Thursday, 01 December 2016 12:39

Nellie Coffman, Mother of Palm Springs

Written by Jeff Shotwell
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Palm Springs early 1900's Palm Springs early 1900's

Back in 1908, Palm Springs was just a small village in the desert with few creature comforts; there was no electricity, telephones or gas, and very little water - the roads weren't even paved. So what drew Nellie Coffman to this dot on the map? Well, at first it was the climate, which she and her husband, Dr. Harry Coffman, hoped would cure her relentless cough. But she stayed because she loved, in her words, the "space, stillness, solitude, and simplicity".

Nellie and her husband purchased a sturdy home with a granite fireplace on two acres of land near hot mineral springs; it was located across a seven-mile expanse of desert from the train station. At the time, there were more Cahuilla Indians living there than white folks, who numbered only about twenty. 

Finding the atmosphere, community and climate to her liking and good for her health, she and her husband decided to open a sanitorium they named The Desert Inn to help those afflicted with respiratory problems and tuberculosis. At first Harry bought a number of tent houses for his patients; he also encouraged community and co-mingling among guests by building ramadas that had palm frond roofs for shade.

Nellie was a natural at innkeeping, having grown up with a father who managed a Santa Monica hotel. Written reports from the time say that Nellie always made Desert Inn patients feel more like invited guests who were part of a welcoming community with her warm, embracing manner, good food, attention to detail and clean conditions.

Over the years, as cars became more commonplace, The Desert Inn expanded and began attracting tourists and notable guests, who started outnumbering patients. Although her husband disagreed, Nellie decided to make The Desert Inn strictly a hotel. This decision divided the couple - they divorced and he left, but she remained to operate the hotel with her two adult sons. Through the popularity of Nellie's resort hotel and her continual efforts toward modernization over the years, Palm Springs flourished in the 1920s, blossoming into a glamorous town and bestowing upon Nellie the nickname "the mother of Palm Springs". The town even honored her with an 80th birthday party in 1947.

Five years after Nellie died in 1950, which was mourned by all of Palm Springs, remaining family members sold The Desert Inn, and in 1966 the hotel was razed. But Nellie's legacy lives on in the beauty and success of the town she loved and raised like her own child.

Come visit Palm Springs and see for yourself why Nellie Coffman fell in love with this beautiful place.


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