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 (STA) 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 jackrabbit homesteading occurred sporadically throughout the United States beginning in the 1940s, it proved most popular in Alaska and the far Western states—especially in the southern Mojave Desert’s Morongo Basin region near Joshua Tree National Park. The Los Angeles Times called the phenomena “one of the strangest land rushes in Southern California history.” Hundreds of applicants flooded regional land offices managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) after reading how simple it was to file a claim. Still, jackrabbit homesteading did not take off until the end of World War II when building materials again became readily available and gas and tire rationing had ended.
Technological mid-century innovations, such as air conditioning, also made desert living more bearable. The addition of hardtop paving to California State Highway 62—the area’s main thoroughfare—after the close of World War II greatly improved the drive to the outlying high desert communities. Still, most modern conveniences and infrastructure were absent from the area. The Small Tracts brochure published by the BLM warned potential filers that the federal government was not responsible for constructing roads, providing utilities, or locating water. Indeed, the majority of the tracts were absent any reliable groundwater source. Filers would need to gamble and pay for drilling out of pocket if they wanted to avoid hauling water. Electricity for many Morongo Basin area residents did not become readily available until the late 1950s.
Undeniably these contemporary homesteaders differed from the earlier homesteading pioneers in that they were seeking land primarily for recreational use and to escape hectic city life during their weekend excursions into the desert. 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 seemed to attract a mostly working class crowd but people of all walks of life and economic backgrounds participated. The act allowed many folks who had only previously rented properties 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.
Many jackrabbit homesteaders took great pleasure proving up their leases by building cabins with their own two hands. Others simply purchased prefab cabin models that fulfilled small tract and county requirements from Homestead Supplies, located in two locations within the Morongo Basin. “Spreads” were often humorously named; Aching Back, Calloused Palms, Canta-Forda Rancho, Cost-a-Plenty, Dun Movin’, Jackass Junction, Lizard Acres, Rancho Azoff, and Withering Heights are a few examples. It is said that Wonder Valley was actually named after one of the area’s small-tract resident signs.
Although some cabins have been passed down from original jackrabbit homesteaders to family members or sold to new owners many of the area’s existing shacks have fallen beyond repair lending a ghostly and feral presence to the landscape. Those reclaimed are often referred to as “Biltmores” by local residents and now function as primary residences with additions enclosing and disguising the original cabin.
Today, a small but growing community of artists, musicians, writers and other creative types fleeing rising housing prices and other urban frustrations are reclaiming and re-envisioning the structures as artist studios or as creative weekend 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. These artists and other creative individuals along with other diverse resident stakeholders make up the Morongo Basin’s complex and colorful community set within a strikingly beautiful desert landscape.
- Click here to read Jacob Sowers essay titled, Wonder Valley: Place and Paradox. Sowers is an assistant professor at Missouri State University's Geography, Geology, and Planning program. Sower’s dissertation research, Symbiotic Tensions of Wonder Valley, California: The creation, maintenance, and unpredictability of an Existential Ecotone discusses the cultural geography of Wonder Valley landscape.