Keys Ranch was built by William F. Keys one hundred years ago in the Mojave Desert of California, which Joshua Tree National Park now encompasses.
Keys Ranch was dubbed “Desert Queen”, an homage to the Desert Queen Mine where Keys built his fortune mining from for almost 50 years. That mine is now abandoned and still remains in Joshua Tree National Park.
Bill’s wife, Frances, was an intrepid woman who had seven children and helped Bill run the ranch. She assisted with the mining, washed clothes, butchered meat, canned produce, and taught the children before a school house was built. She was a fashionable woman, and others remarked on her perfect complexion, maintained by wearing bonnets and shielding her face from the sun. Frances was also an entrepreneur, selling bonnets to the local women near the ranch.
Bill Keys murdered a fellow rancher after a land dispute. Keys was found guilty and sentenced to time in prison, where he educated himself at the prison library.
The Joshua tree that grows throughout the park and the ranch grounds. It gets its name from Mormon settlers who passed through the Mojave Desert and thought the trees looked like the Biblical Joshua with hands upraised in prayer. The trees produce flowers and fruit in early spring, and are only found in the southwestern arid climates of North America.
Bill Keys is someone you’d want around the house when something goes wrong. Keys built his own ranch house, work sheds and guest cabins, then dug wells and created irrigation systems for the orchard and vegetable garden. He built or fixed just about anything you can think of, and his yard is a testament to that, full of car parts and items from the mines ready to be refurbished and repurposed.
There is a small family cemetery on site. It contains four marked graves of Wm. F. Keys, Jr., David Lynn Keys, Elsworth (sic) George Keys, and Francis (sic) May Lawton Keys. There is a fifth and unmarked grave presumably being that of William F. Keys Sr.
The entire site consists of about 20 total buildings, all built by Keys himself from scrap metal and materials left behind at the mines and surrounding area. To enter Keys Ranch, you’ll have to take a guided ranger tour. Buildings built on-site include multiple outhouses, a chicken coop, tack house, storehouse, windmill, water tank, machine house, barn, school house, guest house, and the ranch house itself.
The outlying boulders and caves that were naturally formed before Keys homesteaded there became easy storage areas for the supplies Keys collected over the years. One cave was even used as an office!
Keys was a jack-of-all-trades. He ran cattle, raised horses, mules, burros, and goats, cultivated a fruit orchard, built myriad dams to collect water from scarce and infrequent rainfall, prospected, mined, and established a lifestyle more unique than typical of other prospectors, miners, ranchers and farmers in the region. If HistoriCorps wins the cash needed to restore Keys Ranch, visitors will finally get to see inside the ranch house and understand how Keys and his family lived from day to day.