Barbara Gronek remembered milk that tasted like sagebrush from cows turned loose in the desert. Cowboys dancing in the schoolhouse on a Saturday night. Rabbits fried on Grandma’s wood stove.
Gronek, then called Barbara Smith, was the daughter and granddaughter of Yucca Valley pioneers. Born in Riverside on April 29, 1926, she died Dec. 2, 2019, at 93 years old.
Her maternal grandparents, Joseph and Mary Heard, traveled by covered wagon from Arkansas to Fullerton and in April 1910, took their wagon into the Morongo Basin, where they found their new home.
With them were their children Alma, 4, Howard, 2, and Katherine, 6 months. The family set up their homestead on land where the Hawk’s Landing golf course is today.
According to the Morongo Basin Historical Society, the Heards built their first home from Joshua trees, adobe and rocks. Water came from an abandoned mining tunnel in the hills. The grocery store was a trip of at least two days in a wagon team. The doctor even farther in Redlands.
“In the early days when my grandma and grandpa first came here, they grew alfalfa where the golf course used to be,” Gronek told Art Miller Jr. in a videotaped interview in 2011. “And they had no electricity, no running water until they dug their own well. They had cows, chickens, pigs and a big garden after they got the water.”
Primitive but fun: visits to the homestead
Alma Heard eventually lived in Redlands. She had a daughter, Barbara, and was divorced when she met Art Katje and fell in love.
“They started going together when I was in the fourth grade,” Barbara remembered in her interview.
Barbara’s admiration for her stepfather shone through in her 2011 interview.
“Art was the only father I ever knew,” she said.
Alma, who had lived through a childhood of hardships as a pioneer, preferred a more civilized existence in Redlands. But the homestead life cast a spell over Art Katje.
“He loved it from the first time he saw it and he wanted to live here, but my mother did not want to live here, so they kind of over the years went back and forth between Redlands and Yucca,” Gronek said.
While they lived in Redlands, young Barbara would spend summers with her grandparents on the homestead. Decades later during her interview, the memories were still sharp.
“It was a totally different life than what I had in Redlands, because … there was no electricity or water. It was very primitive. But it was fun for me,” she said.
“They had kerosene lanterns and for a refrigerator in the house, they just dug a hole in the wall, put shelves in there, put chicken wire outside the back of it and hung wet gunny sacks over it for the wind to blow through. That was their refrigerator,” she said.
“Grandma cooked on a wood stove. Oh, she could really cook, too.”
Not everything was a delight — starting with the curving dirt road hacked through the mountain pass. Barbara got carsick every time. There was also the milk :“I did not like the milk from Grandpa’s cows, because he let them run out in the desert and eat that sagebrush, so the milk tasted like sagebrush.”
But overall, her memories were fond ones.
“Saturday night there was a big dance at the schoolhouse and all the cowboys would come for this dance and they would have a band. And I would just sit and watch,” she recalled. “I really enjoyed them because those cowboys could really dance up a storm and that floor would shake.”
She remembered going hunting in a Ford car with Katje, his friend Kenny Fletcher and her uncle Howard Heard.
“I would get in the rumble seat and they would drive it down where the golf course is to hunt for rabbits … but not jackrabbits, only cottontails.”
When the headlights startled the rabbits, the men shot them.
“They would throw them back onto the rumble seat, where I was. And they would jerk and jump,” she said.
“And they would take them back to my grandma’s house and they would skin ’em, clean ’em up, and my grandma would fry them up. And I’ll tell you, they were delicious.”
She remembered one close call with a flash flood from the mountains, when she was 10 or 11 years old.
“My uncle Heard was up on top of the windmill one day working on it and he yelled down to everybody, ‘Get a shovel and start digging a ditch around the house. There’s a wall of water coming down the mountain right toward the house!’ And we did and the water did come down pretty fast.”
Art Katje: bigger than life
Her stepfather became one of the fledgling community’s most important residents.
Katje built cabins on homesteaders’ tracts and eventually opened a lumber yard on the west end of town, where the Chrysler auto repair shop is now.
He later built a real estate office facing Twentynine Palms Highway. Longtime locals would recognize it as the small building that sat just east of Jerry’s Lounge, on the property where Little Italy is today.
“Then years later he built Art’s Liquor Store, right there where Jerry’s is now. That was Art’s Liquor Store first,” Barbara said in her interview.
She graduated from high school in Redlands, then went to work for orange distributors. In her free time she and her friends would drive to Laguna Beach in a little Model A Ford. It was on the beach that she met an Air Force lieutenant named John Gronek.
The two were married and she worked in her mother’s dress shop while her husband attended the University of Redlands. They were living in South Gate when Katje invited them to move to Yucca Valley and go into business with him.
In February 1963, Barbara and John Gronek and their three children moved to Yucca Valley and started running Katje’s store.
John, who was 9 when they moved, was also interviewed by the historical society. “I loved it because I had all this open space that I didn’t have down in South Gate,” he recalled.
“But we’d been coming out here as little kids to see Grandma and Grandpa over the years. Out here my grandpa had BB guns and a slingshot for me that I couldn’t have in the city.”
He was in awe of Grandpa Art, who’d built a liquor store, lumbar yard, real estate office and gas station.
“Grandpa Art was bigger than life to me,” he said.
“Art Katje was very instrumental in the growth in Yucca Valley,” Barbara Gronek agreed.
Katje was the first president of the Yucca Valley Chamber of Commerce in 1948. He was a charter member of the Lions Club and Veterans of Foreign Wars and on the charter board for the High Desert Memorial Hospital.
“He was instrumental in getting the Security Bank to come here, the first bank,” Gronek said.
She ended up staying in Yucca Valley for 36 years, from 1962 to 1998. By 2011, she was living elsewhere, but still had family and friends in Yucca Valley and still was proud of the town her parents helped build.
“My thoughts were how proud and happy my stepfather Art Katje would be to see how the town has grown, because he certainly worked hard to get it started. And my mother also,” she said.
Barbara was married to John Gronek for 65 years until his death.
She is survived by her children, Stephen and John Gronek and Diane Ainsworth, along with six grandsons and four great-grandchildren.
After her death, she was buried at Hillside Memorial Park in Redlands — the final resting place, as well, of her husband and the parents and grandparents who did so much.
“I think as the years went by I came to an appreciation of what those early settlers lived through out here, especially those who came out in covered wagons,” she once said. “It certainly gave me an appreciation of the hard work and dedication that they had in those early days.”