Wednesday, June 3, 2015

wacky tacky Icons: Pancho Barnes

If it seems that a disproportionate number of wacky tacky icons are of the female persuasion, it is only because these women are always doing awesome things and inspiring us in ways that leave us yearning to adventure more, accomplish more, create more, and be more.  Such is the case with 20th-Century America's most exciting stunt woman, aviatrix, rancher, and entrepreneuse, Pancho Barnes.

Florence Lowe "Pancho" Barnes
July 14, 1901 - March 30, 1975

Born into Pasadena society, Barnes was a rebel from year one.  Failing out of school and running away to Mexico on horseback are but two of her more-tame adolescent escapades.  An inveterate prankster, she once left a suicide note for her private school roommate to find as Barnes lay prone on the floor covered in red ink.  The fact that she had a penchant for raunchy storytelling and salty language made her first marriage to a minister an unlikely one.  The union resulted in a child but a conventional life was not to be.  An experienced horsewoman, Barnes took jobs as trainer and stuntwoman in traveling rodeos and in film.  There is so much to be said for and about Pancho Barnes; but with it so eloquently and expertly stated here and here, for wacky tacky purposes, we'll just stick to a few highlights.

Barnes befriends actor Ramon Navarro and introduces him 
to photographer George Hurrell, aiding the careers of both.

Barnes beats Amelia Earhart's air-speed record, taking
her plane, "Mystery Ship," upwards of 196 MPH.

Barnes founds the Associated Motion Picture Pilots,
a union representing stunt pilots in Hollywood.

Barnes moves from Los Angeles to the Antelope Valley, creating a working ranch 

with enough room to test the latest in jet fighters and other aeronautical advances.

Barnes turns her ranch into the Fly-Inn/Happy Bottom Riding Club,
a members only resort/dude ranch/social club/air field for celebrity
clientele and airmen from the local airfield.

Barnes' victory celebration (aided by pal, Chuck Yeager) over the US Air Force
 and their attempt to expand Edwards Air Force Base onto her property, is short-
lived when an unexplained fire ravages her entire compound, leaving her home-
less and near bankruptcy in Southern California's most parched territory.

Southern California is not known for its hill country.  Consequently, our hillbilly population is small, dwelling mostly under the shady canopies of Big Bear's pine forests and perhaps cowering beneath the stuccoed toadstools of Santa's Village.  Instead, the majority of our societal misfits find refuge way out in the desert, creating a new breed of banjo-playing, redheaded step-children known as "desert rats."  It should come as little surprise then that I love the desert, taking any opportunity to explore its eerily-quiet, sunburned landscape and dreaming of the day I too can claim full-time rat status.  When I learned that Pancho Barnes' last home was still standing in the tiny desert community of Boron, CA, we loaded the wacky wagon with provisions and hit the 20-Mule-Team Trail to the home of both Borax and Barnes.

The Barnes Estate
Not exactly the Hollywood House Hunting to which we've become so accustomed.

After four failed marriages, the protracted legal battle with the US government over land rites, and the mystery fire that destroyed her entire resort, Barnes ended up broke but not broken in the tiny town of Boron, a factory mining town.  Feeling betrayed by some of her best clients, Barnes retreated into her modest home in the Mojave Desert.  Because the door to the house was wide open (read: nonexistent), we decided to show ourselves in.

Our self-guided tour began as we entered under the faltering, homemade, lean-to porch arrangement.  It became apparent that even though the four-room, stone house sits on some acreage, the years of dereliction (evidenced by boarded up windows, graffiti, and general decay), have left it uninhabitable...nothing a little of Mr. Tiny's magic couldn't fix.
It was much darker in the room than this picture would indicate.
There was some kind of cellar but as it appeared to be just a giant
pit, I adhered quite strictly to the rules of my horror movie training.

The remnants of the restroom painted a somewhat sunnier picture.

But even a boisterous desert dweller needs her privacy...

Because she was such fixture of the "high desert," many members of the community feel like they knew her personally.  In fact, many of them only really knew her by reputation alone, their anecdotes supported by the recitation of now-legendary stories told by older generations.  One person we met in town remembered Barnes as a "real character" citing that it was oft said that "she had a face like a bag of worms!!!" 

We felt like we were touching a part of aviation history when we found
the basin in which she washed her hands and her bag of worms face.

Within one hundred miles of Pasadena, Boron is somehow worlds away from the privileged upbringing and rakish lifestyle Barnes had always enjoyed.  In a town perpetually under the spell of the sandman, it appeared that Barnes would live out her remaining days in utter obscurity.  Her high-flying adventures, however, could be forgotten by neither her community nor her Happy Bottom cohorts.  In 1964, having been reintroduced to some of her old friends and colleagues, Barnes was was named the "First Citizen of Edwards Air Force Base" and scheduled regularly as a guest lecturer until her death in 1975.  Since 1980, November 7 has been dedicated as Pancho Barnes Day, marked by a yearly celebration at the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base.

"Where's the party?"

We choose to celebrate Pancho Barnes as an icon all year long because, unpretentious and a little naughty, she pioneered aviation, women's rights, and wacky tacky living without even trying!  It's great to know that Valerie Bertinelli will always be there to celebrate with us - and that's no sack of worms!!!

Pancho Barnes starring Valerie Bertinelli (1988)


Mr. Tiny


  1. Truly fascinating! Thank you for sharing yet another truly remarkable summary on a strong historical figure!

    1. Thank you! She was such a character it was neat walking in her footsteps if only for an afternoon!

  2. Wow! I had never heard of her! Thanks so much for introducing me to this badass woman and my newest historical crush! :)

    1. Isn't she incredible?!! There really is so much more to her than I felt I could mention in one post. She was far from perfect but she was a real trailblazer!!!

  3. Replies
    1. I hope it kicks off the adventure season!!! Let's go!