My parents had a heavy earthwork construction company; during my childhood, it was headquartered in Coachella, CA, in the American Southwest. Post World War II, there was a lot of water infrastructure being built, both new plans but also projects that had been delayed due to the War. I spend a lot of my young days looking out car windows as we went on road trips to check out potential job sites. I remember seeing lots of funny, tiny houses dotting the rural, mostly deserted countryside of the western US, so different from my home surrounded by agriculture.
When I asked my mother about some in the desert; I remember her telling me those were cabins built by city people who wanted to get away on weekends. As I grew older many of the tiny houses grew shabbier and then they started disappearing.
HOW DID THEY COME TO EXIST?
The Small Tract Homestead Act of 19381 opened the door to homesteading 5 acre parcels of public land; “settlers” had to stake their claim, and erect a minimum 192 foot cabin, costing at least $300 in building materials within 3 years, plus comply with the government paperwork. In 1955, the size of the required building became 400 square feet. By the 1970s, the boom of homesteading a “get away” cabin had waned, and in 1976, the act was repealed.
The ones near Interstate highways are pretty much gone, but on the back roads they still exist, ranging from abandoned, collapsing structures to ones that sport new windows and paint. There are also “builtmores” where the owners enlarged the homes, turning them into more substantial homes. Of course, this was more practical in areas where electricity and water became available.
Fast Forward to 2007
When I was appointed to the Governing Board of Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy, I became involved in the process of acquiring land for conservation in the Coachella Valley and surrounding foothills and mountains. A lot of the land we’ve helped preserve in perpetuity has been by purchase of 5 acre parcels (mostly vacant, always from willing sellers), piecing together larger areas to protect wildlife (animal and plant), so future generations can enjoy majestic scenery in our part of the Southwest.
Forward Again to Spring 2021
Desert X, a mostly outdoor art exhibit spread across the valley, held in alternative years, was once again created, despite the pandemic. One of its great advantages was the ability of the public to go, for free, to sites without close contact to others. Off a parking lot in Palm Desert, CA, Kim Stringfellow2 erected s small (122 sq. ft.) cabin based on the jackrabbit cabins; furnishing it in the manner of those early cabins.
1 In the midst of the Great Depression, there were a lot of Veterans from World War I who were homeless; after the horrors of trench warfare, many wanted space around them. However, World War II was looming and building materials were being diverted from the civilian market to war production, slowing down homesteading under the Act.
2 My daughter gave a copy of Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead for Mother’s Day, 2021, bringing back so many memories. If you are interested in more information on this latter day pioneer effort, I highly recommend checking out kimstringfellow.com and jackrabbithomestead.com. Her main focus is on the cabins of Wonder Valley north of Joshua Tree National Park, and east of Twentynine Palms, CA.