Desert character lives on Web pages

INTERNET: "Harry Oliver's Desert Rat Scrap Book" and liars' contest attract online fans.



THOUSAND PALMS - Thanks to the Internet Harry Oliver lives.

A quick search turns up multiple pages, discussion groups and information about the desert character who lived in Thousand Palms, published "Harry Oliver's Desert Rat Scrap Book," started the Peg Leg Smith Liars' Contest and built his Fort Oliver adobe after a career as a set designer in Hollywood from 1919 to 1938.

Oliver, born in Hastings, Minn., April 4, 1888, moved to California in 1909.

A postcard from a collection owned by Steve Lech shows Harry Oliver and his horned toad. The caption on the card reads, "This was captured by me, the biggest liar on the Colorado Desert."
The most comprehensive Web site is one by Ric Carter, a retired software engineer who lives in Amador County near Gold Rush country.

Carter first saw the "Desert Rat Scrap Book" when he was young and at the age 12 or 13 talked his father into stopping at Harry's famous Fort Oliver on a trip to the desert in 1962.

"He did a lot of work to make it look old," said Carter about the set designer's home. Oliver also designed sets for the first Arabian Nights Pageant in 1948 at the Date Festival in Indio.

Oliver built Fort Oliver sometime after 1940 when he moved to the area. He also had an adobe in Borrego Springs in the '20s and '30s where he would go when not working in Hollywood. Nominated for two Academy Awards in the 1920s, he worked on films such as "Viva Villa!" "Seventh Heaven" and "The Good Earth."

Desert editor

Carter, who is trying to collect all of the issues of Oliver's desert newspaper, started placing information about Oliver on his Web site a couple of years ago, he said. He has tried to find Oliver's heirs to get permission to display the 46 issues of the scrap book that were published roughly four times a year but has been unsuccessful.

Famous for his errors, Oliver said about his scrap book, "Its Editor boasts that for so small a paper he gives you a generous amount of typographical errors. . ."

Carter says that out of the 46 issues published he has collected 22.

"I understand that many of the early issues go for $100 or more, which is out of my range," he said. "But when I come across a copy I can afford I snap it up."

What impresses Carter most is that Oliver was determined to publish the pocket-size newspaper, "The only newspaper in America you can open in the wind," with little or no funds.

"He found a way to pull off a worldwide readership living in poverty," said Carter. "During his years in Thousand Palms he had a small retirement check but it didn't stop him. He mailed these around the world."

Three scrap books owned by Dick "Colorado" Oakes, who has his own Web site, were addressed to Mrs. W. Earp, P.O. Box 942, Fort Bragg, Calif. Josephine Earp, who died in 1944, was married to Wyatt Earp for more than 40 years and was his third wife. Wyatt Earp died in 1929.

Carter says that according to Oliver he printed anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 of each printing, some being sold at small stores across the Southwest. But facts about the self-proclaimed "biggest liar on the Colorado Desert" are hard to prove.

Annual contest

A 64-page pamphlet written by Oliver in 1938 is titled "Desert Rough Cuts; A Haywire History of the Borego Desert" is rare and collectible. Oliver spelled Borrego with one "r" like many old timers.

His daughters, Amy Fern Roessel and Mary Alice Ballenger published the book "Harry Oliver, The Old Mirage Salesman" a compilation of his works interspersed with his drawings and woodcuts in 1952. In 1978, five years after his death, Betty Stohler wrote a 203-page book, "A Kiss for the Desert from Harry Oliver."

The Oliver legend lives on in the Peg Leg Smith Liars' Contest, held every year on the Saturday before April 1 at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The rules are to show up and tell a tale no longer than five minutes that deals with gold mining and the story can't contain anything that an intelligent person might mistake for the truth.

Fort Oliver was torn down years ago but the Borrego adobe is said to still be there but the current owner, according to Phil Brigandi in an online posting, "does not take to trespassers, and does not want anybody poking around the old place. Seriously."

Carter says that over the last couple of years he's gotten 50 to 60 notes about Oliver.

"I get phone calls, e-mails and contributions," he said. "The Harry Oliver cult isn't widespread but folks are interested and send me documents or join discussion groups."

Reach Shannon Starr at (909) 587-3136 or