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.  We know her today as “Mother Preston,” or “Ma Preston.” If you recall, 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 Frontier Town,” those boarding houses tended to lean heavily towards the definition of brothels, making “Madame Preston” possibly a “Madam Preston.”

Dix Van Dyke wrote,”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.”

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.”  Mathilde Preston became known by locals as Mother Preston and Ma Preston.

There was no doubt that Ma Preston was as tough as nails. Various newspapers recorded her colorful life in the legal arena, as well. Constable Charles L. Lestrange was summoned 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 before the case was heard, which negated further civil reward.

Legal woes followed Ma Preston to Ludlow, where she operated a successful store. She sued Thomas Murphy for damages for injuries she sustained in a physical altercation with him. Eventually Murphy bought the store and renamed it Murphy Bros. General Store. The Preston’s planned to return to Ma’s native country of France.

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 in their June 29, 1920 edition.  No other known authenticated photos exist of the pair together.      

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.

Thomas Preston’s passport application, 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 apparently died of a broken heart. 

Since Tom and Mathilde’s marriage bore no children, she left a sizable estate, even by today’s standards, to her two nephews.


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