Bygone New Years Eve Tradition: Coachella Valley

Artist John Hilton burned paintings in bonfire in Box Canyon

According to Katherine Ainsworth’s 1978 biography of John Hilton, Maynard Dixon and Nicolai Fechin, both, advised Hilton to discard “unworthy” paintings. As noted in the biography as well as numerous newspaper and magazine articles, Hilton invited friends to a dramatic annual party in Box Canyon (east of Mecca, CA) when he would throw his rejects onto a bonfire at the stoke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. As the years passed, the party grew and others added to the bonfire, but Hilton reserved his painting burning for last.

One particularly memorable New Year’s was 1940/41 when the Los Angeles Times printed a photo of him tossing a painting into the fire.

L.A. Times, Jan. 3, 1941

Immediately to the right on the page was an article by Ed Ainsworth:

After several years the parties were discontinued; this may have even been the last, as a year later the US would be at war. Of course today, one would need a permit for such a fire, which the County Fire Department would never issue!

Box Canyon Road winds up from the Coachella Valley floor through the Canyon to Shaver’s Valley and on to Interstate 10. The Canyon is protected under the 1964 Wilderness Act and has not changed except for some modern road improvements and erosion by Mother Nature.
Fragrant Morning by John Hilton (one that wasn’t burned!)

Happy New Year!

Coachella Valley Trading Post

I only have a dim memory of this building from my childhood; as I recall, it was ramshackle by that time.

However, in its day, the Trading Post had been important. In April 1927, an article in the Los Angeles Times described an auto tour of the Coachella Valley to see the wild flowers and included a reference to a “fine new swimming pool” at the Coachella Valley Trading Post.

In his reminiscences to Katherine Ainsworth (The Man Who Captured Sunshine, 1978), artist John Hilton told her of picking up some good hints from Charles Safford, a graduate of the Chicago Institute of Art. “Stafford [sic]* lived and worked at the old Coachella Trading Post. He and I decorated the walls with our scenes. We were mighty proud of those pictures, but during World War II, the place became a U.S.O. center and the soldiers used our painting as dart boards.” (Ainsworth , page 99).

An undated postcard with no copyright symbol/notice; I believe this shot dates from the 1930s

I remember seeing a photograph of soldiers posed on the front porch of the Trading Post. During World War II, there were US newspaper articles, across the country, that Mrs. Edward. G. Robinson had organized bus trips for girls from Beverly Hills to travel to the Trading Post to dance with the service men; it cost them $5 and they had to take an oath not to drink alcohol or to leave the premises of the Trading Post during the visit. These trips were even made in August when approximately 2500 Army men would come to dance with the 200 girls, who slept on army cots after the dance; on Sunday they went swimming in the pool before returning to L.A. At least one soldier is reported to have jumped in the pool fully clothed!

I hope to find more history of the building; if you have anything to add, please let me know; thanks.

  • Should be Charles Safford.