“Homestead is where the art is.”

April 11, 2009

“Out of the Mouth of Boards”

Filed under: Festival, History, Literary, Shack Attack — magicgroove @ 7:16 am

Twentynine Palms resident and member of the Desert Writers Guild Nancy J. Knight contributed a story to the Homestead Cabin Festival Show ‘n Tell in February 2008 at The Palms in Wonder Valley and has kindly agreed to let us reprint it, below.  All rights reserved.

Out of the Mouth of Boards

By Nancy J. Knight

 Homesteading in the High Desert – Morongo Valley, Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, Wonder Valley , and other outlying areas probably began in the late 1800’s, but really began to pick up after WWI and WWII, when veterans hoped the dry climate of the desert, would be a cure-all for the many affects they were suffering from the wars.  There were a lot of conditions that had to be met to qualify as a homesteader, and if you did, the government gave you a one quarter section of land – 160 acres – for about $16.00.  Later, there was some five acre parcels of land called the “Small Tract Act of 1938,” which was, as I understand it, free.  All you had to do was to make the required improvements on the land, and it was yours.

He said:  “Listen, Martha baby, I know you don’t want to leave your family and friends (cough-cough).  And I know you’ll miss the shopping, your garden, and the morning newspaper, but Baby (cough-cough), with all that clean, fresh air in the desert (cough-cough), and the natural beauty to behold, I know this move is the right thing to do (cough-cough).”

The cabin-to-be-built-someday said:  “Why people want to leave their nice, warm homes, beautiful landscapes, comforts and conveniences, beats the heck out of me!  After they get here, there may not be any material to build me, so they may have to live in a tent, an abandoned cabin, or maybe even a cave.  I don’t think the missus is going to like that one little bit, but I can say it is beautiful , and there is a lot of clean, fresh air in this here desert!”

Homesteading was not a piece of cake.  You had to build a “livable” house, and usually an outhouse, in the first year.  There was no electricity, no plumbing, and no running water. Then other improvements had to be made in the following years.  Some committed souls survived, but for most others, the harsh desert life just was not to their liking, and they left.

She said:  “I swear Harold, when you told me the desert had clean, fresh air, I didn’t expect hurricane force winds and sand blowing all over everything!  Why just today, I washed clothes and laid them on some boulders to dry, and that mean, old wind blew them away!  They’re probably – probably…well who knows where by now.  And…and you told me it was beautiful.  What’s so beautiful about sand and rocks? And there aren’t even any trees, except those ole spiny things if you want to call them trees. I just hate this awful ole place!”

After WWII, little by little, growth began to blossom, and by 1947, Joshua Tree had a whopping population of about 550 people!  Small cabins dotted the landscape in the Morongo Basin. I understand there were many turkey ranches in the Sunfair area.  According to some sources, it was estimated almost 500,000 turkeys were there, and it was even suggested the area be named “Turkey Town, USA.”  Well, I guess that didn’t go over, and for unknown reasons, the turkey ranches faded away.  Some say an occasional wild turkey can be spotted.  Gosh, I think I’ve seen some at Wally World in Yucca Valley!

He said:  “Well, Martha, what you think of your new digs?  This sure is a lot better than “tenting” huh?  You were such a sport to put up with it; especially after little Harold Jr. came along, and then later, the twins.  Now I know the outside walls look a lot like the roof, but Bill from down the hill gave me a good price on the stuff.  And look, if you put some yardage up inside, you can partition off three or four little rooms!  How about that?  And look!  You’ve even got a wood   cook stove and little windows so you can look out and see the younguns!  Don’t ya just love it Martha?  Say, I don’t seem to be coughing as much anymore do I?”

She said:  “Yes, Harold I do love it, and I love you for not giving up when I wanted to.  Who could deny the desert beauty … sunrises, sunsets, the little wildflowers in the spring; the little critters that scurry around, and yes, even those spiny old trees have beautiful blooms on them sometimes.  And this land has taught us all to appreciate nature and one another, and many more things that money cannot buy.  Yes, Harold I do love it here.”

Homesteaded cabins were many things to many people.  They were a step up from what they had previously lived in i.e. tents, caves, lean-tos, etc.  As they could afford it, some people added more rooms.  They improved the construction of the cabin to adobe or concrete bricks, or a better quality of wood.  They put in a well, and added indoor plumbing, which also meant not having to go outside to the old “two-holer” anymore.  Others either moved to “larger digs,” or simply left the area.  Believe it or not, some people still live in them, and wouldn’t live anywhere else.  Some folks use them as a week-end retreat to get away from the city.

 But some people were surprised to find that Grandma Martha (on Dad’s side) had left a dilapidated, old, run-down cabin to them in her will … in some god-forsaken place known as the High Desert of California for gosh sakes!  Not only that, but either they had to fix and repair the disgusting mess, or, as deemed by San Bernardino County officials, the most unsightly and more visible by often traveled roads, were going to be leveled and demolished.

The county officials said:  “Look at these ugly, weather beaten, ramshackle shacks.  They’re nothing but eyesores.  What will people think when they come to our area and see these old things?  We must get rid of them, they give a bad impression. And what good are they anyway?  Let’s mow them all down!”

