Happy Bottom Riding Club
The Happy Bottom Riding Club, more formally known as the Rancho Oro Verde Fly-Inn Dude Ranch, was a dude ranch, restaurant and hotel operated by Pancho Barnes near the site of current-day Edwards Air Force Base in southern California's Antelope Valley.[N 1]
It was a favoured hangout for both test pilots and the Hollywood elite during the 1940s, and boasted over 9,000 members worldwide in its heyday. The United States Air Force attempted to buy out the club in order to extend their runways, which led to a long and contentious series of lawsuits and the mysterious burning of the club in 1953. Barnes eventually won the lawsuits and was paid a fair sum for the property, but her plans to re-open the club in a nearby location never came to fruition.
Establishment of the club
Barnes had purchased the land in 1935 to grow alfalfa, raise pigs, cattle and start a dairy. As the nearby U.S. Army Air Corps base at Muroc Army Air Base expanded in the post World War II period, the ranch's other business as a restaurant, bar, and hotel quickly outgrew its humble beginnings. The hospitality arm of the Ranch had an all-female staff, and was the place of choice for test pilot relaxation.
The Rancho Oro Verde had a swimming pool, a rodeo stadium, and its own airstrip, the first amenity Barnes created upon establishment of the Club in 1935 to stay in touch with her aviator-friendly social circle south of the San Gabriel Mountains. Visiting civilians and military men alike flew into the strip to stay at the Rancho Oro Verde, and Pancho often held events to ensure that her guests were entertained, including her legendary barbecues and treasure hunt for 200 silver dollars.
The swimming pool was originally rectangular, and was one of the first built in the Antelope Valley. It was enjoyed by residents and guests alike before being destroyed by the July 21, 1952 Tehachapi earthquake. The replacement pool was circular and had a circular ramp which, legend has it, allowed Barnes to ride her horse into the pool. This later pool was modeled after one Barnes had owned in the Pasadena area. The pool was lit at night - an aid to aerial navigation.
A tradition was started when Chuck Yeager, who became friends with Pancho during Mexican hunting and fishing expeditions, broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 and Pancho gave him a free steak dinner. After that, pilots were given a free steak dinner when they broke the barrier for their first time. After Yeager's achievement, she sometimes gave this dinner to multiple pilots in a week, reflecting the frequency with which the sound barrier was broken in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Changing times, lawsuits and the end
Despite a close friendship between Pancho and many powerful men in the military, relations grew sour after a 1952 change of command - four years after Muroc Army Air Base was renamed Edwards Air Force Base. One reason for friction between Barnes and the Base's commander was the increase in flights at the base, along with an increase in flights at the Club's landing strip. Gen. Albert Boyd, an admirer and friend of Pancho's, after assuming command of the Base, would berate her if her clientele came too close to his airspace. After Pancho refused to sell the ranch to the government to facilitate a runway expansion, allegations surfaced that the Happy Bottom Riding Club was a brothel.
Pancho's posted rules for hostesses were strict, and many discredited the allegations. However, acting on the rumors, the Air Force prohibited servicemen from visiting the club, thereby destroying the vast majority of her business. Since she and the government were in the middle of negotiations regarding establishing a fair price for her business and property, she felt betrayed. When the government added a suit to appropriate the ranch, Pancho countersued for slander, harassment, inappropriate taking of land, and conspiracy. Under suspicious circumstances, the ranch was destroyed by fire on November 13, 1953, shortly before Pancho won every lawsuit. Frustrated and dismayed, Pancho resettled in nearby Cantil, and the land was appropriated by the Air Force. Interestingly, the proposed runway extension was never implemented.
Barnes intended to reestablish the Happy Bottom Riding Club on her and her husband's land in Cantil, but never did so.
The Happy Bottom Riding Club was immortalized in Tom Wolfe's 1979 book, The Right Stuff, as well as the film adaptation (1983) and Lauren Kessler's biography of Pancho, The Happy Bottom Riding Club. Pancho's life was chronicled in an Emmy-winning 2009 documentary film for PBS station KOCE-TV, entitled The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club. The documentary continues to air on PBS stations in the United States.
A made-for-TV movie aired on the CBS TV network, Pancho Barnes (1988), starring Valerie Bertinelli as Pancho, featured a fictionalized version of Barnes' life and events relating to The Happy Bottom Riding Club.
Servicemen at Edwards hold an annual barbecue on the site of the Happy Bottom Riding Club (adjacent to Edwards Rod and Gun Club) in remembrance of Pancho and the ranch. Visitors may still see the remains of the pool, the restaurant's foundation (including chimney), the barn, and - if they are allowed to overfly the site -a fading outline of the airstrip.
- "Oro Verde" is Spanish for "green gold".
- Foulkes, Debbie. "Pancho Barnes (1901–1975): Pilot, Proprietor, Partier". Forgotten Newsmakers, 2011. Retrieved: August 3, 2013.
- Gibson 2013, pp. 137–138.
- "Happy Bottom Riding Club." Happybottomridingclub.com, November 24, 2012.
- Gibson 2013, p. 138.
- "Pancho." chuckyeagar.com. Retrieved: 2 August 2013.
- Pelletier 2012, p. 70.
- Spark, Nick."The Story of Pancho Barnes ... and Her Happy Bottom Riding Club." Legend of Pancho Barnes (Originally appearing in Airpower magazine), January 31, 2010. Retrieved: August 3, 2013.
- "The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club." PBS. Retrieved: August 3, 2013.
- "Pancho Barnes (1988)." IMDb. Retrieved: August 3, 2013.
- "Team Edwards celebrates Pancho Barnes Day." Edwards.af.mil. Retrieved: 3 August 2013.
- "Test Pilots Celebrate Pancho." Edwards.af.mil. Retrieved: 2 August 2013.