Want To Buy A Town? Boom-And-Bust Nipton Could Be Yours For A Mere $3 Million
When I met Shannon Salter I didn't expect her to ask me if I wanted to buy a town. Specifically, Nipton. The 80-acre patch in the Mojave Desert has one hotel, one restaurant, five eco-cabins, 10 teepees and an RV park -- and it's for sale... again.
Salter, a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, describes the dusty town as a "magical place, probably one of the most magical on earth" and hoped I might have some fresh ideas to raise money for it.
She gestured with a mason jar of wine as she told me, on Zoom, about her dream for Nipton: transforming this spot in the middle of nowhere into a sustainable eco-village and tourist outpost for the Mojave National Preserve.
Located on the eastern edge of San Bernardino County, where it bumps up against Nevada, Nipton feels far away from everything. But it's only a one-hour drive from Las Vegas, off the busy I-15 corridor on Nipton Road, which connects the towns of Mountain Pass and Searchlight. Surrounded by flat valleys and mountain vistas, the landscape of creosote and yucca is broken only by the occasional road or the glare from the Ivanpah solar plant, whose mirrors reflect light into the sky.
For Salter, who started visiting Nipton in 2009 and became obsessed with it, the town is an escape from Las Vegas, where she lives. Nipton, she says, is "both the past and the future." She imagines a small, friendly town with a slow, eco-friendly lifestyle, even if it is in the shadow of rare earth mines and solar towers. Her vision is in line with that of Jerry Freeman, who bought Nipton in 1984 and whose widow, Roxanne Lang, has put it up for sale. Salter's dream probably won't pan out but nothing really does here. Nipton is a place out of time, a tiny desert outpost caught in a long cycle of flashy booms and extended busts, waiting for a new dream.
In 2017, Nipton made headlines when cannabis technology company American Green bought the town for $5 million. The company said it planned to transform it into "the country's first energy-independent, cannabis-friendly hospitality destination." According to American Green CEO David Gwyther (who is also the company's chairman, president, CFO and secretary), the "cannabis revolution" was going to "completely revitalize communities in the same way gold did during the nineteenth century."
The purchase seemed like a publicity stunt for a penny-stock company trying to grab a piece of the marijuana business boom. Before becoming American Green in 2014, the company had changed its name six times since 1998. The names don't mean much on their own -- Desert Winds Entertainment, SunComm Technologies, The Amergence Group, etc. -- but such incessant rebranding is common for over-the-counter stocks aiming to attract investors by cashing in on current trends.
Although pot was legal in both California and Nevada, Nipton found itself in a harsh regulatory environment. In 2016, San Bernardino County passed a resolution banning commercial cannabis activity, including growhouses and dispensaries, in unincorporated parts of the county, such as Nipton.
American Green was banned from selling marijuana in the town it had bought for that purpose. If Gwyther was counting on the county to loosen its cannabis restrictions, it was a bad bet. The ban remains in effect to this day.
In 2018, only a year after buying Nipton, American Green sold the town to its subsidiary, CannAwake (formerly known as Delta International Oil & Gas) for $7.73 million, 55% more than it had paid. Soon after, CannAwake stopped paying its loan on Nipton. In late 2019, previous owner Roxanne Lang began foreclosure proceedings. It seemed like Gwyther had ignored all the stories about what followed the California gold boom -- its inevitable bust.
Gwyther declined to comment on Nipton, American Green or CannAwake for this article. Despite repeated attempts, we could not reach representatives from CannAwake, Nipton, or associated enterprises. But Nipton's boom-and-bust cycle began long before Gwyther or American Green showed up.
Boom Goes The Dynamite
The town sprung up in the early 1900s to service local miners and grazers, as local historian Patricia Schoffstall explains in Mojave Desert Dictionary. It became known as Nippeno after the local Nippeno Consolidated Mine company, which had gold claims dating to the late 19th century. In 1905, when the railroad was completed, the new post office changed the small settlement's name to Nipton to honor a railroad engineer on the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Like line and prevent confusion with the California coastal town of Nipomo.
Nipton was a local stop on the Union Pacific where cattle from Rock Springs Land and Cattle Company, Yates Ranch and the Walking Box Ranch (which was owned by silent film stars Rex Bell and Clara Bow) were loaded into freight cars and sent to Los Angeles.
In its heyday, during the 1910s, Nipton was a gathering place for the many small desert mining and ranching communities surrounding it. Residents could pick up their mail and buy supplies such as flour, canned foods and fabric. Boasting a general store in the 1910s, Nipton likely stayed alive because it was a stop on the railroad line and had a post office.
