Awards in Journalism:
1964 Recipient of Society of Silurians Award "for outstanding achievement in the field of Public Service for Misery Acres"
1964 Deadline Club Award, Honorable Mention (Reporting)
1965 Deadline Club Award, Honorable Mention (Reporting)
1965-6 Awarded a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University

"At Princeton, Caro had been the managing editor of the Daily Princetonian, and after graduation he had gone to work for a small paper in New Jersey, the New Brunswick Home News...For Caro, journalism was a mission, an outlet for his sense of outrage at the world's injustices..."His first major effort (at Newsday) was an investigation of the fraudulent sale of vacant land in the Arizona desert...a ten-part series entitled 'Misery Acres.'"
From the book, Newsday: A Candid History of the Respectable Tabloid, by Robert F. Keeler published by Arbor House, 1990.

Misery Acres

By Bob Caro Newsday Staff Correspondent exposing the sharp practices of slick salesmen who sell arid desert land to the aging prime retirement property.

copyright 1963 Newsday, inc. reprinted with permission


AT HOME ON THE RANGE.  That may look like barren rangeland stretching to the horizon but, as Newsday staff correspondent Robert A. Caro demonstrates, all it takes is a vivid imagination (and a bit of Chianti) to picture comfortable homes, broad streets, and all the other amenities of a bustling new community at a development called Sacramento Ranches, near Kingman, Ariz.  In a study of mail-order land buying, Caro found that imagination was the secret ingredient in many such projects...  


        The ads pushing a sensational new land boom paint glowing pictures of new homesites in the sun country, beckoning the weary to a life of communal luxury. But reality is sometimes harsh.

      Mohave County, Ariz.-When explorers came to Mohave County in 1858, they found a desert so dry that they had to import camels to cross it. 


        For a century thereafter, the desert remained largely unchanged. A searing sun baked it in summer.  Sandstorms whipped it in winter. Only yucca plants and an occasional mesa broke its endless expanses of gray-brown sand. Recently, however, there was an addition to the landscape--a large sign. "This," the sign says, "is Paradise Acres."

        Not that the desert itself has changed. It hasn't. Its millions of parched acres are still all but empty of human habitation. Attempts to discover adequate sources of water have failed. Says a Mohave County official: "There are places out there that a lizard couldn't live in."

        But Mohave has become the physical hub of a revolutionary new development in the history of American real estate, the sale of tremendous tracts of raw, often-undeveloped acreage through the mail on low-cost installment. plans. This development began in Florida about 1953. Today, no less than 350 separate Florida real estate promotions are being advertised outside that state's borders. Two years ago, the development suddenly burst out on the plains of the Southwest on a scale that dwarfed that of the Florida boom. Hard-selling promoters bought up vast chunks of desert and grazing land in New Mexico, Texas, California and Arizona at bargain-basement prices, hacked the land up into lots, launched multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns and sold the lots sight unseen at many times the price they had paid, usually on terms of $10 down and $10 a month. No one knows the exact dimensions 'of the boom but estimates of sales for 1962 alone run to $700,000,000.

Show Some Results
        Some of the promotions spawned by the boom have already produced spectacular results. Florida promoters have created complete new cities, designed mainly for retired persons, on what had been for centuries nothing but desolate wetlands. Carol City, for example, which is not yet on any map, already has 10,000 residents. In Arizona, subdivisions have caused the deserts near Phoenix to blossom with luxury ranch homes.

            Some of these promotions are sill highly speculative-holdings on which thousands of lots have been sold are still desolate wetlands or desert-but at least the owners have some sort of plans for an eventual conversion and there is a reasonable chance that it win some day take place.

            Some of these promotions. however, seem blatantly worthless. In Florida, they include tracts of land in the Everglades and similar swamps in which there are no roads, and "building lots" are covered by water much of the year. In Arizona, promoters who include many of the same men behind unpromising Florida ventures have purchased chunks of open desert. Without making-or realistically planning-any improvements at all, they have peddled this land through the mail on a scale so vast that the National Association of Better Business Bureaus has termed the boom "the greatest land scandal in American history" and officials in statehouses across the country are working feverishly to develop laws capable of holding the worst promoters in check.

