By Mark Muckenfuss | Staff Writer
Broken glass and dirt crunched under Kim Stringfellow’s sandals as she picked her way through an abandoned desert cabin in Wonder Valley, a thinly populated plain east of Twentynine Palms.
The walls were nearly skeletonized mostly bare timber frames with a few asbestos shingles still hanging onto the weathered wood of the exterior.
In what once was a living area, a tangle of rusted coils and a wooden frame were all that remained of a couch, its upholstery shed long ago. In the ruins of the bedroom a dresser still stood, its top two drawers gaping and full of debris.
Stringfellow peered in, curious.
“You wonder about the people that inhabited these cabins and what their stories were,” said Stringfellow, 49, an artist living in Joshua Tree. “How long did they live there? How did they end up here?”
The cabins some still occupied, others nearly ghosts dot the desert chaparral east of Twentynine Palms. Stringfellow’s fascination with them has spawned an art exhibit, “Jackrabbit Homestead.”
The show opens at the UCR Culver Center of the Arts in downtown Riverside on Saturday, June 29 and includes photographs, historical material and a life-sized floor plan of a homestead cabin. A companion website offers audio interviews and a map showing where people can tour some of the cabins.
Stringfellow published a book on the subject in 2008. But she has continued to explore the cabins, built as part of the Small Tract Act of 1938, as well as their importance to the landscape and to the development of today’s desert communities. These were the original residents who helped make towns such as Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley viable.
“It looks like a wash came through here are some point,” she said, noting the alluvial soil covering the cabin’s floor. “People would build during the dry season, and they weren’t accustomed to what happened when the rain came.”
Often when a cabin was hit by a mud flow, she said, the occupants would abandon the place, suddenly realizing the utopia of free wide-open spaces and self-determination was more often than not just a fantasy.
Tyler Stallings, artistic director of the Culver Center, said Stringfellow—an assistant professor of art at San Diego State University—”is one of dozens of artists seeking their own utopias in the Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree. Many of them are drawn by the open expanse and the stark beauty of the desert, as well as the affordable property that once drew the homesteaders.”
Stringfellow’s show is the latest in a series of projects and exhibits Stallings has produced in an effort to connect art and the Inland region’s deserts.
“Many nationally recognized artists are choosing to ground their work in and around Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert in a relocation that is akin to the spirit of the Wild West,” Stallings said via email.
JOHN WAYNE EXPERIENCE
Stringfellow said many of those who built the desert cabins in the middle of the 20th century were attracted by the romance of the vast open spaces.
“Everyone wanted that John Wayne Western experience,” she said.
And for just a handful of dollars, they were able to take a stab at it.
The Small Tract Act grew out of a migration of necessity, but blossomed into something wholly different.
The genesis of the historic episode is generally credited to Dr. James Luckie, a Pasadena physician often acknowledged as the father of Twentynine Palms. In the wake of World War I, Luckie was treating veterans with respiratory problems resulting from mustard gas exposure. He encouraged many of them to relocate to the desert, where the air was warm and dry.
Some acquired land through the existing Homestead Act. But meeting that act’s requirement for cultivating a certain number of acres on a homestead was a challenge in the Mojave. In the mid-1930s, a federal land inspector suggested a different set of rules were needed for the region. The Small Tract Act, passed in 1938, provided homesteaders with five acres, requiring only that they construct a dwelling of at least 400 square feet within three years.
For a $5 filing fee and a lease of $1 per acre per year, a person could lay claim to a piece of the desert. If a dwelling was constructed and approved, homesteaders usually could purchase the land for $10 to $20 per acre.
Hundreds of homestead cabins popped up on the landscape after World War II. Even some famous names got involved. Stringfellow said Desert magazine reported that Ronald Reagan applied for a homestead at one time but never built a cabin, so the land reverted to the government.
The cabins were dubbed jackrabbit homesteads.
Stringfellow said the name came from the fact that the local rabbit population would take advantage of the ample shade the cabins offered in the desert heat. As if on cue, as she walked around the corner of another shack, a jackrabbit leaped off into the sparse brush.
“BE BACK SOON”
Some homesteaders made a go of it. Most did not. The result is the half-deteriorated shacks scattered across the landscape. Stringfellow’s photos depict these relics. But while the images are compelling and saturated with color, she purposely avoids any of the mystique that might have drawn the early residents.
“I wasn’t trying to romanticize the cabins,” she said. “I don’t want to do romantic skies and clouds.”
Instead, she wants to intrigue.
“I’m hoping it opens people up to investigating,” she said. “I want people to go out and actually experience the landscape. You don’t have a sense of the scale unless you’re out there.”
Part of the project is a website [www.jackrabbithomestead.com] that contains a map for touring the area and audio interviews with local residents and historians. Stringfellow wants people to understand that the cabins are more than a curiosity, more than a disturbance of the desert vistas.
“Maybe one of these should be made into a monument for the Small Tract Act,” she said. “I hope, at one point, the historical society acquires one.”
Such a monument could tell the history of the homesteads, and perhaps even some of the stories of those who lived there. Although, she said, she’s found more mysteries than stories.
One shack she photographed had remained largely undisturbed since its abandonment. She found shirts hanging in a closet and an old manual typewriter.
“There had been a note posted to the door that was, “Be back soon, something, something,” she said. “It was probably like the last thing that was left there. So this thing has been flopping in the wind for 25 to 30 years, it’s just sort of faded out.”
Such experiences only pique her interest more.
“I think I’ll always be photographing these,” she said. “I never really get tired of looking at them.”