In the heart of California’s Coachella Valley, in the town of Indio, you’ll find a desert oasis of kitschy travel fun. Shields Date Garden is a working date farm, processor, retail outlet, and tourist attraction all in one. This place has been pleasing visitors since Floyd and Bess Shields came to the desert in 1924 to build a business growing these desert palm fruits. How we came to want to go to Shields Date Garden is worthy of a brief digression.
“La Quinta, California. It’s in the Coachella Valley,” I explained to my buddy Michael as we related our summer road trip travel plans.
“Coachella? I’ve heard of it,” he said with a dawn of recollection.
“Probably from their big music festival,” I explained. It is by far the most popular application of the word “Coachella” on the Internet.
Michael shook his head determinedly. “No, it was something else. It had to do with elephants and camels.”
Well, that alone was enough to make me want to go.
The Shields Knight, Pointing The Way
Shields Date Garden
What he was referring to was this recent piece on National Public Radio about the curious history of the date industry in the Coachella Valley. In short, around the turn of the century the US Department of Agriculture sent “farmer Indiana Joneses” across the globe to find crops to bring back to the states to add to our already impressive ag-production capabilities. Most of the exotic crops that came back were failures, but one botanist—David Fairchild—recognized how similar Baghdad and central Iraq was to the Coachella Valley and correctly deduced that date palms would thrive there. The date farming business took off within a decade, and farmers and businessmen like Floyd Shields were clamoring to get into the business.
The Actual Date Palm Garden at Shields Date Garden
A curious chain of events, including the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, created a frenzy of interest in all things related to Middle Eastern culture, and by the 1920’s Indio, California was capitalizing with an “International Festival of Dates”. People dressed in their finest Middle Eastern costumes (lots of chiffon and sequins) and exotic animals were brought in. Camel races were one of the most popular events of the festival. The festival grounds in Indio on Highway 111 are still the site of an annual date festival.
It was into this setting that Shields Date Garden was founded. As Americans were taking to the roads in increasing numbers, it just made good sense to have a date stand for curious travelers to stop in and pick up some of the exotic fruit. But Mr. Shields took it a step further and gave talks and lectures, explaining the challenging process of growing date palms. Signs were put up along the highway to catch the eye of motorists with the salaciously tempting promise to educate them on the “Romance and Sex Life of the Date”. The presentation became a film, which you can still view today in the “Romance Theatre”.
Your Travel Blog Hosts in the Romance Theatre (it was not as seedy as it sounds)
Tongue-in-cheek fruit porn aside, Floyd Shields was a surprisingly innovative date farmer. Without prior agriculture experience, not only did he learn how to cultivate a rather difficult crop, but he also created his own unique varieties, including the “blonde” and “brunette” dates. He also invented the Date Crystal (still a registered trademark of the Shields Date Garden company, hence the capitalization), sort of like a crystalline brown sugar made from dates, along with dishes to use it in, the most famous of which is the date shake which you can sample at Shields Date Garden (trust me, it’s fantastic).
We love discovering places like Shields Date Garden when we travel.
The Snack Bar: Belly Up and Order a Date Shake
Lastly, Shields Date Garden boasts a fantastic café, with one of the loveliest al fresco dining patios we saw anywhere in the Palm Springs area. And as you wander through the actual date garden, marveling at the majestic date palms, yes, those are statues from the life of Jesus: they were a gift from a Shields Date Garden admirer.
Date Garden Last Supper