Zzyzx: The Strangest Town in America

Zzyzx: The Strangest Town in America

Zzyzx.  The word looks like something Einstein scribbled while trying to prove his famous theory of relativity.  But it’s not.  It’s a place in Death Valley in southeastern California. 

The only reason anyone goes there is because of a rare and bountiful spring located at the girdle of chocolate-colored mountains. The Spaniards were the first.  Then in 1860, the U.S. Army had a fort there.  It was called Hannock’s Redoubt. 

Fame came to the area when Curtis Howe Springer arrived.  According to some people, Dr. Springer, as he called himself, was a flamboyant maverick.  Others just called him a charlatan or a con man.

Dr. Springer became a minor celebrity because of his gift of gab.  He was a radio evangelist at radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh in the 1930s.  The business of saving souls destined for Hell was booming, and Dr. Springer needed room to boom.  The year was 1944, and God had given Curtis a ‘word of wisdom,’ which is where God whispers in the ear of the pious.  God told Curtis to “go into the desert” because the war would soon be over, and His work needed to be done.  God would bring the people to Curtis. 

So Dr. Springer packed up his fiancee Helen and their born-out-of-wedlock daughter and moved to what he called “a mosquito swamp” in the Eastern Mojave.  Spiritual fads and miracle cures were all the rage in California.  The people had open hearts and open minds.  And Dr. Springer hoped to open their hearts to Jesus, their minds to the Holy Ghost, and their wallets to him.

Dr. Springer knew God never thought small, so neither did he.  He filed a mining claim on 12,800 acres of California desert.  Then he got to work on building Utopia.

For three days each week, he and his ‘family’ lived in a luxury hotel suite in Los Angeles.  There he made tapes for his national radio broadcasts, which permeated the atmosphere across the United States, blazing forth from 100,000-watt radio stations.  227 radio stations transmitted the words of Dr. Springer.  And they were golden words, for they stimulated his listeners to part with their money.  The donations flowed in, and the money was counted and deposited in the bank.

The other four days of the week, Dr. Springer cruised skid row in his campaign bus, rounding up drunks, bums, and penniless vagabonds.  He offered them food and shelter in return for manual labor.  They were put to work in the desert, building the headquarters of his soon-to-be worldwide ministry.

Part Two

Many of the men told Dr. Springer to take a hike because they didn’t like his rules.  The one that irritated them the most was the no-alcohol policy.  But many decided to work for this happy Jesus freak and save their money.  Then they could quit and go buy booze. 

So they built and built and built.  Working for the man who was working for The Man.

Dr. Springer called his Utopia Zzyzx because he wanted it to be the last word in spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health. 

Zzyzx had a chapel.  It had a fancy mineral pool with soaking tubs where the miracle cures took place.  Naturally, the pool was shaped like a cross.  Cleanliness was next to Godliness at Zzyzx.  There was an artificial lake made by men for men.  Here the new believers could be baptized just like Jesus.  And Dr. Springer would play the role of John the Baptist.

Visitors stayed in a two-story, 60-room hotel that even had its own airport.  Dr. Springer called the airport Zyport – the portal to Zzyzx.  And like a prototype of the strip of Las Vegas, there was even a main drag called the ‘Boulevard of Dreams.’ 

When Zzyzx was finished, the only thing missing was people – sinners who wanted to have their burdens eased.  Sick people who wanted to be healed. 

They weren’t missing for long.

Dr. Springer began a dazzling and omnipresent promotional campaign.  National and international radio broadcasts proclaimed the location of heaven on earth.  Out in the middle of the desert, like an oasis, sat a land of milk and honey.  It was called Zzyzx.  It was a place where miracles took place.

Listeners from around the world called the phone number they had heard on the radio.  When they did, they got a recording of Dr. Springer.  His dulcet tones beckoned them with, “Hello, this is your old friend Curtis Springer coming to you from Zzyzx Mineral Springs out in the heart of the great Mojave Desert.”

Zzyzx, the curious were informed, was the “last word” in health and vitality. 

The response was overwhelming.  They came in droves.  Every Wednesday, buses ferried hopeful sinners and health seekers from the Olympic Hotel on Figueroa Street in L.A. out to Zzyzx.  And, of course, the bus rides were free.

For those questing souls who arrived, the day at Zzyzx started with a breakfast of goat’s milk and Springer’s Antediluvian Tea.  The tea had miraculous power.  It healed the inner organs of the body, revivified strength and health, and prolonged the life span of all who drank it.  It was the next best thing to the Fountain of Youth.

Rabbit meat, fruit, ice cream, and fresh vegetables completed the menu. 

Room rates at the hotel were reasonable.  No one was being ripped off.  That’s not what Zzyzx was about.  Spiritual health and physical vitality were the watchwords at Zzyzx.