By the 1920s, gold and silver became harder to reach, and the area's hard rock mining industry dried up, according to the 1981 book, Desert fever: An overview of mining in the California Desert Conservation Area. In 1893, the neighboring community of Vanderbilt, presumably named for the riches its mines hoped to accrue, had more than 400 residents, a Chinese restaurant and two saloons. By 1924, Vanderbilt had a population of 8. The same census listed Nipton's population at 15.
Its one-room schoolhouse, built in the 1930s, was shuttered by the 1950s, and children were sent to school 15 miles away in Mountain Pass, home to a new rare earth mine that produced Europium, which was used to create the color red in cathode ray tube televisions. By that time, most of Nipton, including its trading post and Spanish-style hotel, had also closed.
Geologist Jerry Freeman had been prospecting in the hills, looking at tailings from old mines to try to find ore for new ones. Leaving a pickup truck in Nipton, he took the train from Los Angeles on weekends.
Freeman found an old gold claim to purchase. What used to be known as the Clansman claim would become the new Morning Star Mine. Vanderbilt Gold, which Freeman co-owned with John F. Jordan and others, acquired the property in 1964 and raised money to open up mining operations as gold prices skyrocketed in the late 1970s. After the precipitous decline of gold prices in the '80s, Freeman left the gold business but he never forgot about Nipton, which was then for sale for $200,000.
Lang, his wife, wasn't quite as enamored. She says Nipton's then boarded-up storefronts "made me tired." Her husband wasn't deterred. Freeman found it appealing in a romantic, ghost town kind of way. Lang says that one day, she was in Malibu with their eight-month-old when, "He called me and told me that he had bought Nipton."
A couple years later, they moved there and sent their child to the 20-student school in Baker -- a town best known for its 134-foot thermometer -- where Freeman served on the school board and Lang worked part-time as a speech pathologist.
The couple did their best to turn Nipton into a tourist destination, looking for revenue from any source. They sold California lottery tickets to nearby Nevadans, offered whole-town filming permits (Breakdown, a 1997 Kurt Russell thriller, was partially filmed in Nipton) and hosted workshops by pickup artist Vince Kelvin. They rented out the cafe to different vendors, and it became locally famous in the late 2000s for the Bill Burger, which Salter described to me as a hamburger wrapped in a tortilla, kind of like Taco Bell's Crunchwrap Supreme.
Freeman and Lang made money by renting RVs to workers at the nearby Brightsource solar energy plant, which went online in 2013, and letting out hotel rooms, mostly to European tourists obsessed with the California desert.
Crystal Wysong and Bruce Kroeze, who used to live in Los Angeles and now live in Joshua Tree, got married in Nipton in 2014. High school sweethearts who had reconnected on Facebook after 30 years apart, they had fallen in love on road trips through the California desert and briefly considered living in the Mojave National Preserve. On one of their first trips together, they had visited Nipton, where they eventually became friends with the Latinx Seventh-Day Adventist couple who ran the restaurant.
One weekend, Wysong called the general store to rent a room and asked the employee if he knew anyone who could marry them. The employee asked the "other Roxanne" (Nipton had two) and, with a single phone call, Wysong had planned her wedding. The other Roxanne officiated and a fellow Nipton hotel guest served as a witness at the tiny wedding. "It was our style of romance, if 60-year-olds can be romantic," Wysong says. She hasn't been back since American Green bought it. The town's just not the same, she says.
Some 20 rent-paying residents call Nipton home. Most of them are here to get away from it all.
Jim Eslinger, who has lived here since 2009, says he couldn't survive in a city anymore after getting used to life in Nipton. He refers to himself as Nipton's mayor, a title that Lang would like him to stop using since the unincorporated town has no elected officials. He's a Nipton lifer and the "coolest long haired hippie freak in town," he tells me as he cackles at the description.
Eslinger has worked for all of the enterprises that have come through town, doing all sorts of jobs from "housemaid to maintenance to working in the store," he says. He can't imagine leaving when the town changes hands. "Whoever buys it will have their own dreams, and as long as I get to live here forever, I don't care. Whoever gets the town gets me with it."
It's a waiting game until Nipton changes hands again. Lang wants $3 million for the 80 acres that comprise the town, a figure that seems both completely reasonable to those who love the place and ridiculous to those who couldn't imagine living there.
The last couple of months haven't yielded a buyer. Lang attributes American Green's 2017 purchase of Nipton, in part, to an article about the town published in Sunset magazine. She hopes some fresh publicity will bring another offer. "It's a charming place because it has a lot of space," she says, "the perfect covid place" to get away from everything.
Maybe a new Jerry Freeman with utopian idealism and deep pockets will ride into town. Maybe they'll find a way to reinvent Nipton as a tourist destination. Maybe they'll highlight its scenic panoramas and wide open spaces or play to the New Age crowd with sound baths and crystal witch retreats or lead Big City folks on survivalist expeditions. Anything to spark a new boom, one that'll last keep the town chugging along until the next bust.
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