             Mohave County has become the hub of the Arizona boom. The reason is simple. The basis of the boom is land, and if Mohave has anything to spare, it is land. With 13,260 square miles, in fact, Mohave is the fifth largest county in the United States, and since its 1960 population was only 7,736 persons (6,000 of whom live in Kingman, the county seat), there are obviously plenty of square miles open for development.

 Sounds Like Paradise
Advertisements flooding media in the North make this land seem like the Garden of Eden. "$10 RESERVES 1 1/4 acres of ARIZONA land! $795 BUYS IT!" they trumpet. "Health and wealth for you in the wonderful world of the West! Blue skies nearly every single day, pure air...the land of play and outdoor living the year round!" The expanses of desert around Kingman, which grow nothing green, have suddenly blossomed out with bright signs advertising "Paradise Acres"-and "Sunward Ho! Ranchos," "Desert Rose Rancheros" and "Shangri-La Estates."


              Is it, perhaps, a bit warm for Shangri-La? In some parts of the Arizona desert the temperature can reach 140 degrees and the Automobile Association of America warns tourists not to leave their cars for a stroll  lest they be suns truck.

              Is it a little short of the amenities of civilization? Kingman's most famous son is Andy Devine and a main street of the city is named Andy Devine Avenue, but after you've looked at the street sign for a, while your choice of entertainment is narrowed down to the movie at Kingman's one theater or bingo. When night falls over the desert, blotting out the gaudy "Paradise Acres" signs, there is nothing to be seen but miles of blackness, unrelieved by a single light. You can drive for 50 miles without passing another car.

            But the disillusionment is most apparent when you compare one glowing advertisement closely to the reality behind it. 


            Says an ad for Lake Mead Rancheros: "The Rancheros are livable now. Not raw, undeveloped and inaccessible land paid out, waiting for people ...water available, roads, electricity, phones...wide-open living...located in the famous Lake Mead Recreation Area, where 3 1/2 million vacation annually."


            "Wide-open living," it turns out, is an understatement. After reaching Lake Mead Rancheros (by turning off Route 66 19 miles out of Kingman and bumping six miles over an unpaved road), the visitor finds that living there would be 18 miles wide, in fact-as well as 30 miles long. That's the size of the Rancheros' site and there's certainly nothing on it to fence you in. Not a, house, not a street, not a telephone pole or power line would keep you from enjoying the full sweep of that pure air. There is nothing on the vast site but a huge sign advertising the rancheros and a few sticks representing street signs. The desert stretches away endlessly. Standing there, broiling in the hot sun, you feel like an ant, on a huge tan rug.

            Water is available, too. It's available from a pipe that sticks ,out of the ground. The pipe, which is a comfortable 14 miles from some Ranchero units, is attached to a meter. Anyone who wants to come live on his lot can simply bring a water tank to the pipe and fill it-at 50 cents, per 100 gallons. In addition, a Ranchero representative back in Kingman says, a water company will be only too glad to bring in water to anyone who wants it-on 24 hours' notice and at a similar rate.

            Roads? Certainly, there are roads. Or anyway, paths-little tracks scraped in the topsoil. And, the salesman says, electricity and power will be installed just as soon as "enough people build out there to make it feasible." Exactly how people are going to build there without any chance of getting mortgage money is not explained, ("Mortgage money to build out there?" says a Kingman banker. "Are you kidding?") And Lake Mead? Well, with good eyes, you can see it-from the top of a mountain 30 miles away.

            But the most staggering single fact about Lake Mead Rancheros is that 3,000 persons somewhere off in the North have been lured by that ad into purchasing homesites there. Owner Dory Auerbach, whose Miami-based firm is also peddling "speculative acreage" in nine separate Florida promotions, says that if a large number of these purchasers move onto the property, he can simply tie in with "the water lines that supply the city of Kingman." But Robert L, Peart, chairman of the Mohave County Board of Supervisors, says that Kingman's water supply is so low that the city itself is hunting for new water sources and won't allow the Rancheros to tie in. Asked if he felt that use of the word "homesite" misrepresented the property, Auerbach said: "I don't buy that. I don't buy that because the word 'homesite' means this: 'Can you build a home, at the property and live in it?...The answer is Yes... I say you can build on every Ranchero."

