The McCallum Centennial – Palm Springs' founding family.

"... they came unto a land in which it seemed always afternoon ..." — Alfred, Lord Tennyson

PSL and Villager


The founding of Palm Springs might be placed at that moment in time when the educated son of an industrious Scottish farmer stood near the Indian Village of Agua Caliente at the base of the San Jacinto Mountains. Looking out across the desert he thought: "This land would be valuable if water should be brought upon it …" Little did he know how prophetic were his thoughts.

This Scot, John Guthrie McCallum, editor, lawyer, politician, was 57 years of age when he came to the place he renamed Palm Valley. Pioneering spirits usually burn brightest in youth, and McCallum, entering middle age, had already proved his vision as a pioneer lawyer in the American West. He was a founding member of the American Party, cast one of California's first electoral votes for Abraham Lincoln, and served his country as Indian Agent to the Mission Indians.

It was in his role as Indian agent that McCallum discovered the village the Cahuillas called Agua Caliente. Will Pablo, an Indian friend, led McCallum to the village (near the current Spa Hotel) that was called "hot water" in Spanish, because of the hot springs that gushed from the desert there.

McCallum's daughter Pearl often spoke of their early life by the springs. In a 1957 issue of Palm Springs Villager, Pearl wrote: "There were about 76 Cahuilla Indians … when my father arrived in this tiny Indian reservation with Will Pablo, a Banning Indian guide and interpreter. Agua Caliente was nothing but a narrow sandy road wandering along the base of the mountains … There were no white men living here, all Indians, and there is no known record of any white man ever having lived here …"

Unlike other pioneers of the early West, McCallum's move to the desert was not motivated by a burning quest for the frontier, or by a lust for gold. A successful San Francisco lawyer and political figure, he was motivated to move to the desert by the practical demands of fatherhood. McCallum thought that the climate would heal his tubercular son Johnny, and with that thought he sowed the seed for Palm Springs' future as a health spa.

With high hopes he moved here with his entire family: wife Emily, sons Harry, Wallace and Johnny, and daughters May and Pearl. He came not as a conquering white as so many others had come to Indian Territory; he came as a friend of the Indians after having quit his commission as Indian agent in San Bernardino.

"Historically, one cannot separate the desert from the Indians or the Indians from the desert," Pearl wrote. "And my father, a friendly man, loved both … The Indians trusted him for he knew them intimately, their traits and their problems … Many say that our Indians were never more happy and healthy than under my father's administration …"

As the youngest of his five children, a special bond grew between McCallum and Pearl. They both loved the desert and would take long rides together through the canyons, learning about the wildlife and vegetation. As the years grew into decades, the bond between father and daughter increased, and McCallum's vision took root in Pearl's heart. To Pearl, her father was the greatest of men, a visionary, an important historical figure who never received his just share of recognition. She often spoke of him in such glowing terms that others accused her of boasting.

"Can you blame me," she wrote, "for having a just pride in my father, whose pioneering spirit not only sensed and felt the needs of the desert, but also strode side by side and step by step with other outstanding Californians in securing the natural resources for the people who choose and love the desert?"

She compared him to Abraham Lincoln: "… like Lincoln, he was self-taught and had no easy progress. Both read similar great books …" And it was no empty boast when Pearl wrote: "My father was nominated to carry the electoral vote of California back to Washington when Lincoln became President. He attended the Inaugural Ball and was present when Lincoln was assassinated."

And years after his death, when Pearl herself was near the end of her life, she would describe the day her father first saw the land he and his daughter would nurture into a premier city of the Colorado desert: "As this man of vision — my father — stood on that ridge, he landscape-pictured this area with its dry healing climate as the answer to his prayers that his son might be healed. And in this new land he also saw, from the sunshine, rich soil and abundant life-giving waters that flowed from the canyons, a vast future development not only for abundant crops, but for the earliest fruits in the world."

Describing the special relationship that existed between Pearl and her father during the earliest days, historian Katherine Ainsworth wrote: "As they rode over the sandy boulder-strewn wastes, the father told his five-year-old daughter about the poem of Tennyson's which had so inspired him on that first visit to Agua Caliente. The story of The Lotus-Eaters and the "land of the afternoon" in which they found peace and contentment would ever after linger in Pearl's memory, and she loved the long afternoons coming with the sudden disappearance of the sun behind towering Mount San Jacinto."

