Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Landscape

Jackrabbit Homestead


What are all those little shacks?

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 and 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 indicates 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. Continue reading –>

KCET ArtboundJackrabbit Homestead is featured on KCET Artbound.


JRHS Audio Tour

THE JACKRABBIT HOMESTEAD AUDIO TOUR is a self-guided car audio tour of Wonder Valley, California—a Small Tract settlement located east of Twentynine Palms near Joshua Tree National Park. To experience the tour while driving play or download the entire half-hour program to a mobile device or CD. A downloadable driving map is available to guide you along the route. This tour is also available as a iTunes Podcast.

The audio tour features the voices of Pat Rimmington, a local historian from Twentynine Palms; Jacob Sowers, a cultural geographer; Chris Carraher, a Wonder Valley resident and artist; Andrea Zittel, a Joshua Tree resident and internationally recognized artist who co-directs High Desert Test Sites; Stephanie Smith, a Joshua Tree resident and architectural designer. In the final track Andrea Zittel, Chris Carraher and Pat Rimmington discuss Shack Attack—a now defunct federal program that funded the eradication of many abandoned shacks throughout the Morongo Basin region. A bonus track by former Joshua Tree-based singer/songwriter Tim Easton performing Goodbye Blues written by singer/songwriter Evan Phillips from One for the Ditch CD—a collaboration between Easton, Phillips and Leeroy Stagger. Two extra tracks—one by the Ted Bingham, a former BLM tract surveyor and the other by Joanne Anderson, a original homesteader—complete the tour.

Funding for the JRHS Audio Tour was made possible, in part, by a grant from Cal Humanities as part of their statewide California Stories Initiative. Cal Humanities is an independent non-profit organization and a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.



“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

JRHS Photos


“Passage of the Small Tract Act has opened vast areas of land, not for profit or exploitation, but for folks who like to build with their own hands, and who are thrilled by the challenge of creating a home of their own…These homesteads are for people who delight in watching the moon rise over purpled hills, for those who would call the stars by name, and who love the peace that is found only in remote places.”

Desert Magazine 1954