By Denise Ortuno Neil
Nellie Coffman first heard of our desert oasis back in 1897, while she was in the mountain village of Idyllwild (then called Strawberry Valley), being sent there by her doctor to help cure a nasty cough. While she was resting, the woman who ran the boarding house that she was staying at, Mrs. Keene, talked about a place that she would go to in the winter to escape the cold of the mountains. Keene spoke of a place with endless sunny skies and grand mountains that seemed to rocket miles up from the earth. There were also healing hot springs to sooth body and soul. The place sounded like paradise. But it would be 9 years until Coffman would finally come to visit the place that she had fantasized about. In December of 1908 along with her son Earl, she traveled east from her home that she shared with her husband Dr. Harry Coffman and other son George Roberson ( from her previous husband who had passed away) in Santa Monica, and headed to the place that she had envisioned in her mind.
When she arrived, she was greeted with a sand storm, dusty roads and a pitch black night sky. The welcome wagon wasn’t really filled with glee when she got to the only game in town either, The Palm Springs Hotel, owned by Welwood Murray and his wife Elizabeth. And with the meager hospitality that was offered and the bitter desert cold, Coffman had thought she had made a mistake by traveling to the unknown desert and yearned to return home with her son to more civilized surroundings. But in the morning she woke to the light of the sun against crisp blue skies, and the unveiling of what she had dreamed of with a 3-D view of the mighty San Jacinto, standing tall and gallant to greet her. It was at that moment when she fell in love with Palm Springs.
Coffman knew she had found her destiny, and now had to convince her husband that moving to the desert was the right thing to do. So she appealed to her husband’s desire to help the sick and suggested they open a sanatorium to do just that. And in the fall of 1909, Coffman moved her family to Palm Springs and opened The Desert Inn. The property was primitive to today’s standards; it was comprised of a grouping of tents at first, but Coffman’s hospitality prevailed. And in 1914, Coffman and her husband Harry, parted ways and he moved down valley to practice medicine and later moved to San Diego County. After their marriage had ended, Coffman decided to let the sanatorium part of The Desert Inn end as well, and no longer catered to the infirmed. She would finally have the hotel she wanted and in the 1920’s, with the help of an investment by Tom O’Donnell, built up The Desert Inn making it a world class resort, catering this time to Hollywood stars, world travelers and sun seeking tourists.
Mother Coffman, as she had come to be known, reigned over The Desert Inn until her death in 1950. It was then sold to Hollywood actress Marion Davies who purchased the landmark for 2 million dollars, but she would only have it briefly, as she herself died several years later. The Desert Inn was later torn down to build the ever changing mall that tries to grow on the location. Today it is again in transformation, and hopefully will materialize into something worthy of the Desert Inn that once stood there. What would Nellie Coffman and all the other pioneers think of Palm Springs today? I think they would be enormously proud of what it has become, and what it still has potential to be. It is their paradise in the sun realized.
For more information about Nellie Coffman and the Desert Inn visit the Palm Springs Historical Society, www.pshistoricalsociety.org .