After the family settled into a primitive campsite, McCallum began to acquire land. On March 24, 1885, he purchased one-fifth of a parcel (approximately 64 acres). The following November he purchased 150 more for 11,800. On Dec. 12, 1887, he purchased property that today comprises the heart of downtown Palm Springs, 320 acres covering the area from Ramon Road to Alejo, from Indian Avenue to the mountains. All told, McCallum managed to consolidate 1,767 acres of what would become some of the most desirable urban real estate in America.

The only neighbors the McCallum family had in those early days were the friendly Cahuilla Indians. McCallum employed many of them to build both the family home from native adobe, and the 19-mile-long ditch that carried water from the Whitewater River. The stone-lined ditch, with sections of redwood flume, brought irrigation water to the thirsty 80 acres McCallum planted in oranges, grapes, apricots and an experimental stand of alfalfa. Altogether, McCallum spent $60,000 on that ditch, the first irrigation project in the West.

Together with O.C. Miller, H.C. Campbell and Dr. James Adams, McCallum founded the Palm Valley Land and Water Company. During 1897, 320 acres were surveyed into a township that today comprises downtown Palm Springs. On Nov. 1, 1887, a giant auction was held and 137 parcels were sold for a total of more than $50,000, attesting to McCallum's promotional brilliance.

Years of experience at the editorial helm of The Georgetown Weekly News in Eldorado, California, in the 1850s, had taught McCallum the art of public relations. One promotional piece he wrote for his new development boasted that the place had a "perfect climate, wonderful scenery, pure mountain water, the earliest fruit region in the state…" He promised that the place provided an "absolute cure for all pulmonary and kindred diseases …"

Under this kind of optimistic guidance, Palm Valley, the family and the McCallum ranch all flourished until around 1890. Then suddenly many of the settlers began to fail in their agricultural endeavors. Several became delinquent in their mortgage payments. Absentee owners, who fled the heat of summer, left their enterprises in the care of family members who were plagued with bronchial disorders and were physically unable to work. It was thus not surprising that a pattern of failure began to emerge in the settlement. Landowners, already in debt, were of no mind to pay McCallum's assessments to maintain the Tahquitz Ditch. To add to the weight pressing on J.G. McCallum, Johnny's health failed again and on Jan. 17, 1891, he died at the age of 26.

Before McCallum could recover from the loss of his beloved son, a flood washed out his orchards and fields. Bent, but unbroken, he replanted his crops, only to see them wilt and die during an 11-year drought that nearly obliterated the entire settlement of Palm Valley. In 1896, McCallum's son Wallace died at age 29. Now crushed by loss, with debts mounting, in 1897, J.G. McCallum followed his sons into the afterlife. He died intestate.

His estate was divided among his survivors: his widow Emily, and his three remaining children May, Harry and Pearl. May sold a portion of her inheritance for $10,000, causing a permanent estrangement from Pearl who held tight to her father's admonition that, at all costs, his children must "pay the taxes … hold onto the land."

At age 19, Pearl returned from her studies at the Stone School of Physical Culture in Chicago. She enrolled at the famous Marlborough School for girls in Los Angeles. Due to her mother's poor health, Pearl remained in L.A. for nine years while Harry tried to keep the ranch and water company going in Palm Springs. At 30, on a visit to Chicago in 1901, Harry died, a victim of pulmonary tuberculosis like his brother Johnny.

Devastated by this loss, and fallen upon hard economic times, the McCallum women had to sell their share in the Palm Valley Water Company. Pearl and her mother returned to the family adobe in Palm Springs. A few years later, a heart attack took the life of May McCallum Forline at her home in Redlands. May's legacy to Pearl was a dear one: While her estrangement from Pearl lasted unto her dying day, one of May's daughters, Marjorie, would eventually go to live with her Auntie Pearl and remain as her live-in companion for 30 years.

After her mother's death in 1914, Pearl married real estate mogul Austin G. McManus of Pasadena. With Austin's guidance and encouragement Pearl developed into a shrewd land trader. She began the lifelong task of carrying out her father's work in earnest. She learned to make the deeds of properties she sold reversible for architectural reasons. Bitterness developed over the way she put covenants on some of the real estate. While she sold off most of the original McCallum holdings piece by piece, she cleverly held onto the valuable Palm Canyon Drive frontage that grew to be worth millions.

