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‘Indio’ traces city from Cahuilla Indian village to modern community
By Steve Moore   - 02/16/2008

The Press-Enterprise

INDIO - Historian Patricia Baker Laflin says her new book salutes Indio's role as a pioneering force in shaping the Coachella Valley's development.

As the region's oldest, most populous city, Indio helped lay the foundation for the growing urbanization of the desert, she said.

Today, more than 422,000 people live in nine cities and several growing unincorporated communities fanning across the Coachella Valley.

Laflin's book titled "Indio" is part of a national series of pictorial books called Images of America. The series has already featured many Inland cities, communities and institutions.

"I wrote it partly because I wanted many newcomers to know much of what makes this valley good today happened because of Indio," Laflin says. "That's where the doers and movers and shakers were that got us Colorado River water and built the infrastructure that the rest of the valley has benefited from.

"Palm Springs still has the reputation, and deservedly so, of a lovely place to go, but where all the hard work was done was over here in the east valley, along the railroad -- Indio, Coachella, Thermal and Mecca."

A book signing will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Coachella Valley Museum & Cultural Center, 82-616 Miles Ave. in Indio.

"Indio" is available for $19.99 at the Coachella Valley Historical Society, area bookstores, retailers, online bookstores and through Arcadia Publishing at www.arcadiapublishing.com or 888-313-2665.

Changing Roles

The 126-page volume takes a chronological approach in tracing Indio's history, starting with the Cahuilla Indians, who lived in the area centuries before the transcontinental railroad and white settlers arrived.
The Cahuilla lived off the land as a hunter-gatherer people.

They established a winter village in present-day Indio
called Paltewat in an oasis setting. Indio is the Spanish word for Indian.

Laflin's book explains how rugged pioneers tamed a harsh landscape. (They created sleeping rooms called, "submarines," where a dripping water pipe on the roof wetted down burlap-covered sides fanned by the night air -- like an evaporative cooler. Inside temperatures dropped by as much as 20 degrees.)

The author describes Indio's changing roles as it evolved over more than a century.

Today's Indio, known as the City of Festivals, celebrates everything from polo to tamales to rock music. But the city began as a railroad town.

In 1876, the first trains arrived from Los Angeles. Indio was halfway between Los Angeles and Yuma -- a logical place for a division point.

By 1896, Indio had a population of 50 people, mostly railroad workers and a few shopkeepers.

In the 1930s, Indio became a mining town as hard-rock crews tunneled through nearby mountains working on the Metropolitan Aqueduct Project to carry Colorado River water to Los Angeles.

With the start of World War II, Indio carved out a new role. With good rail access, the town became a wartime supply depot and a getaway for Gen. George Patton's troops, who were stationed about 25 miles east at Camp Young.

In the late 1940s, imported Colorado River water flowed to the desert through the Coachella Branch of the All-American Canal.

Now, plenty of imported irrigation water was available for farmers who once depended on sinking wells. The new water supply triggered an agricultural boom with date and citrus groves and other crops sprouting for miles in every direction.

Connie Mitchell Cowan, 77, is the daughter of a pioneer date grower and a volunteer archivist with the Coachella Valley Museum & Cultural Center. She helped Laflin find pictures for the book.

Her dad, Don Mitchell, once managed as much as 300 acres of date groves and ran the first large packinghouse in Indio, the Deglet Noor Date Growers Association.

"Indio was where all the work got done," she said. "The place where everyday business was conducted year-round."
Cowan remembers heading to Palm Springs for entertainment during the winter and watching women stroll down the main drag wearing high heels, shorts and fur coats.
Eventually, all roads led to Indio.

Highway 99 reached town in 1920s, followed by Highway 60-70, and decades later, Interstate 10 delivered even more travelers.

It all added up to Indio's well-known moniker from a few decades ago, "Hub of the Valley."

By 1950, Indio had a population of about 5,000 people.
Laflin writes in her introduction, "The story of Indio is the story of one of America's last frontiers."

Indio incorporated in 1930, and today has about 75,000 people.

Optimistic Future

Over the past few decades, Indio's once-thriving downtown has struggled as have many commercial areas across the country.

Many residents began shopping elsewhere in the Coachella Valley after several shopping centers opened and "big box" retailers like Costco and Sam's Club arrived.

But after nearly 60 years in town, Laflin is bullish.

Indio and the east valley have "a bright future ahead because we have available land and the same desirable climate and business opportunities as the rest of the desert," she said.

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