Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Remnants of a final wave of federal land grants, hundreds of 1950s "jackrabbit homesteads" still haunt a distant corner of the Mojave desert.
When she thinks back on her family's first trips to their homestead in Wonder Valley, California, Joanne Anderson remembers the desert tortoises. "Finding them was the fun thing about going out to the cabin," she's said of their post-war weekends in the far-flung corner of San Bernardino county, five hours from their house in Pasadena. "They were all over the place in those days."
There weren't many other settlers out there in 1948, when Anderson's father, James Hart, obtained his five sandy acres through the Bureau of Land Management's Small Tract Act. As a WWII veteran, Hart got priority in his application for the land, just a short distance from the Mojave Desert's Joshua Tree National Park. Arid, undeveloped, and sparsely beautiful, Wonder Valley was deemed “useless” by the federal government, and so was portioned out for mostly recreational use at $10 to $20 an acre. The sole requirement was that the applicant "proved up" the land with a small house.
But by the time the Harts completed their hand-hewn cabin and received their official federal patent in the mid '50s, tens of thousands of others—mostly working-class Angelenos, and notably, a number of single women—had applied for five-acre leases in and around the Wonder Valley area. Those who received their patents were some of the last Americans to "homestead" in the traditional sense of the word: Claim raw land from Uncle Sam and eke an existence out of it. As Desert Magazine wrote in 1950:
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.
Thousands of tiny dwellings, in fact—some pre-fab (an industry sprang up around providing these) and some hand-made, dotting the spare landscape like a pop-up moon colony.
Anderson's family was one of the few to actually maintain their jackrabbit homestead (named for the desert bunnies that took to hiding in a cabin's shade), however. For most, even with air conditioning and off-road vehicles, traveling to and surviving in the harsh, remote Mojave proved incredibly challenging.
"[Homesteaders] were paying property taxes, and they expected infrastructure in return," says Kim Stringfellow, an artist and educator in Joshua Tree and Associate Professor at San Diego State University. "But the cabins created this pattern of sprawl, and that created a headache for the county. It takes a lot of wire to get electricity to houses spread out on five acre lots."
Although some stayed and even built out permanent dwellings, many original homesteaders abandoned their cabins after just a few years. What the Los Angeles Times called "one of the strangest land rushes in Southern California history" died down by the late '50s. Expectations were too high, and the desert too rough. In 1976, the Small Tract Act was repealed.
In essays, photographs, maps, and recordings, Stringfellow has extensively documented the history of Wonder Valley's jackrabbit homesteads. Today hundreds of derelict shacks, easily viewed from State Highway 62, lend the region a "ghostly and feral presence." "People traveling through would ask all the time, 'What are those cabins?'" says Stringfellow of what inspired her work. "And there just wasn't that much information. For the locals, it was just too recent to feel like a valid historical experience to really talk about."
That might be in part because a smattering of homesteads are occupied: Some by original owners, others by drifters, and increasingly, by a community of artists, drawn to the open, cheap, beautiful land. "By 2000, you have housing getting really expensive in Los Angeles," says Stringfellow. "So you get this wave of people drawn by this very romantic connection to the cabins, and to this environment. They are these contemporary homesteaders."
Unlike other modern homesteaders, Wonder Valley-ites now have roads and grid electricity, although water still requires a well or a tank. As urban a desert as the Mojave is, it's still not forgiving to humans, or to other animals. Joanne Anderson still takes trips out to Wonder Valley, now with her own grandchildren. But along with many of her old neighbors, those desert tortoises have disappeared.
The exhibit "Kim Stringfellow's Jackrabbit Homestead" is on view at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, California, through August 23, 2015.