The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary and curatorial project led by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for our audience.
Around the time that W. Storrs Lee’s book, “The Great California Deserts,” appeared on store bookshelves in 1963, the American frontier appeared to be finally closing. That is, for those desolate federally-held lands of the Mojave Desert and other undervalued areas across the country that Uncle Sam had been giving away — or being “disposed of ” — according to the official objectives of this “baby” homestead act that had become extraordinarily popular during the previous decade.
Lee opens the chapter with the detailed description below of a sardonic professional auctioneer at work in a packed Los Angeles auditorium prodding anxious bidders to slap down $500 or more for a measly patch of desert — complete with no water, electricity, mineral rights or even shade — let alone a parcel that they had actually seen in person. The event had taken place on March 18, 1957, after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had decided to dispose of thousands of acres of unwanted public land assets via auction instead of the original requirement calling for the construction of a small habitable “jackrabbit” homestead that allowed the leasee to eventually acquire the tract outright — few strings attached. These “land grab” auctions would continue over several years until public interest had petered out and the local governing officials balked at overseeing the county infrastructure that had resulted from them.
“What am I offered for this parcel, ladies and gentlemen?” he trumpeted with a hint of sarcasm. “What am I offered? Five acres, and all sand. Uncle Sam appraises it at ten dollars. But I don’t wanna cheat you. Cactus and rattlesnakes go with it, but no water. It’s crawling with rattlers. No oil, no gold; government hangs onto the mineral rights. Cactus and greasewood are all you’ll ever harvest on it. Five acres of the saddest-looking desert north of the Mexican Border. Forty miles from nowhere. Cost you a fortune to bring in water. What am I bid? Ten dollars an acre, says the government. Who wants to lead off with — ?”
Five hundred dollars!” screamed a lady in the middle of the jam-packed hall.
Nobody laughed. “Five hundred?” gasped the auctioneer. “Remember it’s cash on the barrel. The lady says five —
“Five fifty,” interrupted a gentleman in the rear in a wilted blue sports shirt.
“Six hundred,” roared a solid-looking citizen in the front row. The auctioneer shook his head in bewilderment. “Understand what you're bidding on, ladies and gentlemen,” he warned. “This ain’t suburban real estate. It’s desert wasteland. Nobody’s holding out on any information. You can spot it on your maps. No water nor promises of water. The rattlers and the cholla come free. It’s not worth — ”
“Six hundred and fifty,” broke in the woman who had first mentioned five. And there was desperate determination in her voice. She knew what she was buying. “Sold! Sold to the lady for six hundred and fifty dollars,” barked the auctioneer abruptly, as if he were afraid someone might jump the figure still higher. “Step up with the cash, lady. Next parcel.”
“They’re crazy,” the auctioneer confided to his clerk in an almost inaudible aside.
Lee stated that land purchased through these pop-up auctions was often sold for as much as 500 percent of its actual appraised value.
The parcels being auctioned resulted from the Small Tract Act of 1938, a federal government program that had been established that year to authorize 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. When the applicant made the necessary improvements to his or her claim by constructing a small dwelling within three to five 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 and governmental perspective.
This “strange land grab” as the Los Angeles Times referred to it was the subject of my second book, “Jackrabbit Homestead: Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Landscape, 1938 – 2008” and was one of the reasons I had decided to move out to Joshua Tree less than two years after the book was published. Yet I did not purchase one of the many claim shacks dotting the more remote areas of the Morongo Basin where this movement was most popular. Instead, I chose a modest 1986 ranch-styled three-bedroom home with truly spectacular views on 2.5 acres south of State Highway 62 in the town of Joshua Tree proper.
