Alone on the Desert Her Dream Fades

By Robert A. Caro, Newsday Staff Correspondent

BEARING HER BURDEN. Mrs. Millie Sanderson, 74, carries water to her hovel in which she lives on “Sacramento Ranchos.” Nearest water source is a mile and a half away.

Kingman, Ariz.-One way to look at the great real estate boom of the 19605 is in terms of subdivisions in the hundreds and advertising spending in the millions, Another is to focus on a single, solitary figure trudging along a desert road.

The figure is that of an elderly woman, Mrs. Millie Sanderson, 74, a widow who has lived in Tennessee, New York City and Massapequa, L.I. but who now lives at the intersection of Diamond and Silver Streets in a promotion called “Sacramento Ranchos.” Like tens of thousands of other Americans nearing retirement and anxious for a place in the sun, Mrs. Sanderson bought an acre of Arizona land on the installment plan. Mrs. Sanderson, however, took a step that few such purchasers have yet attempted. She tried to live on her land.

It is impossible not to find Mrs. Sanderson. Sacramento Ranchos covers 4,000 acres in a comer of a vast desert valley southwest, of Kingman, the county seat of Mohave County. About 1,600 families have already purchased Ranchos but just four families live there now. When a reporter drove over a rise and came upon the Ranchos, Mrs. Sanderson was the only moving thing in the whole valley.

Mrs. Sanderson was carrying two large pails filled with water, She had, in fact, been carrying them for a mile and a half; that was how far it was to the nearest source, a little spring. By the time the reporter drove up, she was standing in front of her home, a tiny shack crudely made of boards. As she talked, she kept glancing toward a power line that ran alongside the highway about 250 yards away.

“I moved here three months ago,” she said. “It sounded nice. I was widowed in 1955 and I had no people and I could afford $10 a month. I came to the Sacramento Ranchos office in Kingman and they brought me down here and showed me this place. I asked them about the water and they said they were definitely going to get water down here. I talked to them about electricity and they said they were going to put it in. I thought It wouldn’t be too long because there are the power lines right over there.

“But once they take the down payment, they won’t do a thing for you. The electric company won’t extend the lines over here unless the land company puts up the money and they won’t. I have, no radio or TV. They won’t play without electricity. My light is a kerosene lamp. And they don’t say anything at all about the water any more. So I said, ‘Why can’t you give me a place closer to the spring?’ But they said they couldn’t do anything about it, My car broke down, and until it’s fixed I have to carry water in pails a mile and a half.

No More Money
“I built this house myself. I hauled the lumber from the garbage dump. And a mall from the filling station gave me some boards. Things went hard when my husband died, but this is worse than I’ve ever known in my life. And the down payment took all my money, I have to stay here now.”

The implications of Mrs. Sanderson’s story are many observers believe, the most disturbing factor in the real estate boom. Since Mrs. Sanderson is almost penniless, she is on relief and dependent on undeveloped, under-populated Mohave County not only for welfare checks, but for hospital care and other services, As yet, only a few of the families now paying off desert or swamp lots have attempted to move onto them. But, observers ask, what will happen when more and more of these people actually do retire and try to move to their lots? Since most will have no outside source of income, a substantial number may go on relief and many will need and expect the free services generally provided by local authorities in the settled area , from which they come. But the areas into which they will move won’t be able to provide those services.

Mohave County, Tax Assessor Don McCraley says: “The county is already hurting. At least once a day, one of these new people will come in and ask either for welfare or for hospital services and we just can’t give them the services they need.” Even the thin trickle of new residents drawn by the $10-down ads has so taxed the county’s resources that the county treasury is empty, and officials are now being paid by warrant, a kind of promissory note that they can cash at the local grocery store. Such municipal poverty may be almost unimaginable to the people in the industrialized North who are buying those lots. With 13,260 square miles, Mohave is the fifth largest county in the United States, “bigger than Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware combined. But its total assessed valuation is only $39,000,000. (On Long Island the City of Glen Cove alone has an assessed valuation of $54,000,000,.) In the entire county, there are only three industries, the largest of which, a recently opened copper mine, may one day employ 500 men.

County officials are convinced that most of the $1O-down buyers will take one look at their land, learn that the cost of drilling for water is prohibitive -assuming water can be found under their land- and go home. As one official puts it: “You’d have to be 25 years old and a pioneer to live on some of those places.” In part, at least, that is undoubtedly true. Says a waitress in a Kingman cafe: “I see lots of them in here. They come in the morning for breakfast. They say they’re down here on vacation and are going but to see what they’ve bought. They come back in the evening. Some are happy. Some are pretty blue. One woman I remember put her head down on her arms and cried. A lot of them I don’t expect to see again.”

Others, however, will almost be forced to stay. One couple from New York City sold most of their belongings to make a full payment on a $495 lot. They loaded the rest into their old car and drove to Mohave County. Robert L. Peart, chairman of the Mohave Board of Supervisors, recalls: “We finally found their, property on a map. I had to tell them they’d need a tractor to get out to their lot. But they couldn’t go back; They had to stay.”

Couples like this one-and eventually there may be thousands more- pose a problem for which all the rosy advertisements in the world offer no solutions at all.