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Marines and sailors with 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion, check out a few of the old, rusted cars which dot the landscape of Keys Ranch in Joshua Tree National park Jan. 28. Fourteen Marines and sailors from the battalion volunteered their day to help restore a cabin which had succumbed to the harsh climate of the Mojave Desert and remove unwanted vegetation from the ranch.

Photo by Pvt. Michael T. Gams

3rd CEB volunteers time, effort to preserve Keys Ranch

5 Feb 2010 | Pvt. Michael T. Gams

While most Marines and sailors stationed aboard the Combat Center were carrying out their military mission, Jan. 28, 14 members of 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion were working hard on another mission, a mission to preserve the history of Keys Ranch in the national park here.

The warriors volunteered their day to help restore a cabin which had succumbed to the harsh climate of the Mojave Desert and remove unwanted vegetation from the ranch.

While in its prime, the ranch was bustling with activity.

But now, the ranch has transformed into a slow-moving tourist attraction, more akin to sunny days with sightseers milling around the grounds than a haven of hard work and a sweat-built homestead.

With the days of ranch life and constant mending behind it, one cabin fell, leaving behind a pile of rubble covered with the remains of the old, tin roof which provided shelter to the splintered wood which, in better days, provided structural support.  That’s where the Marines and sailors of 3rd CEB came into the picture.

The goal of the volunteer project was to help restore the area to how it looked when William Keys and his family inhabited it in the early 1900s, said John Schroeder, an archeologist with Joshua Tree National Park.

Schroeder said the Keys family was one of the first families who built their homestead in the area and was not forced out by the area’s climate.

“They built everything on the ranch from nothing,” he said, surveying the area. “He even built a schoolhouse because he knew his children needed an education.”

The Keys settlement is now an attraction which can be only seen by appointment Saturdays and Sundays during a park ranger-guided tour at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. from October through May. Weekday scheduling varies and can be checked at the Web site, programs.html.

The cabin belonged to one of the Keys’ friends, Bill McHaney, and was moved to the ranch after McHaney grew too old to live alone, Schroeder said.

“We have historic photographs of what the cabin looked like while it was lived in,” said Schroeder, a San Diego native. “We’re going to use all the original materials and rebuild it exactly how it was before it fell.”

With the exception of the volunteer project lead, Navy Lt. Bryan Davenport, 3rd CEB’s chaplain, the Marines and sailors of 3rd CEB had never visited the park before. Most brought with them a sense of wonder and all came with a willingness to work.

“We came out to help,” Davenport said. “The roof was sitting on top of what was left of the cabin, so we had to move it to let the archeologists see what they have to work with when they rebuild it.”

Besides providing the manpower and engineering know-how to move the roof properly, the Marines and sailors also picked weeds which had grown up in the ranch’s disuse.

“It was a big job,” Schroeder said. “If the little group of park rangers here and I tried to pick all the weeds, it would take us forever. Having these Marines out here really helps us to preserve the ranch for the future.”

Marines have a history of helping keep Joshua Tree National Park beautiful, said Laureen Lentz, the volunteer coordinator with the park.

“We always have groups of Marines out here doing odd-jobs and helping us,” she said. “It’s great because not only are we getting help, the Marines stationed here get the chance to see how beautiful the park is and what it has to offer.

“I know a lot of Marines never come here, and once they do, they normally realize what they were missing,” Lentz said.

Lance Cpl. Michael Ehrhart, a field radio wireman with Headquarters and Service Company, 3rd CEB, made his first venture into the park when he volunteered to help preserve the ranch, and he said it won’t be his last.

“I’ve never been here before, but I’m coming out here this weekend,” said the Columbia, Md., native. “I’m glad I got the opportunity to come out here, I never realized the desert in our backyard could actually be cool. It seems like a whole new world in the park – and I would have never known about it until I came out here.”

For information regarding volunteer opportunities in Joshua Tree National Park, contact Lentz at 367-5524.

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