One of the most colorful Palm Springs pioneers was Zaddie Bunker, a can-do woman who became nationally famous as the “Great-Grandmother Pilot.”
Born in Missouri in 1887, she and her husband, Ed Bunker, came to the village of Palm Springs in 1914 in an old Maxwell car. They first lived in a corrugated lean-to on Main Street (now Palm Canyon Drive) and Andreas Road, where Ed worked as a blacksmith. They both studied auto mechanics from handbooks, and they opened Bunker’s Garage; they made the structure from sheet iron. They bought additional property and also built the Bunker Cottages.
Ed eventually left Zaddie and their young daughter, Frances. He relocated with his new wife up on the Palms to Pines Highway, where he ran cattle out of the Bunker Ranch. Ed died in 1969.
Zaddie stayed in Palm Springs and ran the garage alone—and went on to become one of the village’s most successful entrepreneurs and wealthiest landowners. Her daughter, Frances, would later marry Earle Strebe, who was instrumental in bringing movie theaters to town, including the historic Plaza Theatre.
In the early years, the person responsible for transporting mail and passengers from the train station to town was Nellie Coffman’s son, George Roberson. Nellie had established The Desert Inn, which had become the primary place to stay for visitors to Palm Springs. When George went off to World War I, those transportation duties went to California’s first female holder of a chauffeur’s license—the indomitable Zaddie Bunker.
Bunker’s Garage was, at the time, the only place in the area that repaired motor vehicles—and at first, there were only four cars in the entire village! Zaddie was a skilled mechanic, and her bib overalls were often covered with grease as she took off to the train station to pick someone up.
Two of Zaddie’s sisters had also relocated to Palm Springs. One, Henrietta Parker, who was married to a railroad brakeman, arrived at the Garnet train station (the earlier-named Seven Palms train station), in July 1914. In a 1988 article in The Desert Sun, she recalled that Zaddie and her 7-year-old daughter, Frances, drove her down the dirt road called Indian Avenue, which was lined with pepper trees. Henrietta remained in Palm Springs her entire life.
The other sister, Lillian Goff, was the owner of a hotel on North Palm Canyon Drive, on the site of what would later become the El Morocco Hotel. Goff eventually left Palm Springs and relocated to Pasadena.
Zaddie and Henrietta together bought a lot across the street from Bunker’s Garage. The garage itself was remodeled and turned into the first bank in Palm Springs; later, in 1929, it became the popular Village Pharmacy. It was part of the block that was razed for the Desert Fashion Plaza (in the area now between Palm Canyon and the new downtown park), which opened in 1967.
In 1930, Frances married Earle C. Strebe. Zaddie and her son-in-law began working together on many real estate projects—building theaters, and leasing most of the downtown block to Irwin Schuman for the historic Chi Chi nightclub. They built the Village Theater next door to the garage in 1932.
Zaddie became quite wealthy, and her grandchildren realized millions when Bunker’s Garage and the Village Theater were sold.
At an age when many people begin to slow down and enjoy the fruits of their labor, Zaddie Bunker was just getting started. She went on to become known as the “flying grandmother.” She took flight instructions in San Bernardino, got her pilot’s license at age 60, and “soloed” in 1952. She received her multi-engine rating at age 63. She was still flying when she was a great-grandmother, and her private plane, “Zaddie’s Rocking Chair,” had the name stenciled on its fuselage.
The press loved her and regularly reported on her exploits, like winning the Powder Puff Derby air race. In 1962, while in her mid-70s, Zaddie won an airplane race from Dateland, Ariz., to El Centro, Calif., beating five male pilots.
At age 73, she had passed the tough physical for Air Force jet pilots, and became an honorary Air Force colonel. She was allowed to pilot an F-100 Super Sabre jet, becoming one of the first women to break the sound barrier.
In 1959, the “Supersonic Great-Grandmother” went to Spain as part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s People to People program. According to The Desert Sun, she “stole the hearts of city officials and 80 little orphan girls in Seville.” Also in 1959, she was a surprise honoree on the immensely popular national TV show This Is Your Life.
Once, while in Washington, D.C., for a race, Zaddie returned to her hotel to learn that then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s secretary had been calling all afternoon. Nixon had wanted to meet the famous lady pilot, and invited her over the next morning. It was a real thrill for the former desert mechanic.
With her can-do attitude, she even applied to take part in an Apollo moon flight. They let her have some time in the space-capsule simulator, but she didn’t get the bid. All who knew her felt she could have done it.
The remarkable woman who refused to acknowledge failure finally proved to be mortal; she died in 1969, one week shy of her 82nd birthday.
Sources for this article include The Desert Sun, a 1988 article and assorted archives; Palm Springs: First 100 Years by Mayor Frank M, Bogert (Palm Springs Heritage Associates, 1987); Palm Springs Legends, by Greg Niemann (Sunbelt Publications, 2006).