By Stan Fonseca
The Coachella Valley, roughly one hundred miles east of Los Angeles, has long been renowned for its beautiful scenery, for its warm climate, and for its close association with the wealthy of the West Coast. The dry desert valley, however, is also home to a more surprising phenomenon: the highest number of golf courses per capita in the world. Aerial views reveal that the desert landscape resembles a squiggling mass of fairways intertwined around housing developments and bleached desert. Since the construction of the first eighteen-hole course, the Thunderbird Country Club in 1951, more than 125 have been built over the last seventy years.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s, residents of the Valley witnessed the desert seemingly bloom before their eyes into the unlikeliest of forms: manicured green fairways, lined with imported palms and artificial lakes. This was, of course, no spontaneous blossom; developers worked hard to build country clubs in the Coachella, and likened their success to the building of a “Desert Empire.” West Coast business moguls, Hollywood figures, and wealthy retirees flocked to the Valley to purchase property in these new, exclusive country clubs. Golf, in the Coachella Valley, has been more than just the frivolous sport of the rich; it was the defining driver of land development, infrastructure, migration, and exclusion in the desert region.
Building golf courses was an environmental project that necessitated vast infrastructural and ecological change in the valley. In almost every way, the Coachella Valley was not suited for golf: high temperatures, low rainfall, and 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. As each course was developed, developers dug deep wells that could draw up millions of gallons from the Valley’s subterranean aquifer. When the aquifer ran dry, they purchased water from the nearby Colorado Aqueduct; by 1969, they had used over 32 billion gallons of Colorado River water to feed their courses. New courses, opening at a rate of roughly one per year, sought to outdo the others in their ostentatious display of mastery over the desert—an “arms race” of environmental transformation. When Bermuda Dunes Country Club installed two artificial lakes in 1957, for example, La Quinta Golf Club was not to be outdone: in 1959, it stocked its own lake with imported trout and attached fishing poles to its golf carts.
The environmental transformation of the desert was only part of the business of attracting the wealthy to the Coachella Valley. To do so, club owners also engineered a new social landscape: the residential golf club, in which members’ homes opened up onto the fairways. Thunderbird Country Club invented the design, and it was quickly copied both in the Valley and across the country. Of the nineteen Coachella courses opened between 1951 and 1967, fourteen employed this new design. However, an essential aspect of the residential golf club was its exclusivity; members and owners alike desired a homogeneous social world reserved for the wealthy and the white. Thunderbird, among others, explicitly denied membership to all nonwhites and non-Christians. Each club built opaque social boundaries surrounding their courses to keep out the unwanted. Often, dense hedges of Tamarisk trees would be planted along the borders, rendering the course invisible from the public eye.
As the world of country clubs grew throughout the 1950s, they began to flex their muscles as a political bloc to pave the way for more course construction. Developers were hungry for more land in the Valley, but fully half was reservation land belonging to the local band of Cahuilla Indians, the Agua Caliente. Bureau of Indian Affairs regulations prevented developers from leasing the land, and the Agua Caliente were ambivalent about the rapid pace of development. However, the “country club set” had a powerful new member: none other than President Eisenhower, who bought property in the Eldorado Country Club in 1957. Lobbyists in the Coachella Valley leveraged their golf connection to put their proposals directly to the President’s ear.
In the last year of his term, Eisenhower changed Bureau of Indian Affairs policy to allow the partitioning of Agua Caliente reservation land to individual members of the band, and to allow those individuals to lease their land for up to 99 years. Developers in the Coachella Valley made full use of the change in policy, and signed several long-term leases with Agua Caliente over the next decade to build courses, hotels, and homes. Band members, however, were rarely paid the full worth of their land; conservators & guarantors took, on average, 44% of the profits promised by developers.
Another political triumph for Southern California country clubs came in 1960 when the state passed a ballot proposition lowering the taxes on golf course property. The proposition would exclude golf courses from “highest use” taxation—meaning their taxes would not increase as urban development occurred around them. Bob Hope, an avid golfer and Coachella Valley booster, was the primary lobbyist and the “face” of the proposition. In his ballot argument for the tax break, Hope 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.” However, the law, in effect, benefited private country clubs whose gates were barred to the vast majority of the public. The proposition’s most immediate impact was in Los Angeles, where “highest use” value was greater—but, over time, it allowed golf development in the Coachella Valley to continue unabated by rising taxes.
The growth of golf courses in the Coachella Valley is a curious case. In many ways, their proliferation across the valley was a continuation of a wider settler-colonial project; it involved the disenfranchisement of Native peoples; land, power, and capital falling under white control; and a narrative of carving out Paradise from an arid wasteland. However, the settlement of the Coachella Valley was also a novel form, in that the primary goal was not access to material resources or agricultural land. Instead, it was fun, leisure, and the opportunity to create and maintain a homogeneous culture of the white and wealthy.
Golf in the Coachella Valley thus offers a fascinating avenue to think about power as it has played out upon the landscape in American history. As an environmental project, golf courses sought to replace one version of nature—a desert ecosystem seen as a wasteland—with one that was more comfortable and accessible to its users. As a social project, they were both a site of power themselves, in deciding who did and did not have access to the courses, and also a site that linked together wider networks of the powerful, as with the lobbyists who had Eisenhower’s ear while on the course. Both the environmental and social aspects of these country clubs have had long-reaching effects, in the Coachella Valley as well as in the wider world.
Stan Fonseca received his Bachelor’s Degree in History from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. He joined the PhD program of the USC History Department in the fall of 2017. His interests include cultural, social, and environmental history in 20th century America.