JACKRABBIT HOMESTEAD
www.jackrabbithomestead.com

Jackrabbit Homestead is a published book, photographic exhibit, and Web-based multimedia presentation featuring a downloadable car audio tour exploring the cultural legacy of the Small Tract Act in Southern California's Morongo Basin region near Joshua Tree National Park. Stories from this underrepresented regional history are told through the voices of local residents, historians, and area artists—many of which reside in reclaimed historic cabins and use the structures as inspiration for their creative work.

CA Story Fund logoIn March 2009, Kim Stringfellow acting as project director, partnered with the Twentynine Palms Historical Society to host a culminating public event to celebrate the public release audio tour and Web site for this project. Funding for this project was provided in part, by a grant from the California Council for the Humanities as part of the Council’s statewide California Stories Initiative. The Council is an independent non-profit organization and a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. For more information on the Council and the California Stories Initiative, visit www.californiastories.org. Please visit the project’s Web site at www.jackrabbithomestead.com to experience the audio tour online.

Jackrabbit Homestead: Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Landscape, 1938-2008 was published in December 2009 by the Center for American Places. The publication was supported by a generous grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Please click here if you would like to purchase a signed and inscribed copy of this title through PayPal.

Jackrabbit Homestead was featured on KCET's Artbound—a new transmedia project dedicated to the arts and culture of the Southern and Central California. Click here to read my June 2012 Artbound blog installment on jackrabbit homesteading or view the web feature below.

PROJECT INTRODUCTION

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—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.

Although some cabins have been passed down from the original jackrabbit homesteaders to family members for recreation and other purposes, today the majority of the area’s jackrabbit homesteads have fallen beyond repair, lending a ghostly and feral presence to the landscape. Others have found new function as primary, full-time residences with modifications, often referred to as “biltmores” by area residents. A small, but growing community of artists and musicians fleeing rising housing prices and general urban ills of the Los Angeles metropolitan area are reclaiming and re-envisioning the structures as artist studios or as creative 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. Still, all is not idyllic in this desert paradise: other residents—equal stakeholders within the community—find their lifestyles, especially their manner of motorized recreation, conflicting with the lifestyles of those within the artistic community. This, in turn, creates a complex, colorful, but often contentious backdrop to this strikingly beautiful, urban desert landscape.

EXHIBITION HISTORY

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