            If some desert subdivisions are characterized by a lack of development, there are other in which Mohave County officials feel development has been both rapid and dramatic. One of these is Lake Mohave Ranchos.

            The owners of Lake Mohave Ranchos also bought up a vast hunk of raw desert at rock-bottom prices. But; 35-year-old William H. Parker, a San Bernardino, Calif., real estate broker and a Harvard graduate, combed the desert with his partners until, in 1959, they found a really, suitable site.  It was an 86,000-acre cattle ranch, one of the few with adequate water from underground springs and a paved county road running through it.. And it really is near Lake Mohave. Even more important, the site has sufficient elevation {3,500 ;to 7,000 feet) so that the unpleasant heat of the desert floor below is eliminated. Says Deputy Arizona Real Estate Commissioner Bert Jagerson: "Most of these developers just took whatever land they could get. There are good places to live out here, places in which the desert is lovely.  But you've got to find them. Parker did."

Money, Time Spent
The young real estate broker and his partners spent $55,000 on road-building equipment and paid $20 an hour to surveying teams-for three years. They hired an "operational manager," a smiling, raw-boned Texan named Tom White, and put him to work on the site. They gave him a crew of six men to maintain and to help out the first families who moved in.

            "We had to baby them," White recalls. "They were mostly elderly retired people and we had to make them happy. We repaired their washing machines, we helped them put up the TV aerials, we hauled people in to the doctor."

            White also fought for the community. He argued with the county and with skeptical utility companies for water mains, telephones, school bus service and power lines. When utilities demanded money for power line-laying, Parker put it up. Today, driving toward the Ranchos, a visitor sees at first only more of the empty, barren desert. Then, as he tops a rise, there appears before him a restaurant, a motel, a neatly kept trailer park (in which 1oo families are living while waiting for their homes to be finished) and 90 pretty, well-kept ranch houses. And there is a country club, social center for the residents, complete with clubhouse, tennis, croquet and badminton courts, children's playgrounds, social hall and swimming pool. In the middle of the Arizona desert, once so dry that ranchers staged blood feuds over water rights, is a carefully lettered sign: "No eating on the pool deck."

            Lake Mohave Ranchos is, old-time Mohave County residents say, a good example of what can be done by a developer willing to do more with his property than just sell it off as fast as he can. With America's over-65 population soaring (by the year 2000, it is expected to reach 10 per cent of the country's total population), more such developments are needed if even a small fracti9n of these people are to be given the chance to enjoy the life in the sun they want at reasonable cost.

            Unfortunately, such developments are all too few. In Mohave County, there are 335 separate subdivisions. In one of these alone, no less than 68,000 lots have been sold. But the vast desert is still populated mainly by the subdividers' large signs.

Misery Acres 

Alone on the Desert Her Dream Fades

By Robert A. Caro, Newsday Staff Correspondent

BEARING HER BURDEN.  Mrs. Millie Sanderson, 74,

carries water to her hovel in which she lives on "Sacramento Ranchos."  

Nearest water source is a mile and a half away.




            Kingman, Ariz.-One way to look at the great real estate boom of the 19605 is in terms of subdivisions in the hundreds and advertising spending in the millions, Another is to focus on a single, solitary figure trudging along a desert road.

            The figure is that of an elderly woman, Mrs. Millie Sanderson, 74, a widow who has lived in Tennessee, New York City and Massapequa, L.I. but who now lives at the intersection of Diamond and Silver Streets in a promotion called "Sacramento Ranchos." Like tens of thousands of other Americans nearing retirement and anxious for a place in the sun, Mrs. Sanderson bought an acre of Arizona land on the installment plan. Mrs. Sanderson, however, took a step that few such purchasers have yet attempted. She tried to live on her land.

