The Pancho Barnes trust estate archive. Used with permission.

Flying High in Kern: Pancho Barnes

In 1934, while trying to stay afloat during the Great Depression, Barnes made a decision that would help cement her legacy in aviation history and bring a lot of notoriety to the deserts of Kern County. While piloting planes over the Mojave, Barnes noticed sprawling ranch land near what is now Edwards Air Force Base (then Muroc). She bought the land—380 acres of alfalfa fields—and named it Rancho Oro Verde. It was at this location that the intrepid Barnes founded the Happy Bottom Riding Club.

In the 1950s, Barnes entertained test pilots, including Charles “Chuck” Yeager, at her “Happy Bottom Riding Club.”Image courtesy of The Pancho Barnes trust estate archive. Used with permission.
In the 1950s, Barnes entertained test pilots, including Charles “Chuck” Yeager, at her “Happy Bottom Riding Club.”
Image courtesy of The Pancho Barnes trust estate archive. Used with permission.

The Club was a way for Barnes to celebrate the aviator/aviatrix lifestyle with fellow pilots, celebrities of the day, politicians, and other big names. She organized rodeos on the farm, made a dance hall, installed a pool (legend has it that the circular pool’s inclined ramp was installed so that Barnes could ride her horse into the water to cool down after spending the day in the hot Mojave desert), and started a restaurant. There was also a hotel for those guests that didn’t want to leave after just one day at the Club. The Happy Bottom Riding Club also had a regulation airfield and drive-in!

Barnes offered a free steak dinner to anyone who broke the sound barrier. As we all know, Chuck Yeager, who was Barnes’ pal, became the first man to claim that prize in 1947.

Barnes was also known as a woman who loved to have fun. She’d organize treasure hunts for members with maps and clues leading to prizes (including a pot of 200 silver dollars).

During the heyday of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, membership swelled to over 9,000 people worldwide.

But the Club that brought so much joy not only to pilots and guests but to Barnes, herself, would not make it past 1953.

Theories and rumors still persist about what really happened between Barnes and the U.S. Air Force in the early ’50s, but after Muroc Army Air Base was renamed Edwards Air Force Base—which came with a change of command and new plans to increase the length and number of the runways to accommodate increased flights—Barnes was approached and offered a price for her ranch and the Happy Bottom Riding Club (since it was where the new runway strips were scheduled to go). At the time, there was also increased traffic to Barnes’ airstrip.

Barnes refused to sell and soon after, allegations that the Happy Bottom Riding Club was a brothel surfaced. While the rumors were widely discredited, the Air Force prohibited servicemen from visiting the club, which drastically cut down the majority of her business. This was all during the time when she was in negotiations with the government, which, soon after the allegations, added a suit to appropriate the ranch. Barnes countersued, but it was all for naught. Though she would win every lawsuit (one of her arguments was that her grandfather had essentially founded the Air Force 100 years before), a mysterious fire destroyed the Club on November 13, 1953, just before the rulings came in.

Barnes, frustrated and betrayed, moved to nearby Cantil, and the Air Force took control of the land. The proposed runway extensions—at the heart of the original proposal—were never implemented.

She’d planned to reestablish the Club on her land in Cantil, but never did so before her death in 1975. However, to this day, servicemen at Edwards hold an annual BBQ in November on the site of the Happy Bottom Riding Club in remembrance of Barnes.

In the nearly 30 years since her death, the interest in Barnes has only grown. In addition to being heavily featured in Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, and the 1983 movie adaptation, she is the subject of a 2010 Emmy Award winning documentary titled The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club, which chronicles her life—the sweet and the sour—as one of the most prominent figures in U.S. aviation history. The film, which can be streamed or purchased on Amazon, is still often played on PBS (and you can find out more by visiting www.thelegendofpanchobarnes.com).

It’s said in a 2011 Forgotten Newsmakers article that Barnes’ friends and family were given permission by Edwards Air Force Base to spread her ashes via airplane over the grounds of the Happy Bottom Riding Club in 1975… and that as the ashes were making their way down to the ground a crosswind blew them back into the cockpit of the plane. Pancho Barnes apparently wanted one more ride.

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