Plaque marks site of Barbara Worth

  • Smoke rises from the Barbara Worth Hotel in this Jan. 21, 1962, photo from the El Centro Fire Department archives.

Staff Writer

"Rock Around The Clock" was playing at the Palms Movie Theater on Main Street in downtown El Centro the night the Barbara Worth Hotel, just down the block from the theater, burned to the ground in 1962.

Liz Villalobos of El Centro remembers the night well. She was an 11-year-old schoolgirl on her way home from the movies when she saw the beginnings of the fire that would eventually conquer the large and opulent hotel, an Imperial Valley landmark since it was built in 1915.

"When it started it was just a small fire but later that night we could feel the heat from the fire on the walls of our house over on Park Street," Villalobos recalled Thursday morning as she watched the unveiling of an historical interest plaque at the corner of Seventh and Main streets to commemorate the hotel and the part it played in Imperial Valley history.


The plaque was presented to the city by the El Centro Rotary Club as part of its 80th birthday celebrations. El Centro Rotary meetings were a fixture at the hotel beginning in 1921 and continuing until the hotel was destroyed.

Built by a financial consortium headed by Holtville city founder W.F. Holt, the hotel stood for years as a focal point for Imperial Valley's business and social life.

Holt was friends with author Harold Bell Wright, who penned "The Winning of Barbara Worth," a novel that became a movie starring Vilma Banky and Ronald Coleman. The movie launched the career of actor Gary Cooper.

The book, based on the settling of the Imperial Valley at the turn of last century, had as its heroine the fictional heroine Barbara Worth and when the book became a best seller with over 2 million copies sold, the name Barbara Worth passed into local legend and was used to name roads, schools and in this case — a hotel.

"It was really the heart of El Centro — both business-wise and socially — and it was a really beautiful building," George McFaddin, retired local businessman and past president of Rotary, commented after the ceremony.

Pointing across Main Street to where a bail bond business now stood, McFaddin explained, "There was a restaurant there in the early days and between that restaurant and the restaurant in the hotel — one place or the other — that was where you would find every farmer in the Valley. That's where they would conduct their business starting at 5 in the morning."

Another Rotarian on hand for Thursday's unveiling was retired firefighter Norman Heil of El Centro.

Heil, who worked for the El Centro Fire Department for 31 years, remembers fighting the blaze for a day and a night until there was nothing but the charred foundations of the hotel remaining.

"We couldn't get to the base of the fire at all because it was down in the basement and there was so much smoke. We made a good attempt to save the hotel but it was impossible," Heil said, looking beyond the plaque to where the hotel once stood.

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