South Rides Again
There was another great western writer like Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour who featured areas of the Anza-Borrego desert in the setting for his novels. He was a writer who knew how to rivet the attention of the reader from the very first page of his novels. In the years that have passed, his name as a western writer disappeared, until now. Marshal South is riding again with the re-introduction of his Anza-Borrego novels. But first, the rest of the story…
Two years after the first issue of Desert Magazine was published by Randall Henderson in November 1937,desert author and poet Marshal South wrote an article for Henderson about agave roasting that appeared in the December 1939 issue.
South was a bit of an expert on the process of agave roasting as he and his family had perfected the procedure as part of their experiment in primitive living that began in
the early 1930s. The world first learned of South’s strange desert experiment through an article that he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post in March 1939. Henderson certainly read
the article and was very interested when South contacted him soon afterwards and asked him if he would be interested in an article for the new Desert Magazine also. That was the beginning of a long friendship and collaboration between Henderson and South for the
next nine years.
It is from the series of monthly articles that South wrote for Desert Magazine that he is best remembered. South focused on the daily life of primitive living, drawing in readers who regularly tuned in to find out what was going on at Yaquitepec, the home on Ghost
Mountain that the South’s built in a remote area of Blair Valley in today’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. He created an idyllic lifestyle through his writings, never writing about the real challenges of living in isolation. For readers who had challenges of their own after the Great Depression, the articles provided both hope for a better future and a diversion from their own problems. For the Souths, the articles generated a steady income that supported them
and their three children.
The great experiment came to a sudden close in late 1946 when Tanya filed for divorce. It was a shock for the readers. Life was not all what it was made up to be on Ghost Mountain. After the divorce South continued to write articles for Desert Magazine until he passed away in October 1948. His last article was published in December 1948.
Most people were not aware that there was more to Marshal South than they thought. Few knew that he was actually a prolific writer of poetry and prose beginning while still a teenager in Adelaide, South Australia, and continuing until he died at the age of 59. He wrote more than 90 poems; about 30 newspaper articles, essays, and stories; 97 Desert Magazine articles; 54 other magazine articles and stories; 12 books; and 8 booklets, plays, and greeting
cards. He was also a talented artist who painted, made pottery, and designed jewelry.
His earlier life as a writer, debater, militia organizer/supporter, and adventurer was overshadowed by his controversial lifestyle and his experiment in primitive living during the 1930s and 1940s that became the mainstay for Desert Magazine for almost a decade.
Few remembered that he had been the poet laureate of Oceanside and the founder and president of the Oceanside chapter of the American Defense League. The latter years colored his history. Images of his family living on a waterless mountaintop left a lasting impression.
Marshal South thrived in this environment. Many of his desert writings inspired a generation of readers to learn more about what the desert has to offer – peace, solitude, health, inspiration, mystery and lore. He was passionate about the desert, and like his publisher Randall Henderson who reflected about the “Two Deserts” in his famous November 1937 editorial, South advocated discovering the real desert.
He wrote, “If you love it, it will hold you and draw you as will no other land on earth.” And, if you see only danger and a wasteland, “you will fly from it and never wish to see its face again.” He advocated leaving civilization behind to find the real meaning of life through simple living and by becoming one with nature. He took inspiration for his writings from things he observed around him and shared with others in his published works.
South was born in South Australia as Roy Bennett Richards. He adopted the pen name of Marshal South when he began writing in the United States, and kept that pseudonym for his own name and for all of his writings after 1912. During his teen years in Adelaide he wrote stories about the American West. In 1905 he wrote a short story entitled “A Dangerous Tale”
with a Texas setting. In that same year he also wrote another short story entitled “The Second Gun: The Story of a Great Revenge.” The American West fascinated him.
South also became familiar with the American Southwest and Mexico when he began exploring those areas soon after he arrived in the United States sometime after September 1907. Those early trips provided the background he needed for some of his later novels in which the action takes place along border towns just south of the international border with the United States. His fascination with guns and national defense influenced his poetry and led to him earning the title “the warrior poet.”
In 1916 South moved to Arizona and served with the Transportation Division of the Army
Quartermaster Corps. Some photographs of South, taken while living in Arizona at that time, show him in western attire, sometimes riding a horse or holding a gun, obviously enjoying his image as being part of the western frontier. However, he did not begin writing in earnest about the American West until after he had married Tanya Lehrer in 1923. He began concentrating on the publication of his novels when he was already living on Ghost Mountain.
His first novel, Child of Fire, originally appeared in a five-part series in Ranch Romances in 1928. It was later published in 1935, simultaneously with Flame of Terrible Valley by London publisher John Long, Ltd., who had this to say about South’s first two novels: “Flame of Terrible Valley and Child of Fire…are strong stuff, but in the best senses, that of excitement, colour and originality. There is, in our opinion, no doubt that Marshal South is to be classed as one of the
finest Western storytellers of today.”
By 1936, he had four western novels published by this publisher: the two listed above plus Juanita of the Border Country and Gunsight. Like Child of Fire, Gunsight was also previously published. It appeared in a six-part serial in Rangeland Love Story Magazine in 1930-31.
The cover jacket for Juanita of the Border Country included high praise for his first two novels. The East Anglican Times reported that “Marshal South is an American who is capable of producing vivid fiction, and these examples of his creative ability will win appreciation. They are distinguished by resourceful inventiveness and power of expression…” The Bristol Evening Post stated: “Marshal South should speedily rise to the fore as one of the most original and
interesting writers of Western stories,” and the Dundee Courier said, “Mr. South is a newcomer to Western fiction, but he is likely to create a permanent place for himself in the affection of the public.”
