Jackrabbit homesteads are only for folks who have a bit of pioneering blood in their veins. The land generally is rough, no water is immediately available, more or less road building has to be done. But fortunately there are many Americans who find infinite pleasure in doing the hard work necessary to provide living accommodations on one of these sites--and cabins are springing up all over the desert country.
--Desert Magazine, 1950
Beyond the proliferation of big box chains, car dealerships, fast food joints, and the nameless sprawl located along California State Highway 62 the desert opens up. Out there, where signs of familiar habitation seem to fade from view, a variance appears in the landscape in the form of small, dusty cabins --mostly abandoned--scattered across the landscape. The majority of the existing shacks, historically found throughout the larger region known as the Morongo Basin, lie east of Twentynine Palms in outlying Wonder Valley. The curious presence of these structures indicated that you are entering one of the remaining communities of "jackrabbit" homesteads left in the American West. The mostly derelict structures located among the occasional inhabited ones are the remaining physical evidence of former occupants who were some of the last to receive land from Uncle Sam for a nominal fee through the Small Tract Act of 1938.
One of the many land acts designed to dispose of "useless" federal lands from the public domain, the Small Tract Act authorized the lease of up to five acres of public land for recreational purpose or use as a home, cabin, camp, health convalescent, or business site to able-bodied U.S. citizens. If the applicant made the necessary improvements to his or her claim by constructing a small dwelling within three years of the lease, the applicant could file for a patent--the federal government's form of a deed--after purchasing the parcel for the appraised price (on average $10 to $20 an acre) at the regional land office. This highly popular mid-century homestead movement reflects the quintessential American desire to claim territory and own a piece of the land even if the property in question is virtually "worthless" from an economic perspective.
Although some cabins have been passed down from the original jackrabbit homesteaders to family members for recreation and other purposes, today the majority of the area's jackrabbit homesteads have fallen beyond repair, lending a ghostly and feral presence to the landscape. Others have found new function as primary, full-time residences with modifications, often referred to as "biltmores" by area residents. A small, but growing community of artists and musicians fleeing rising housing prices and general urban ills of the Los Angeles metropolitan area are reclaiming and re-envisioning the structures as artist studios or as creative retreats. Inventive enclaves forming within this geographically defined area are inspired by the Morongo Basin's spacious desert backdrop, its perceived tranquility, and a desire to form a sense of community within a rural environment. Many have migrated to the region with aspirations uncannily akin to the original homesteaders and share similar outlooks or values with them.
In their quest for renewal and reinvention, musicians and other artists have converged on this part of the desert during the past half-century for the creative stimulation that the openness of the place provides. Cosmic, country-rock music icon Gram Parsons, who frequented Joshua Tree often, died there; and other musicians, such as Tim Easton, Gram Rabbit, Ann Magnuson, and Victoria Williams have homes there.
Artists see the desert as a place of refuge and as a source of inspiration. Joshua Tree and its vicinity are home to a well-documented community of creative types. Bob Arnett, Diane Best, Helena Bongartz, Chris Carraher, Shari Elf, Perry Hoffmanm, Mary-Austin Klein, Jack Pierson, Randy Polumbo, and Andrea Zittel are some of the diverse group of artists living throughout the Morongo Basin and who also own cabins originally built by jackrabbit homesteaders. There have been numerous in-depth articles in both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times concerning the artists' presence in the area. Zittel, an internationally-known artist living in Joshua Tree, co-hosts the High Desert Sites, a biannual series of experimental, site-specific art projects, providing an alternative space for both local and out-of-town artists. Helena Bongartz employs the architectural structure of the cabins directly in her art, using the fascade of an abandoned shack near Amboy to project her video work at night.
Historically, the region has also served as a place to build alternative communities, including those of gays and lesbians. It is not known how many gays and lesbians settled in jackrabbit homesteaders, but there is speculation that some are believed to have done so. A long-time lesbian resident refers affectionately to her neighborhood as the "gay ghetto," a tightly knit community home to many practicing artists who have restored cabins into artist studios and very distinctive creative retreats.
As structures for the imagination, the abandoned cabins have become a catalyst for various human projections, where physical and symbolic constructions of space play out over time. If you look closely, you may also find that the cabins reveal a personal text that describes their former occupants in a much more intimate way. Chris Carraher, an artist and cabin dweller in Wonder Valley, asserts: "The homestead cabin is the other icon that figures this place for me. A pervasive relic of a small-time working-class fantasy land-rush, it is the American Dream writ miniature. Abandoned, ghostly, habited, or reclaimed, the cabin is a lone prop that sets the stage of this tremendous theater at the edge of civilization and wildness, a porous vessel through which the desert and human pass, and pass again."
About the Jackrabbit Homestead Project:
Jackrabbit Homestead is a project produced by Kim Stringfellow exploring the cultural legacy of the Small Tract Act in Southern California's Morongo Basin region near Joshua Tree National Park through a physical installation of photographs, maps, documents, and other related materials. Another component of this project is the Web-based multimedia presentation featuring a free, downloadable car audio tour component available at www.jackrabbithomestead.com. The accompanying book, Jackrabbit Homestead: Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Landscape, 1938-2008 was published in 2009 by the Center for American Places. The Web site and audio tour were funded by the California Council for the Humanites California Story Fund initiative and were released in March 2009.
Top Image: Wormus Homestead. Photo by Kim Stringfellow.