30 Jun Project studies jackrabbit homesteads | The Desert Sun
Written by Lynn Lieu The Desert Sun
Littered throughout the high desert are small structures that seem out of place. While some have been refurbished to living conditions, others have been left abandoned. But the tiny l tract homesteads are reminiscences of a history that spurned communities in the Joshua Tree and Wonder Valley areas, and in many ways offer commentary on human habitation.
“I’m interested in how socially and culturally we project ourselves on the landscape in the form of our home structures and things like that, domestic structures, vernacular architecture,” said Kim Stringfellow.
A resident of Joshua Tree, Stringfellow is an artist and educator who embarked on a journey to tell the story of the small dwellings scattered throughout the desert she calls her home. In 2006, she began researching, gathering materials and documenting the history and stories of the desert’s small tract homes commonly known as jackrabbit homesteads.
What resulted was a book published in 2009 and web-based multimedia presentation (www.jackrabbithomestead.com) aptly-titled “Jackrabbit Homestead: Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Landscape.” This week Stringfellow’s work comes to life at the Culver Center for the Arts in Riverside.
“As a curator, I have been very interested in connecting the arts with the desert,” said Tyler Stallings, artistic director at Culver Center. “The show will primarily be photographs. The book came out but there haven’t been too many exhibitions. So that’s the unique thing. So you’ve seen the book but you haven’t really seen the images and some of the stuff that goes along with it.”
The exhibition will feature Stringfellow’s collection of photographs along with acquired patents, magazine advertisements and other related documentation. There will be a typical jackrabbit homestead floor plan mapped out on the gallery floor.
The project also consists of a downloadable audio tour with various commentators telling their desert stories. From historian Pat Rimmington to artists Chris Carraher and Andrea Zittel, the tour was created to encourage visitors to the area.
“I’ve been coming to the high desert for some time since the mid ’90s,” said Stringfellow, who only relocated to the area because of the people she met through this project. “In the last 10 years or so I became increasingly interested in these shacks. I wanted to know more about the history.”
Following World War I, a doctor who was serving with an Army medical unit at Camp Kearney, north of San Diego, began sending veterans suffering from effects of mustard gas, asthma or tuberculosis to the desert. Thus, Dr. James Buckner Luckie is credited as the father of Twentynine Palms. It was his patients that were the first to settle into the modest homesteads.
Then 75 years ago, in an attempt to dispose of “useless” federal lands from the public domain, the Small Tract Act of 1938 came to fruition. The act allowed for the lease of up to five acres of public land for recreational purposes or use as a home, cabin, camp, health, convalescent or business site. If a dwelling was constructed, a process referred to as “proving up the land,” within three years of the lease, the applicant could file for a patent, a form of deed, after purchasing the parcel for the appraised price, which was usually on average $10 to $20 an area at the time.
“Most of the people didn’t really start settling these areas until after World War II,” said Stringfellow. “People were too imbedded in the war. Then when that ended, Desert Magazine in Palm Springs really boosted the movement. They had articles all the time on how to get small tracts and Jackrabbit Homesteading series of articles in every issue so there was information about it.”
What followed was a storm of applicants from all walks of life. These homesteaders were looking for an investment, according to Stringfellow’s research on the project website.
“I think it resulted from the fact that during that time pop culture was the Western.” There were cowboys and Indians, all sorts of things, that were encouraging people to want to have this experience,” said Stringfellow. “People were also just learning about the desert at the time and it had been considered literally a wasteland and people were seeing it in a different light, they were seeing it as a beautiful landscape, it was fascinating, there was history.”
The various owners and their agendas is what drew Stringfellow’s interest. According to Stringfellow’s research, “nearly 60,000 small-tract homestead patents had been issued throughout the U.S, with 27,880 issued in California alone.” Today, the homesteads have either been left to ruin or refurbished creating yet another cultural phenomenon in the desert.
“There were a lot of artists and creative people that were getting these cabins and they were re-envisioning them, they were re-inhabiting them, they were using them as studios, they were using them as vacation rentals,” said Stringfellow. “It’s not just the past that I was interested in, [it’s also] who’s using them and the makeup of the community. It’s very eclectic: a lot of different stakeholders with different agendas. You have artists that are interested and you have them living next to some off-roading NRA that are into shooting their guns. And they both equally have a place within this area.”
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