Other books would follow, with all of them following a basic formula, differing only in the setting and the characters. There was always a treasure, a damsel in distress, a hero with sterling qualities that prevailed over the villains and won the heart of the damsel, and all the books were cliffhangers. To his London audience he promoted himself as an American western novelist with “a drop of Red Indian blood in his veins.”
Whether he actually had “Indian blood in his veins” is unknown. His grandfather Thomas Richards was from Wisconsin and it is possible he could have had an Indian ancestor. On the other hand, it could just have been marketing hype to help the books sell. Marshal did have a history of embellishing his credentials for his audience, having claimed that he served in the British Army and that Tanya was a graduate of Columbia University, neither of which was true.
Rider South, Marshal South’s oldest child who was born in 1934, stated in Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles (San Diego: Sunbelt Publications, 2005) that his father had written his western novels before any children were born to this family. His novels were originally rejected when submitted for publication, but with the beginning of World War II and interest in Americans, they found a British audience. Marshal South worked with the Charles Lavelle Literary Agency to place his books.
Additional novels were published in the 1940s, including Robbery Range; Tiburon, The Isle of the Shark; The Gold of the Gods, and The Curse of the Sightless Fish. Robbery Range was published in 1943 by World’s Work Limited in Kingswood, Surrey, Great Britain.
Speaking about the sales of his father’s books, Rider South said, “His books sold well because he had a wonderful way of describing the Southwest. His characters were alive and vibrant. His stories of adventure were fascinating and held the reader’s attention until the last page.”
It is very rare to come across a copy of one of Marshal South’s published novels. They are collector’s items and command a high price. Two of those novels are of special interest to those who visit the Anza-Borrego desert region: Flame of Terrible Valley and Robbery Range.
The setting for these novels are areas that Marshal South regularly visited while he lived on Ghost Mountain in Blair Valley: Julian, Banner, Earthquake (Shelter) Valley, Pinyon and Vallecito mountains, Little Blair Valley, Blair Valley, Smuggler Canyon, Box Canyon, Rodriguez Canyon, Mason Valley, Rainbow Canyon, Vallecito Valley, the Vallecito Stage Station, Agua Caliente Hot Springs, Vallecito Badlands, and Carrizo Gorge. The descriptions of some of the and marks of the area will be familiar to the reader. They are described in Marshal’s terms before County Highway S-2 was designated and later paved. He wrote of a time period of which he was very familiar, when the first cars and jalopies (flivvers) were on the road and transportation by
horse was often a preferred choice for the backcountry.
Some adventurous readers may enjoy exploring the trails and the byways along the Highway S-2 corridor to speculate on Marshal’s place names to compare with today’s geographic counterparts. South wrote details of local topography that provide clues to actual locations. Descriptions of surrounding desert plants also help to identify possible geographical locations.
In Flame of Terrible Valley, the Vallecito Stage Station is described as “a sinister, crumbling ruin, which is said to be haunted.” The story, according to the London publisher’s promotion “deals with the dogged vengeance of a Chinese Tong and the quest for stolen gold.” The inspiration for this story came from two sources. One of which was Tanya’s experience of camping at the old stage station ruins in the 1920s when she felt the presence of ghostly apparitions and told Marshal that she did not want to camp there anymore. Marshal was also aware of stories from his neighbor to the north in Earthquake Valley, Stewart Hathaway, who had purchased the old Las Arena Ranch, originally owned by Edward R. Burns. It was rumored that Burns was involved in smuggling Chinese into the United States from Mexico. Burns also mysteriously died on the ranch. Chinese jade was found on the premises after his death. The fascination with the possibility of Chinese smugglers being part of the area history played a role in his two Anza-Borrego novels.
In Robbery Range the historic Wahrenbrock’s Book House on Broadway in downtown San Diego was the inspiration for the beginning of this story. South as an avid reader would have been very familiar with this landmark San Diego bookstore. The early legends surrounding the Vallecito Stage Station were weaved into the story and inspired a reference to the “Lost Woman of Carrizo” which was probably based on Vallecito’s “Lady in White.” Some of the local homesteads, cattle ranches, and cattlemen of the area were used as models for characters
This later novel written some 12 years after Flame of Terrible Valley and after living on Ghost Mountain for about 10 years reflects more of Marshal’s thoughts about the desert’s mysteries and his spiritual beliefs than the previous book. By then he had been highly influenced by Tanya who studied astrology, believed in the supernatural, and followed the teaching of the Rosicrucians. Desert solitude and silence became vehicles that led to questioning the meaning of life and death and of the existence of reincarnation and other-worldly possibilities.
South also had time to reflect about the area’s early history. From the top of Ghost Mountain, where the South family made their home, the route followed by the Butterfield Overland Stage along the Southern Emigrant Trail is clearly visible. It is easy to contemplate what those early days may have been like as stages stopped at Vallecito, worked their way through Box Canyon, and crossed Blair Valley and the Foot and Walker Pass before entering Earthquake
and San Felipe valleys.
Readers today can relive the excitement of the two Anza-Borrego novels. They have been republished by San Diego publisher Sunbelt Publications in one volume entitled: Marshal South Rides Again: His Anza-Borrego Novels. The book is available through the publisher
(www.sunbeltpub.com), can be ordered at local bookstores, or may be ordered online through Amazon.
Steven Law, best-selling author of Yuma Gold and president of ReadWest Foundation, had
this to say about the new release: “Marshal South was as compelling a man as his writings, and his books were every bit as good as the best works of Zane Grey. Timeless prose
and storylines, glowing descriptions and characters—readers would be hard-pressed
to find a Western on the bookshelves today that is any better.”
For those who want more information on
Marshal South’s earlier life or his daily
life on Ghost Mountain, readers can also
order Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain
Chronicles: An Experiment in Primitive Living
(San Diego: Sunbelt Publications, 2001).