Mathilde “Ma” Preston: Queen of the Desert

The stern appearing lady with her French lilted English showed up in Calico with plans for the future, and a desire to succeed in what was still a man’s world. Cafes and rooming houses in Daggett sprang up.  These were used as meeting places for business, as well as entertainment.  One of the more popular gathering places was known as “Ma Preston’s.”   She had moved from Calico after marrying Tom Preston, who had discovered a silver lode but moved to Ludlow for the construction boom. Besides being a miner, Tom had been a  partner in a saloon venture in Calico. Sadly, Tom tended to drink away his profits until he met Mathilde, a tough-as-nails stocky woman from France with big ideas and bigger fists.  She was known by her mining camp handle as “Big Mary.” We know her today as “Mother Preston,” or “Ma Preston.”

The Weekly Sun 14 July 1899 (Real Estate Transfers)

We originally mentioned Ma Preston in our Daggett article. Mathilde, known as “The Queen of the Desert,” became one of the principal land owners in several mining towns, and also operated a number of boarding houses. According to Dix Van Dyke, in his book, Daggett, Life in a Mojave Frontier Town, she had been a brothel keeper in Calico and accused of robbing drunken customers. Van Dyke continued, ”Ma Preston was a madam of sumptuous proportions and valorous spirit, capable of locking the head of an unruly client in the crook of an immense arm and pummeling his face with her windmilling fist.” Van Dyke went on to further describe her as having “a sour, morose nature, a fighting heart, and great physical strength. Short and chunky, with broad shoulders and powerful arms; she was a dangerous antagonist in a rough-and-tumble fight. No man in his senses desired a contest with her.” He added, “When sixty years old, Mother gave a sober man an unmerciful beating. This by the simple expedient of wrapping one arm about his neck and clasping his head against her bosom while she punched his face.”

The San Bernardino Sun 28 May 1901

In his book, Upper Mojave Desert–A Living Legacy, young John T. Connelly recalled, “My Uncle Jerome would take me across the river to the Daggett business district to buy groceries and supplies at Hillis’ store.  I’ll never forget a woman named Mrs. Preston.  She had a saloon and a grocery store.  She’d walk to the depot, pick up a quarter of beef, throw it over her shoulder, and carry it back to her store. She was quite a character, I’ll tell you. Always ready to a fight a man at the drop of a hat. Yes, indeed, she was some gal.” 

There was no doubt that Ma Preston was as tough as nails and she was all business. In a time when women were often taken advantage of by scoundrels and thieves, Ma Preston was quick on the draw with a most formidable weapon when reason, brute force or the local police failed to amend a situation in Ma’s favor; a bulldog attorney. Various newspapers took notice and recorded her colorful life in the legal arena. In one such instance, she summoned Constable Charles L. Lestrange after a boarder skipped out of Ma’s place in Daggett without paying the rent he owed. James Price was arrested. He in turn sued both parties for $6,000 dollars for trumped-up charges and false imprisonment. However, Price accepted $50 out of court before the case was heard, which negated further civil reward.

The Los Angeles Times 02 July 1902
The San Bernardino Sun 1902

According to the San Bernardino Sun article published on April 17, 1960, after Ma and Pa Preston arrived in Ludlow in late 1902 or early 1903, Tom started a delivery service to Camp Rochester at the Bagdad-Chase Mine hauling provisions, light freight and personal affects to the growing mining community. Mathilde contributed all of the initial capital to the partnership and started a saloon in Ludlow while Tom was hauling provisions and baggage. The Preston Saloon and its adjoining hotel were north of the Santa Fe Depot, just across the half-street that became Ludlow’s main thoroughfare. Other hotels and saloons were to follow but none would be as successful as Calico’s erstwhile Ma Preston’s and her name became known all over the southwest.

Ludlow old-timers described her as a woman possessing a vocabulary as salty as that heard at the Fulton Street fish market, a voice comparable to Cape Mendocino’s fog horn, and a frame as generous as that of a hippopotamus. Ma Preston was not only big, not only loud but thrifty, as well. For free firewood, she routinely helped herself to the white oak railroad ties that Santa Fe stacked nearby. Using her great physical strength, she would pick up a tie, toss it over her shoulder and amble back to her woodpile to be cut up into chunks for her stove. Santa Fe never billed Ma for her unorthodox firewood. It did, however, move its stacks of ties farther west. That just meant a longer walk for Ma Preston. That is, until the Tonapah and Tidewater began using Ludlow as their construction headquarters.

Ma noticed their railroad ties were white oak too and would make excellent stove chunks. From his office in the first little T & T building, Superintendent Wash Cahill, had other ideas. When he spotted her one late afternoon attempting to jack a tie, he trotted out, accosted Ma and intimated the practice might be risky because T & T guards had been ordered to “shoot first”. Ma gave Wash a generous portion of her celebrated vocabulary, dropped the tie and sauntered away. Ma had no desire to catch a watchman’s bullet.

