Calvin Black’s Possum Trot
In the early nineteen fifties, Ruby and Calvin Black opened up a small rock shop on the way to Calico in Yermo California, and called it the Possum Trot and Fantasy Doll Show. Odd name for a rock and mineral shop, but it succeeded in getting some people to stop and see what was there. What they found was a bit of that unique desert magic, albeit with a strong twist of southern humor and folk art. Some of the locals thought of it as an embarrassment, and wanted it torn down, these were obviously people who did not understand folk art at all.
Calvin was born in 1903 in Tennessee and his wife Ruby, twelve years his younger, was from Georgia. Neither one of them had any notable education; Calvin at age 13 had to work to help support his mom and family. He had worked with the circus, carnivals and puppetry when he could; this is where he learned ventriloquism. Ruby was raised on a farm and learned to survive on what she had. They both met and married in Georgia, and would eventually spend nearly twenty years together trying to carve out a living in the desert; they did not have any children.
Just after they married 1933, they headed to California and stayed for awhile in Los Angeles and Redding. In 1953 Calvin purchased land, unseen, after reading about it in a magazine ad. The lot was located about a mile up on the left side, of what is now called Ghost town rd., just off of interstate 15. They were hoping the desert air would help with some of Calvin’s health concerns. Today there is nothing left; the desert has reclaimed the land like she always does.
The name Possum Trot is simply a southern expression, meaning the shortest way from one point to another. Calvin knew he needed to attract attention to his place, so he built a merry-go-round, stagecoaches, totems, a train, and even a building called the Birdcage Theater, where the Fantasy Doll Show played. A sign outside read “Free to see Inside we have the most beautiful dolls U ever Hand Carved some can sing”. He had strategically placed several dolls outside and on the roof. Some of them where connect to a windmill which gave the appearance of moving. Out front was Often Seen Jim and His Limb, on the roof was a cart with some sort of deer pulling it. Other names include Eva, Gypsy Wheel, which sold for $82, 500 back in 2007, all in all about 57, some reports claim up to 80. Since they did not have any children, the dolls became very special to them; some say they were their children.
The dolls themselves were about 3-4 feet tall and made from the redwood of fallen telephone poles, along with some pine. The clothing was made from scraps that Ruby found at the dump or other places. When the clothes became to worn, Ruby simply placed a new piece on top of the old. Calvin painted each face and initially he also painted the hair, later they attached wigs. Some dolls had speakers placed in their head or on their backs which played prerecorded voices from battery operated tape machines. Each doll had a tag around the neck with their name on it; some of them were even made to resemble people in the Blacks life or Lilly Langtry. Calvin was loved the English accent, and was infatuated with Lily.
In 1972 Calvin passed away and the dolls fell into disarray, and when Ruby passed in 1980, they soon were sold off. Today these dolls are highly sought after and can command a very high price. Most of them average about $10-12K a piece. In 1977 Allie Light and Irving Saraf made a film about the Possum Trot, and most people believe that they captured the true essence, of what Calvin and Ruby brought to desert.