Growing up in Anza we had many colorful characters come down our highway; one such man was Andrew Rolen, also known as Andy the Donkey Man.
Let’s start from the beginning. Andy was born in Connecticut and raised in Newark, New Jersey. At a young age, Andy joined a peddling wagon that sold fruit and vegetables. In 1915 he hopped upon a freight train and traveled the system for many years. He landed in the Fresno area where he drove mule teams for construction companies. That’s where he gained his love for donkeys. He soon got bored with that and hopped once more on the freight system landing in the Palm Springs area in 1931.
For 42 years, Andy the Donkey man had been a squatter on some of the most expensive property in the desert, “Can’t complain about the rent” he would say, ‘when I am run off I just find another place.”
His neighbors included millionaires and movie stars and he even lived down the road from President Eisenhower. Andy gained national recognition when he was featured on a CBS series “On the Road with Charlies Kurault” in 1973. It was a familiar site for the desert community to see Andy hauling water to his tethered donkeys. Andy’s home was a dilapidated homemade sheepherder’s cart which fit his nomadic and unusual lifestyle.
Andy grew tired of the long hot summers, so he gathered his belongings, his homemade cart and his train of donkeys – 35 in all – to make the 35-mile trek up Highway 74 to Lake Hemet and surrounding mountain area to the cooler temperatures. Andy made his living giving children donkey rides for 50 cents, “Current price for once around ‘his’ 7 acres.” He would say.
Andy was no stranger to the Highway Patrol, when stopped he said, “I was going against traffic, just like ya suppose ta, just like I have always done for 42 years.” Andy fought a ticket in court for $5 and the judge told him, “Go ahead and walk where you have been Andy.”
In 1969, Andy would be hit by a drunken driver killing three of his donkeys destroying his cart and putting Andy in a coma for 11 days. He was lucky to be alive. Good Samaritans Rod and Millie Bartow collected enough money to buy Andy a used travel trailer; Andy’s comment was, “There ain’t no place to hook up my donkeys so what use is it.”
At the age of 73, Andy the Donkey Man would be hit by an automobile as he was crossing Highway 111 new year’s eve, 1973. The driver was not cited, saying Andy came out of nowhere. The police warned him many times about walking to close to the highway because Andy was losing his eyesight. The desert’s most colorful and controversial figure was dead.
My memories of this man include seeing his long train of donkeys, every one not missing a step along our mountain roads. My dad made comments of how dangerous this man and his fellow companions made our roads. I remember Eddie Caine taking Robbie Taylor, my brother, Nick and I to Lake Hemet to ride his donkeys.
Thanks for the memories.