The story of the Museum of History in Granite began back in 1971, when Jacques-André Istel decided to take himself and his then bride-to-be to the desert to “think of something to do”. He did this by piloting a tiny, twin-engine plane until they got to the far south-east corner of California in the Sonoran desert. When they arrived there he purchased a 2,600-acre parcel of land, a few miles west of Yuma, Arizona, off Interstate 8, where they actually moved to in the 1980s.
Istel and his wife, Felicia Lee, met back in the 1950s after Istel served with the US Marines in the Korean War and developed parachuting equipment and techniques for people to jump out of airplanes. His methods taught people how to leap out of airplanes at 2,500ft and land as if having tumbled from a 4th bookcase: skydiving. When they met, Felicia was a reporter for Sports Illustrated and was supposed to interview him.
Planning to put his property on the map, Istel decided to ask California’s Imperial County Board of Supervisors to declare a spot on the land he owned as the Official Center of the World, since, basically, anywhere on the Earth’s surface could be the center. Then he thought of creating a town around the center of the world, therefore, the town of Felicity was born – which counts now about 15 residents, where, of course, he was elected mayor, for life nonetheless.
But Istel didn’t stop there, he went on and built a magnificent granite monument with inscriptions honoring people and places important in his life: fellow parachutists, his university – Princeton, his parents, etc. He wanted this monument to last far into the future to the year 6000 if possible, so he hired structural engineers that created an elongated, granite triangle made of steel-reinforced concrete sunk into trenches 3 feet deep. The monument was built in 1991 and was 100 feet long, 4.5 feet high and covered by 60 panels of polished, red granite.
But this was just the beginning, he later built another monument to honor US marines that fought and died in the Korean war, and then came others, until 20 granite monuments were built up to this day. They are engraved with writing and illustrations of important events and people from our history, from the Big Bang, the birth of Jesus, Greek philosophy, to the Moon landing, former US president Barack Obama, and terrorism in contemporary time. They are artfully arranged across the desert floor and together they make up The Museum of History in Granite.
The museum’s official season runs from the day after Thanksgiving through the end of March when tours are led by volunteers, however, during the rest of they year the museum is still open, but only for self-guided tours.
Istel is approaching his 90th birthday but he has no plans of slowing down, he still has plans for the museum and all that surrounds it. Also, if residents of other worlds where to visit the museum one day – Istel believes that humans will one day colonize other planets so at some point, they might return to Earth – he has a message for them. On one granite panel that bears a big question mark there is also this inscription “May distant descendants, perhaps far from planet Earth, view our collective history with understanding and affection.”