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Desert Folks

Jack Mitchell of Mitchell Caverns

By Walter Feller


The Mitchell Caverns are located 12 miles northwest of the Essex Rd. turnoff along the Interstate 40 freeway, either 60 miles west of Needles or 115 miles east of Barstow about as deep into the Mojave Desert as one can get. The caverns started forming as far back as 225 million years ago and continued up until 11,000 years ago. There are three caves; Tecopa is the main cave connected to the second, El Pakiva. Several miles to the north, closed to the public, is the Cave of the Winding Stairs. Inside of the caverns spectacular and intricate limestone formations can be seen such as stalagmites, stalactites, helictites, lily pads curtains, draperies and cave popcorn.

Native Americans made use of the caves at different times starting around 600 years ago until about 150 years ago. The caves were common knowledge to the folks in the area. A man named Mark Petit pointed them out to Mitchell during on his first visit in 1929. Jack filed a mining claim on the caves in 1930 with the idea of developing them into a tourist attraction initially know as the Crystal Caves. What follows is not the story of the geology of the caves or the mountain, but the story of the stories of Jack Mitchell.

Jesse Estes "Jack" Mitchell was born July 20, 1882 in Texas, and maybe it was the time spent growing up there that turned Jack into such a great storyteller. Texans are known for their tall tales and the ease in which with every telling, the story becomes larger. I'd put him into the master class along with other desert characters like Shorty Harris and Walter Scott (Death Valley Scotty) that could put an unbelievable story into your ears with such finesse and smoothness as to make it, well, believable. For instance:
    I'd started cooking breakfast and had a good fire going. The coffee was scalding hot and I was getting my bacon fried up in the pan when then wind picked up. By picked up I mean it picked up the fire and blew it off and across the desert. I grabbed my pan full of half-cooked bacon and started chasing after it. It took awhile as the strong winds shifted this way and that way, but I finally caught up with it and finished cooking my breakfast. I turned around to pour myself a cup of coffee and found I was 19 miles away from where I left my coffee pot.
In 1931 Jack descended the Cave of the Winding Stairs for the first time. On his second exploration he was better prepared with a thousand feet of rope. He got a story to tell out of it too. He had a couple men up top and after checking out the knots securing the boson's chair they started lowering him into the depths of the cave.
    The arrangement was to pull me up after two sharp jerks on the rope. After being lowered some I hear, "Jack, I've already got one big jerk on the rope." I begin to wonder if he may be right.
1933 was the year the caverns were introduced to the American Motoring public. Philip Johnston of Touring Topics magazine wrote an article about these wonders of the desert. The magazine, the banner touring publication of the American Automobile Club, later became the ever-popular Westways magazine, brought the caverns to the attention of the motoring public in the August issue of that year. Jack, pleased that the caverns had been introduced nationally, was disappointed in March of 1934 to discover that during his absence someone had broken stalagmites from the ceiling and stolen them. Jack and Ida decided it was time to build a home and permanently live at the caverns.

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