner, Bernard “Bud” Westlund. A wealthy oilman who made his fortune in Signal Hill and Long Beach, Bass retired from the oil business in 1943 at the age of 40. The following year, while searching for a place to develop a cattle ranch, he arrived in Apple Valley, which then was little more than a sprinkling of far-flung ranches.

Bass decided to go into the real estate business when he learned of Apple Valley’s plentiful groundwater and after friends showed interest in buying desert acreage.

According to legend, Bass climbed to the top of the rocky outcropping where Hilltop House now sits, and proclaimed, “This is where I want to build a town.”

“He wasn’t the victim of circumstances,” Mike “Tex” Meeken, who joined Bass’ sales force in 1953, said. “He was the creator of circumstances.

“Apple Valley didn’t just happen. It was caused by very dedicated men who worked to make it happen.”

Bass snapped up 6,300 acres at an average price of $2.75 an acre and wrote to Westlund to propose buying more. Westlund, an Army officer stationed in Europe, wrote back, agreeing to the plan.

On Feb. 22, 1946, just six months after the end of World War II, Bass and Westlund set up a trailer on the southwest corner of Highway 18 and Central Road and began selling land and dreams. Many of the buyers just wanted to be a part of Bass’ vision for a new town, Meeken said.

The Bass-Westlund partnership, Apple Valley Ranchos, would build the town one section at a time and set rigid specifications governing the size and style of homes. As was typical in many communities at the time, property deeds included covenants and restrictions against selling to Jews and non-whites. No aspect of development would be beyond the scope of Bass’ architectural committee.

“I think probably in my mind, his legacy to the High Desert was quality,” Barbara Davisson, Bass’ longtime secretary, said.

A cadre of flamboyant salesmen, decked out in Western shirts, cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats, were hired to pitch real estate. Bass and Westlund, too, dressed in checkered shirts, cowboy hats and neckerchiefs.

The sales staff entertained guests after hours at company-sponsored outdoor steak fries. Salesmen, with their folksy nicknames like “Cactus Gus,” put on skits and led sing-a-longs as bonfires burned under starry skies.

Bass and Westlund built more than homes. They established a network of businesses to support the budding community and lure still more buyers.

In 1948, Bass and Westlund built the Apple Valley Inn as a comfortable retreat for prospective land buyers, including an endless list of Hollywood notables who came to relax amid Apple Valley’s “champagne climate and caviar scenery.”

The celebrities, including Bob Hope, John Wayne, James Arness and even Richard Nixon, generated plenty of free publicity for Apple Valley to complement Bass’ $400,000-a-year national ad campaign.

When the inn opened, the telephone company refused to run phone lines from the guest rooms to the main building. Ever skilled at the art of publicity, Bass equipped each guest room with a carrier pigeon to relay room-service orders to the main building.

The press had a field day with the “pigeon lift.” And ultimately Bass got just what he wanted: a phone in each guest room — and a wave of publicity for the Apple Valley Inn.

The well-heeled would fly in to the landing strip across from the inn to spend the weekend. Bass hired golf great Lloyd Mangrum as the golf pro for the nine-hole course.

When Bass approached the Bank of America about establishing a local branch, they laughed, Meeken recalled. So Bass created his own institution, the Bank of Apple Valley.

Bass’ outfit also established the Apple Valley Ranchos Water Company, the Apple Valley Country Club — the first nine holes of the course, designed by famed course architect Billy Bell, opened in 1947 — and radio station KAVR.

Bass also donated land to build local churches, schools, St. Mary Desert Valley Hospital and the Apple Valley Community Center.

By 1959, Bass and Westlund had sold $45 million in vacant lots, plus millions more in ranch homes. At one point, Bass had a staff of 90 sales people.

Bass died Feb. 6, 1983, three years after suffering a stroke. He was 79.

Note: This story originally appeared in the Daily Presson Dec. 31, 1999.