The San Bernardino Sun article published on April 17, 1960, continued by saying the Murphy brother’s arrival to Ludlow several years after Ma started her saloon and hotel signified competition and promptly hatched the most infamous of Mojave Desert feuds. Michael and Thomas Murphy came from Ireland as youngsters. Tom Murphy drove into Greenwater with a wagonload of goods when Nevada’s mining boom spilled over east into Inyo County. He opened a store in a tent and sold food and supplies to the miners. In 1906, Tom bought out the Fox Store in Tecopa. His brother Mike ran that store and Tom stayed in Greenwater.

When Greenwater faded in the 1907 panic that quieted most of the Nevada mining camps, Tom moved his goods to Ludlow. He obtained a lot on Main Street, about a hundred feet from Cone Street, the major north-south artery, and built a one-story frame building. It was immediately west of the 2-story concrete building erected in 1908 by John Denair, the former Santa Fe official turned mine operator and merchant. Denair was doing business under the name of Ludlow Mercantile Co.

Mike packed up his store and shipped the stock to Ludlow when the Noonday mine closed in Tecopa. Almost immediately upon his arrival, Ludlow Mercantile Co. and its building were foreclosed by Ma Preston. That made Ma Preston and the Murphy brothers next-door neighbors with little room between the establishments thus the Ludlow feud was born. Ma Preston accused the Murphys of building their store a couple of inches over the former Denair property line, which she now owned.

Later, Ma discovered her stock tub she liked to bathe in at night behind her hotel was found turned over. She unleashed an endless barrage of epithets on Tom and Mike Murphy. Mike grabbed a short hose and the incident became violent. Afterwards, Ma Preston recounted the attack and showed many a surprised eye when she lifted her Mother Hubbard dress to expose her hose-welted backside to anyone curious enough to inquire about the incident and a few that didn’t. Both parties lawyered up.

Ma sued Mike Murphy for $20,000 worth of damages for injuries she sustained. Mike Murphy was half her age. She alleged he knocked her down repeatedly, sat on her and beat her with a rubber hose with the intent of killing her. Witnesses tried to intervene but Murphy threatened their lives too. The case was settled out of court for half or less to both parties satisfaction. It was said that many of a newspaper reporter was disappointed for not getting the chance to write about the anticipated spicy testimony that would ensue. Ma remained an astute businesswoman to the end.

The San Bernardino Sun 28 Oct 1915
The San Bernardino County Sun 02 Nov 1915
San Bernardino News 27 Oct 1915

In 1919, as strange as it seems, Ma Preston had a change of heart and sold her store and hotel…to the Murphys. The brothers bought Ma’s store and renamed it Murphy Bros. General Store. The Preston hotel east of the onetime old Denair store, became the Murphy Bros. Hotel. The old Murphy store became a warehouse. During WWI, Ma Preston remained patriotic to her homeland. She cashed in her French war bonds and planned to return to her native country of France. Ma knew she could live like aristocracy in France on her savings.

Tom got wind that Ma was planning to sail to France with their savings without him. It was finally Tom who needed a bulldog attorney. He took Ma to court. The court sided with Tom. The court declared Ma could pay Tom the equivalent of 20-years worth of wages while he was married to her, or take him to France with her. Ever the pragmatist, Ma decided on the second alternative.

Thomas Preston’s passport application, 1920.

Tom “Dad” Preston told his old friend Sheriff Shay he had never been photographed in his life.  Tom decided to have his very first and only photo taken with his wife Mathilde by his side when they applied for their passports together.  Both were notoriously shy when it came to cameras. So newsworthy was this momentous event that the San Bernardino Sun ran a story about it the next day.  No other known authenticated photos exist of the pair together.      

Tom and Mathilde Preston, 1920.

Tom’s passport photo is the only authenticated facial photograph of Ma Preston too. Because Tom said he had never been photographed before, we can only surmise he decided to have one taken with his wife Mathilde. Both were notoriously shy when it came to cameras. No other known authenticated photos exist.

San Bernardino County Sun, 29 June 1920

Both Tom and Mathilde returned to her native France to live out the rest of their days near Paris. In 1926, Mathilda passed away exactly five months and one day after Thomas died of natural causes. The official cause on her death certificate was attributed to “myocardial insufficiency” –Mathilde had often said she could not live without Tom–and some speculated she died of a broken heart.  Since Tom and Mathilde’s marriage bore no children, she anonymously left $70,000 dollars, a sizable estate even by today’s standards, to her five nieces in Paris. The stories about “Queen of the Desert” Mathilde Preston remained legendary and her fame still lives on years later even until this day.

Needles Desert Star 12 Nov 1926
Top photo and this. What remains of the Murphy Bros. General Store in Ludlow. Photos taken in 2017.
The Los Angeles Times 14 Nov 1926

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.