Between 1938 and 1977 — between the time when the Small Tract Act had begun and effectively ended — Uncle Sam issued a total of 59,481 patents for 232,473 acres of publicly-held land across the U.S. but primarily within the western states.[i] The General Land Office received 141,536 lease applications during this same period suggesting that nearly two-thirds of people applying had not “proved up” their leases. In California alone, 27,880 patents had been issued alone for 124,487 acres of public land — primarily within San Bernardino County’s portion of the Mojave Desert — considered to be the epicenter of this public land to private ownership land transfer giveaway. [ii] In all, the Feds received a total of $19,271,336 for its “disposal” of our collectively-owned public lands.[iii]
“Folks with the blood of pioneers — or of poets — running strong in their veins, will regard the task as a grand adventure. I know Los Angeles people who spent most of their weekends for months building a stone cabin on their claim. And what fun they had doing it! Two days every week they drove out and mixed mortar and hauled rocks, and stone by stone the little cabin took form. It isn’t a perfect construction job — but it is theirs. They planned it themselves and built it with their own hands — and in terms of spiritual values it is worth more than a mansion in a ritzy subdivision. <br> – Desert Magazine 1944”
Undeniably these contemporary homesteaders differed from the earlier homesteading pioneers as they were seeking land primarily for recreational use and also to escape hectic city life during their weekend desert excursions. Those laying claim to small tracts located throughout the Mojave Desert arrived from the Los Angeles metropolitan area seeking solitude, repose and isolation from traffic jams and other distractions of modern urban life. The trend attracted mostly working-class folks but people of all walks of life and economic backgrounds participated. The act allowed many who had only previously rented properties to actually afford real estate. Requirements for the five-acre homesteads did not necessitate that they live off the land as the original homestead laws required freeing many to “prove up” their lease on a casual, leisurely basis during weekend visits.
Even Frank Sinatra got into the game. Public General Land Office (GLO) records show that Sinatra received his patent for a 2.5-acre parcel located in southwest Las Vegas on July 24, 1959. The land has changed hands many times over but has remained undeveloped. The last time the property sold in 2001 it went for $150,000. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, filed for a small tract near Twentynine Palms but never proved up on his lease as no GLO record for the former president exists.
While some of these “measly” patches of desert are today worth a very pretty penny, others, located in less desirable parts of the Mojave Desert, haven’t appreciated in value much at all. Plus, there’s a downside to this public land giveaway in that it has contributed to countless derelict structures, desert sprawl, piecemeal development and checkerboard public/private ownership making rights of way confusing and other property disputes difficult to unravel. San Bernardino County’s Land Use Services Building and Safety Division recently had to decide officially how to deal with the legacy of these “recreational cabins” regarding code enforcement, structural improvements and classification.
Indeed, many of the Small Tract parcels that became patented in the Morongo Basin were previously purchased and upgraded by adventuresome artists including Andrea Zittel during the early 2000s. The trend continues full steam today. My 2009 book features several of these creatives including Stephanie Smith, proprietress of a highly popular homesteader cabin vacation rental — a lovely green weathered shack in North Joshua Tree that receives 100,000 hits monthly on the Airbnb website.[iv] According to data from AirDNA there were 2,157 active vacation rentals in the greater Morongo Basin which includes Joshua Tree, Landers, Morongo Valley, Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley and Wonder Valley during the fourth quarter of 2019.[v]
Of course, many of these Instagramable vacation rentals and must-have Cabin Porn hideouts are central to the hipster tourist’s “high desert experience” and are the subject of numerous high-profile newspaper and magazine features in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Sunset and Dwell magazines among others. As of late, with COVID-19 forcing those with the financial means to reevaluate their quarantine living quarters, some are opting to purchase ridiculously priced jackrabbit cabin properties. For instance, a tiny 221 square-foot pink cinderblock jackrabbit homestead on five acres, originally built in 1953, in the very desirable Joshua Tree Highlands near the entrance of the national park was listed in July 2020 for $350,000 and under contract — an extreme example of how some of these Small Tract cabins have appreciated over time.
California City’s Big Lie
California City was the postwar pipe dream of Czech-born, Nathan K. Mendelsohn, a Columbia University educated sociologist and professor with an interest in rural community development. After a stint with the federal government researching farm economies, Mendelsohn, known at Nat, moved to California when World War II had ended and began dabbling in suburban real estate development. After several successful years in the Golden State, he ended up working with developer M. Penn Phillips of Salton City fame to develop the town of Hesperia in the Victor Valley area, north of San Bernardino.
