Randsburg’s characters: old and new

Randsburg’s characters: old and newBy LAURA QUEZADA

News Review Staff Writer

As we look forward to Old West Days on September 18 and 19 in Randsburg, we take the time to hear stories about old-timers and how this historic town draws newcomers.

Randsburg has had its share of interesting characters and some folks are drawn to the town because of the people and the history. Tim Powers became a resident in 1983. He tells us, “I’ve been fascinated with history all the time I’ve been here. I got to know a lot of the people who lived here back in the day. I always thought that it would just keep going the way that it was. The old-timers, people who were miners, people who had lived here, people who were drunks, people who knew the town. I thought that magic was going to continue but I didn’t realize that they were in their 50’s and 60’s at the time and now 30-40 years have gone by and they died off. So it is not the same any more. The town looks the same, pretty much, but it doesn’t feel the same, because all of that knowledge of underground mining and all the knowledge of the desert and all the knowledge of the town kind of went away. It is replaced from people from the cities who want to get away. Some of them are really great people. Some of them have no idea what the desert is about. I always thought that the people that I moved here for were going to live forever. I didn’t realize I was witnessing the end of an era. And I was.”

Powers misses his friends that have passed away. He is an amiable storyteller who shares some of his memories. “I met Gene Manning through Grant Nielsen, Bill Guyett, Rom and Janice Austin on the street. We spent time in the White House Saloon, a little time at the Joint, and a little time on the bench in front of Austin Antiques. I remember one time we were sitting out there, a woman introduced herself as she was walking by and she goes, ‘Rom, what do you do here?’ He said, ‘I hold down this bench.’ She laughed and walked away, she says, ‘What are you going to do when you retire?’ He says, ‘See that bench across the street?’ That was Rom Austin, he was the most dry sarcastic man I have ever met. I miss him. I miss them all.”

His pals included some pranksters, “Lee Anderson had the bar across from the White House Saloon. In the 70’s, my friend Grant Nielsen would sit outside the bar with a squirt gun. He would squirt at their crotch without them knowing it. And he would comment, ‘Hey, are you okay over there?’

Grant Nielsen was an ornery character,” continues Powers. “He was a good friend to me, he was a periodic drunk, and he was a hard ass. A lot of people didn’t like him. He was a desert rat. He did old west paintings like Remington. He was extremely good. He was an interesting complex character. Drunk for six months out of the year then he would hole up and paint for two years. Then he would come out and get drunk for six months. You didn’t see him very often.

I used to take him to the Silver Dollar. One night he shot a guy’s hat off in the bar. This guy, named Ralph, was being too noisy, Grant told him to be quiet so he shot his hat off from about ten feet away. That night a swat team shows up at Grant’s house and took him away to jail. I went and bailed him out the next day. It was kind of crazy because he and Ralph made up. Grant didn’t have a car so he rode with Ralph to Bakersfield for their trial. The judge was reading the charges and said, ‘Hold it. You’re the guy who shot his hat off? And you guys are friends now?’ Ralph said, ‘Yeah. I don’t want to charge. I was drunk. I was being stupid.’ And the judge says, ‘Mr. Nielsen, you shot this man’s hat off in a dark bar from ten feet away. I only wish I had deputies who can shoot that good.’ And Grant says, ‘Shoot that good? Hell, I was aiming for his belt buckle.’ That’s a true story. The judge threw it out.”

Powers laments the loss of the old timers and the character they brought to Randsburg. “This town is bitter sweet for me. I still like it. It is still a small town. People still help each other. People like Neil Shotwell. Great people. But my circle is extremely small. It used to be everybody in the town. If somebody needed help, they would take care of them. Even if it was a stranger. Somebody needed help in this town, they were taken in. That is old school people who have been through a really hard life that really cared through experience and now it is different.”

However, there is hope for the town with its newcomers. Powers says, “There are some people who have moved here from the city, like Travis. Young, 39 years old, extremely old school. He cares about everyone. I wish he could have met the people I met when I was first here. He loves it.”

Travis Frankel, Architect, discovered Randsburg through off-roading. He says, “We would stop through Randsburg and just loved its history and the mining and all of the amazing buildings that have been here for the last 100 years. We found the house for sale and completely remodeled it and fell in love with it. We couldn’t imagine being in downtown LA anymore. The desert is where we want to be.”

He and his fiance began remodeling their home three years ago, but something good came out of the pandemic, “We became permanent residents when COVID hit. Everyone was working remotely and we decided that the place we were working on here was a much better place to work than downtown LA.” It is unexpected to learn, “We have high speed fiber optic internet that is faster than we had in LA.”

Not only is the couple enjoying remodeling their home, they are already contributors to the community. “We bought the old Rand Motor Company on Butte across from the museum. We started working on that building about nine months ago. We are restoring it so that the front will be all original 1930s signage and we are finding the old gas pumps that were out there. Our goal is to make it look like it did in 1932. Inside will be a workshop, garage, and office. In the front, someday, a retail space. For now it will look like the gas station it was in the 30’s. It is a fun project.”

Frankel says, “We are looking forward to Old West Days having fun with the locals and inviting new people. People are always impressed. It is like stepping back in time. It is so different. The history here and the entire lineage you can sense here, you don’t find it in LA. Our friends are always happy to visit.”

Old West Days kicks off on Friday night, September 17 at the Joint. Saturday and Sunday mornings begin at 8am with a pancake breakfast. Vendors and activities begin at 10am. For more information about participating in the Car Show, Raymond Kelso, 760-977-1122; Vendors, Hollie Shotwell, 760-977-1416; Bike Show, Boz 432-661-4833. The Pancake Breakfasts benefit the Rand Desert Museum, Old West Days benefits the Historic Cemetery in Johannesburg.

Laura Austin Photo: Many of the historic business structures of yesteryear still line Butte Ave., Randsburg’s main street.

Story First Published: 2021-08-20