The Vultures Were Circling, but Susan Sorrells Wouldn't Let Her Little Desert Town Die

updated 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Unless it happens to be situated propitiously on top of an oil field, owning your own town may not be quite the soft touch it sounds. Nine years ago, when Susan Sorrells inherited Shoshone, a modest California outpost established by her great-grandfather in 1910, she found herself with 1,000 acres of dilapidated real estate and problems that stretched almost to the horizon. Emotionally and economically depressed, the little burg on the edge of Death Valley was well on its way to becoming a ghost town. The only remaining businesses were the ramshackle Shoshone Inn (hot water not guaranteed), a saloon, a general store, a weedy RV trailer park and three of the talc and borate mines that had once been the town's biggest employers. The nearest county doctor was in Lone Pine, 150 miles across the desert, and the town rescue unit was apt to break down on the way to the hospital. The 250 townspeople had only Sorrells, then 32, to look to for a solution. They weren't expecting much. Shoshoneites, having known their new owner from childhood, still thought of her as "Little Susie." At first, so did Susie herself. "Everyone here was a little nervous, and I had to prove myself," recalls Sorrells, who had come home from Germany in 1977 to tend her dying mother. "I hadn't even balanced my checkbook before that. My reaction was sheer panic."

Sorrells found she had alternatives to taking on these unwelcome municipal responsibilities, but none was very appealing. The U.S. Department of Energy wanted to turn the place into a nuclear waste dump, the state of California proposed building a prison there, and hotel chains wanted to make the town a resort. "I could have sold Shoshone," says Susan. "Towns do disappear, and developments with condos and golf courses take their place. But there's something precious here I didn't want to let go of. I felt strongly about preserving a sense of community."

So Sorrells decided to bring Shoshone back. First, in an effort to cut the workforce turnover, she instituted profit sharing with the employers of Shoshone Development, Inc., the umbrella company that runs all the town's businesses. To get medical services for the townspeople, whose number dwindled to 125 when two of the last three mines shut down in the early 1980s, she applied for federal funds and got a $25,000 grant from the state of California. But things got worse before they got better. Inheritance taxes on her new property amounted to $400,000, which she took out a loan to finish paying. Her husband, an actor and screenwriter, did not want to relocate to the desert, and the couple split in 1979. Officials at the county seat told Susan that her town was "too rural" to support the publicly funded medical clinic she wanted the county to build, and in 1981 an out-of-control brushfire nearly rendered town planning moot. "There were flames leaping up 20 feet right next to the café," Susan recalls. "There was no one in town when it broke out, but within minutes there were 150 people fighting that fire. I still don't know where they came from." The following winter, floods cut Shoshone off for a week.

"We've had some real scary times," says Susan, now 41, "but my inspiration has always been the people. That's what's gotten me through a lot of rough times."

More than ready to consider unconventional solutions to her intractable problem, Sorrells decided to establish a fish farm. By 1984, after creating two jobs and selling her first crop of catfish, she treated the town to free fish dinners. The next year weeds choked her pond, destroying the entire crop. Faced with installing a $12,000 plastic pond lining or using powerful herbicides, Susan heeded a waitress at the local café who suggested bringing in weed-eating geese. It worked. The fish pond has become as much a part of the local landscape as yucca and Joshua trees, and prawns have been added to this year's stock.

Sorrells also hit on an innovative solution to the medical problem. Unable to attract a doctor, she hired physician's assistant Tom Miller, 45, who can't write prescriptions or perform major surgery but is capable of doing just about everything else. Three years of knocking on doors finally brought a $250,000 federal grant to start the Death Valley Health Center, which has been a godsend to residents like Beaulah Rosenberg, 87, a former waitress at the Red Buggy Cafe who suffers from heart trouble, emphysema, osteoporosis and other ailments. "If it hadn't been for the clinic," says Beaulah, "I don't think I would have made it."

Shoshone's appearance has improved along with its fortunes. Sorrells's second husband, Robby Haines, 37, a utility-company worker she married six months after coming home, has replaced roofs, installed 30 septic tanks and renovated the RV park to lure Death Valley tourists. Sorrells helped start a community center in 1984 and a Chamber of Commerce in 1987. Last summer the town launched an oral-history project and established the Shoshone Desert Museum. "I feel this need to preserve what's left of the history, culture and ecology of the desert," she says.

Part of that heritage is her own. Susan's great-grandfather, R.J. "Dad" Fairbanks, came to the area from Utah at the turn of the century—Susan speculates that he may have been one step ahead of the law, like his cousin Butch Cassidy—and set up Shoshone as a railroad supply stopover. The town then passed to Dad's daughter, Stella, and her husband, Charles Brown, who presided over its boom as a mining town. Later Susan's mother, Bernice, took charge. As a girl, Susan recalls taking the family horses out for morning rides with her older brother, Charles. "I loved growing up here," she says. "There was a real feeling of freedom."

But not enough to keep her in town. At 14, Susan left for fashionable Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles. "I was the rebel in our family," she says. "Always the one going away." Sorrells moved on to Smith College, went to Liberia with the Peace Corps, earned a degree in African studies from UCLA and lived in Switzerland and West Germany while her first husband pursued his writing career. In the meantime, brother Charles settled in Las Vegas, and when their mother fell ill with colon cancer in 1977, Susan returned to Shoshone to care for her. "I had no intention of coming home," she says. "It just happened."

Sorrells has great plans for Shoshone now—date and pistachio farming, fixing up the inn, building a motel—and she just obtained a $240,000 loan from the state of California to revamp the town's water system. Approval is not universal—despite the help she found at the clinic, Beaulah Rosenberg grumbles, "I haven't liked none of the changes. It's too modern now. She's taking the desert away from what it's supposed to be"—but most townsfolk seem delighted. "Susan is a person with vision and a heart," says Paul Watkins, who serves as president of the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce. "She's looked up to." Sorrells's next priority is diversification. "We'll start selling property," she says. "Not a lot of the town, but at least enough so there's not one person owning everything."

Even after she sells off her inheritance, the First Lady of Shoshone plans to stick around. "There are times when I miss the big city," Sorrells says, "but I'm here because I love it. Nine years ago, when I decided to keep this town, I made the right choice."

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