By 1924, Pearl and Austin had become developers in their own right. They commissioned the young Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. to design the Oasis Hotel, which they built as a memorial to J.G. McCallum. They later built the first apartment house in Palm Springs, the Hacienda, and 17 other residences. The elegant Tennis Club, with its famous twin-palm swimming pool, opened in 1937. It soon became the most social spot in the desert. There Pearl could be found mingling with movie stars and business magnates sunning themselves on the bougainvillea-laced terraces. But most famous among Pearl's architectural accomplishments was the renowned "pink mansion" where she lived out her years.

While Pearl grew wealthy as she sold off the family lands, she continued to live frugally. Her single personal extravagances were indulged in beautiful dresses. Penny-wise in her everyday dealings, she gave generously to a number of charities. She was one of the charter members of Palm Springs' Pathfinders, showing interest in helping boys and girls in the area. She donated the land which is the site of the clubhouse for the Palm Springs Woman's Club. She helped the club set up their scholarship program and one day told its president, "All right, you select one boy and send him to college through the club, and I will take the other one and send him to college myself." As a tribute to her, the club holds "Auntie Pearl Day" each fall.

During the waning of her years, Pearl McCallum McManus grew from a straight-talking pioneer woman into a straight-talking social lioness. According to The Desert Sun, which ran more than 100 column inches of obituary Mrs. McManus had risen to the distinction of being 'La Grande Dame' of Palm Springs. Years have mellowed the bitterness which eventually arose over land holdings, personality clashes and the financial struggle which she and her mother experienced after her father's death.

"In the past decade or so, she looked to the city and its I people benevolently, making donations for charity, financially supporting projects and lending her support to clubs. Most recently Mrs. McManus agreed to donate a fountain to the new Palm Springs Airport terminal…"

During her last days she created a charitable institution which would continue her good works. She often said she thought her father had not received the recognition he deserved for his role in founding Palm Springs, so, as a tribute to him, she established through her will the McCallum Desert Foundation in the memory of J.G. McCallum.

To the foundation's original board of Director-Trustees she named Robert Bernard, Harold Meloth, Fred Ingram, Hilton H. McCabe and Edward T. Dillon. The Bank of America, Palm Springs Trust Office, Joseph T. Ciano and Leon Parma as co-trustees were charged with overseeing and managing the trust.

Since her death at age 87 on July 24, 1966, The McCallum Desert Foundation has awarded over 14,500,000 in grants. Among the recipients have been: Educational Scholarships to high schools in the desert area, Palm Springs Youth Center, World Affairs, City of Palm Springs, St. Theresa Church, Desert Hospital Foundation, Eisenhower Medical Center, College of the Desert, Living Desert Reserve, Lyceum of the Desert, The Palm Springs Child Care and Development Center, Boys' Club of Coachella Valley, Palm Springs Boys' Club, United Fund, Desert Museum, Family Aid and Counseling Services of Palm Springs, Desert Beautiful, Palm Springs Opera, Campfire Girls, Palm Springs Chapter Building Fund, Palm Springs Center Theatre, United Way of the Desert, Guide Dogs of the Desert, Braille Institute, Turnoff of Desert Hot Springs, Mental Health Association, Desert Youth Development, Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, Hospice of the Desert, Foundation for the Retarded of the Desert, Palm Springs Mounted Police, Palm Springs Woman's Club and the Palm Springs Historical Society.

The McCallum bloodline has survived vigorously. Survivors of J.G. McCallum (all descendents of Pearl's sister, May) include third generation Jane Forline Geers and Marjorie Forline Stephens; fourth generation Barbara Bennet Parma, Edith May Skolfield Pycha, Ada Marie Forline Pitts, Mildred Alice Skolfield LaBianca, Dana Forline Skolfield and Elizabeth Jane Skolfield McCallum (who changed her name from Dixon). In the fifth generation there are approximately 27 descendents and in the sixth generation there are 13 descendents.

Thanks in part to Pearl, the McCallum vision lives on. While Palm Springs itself outgrew the agricultural emphasis McCallum placed on it, the entire Coachella Valley became the cornucopia of produce he envisioned. Palm Springs also surpassed his vision as a health spa. It is more widely appreciated today as an oasis of pollution-free air and sunny skies than it was when it originally attracted J.G. McCallum 100 years ago.

Pearl McCallum McManus was interviewed by Palm Springs Life in 1960. Then 81, she was as energetic as ever. Her words echo on today, both for the future of the McCallums and for Palm Springs: "I'm so glad I lived to see it all come out in the sunshine.”

"I'm a great person not to let myself worry over what can't be helped . . ." Then she smiled happily and added: "Tomorrow's my day!"