Take a drive down California’s Interstate 15, and you’ll come across a sign for Exit 23 that reads: “Zzyzx Road.” Get off here, and go to the end of the 4.5-mile-long rural road, and you’ll reach Zzyzx, which arguably has the weirdest name of any American town.
If you want the short story behind the moniker of this San Bernardino County town, it was simply given the name by founder Curtis Howe Springer. To truly understand the insanity behind Zzyzx, however, we have to look at bit deeper into the life of Springer.
Born Dec. 2, 1896, in Birmingham, Alabama, Springer claimed to have been a private in the U.S. Army during World War I before getting employed by a school in Florida and later Greer College in Chicago. In the 1930s, he toured the Midwestern states giving lectures and claiming to be the Dean of Greer, even though he apparently never held that title. He was fired in 1930, and the school (which was only an automotive technical college) was forced into bankruptcy shortly afterward. Alternately, he also claimed credentials from made-up schools such as The National Academy, The Springer School of Humanism, The American College of Doctors and Surgeons, and Westlake West Virginia College, among others. Additionally, he would often erroneously follow his name with M.D., N.D., D.O., or Ph.D.
Though he was denied airtime on the popular radio station WGN, Springer was instead granted a twice-daily slot on Chicago’s WCFL as a radio evangelist, where he would often sell his “medicines,” which included an antacid later confirmed to be mostly baking soda and an antediluvian tea made of crudely mixed laxative herbs. He also worked a similar job peaching on KDKA in Pittsburgh.
In 1931, Springer’s wife, Mary, encouraged him to use his supposed healing ways to launch a health spa, which he did in Pennsylvania. However, even in the days before the internet, word quickly spread that Springer was not a qualified medical professional, and the Sept. 14, 1936, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association published an exposé titled “Curtis Howe Springer: A Quack and His Nostrums.” The spa failed after six years.
In 1944, Springer started over by obtaining a new plot of mining land in California’s Mojave Desert (with a new fiancée to boot) and moved to the 8-mile-long and 3-mile-wide property. He named it Zzyzx, entirely as a gimmick, to ensure it would be “the last word” in health. Despite having a new start, Springer still stuck to his old scheming ways. He recruited homeless men from Los Angeles’ Skid Row to build simple concrete buildings, he created an imitation hot spring heated by a boiler (which he passed off as genuine), and he constructed a hotel, church, radio studio, airstrip, and even a castle on the land — all funded by his radio work, “donations,” and sales of special “cures” for everything from hair loss to cancer.
Remember when we said Springer bought the property as mining land? Well, the government didn’t take too kindly to the self-serving town and spa he built instead and sued him for squatting. He was found guilty and fined $34,187 in back rent to the Bureau of Land Management, which refused his eventual payment and instead evicted him and a few hundred of his local followers. He was also convicted of making false claims about his health products and served 49 days in jail accordingly.
California State University later obtained the land to build a research station, while Springer and his wife relocated to Las Vegas. He died Aug. 19, 1985, at the age of 88, but his legend still lives on as one of the oddest stories of a town’s founding that has ever been told.