            It is impossible not to find Mrs. Sanderson. Sacramento Ranchos covers 4,000 acres in a comer of a vast desert valley southwest, of Kingman, the county seat of Mohave County. About 1,600 families have already purchased Ranchos but just four families live there now. When a reporter drove over a rise and came upon the Ranchos, Mrs. Sanderson was the only moving thing in the whole valley.

            Mrs. Sanderson was carrying two large pails filled with water, She had, in fact, been carrying them for a mile and a half; that was how far it was to the nearest source, a little spring. By the time the reporter drove up, she was standing in front of her home, a tiny shack crudely made of boards. As she talked, she kept glancing toward a power line that ran alongside the highway about 250 yards away.

            "I moved here three months ago," she said. "It sounded nice. I was widowed in 1955 and I had no people and I could afford $10 a month. I came to the Sacramento Ranchos office in Kingman and they brought me down here and showed me this place. I asked them about the water and they said they were definitely going to get water down here. I talked to them about electricity and they said they were going to put it in. I thought It wouldn't be too long because there are the power lines right over there.


            "But once they take the down payment, they won't do a thing for you. The electric company won't extend the lines over here unless  the land company puts up the money and they won't. I  have, no radio or TV. They won't play without electricity. My light is a kerosene lamp. And they don't say anything at all about the water any more. So I said, 'Why can't you give me a place closer to the spring?' But they said they couldn't do anything about it, My car broke down, and until it's fixed I have to carry water in pails a mile and a half.

No More Money
"I built this house myself. I hauled the lumber from the garbage dump. And a mall from the filling station gave me some boards. Things went hard when my husband died, but this is worse than I've ever known in my life. And the down payment took all my money, I have to stay here now."

            The implications of Mrs. Sanderson's story are many observers believe, the most disturbing factor in the real estate boom. Since Mrs. Sanderson is almost penniless, she is on relief and dependent on undeveloped, under-populated Mohave County not only for welfare checks, but for hospital care and other services, As yet, only a few of the families now paying off desert or swamp lots have attempted to move onto them. But, observers ask, what will happen when more and more of these people actually do retire and try to move to their lots? Since most will have no outside source of income, a substantial number may go on relief and many will need and expect the free services generally provided by local authorities in the settled area , from which they come. But the areas into which they will move won't be able to provide those services.

            Mohave County, Tax Assessor Don McCraley says: "The county is already hurting. At least once a day, one of these new people will come in and ask either for welfare or for hospital services and we just can't give them the services they need." Even the thin trickle of new residents drawn by the $10-down ads has so taxed the county's resources that the county treasury is empty, and officials are now being paid by warrant, a kind of promissory note that they can cash at the local grocery store. Such municipal poverty may be almost unimaginable to the people in the industrialized North who are buying those lots. With 13,260 square miles, Mohave is the fifth largest county in the United States, "bigger than Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware combined. But its total assessed valuation is only $39,000,000. (On Long Island the City of  Glen Cove alone has an assessed valuation of $54,000,000,.) In the entire county, there are only three industries, the largest of which, a recently opened copper mine, may one day employ 500 men.

            County officials are convinced that most of the $1O-down buyers will take one look at their land, learn that the cost of drilling for water is prohibitive -assuming water can be found under their land- and go home. As one official puts it: "You'd have to be 25 years old and a pioneer to live on some of those places." In part, at least, that is undoubtedly true. Says a waitress in a Kingman cafe: "I see lots of them in here. They come in the morning for breakfast. They say they're down here on vacation and are going but to see what they've bought. They come back in the evening. Some are happy. Some are pretty blue. One woman I remember put her head down on her arms and cried. A lot of them I don't expect to see again."

            Others, however, will almost be forced to stay. One couple from New York City sold most of their belongings to make a full payment on a $495 lot. They loaded the rest into their old car and drove to Mohave County. Robert L. Peart, chairman of the Mohave Board of Supervisors, recalls: "We finally found their, property on a map. I had to tell them they'd need a tractor to get out to their lot. But they couldn't go back; They had to stay."


            Couples like this one-and eventually there may be thousands more- pose a problem for which all the rosy advertisements in the world offer no solutions at all.

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