By 1958, Mendelsohn, along with his partners, had purchased their very own piece of desert for $6 million — 82,000 acres to be exact, located about 100 miles north of Los Angeles in southwestern Kern County. This northwestern Mojave Desert parcel would be christened California City — a master-planned community where baby booming greater Los Angeles could spread her wings and blossom—due to an “inexhaustible” million acre-feet of water per year that Mendelsohn’s hired civil engineer Olindo R. Angelillo had discovered. “Sufficient to serve a city of some 50,000 residents,” declared California City Development Company’s marketing literature. But these outlandish claims would be negated the following year by the U.S. Geological Survey and others. Still, the public wanted to believe.
The South Pasadena architecture firm of Smith & Williams was hired to create the overall visual concept for this master-planned community that emphasized a modern, social-oriented design. Mendelsohn ambitiously proposed seven “satellite cities” with 30,000 people in each area plus a centralized city of 85,000 people[vi] that would soon eclipse Los Angeles’ monumental sprawl in size and population. Indeed, when California City was incorporated in 1965, it was noted to be the third largest city in California — in terms of its sheer physical footprint covering 203.63 square miles and remains so to this day.
Paved roadways along with water, sewer and electrical lines crisscrossing the great desert expanse were touted in marketing materials as were schools, recreation facilities and other basic services along with a thriving retail and manufacturing business district, a civic center, an international airport and other urban amenities. The eighty-acre Wonderland Park (later renamed Central Park) centered in the main western section of the development was slated to be a central gem of his master plan featuring a cascading waterfall, a par-three golf course, an outdoor swimming pool, playing fields, tennis courts and other recreational perks, tucked around a twenty-acre man-made lake. Distinctive geometric “parasol” architectural flourishes were showcased at the lake’s floating public pavilion. This mid-century futuristic design was repeated in other buildings including the California City Congregational Church and the city’s airport.
Galileo Park, located fifteen miles east of Central Park on a desert rise, was smaller and western-themed with equestrian rodeo grounds and outdoor recreational areas. A museum commemorating the region’s pioneer history was in the planning and an observation tower was built where Mendelsohn was said to daydream his nascent city’s future as he looked out upon the endless maze of newly graded roads in the open desert.
To celebrate Southern California’s car culture, streets were named Cadillac Boulevard, Chrysler Drive, Dodge Court, Chevy Drive and Buick Boulevard. Others were named after renowned universities including Columbia, Rutgers, Stanford and Yale. There’s even one labeled Rommel — after Nazi Germany’s Desert Fox. To attract manufacturing businesses Mendelsohn offered undeveloped land for one dollar an acre if they set up shop and employed local residents.[vii] When the selling frenzy began in 1958, a family could purchase a lot with a newly-constructed three-bedroom house for under $10,000. Empty lots went for as little as $990 with $90 down and $17.50 a month over a five-year period. [viii]
Although thousands of parcels were sold, by 1962 only 175 homes had actually been built. In 1969, the population had reached a whoopingly-unimpressive 1,700 residents with 350 completed single-family residences.[ix] Parcels were sold mostly to Southern Californians but also to far-flung buyers from Germany, Philippines and other countries through bait and switch and other highly questionable hard-sell marketing practices. Some buyers bought in after signing up for a “free” Southern California vacation that would end with a high-pressure sales pitch. Others had purchased land, often sight unseen, persuaded by strategically placed magazine and newspaper advertisements. As of January 1969, Mendelsohn and his associates had pulled in $122 million from the 32,000 parcels they had sold to date.[x]
Mendelsohn’s success lay in the brilliant cottage industry he masterminded to lure thousands of wannabe real estate speculators into his company’s web by operating a worldwide real estate “training program.” Participants were encouraged to invest in land themselves to ensure seller leverage — what better way than to hawk a worthless piece of desert than to show the “up” (an insider term for a buyer) that they, too, had a stake in upcoming California City? The ploy worked remarkably well enabling one of the most egregious pyramid-like real estate schemes the West had ever seen — a scam that would last, albeit transformed, for sixty years.
By 1969, Mendelsohn, who never actually lived in California City, pulled out, selling his company to Great Western United Corp., a Denver-based sugar and mining company for $27.4 million in stock.[xi] As a major stockholder, Mendelsohn continued his influence through Great Western United’s land development subsidiary — Great Western Cities, Inc. but would focus on their development ventures in Colorado and New Mexico until he finally left the firm in 1970 on unfriendly terms.