Guests were, of course, encouraged to make free-will “donations” to the Springer Foundation.  The encouragement came dressed up in the rousing sermons Dr. Springer preached twice a day over a state-of-the-art booming PA system.  After a few days of such encouragement, it seemed silly not to make a generous donation, especially when the guests felt so healthy, so changed, and so liberated.  So cured.

Part Three

Miracles like this didn’t come free; they told each other.  God’s work would continue only with their help.  So they gave.

But that wasn’t all.  Dr. Springer had his own publishing company and his own radio station at Zzyzx.  Flyers, pamphlets, and booklets churned off the printing presses.  And the radio station blazoned Dr. Springer’s Christian messages to the faithful and to those still seeking light in a dark world.  Dr. Springer delivered his messages in a good old-boy, folksy manner.  They were easy to understand and very non-threatening.  There was not a hint of hell, fire, and damnation.  Only a heavy dose of the healing power of Jesus could be found by one and all in the Antediluvian Tea, the ‘Hollywood Pep Cocktail,’ which was nothing more than the juices of carrots, celery, turnips, parsley, and brown sugar.  Manna was the real name of the Pep Cocktail. 

Dr. Springer neglected to mention what was in the cocktail.  That wasn’t important.  What was important was that it worked!  A miracle straight from heaven.

There was also a do-it-yourself hemorrhoid cure kit.  The kit could be purchased for a free-will donation of only $25.  Of course, $25 then was equal to $250 or more now.  A small price to pay for deliverance.  Better to pay than suffer like poor old Job.

Jesus himself had provided Dr. Springer with the formula for his greatest remedy.  At least, that was the claim.  “Mo-Hair,” which was a miraculous cure for baldness.  For those who desired to be like Samson before he met Delilah, all that was necessary was to massage the tonic vigorously into the scalp.  Then they were to bend over and hold their breath for as long as they could.  When they stood up, they could literally see the effects of the miraculous potion – flushed cheeks and a tingling scalp.  This, in combination with the magic potion, brought about the miracle. – abundant, luxurious hair. 

The ways of the Lord were indeed mysterious.

One gentleman used the elixir extensively but still grew no hair.  Frustrated, he sued.  Dr. Springer didn’t seem at all upset.  He merely paid the fine, peeling off the stipulated $2500 “as casually as if he was taking care of a $2 traffic ticket.”

Dr. Springer preached mightily against the evils of alcohol and the destructive power of arguing.  Demon rum “dragged men down to the dark pit of Hell.”  Complaining, according to the good doctor, was toxic to mental and spiritual health.   

“The Lord can’t work His miracles in a carping heart,” he often said.

Never one to let an opportunity pass, Dr. Springer started selling lots for houses on his property.  That way, those of his followers who had been financially blessed by God – because of Dr. Springer’s ministry – could have uninterrupted access to the healing waters of Zzyzx.

Many people took advantage of the opportunity.  Soon the wooden skeletons of luxury homes being built dotted the landscape.  Dr. Springer owned the construction company that purchased wood from his lumber company to build the houses. 

Then things started to go to hell.

Dr. Springer was not – as he claimed – either a physician or a Methodist minister.  He was a fake.  The newspapers picked up on the story, and the government took notice.  An investigation began.  As a result, the Bureau of Land Management realized that Dr. Springer did not own the land that Zzyzx sat on. 

He was a squatter.

Part Four

Then the American Medical Association joined in the fray.  They called Dr. Springer the “King of Quacks.”  The AMA accused him of fraud.  A lawsuit was filed against him.

Undismayed, Dr. Springer hired an attorney.  And not just any attorney.  He wanted only the best.  Gladys Towles Root, the famous criminal attorney, represented him.  Gladys was a consummate performer.  She wowed juries as she pranced about the courtrooms of America in outlandish outfits and hats like Cruella De Ville. 

The trial took place and received vast media coverage.  In the end, Dr. Springer was convicted of false advertising.  Gladys Root filed an appeal.  After two years of hearings and counter-motions, Dr. Springer’s appeal was denied. 

Dr. Springer went to jail, serving 49 days of a 60-day sentence.

Informed by the BLM that he could not legally sell the property he did not own, Dr. Springer wanted to pay back rent on the property.  He tried to buy the BLM off with $34,187. 

The BLM said no, and evicted him off 12,800 acres that were not his in the first place.  Shocked and dismayed, his followers left.  The houses that were being built were leveled by the feds.  When people asked about refunds, they were told to talk to Dr. Springer.  But he wasn’t around.  He’d vamoosed while the leaving was good.  And he took his money with him.

Curtis Howe Springer died in Las Vegas in 1986.  He was 90 years old when he died.  While squatting on public property for more than 30 years, he made more than $20 million dollars by selling salvation and snake oil.

The energy and audacity of Curtis Howe Springer were the biggest miracles of all.