SALT LAKE CITY — Johnny Miller likes taking old, worn-down properties and bringing them back to life.
The Mormon and former golf pro turned course architect has delighted in restoring several notable ranch properties. Now his design group is taking on something different — a golf course with a historic Latter-day Saint twist.
Miller recently agreed to help redesign and improve parts of the Warner Springs Ranch Golf Club in Warner Springs, a scenic, rural place near San Diego where the Mormon Battalion once camped.
"I am sort of the Johnny Appleseed of ranchers," Miller said with a laugh. "I think (Warner Springs) is worth people taking a look. It's got a nice spirit about it. The Mormon Battalion connection makes it more meaningful. I like it when history is involved."
Warner Springs, with its mineral hot springs and mountainous landscape, has long been a popular resting spot for travelers. Native American tribes inhabited the area for many years before the first ranch was established in 1844 by John T. Warner, according to a history on the Warner Springs website.
About three years later, the Mormon Battalion, a group of nearly 500 men who volunteered to help the United States fight in the Mexican War, camped there for a few days to recover from a blistering and grueling march across the Southwest desert. For them, arriving at Warner Springs was like reaching an oasis, said Elder Michael F. Hemingway, director of the Mormon Battalion Historic Site in San Diego.
"They had made their way through Box Canyon where they literally had to chip and carve the canyon walls so their wagons could get through. They had suffered lack of food and water. They had come nearly 2,000 miles and were tired and worn down," Elder Hemingway said. "Warner’s Ranch was a major stopping place for those who were traveling. There they got food. There was a warm spring where they could take a bath for the first time in a long while. There they rested before they made their final push to the coast and down to San Diego. LDS youth groups still go to the warm springs as part of youth conferences or other activities, where they read the journals and talk about the faith of those who have been there before."
A golf course was built at Warner Springs in 1965 but the owner "let it go to weeds and nature took over," Miller said.
The Warner Springs Ranch Resort acquired the property in 2013 and is in the process of bringing it back with renovated historic cottages, hiking trails, horseback riding and restaurants under an "Old West" theme.
The first phase of the renovations was completed in 2015. The next phases will include an art gallery/studio, more updated cottages and a hot springs pool complex, resort owner and president Fred Grand said in a press release.
One other significant historic fact is that American singer and actor Bing Crosby was once a part owner of Warner Springs, said Miller, who recalled being a caddy for Crosby when he was a boy and playing in many of his golf tournaments.
Miller was introduced to Warner Springs Resort and its owners by Byron Casper, the son of another famous Mormon golfer, the late Billy Casper. Byron Casper already had a working relationship with the resort.
Miller, the golf television analyst who won 25 events on the PGA Tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1998, is thrilled to be part of the project with his sons. As the Miller design team works on the Warner Springs golf course over the next two years, Miller said he would like to see some kind of granite marker established to recognize the Mormon Battalion's presence there.
"The more of that you get on a property, the more interesting it is," Miller said.
Elder Hemingway said the Mormon Battalion had a "huge impact on the history of San Diego, California and the LDS Church."
"The story of the Mormon Battalion is about ordinary people who accomplished incredible things through their obedience, service, sacrifice and faith," Hemingway said. "They followed the prophet, even when it was very hard. They went through tremendous hardships, but kept going."