Over one hundred cabins, deemed to be the most unsightly, were razed.  And, although a few of the owners of these cabins did comply with the county’s requests to fix and repair them, most did not – and over 300 cabin owners flattened their own.

As of this writing, only a fraction of the infamous homesteaded cabins were destroyed.  Many still dot the land. Some beaten over the years by sun and wind have only their frames left.  Some are more intact, perhaps a window or two has been broken, and the front door is wide open, and if you look quickly while passing by, you may see an old sofa or a bed.  Sometimes the faded curtains are fluttering in the breeze.   There are still some, who if they had their way, would “mow them all down.”

The cabin said:  “They say that I have outlived my purpose – that I’m no longer needed.  That may be so with some of my fellow cabin mates, but not me.  What?  Am I not entitled to having feelings? I am a part of history.  If only my walls could talk, you would learn so much.  If only you would try to see the beauty in me.  If only you would wonder what happened here.  When was I built?  Who lived here?  Were there children?  What kind of lives did they lead?

If you dispose of me and others like me, what will artists have to paint, or photographers have to shoot, or writers have to write about?  Sure, there are the occasional cabins that though no fault of their own, become involved with some not so nice things.  Sometimes people hang out in them and do drugs, some even make drugs in them, and then there are those who just decide to live there for a while and leave an unsightly mess when they move on.  I can understand why people don’t want these things in the area, but not all of us are like that. Sometimes when people stop to take my picture, I hear them talking, “Mary, it is so peaceful and quiet here (this shouted loudly over the noisy three wheelers that just roared by).  I just love this old cabin.  Why, with a little fixing, we could retire here and get away from the rat race down below (this shouted over the roar of the two four wheel drive trucks that just flew by leaving them in their dust).  And we could sit out at night watch the stars (not really folks, all these houses around here have bright lights on their property that they leave them on all night). Look over there, they’re building more new houses, and look behind us – two more.”  It has really built up around here hasn’t it?  But from the looks of this, they’ll probably tear this old cabin down soon and put up another new house.  Wow, this is getting to be like Orange County huh?”  That’s only some of the things they say.  Some things I can’t repeat.

I only hope that the upcoming generations will have places to go to and to look at, walk around, and wonder what took place there.  It’s too bad big cities and greedy people had to ruin things for us.  Why, I can’t even see my old friend with the pink tiled roof anymore.  I don’t even know if it’s still there.  You’ve heard the expression “out of the mouths of babes …?  If only they knew what could come “out of the mouth of boards.”

August 14, 2008

“Tug of Wear Over Desert Homestead Shanties”

Filed under: Press, Shack Attack — magicgroove @ 6:51 am

I hadn’t realized this Los Angeles Times article from 2004 was viewable on-line.  Tug of Wear Over Desert Homestead Shanties, by Hugo Martin, captures several perspectives on the cabins at the moment just before the real estate boom in the Basin took off, changing the equation for what was then still considered largely worthless property.

Martin includes some early history, as well as comments from Shack Attack advocates and law enforcement officials in addition to residents and cabin fanciers.

April 7, 2008

Development of the idea

Filed under: Festival, Shack Attack — magicgroove @ 1:59 am

The idea of a “festival of the cabins” was first broached by me in 2004 on-line on the High Desert Community Forum, during a discussion of the attitude of shame that surrounded the homestead cabins and their consequent invisibility and vulnerability to destruction. The concept generated some interest, and several of us met at the Crossroads in Joshua Tree on a snowy morning in November 2004 to explore the possibilities, including Eames Demetrios, David Dodge, Ellie Greenwood, Perry Hoffman, Deborah Iyall, Mark Soden, Andrea Zittel, and myself. A number of ideas were put forward and a nebulous plan for a Basin-wide event, a Website, etc., developed that day and in ensuing on-line discussion. However, after a brief while interest seemed to peter out, and when a couple of months later I brought it up again, stating that I was too busy to lead the effort and that anyone else who wanted was welcome to take over the leadership, there were no takers and the concept seemed to die.

In 2007 I developed The Plan: Claims of Territory in the High Desert, an ink-on-paper series that explored the clashing interests in the Morongo Basin as population pressures were beginning to come our way and that included some works about the cabins. Through the exhibition of that series I met Scott Monteith and Andy Woods of Wonder Valley Arts, who shared my interest in the cabins and seemed to understand how they were fundamental to the character, materially and culturally, of Wonder Valley. In our conversation I once again brought up the idea of a festival, and the idea began to take a new direction.

At the time the concept had first come up on the Forum the concern had mainly been one of the disappearance of the cabins through the instrument of shame, such as with Shack Attack. However, in the period since then the Morongo Basin had seen an explosion of development that was fundamentally threatening to its unique rural character. Even my own far-out community of Wonder Valley was experiencing a surge of real estate activity. At the same time, the Marine Base began making expansion plans that contained real potential threat to Wonder Valley. My own strategies of environmental and community organizing began to undergo a change in response to these pressures, and I felt an aggressive move to protect my community was called for. A cabin festival within Wonder Valley could potentially accomplish a great deal in terms of demonstrating the ongoing existence of an authentic cultural and physical community character and of fighting an insidious invisibility that had become dangerous. At the same time, highlighting the history and cultural importance of the cabins could also potentially assist other communities in the Morongo Basin that shared the homestead history and current vulnerabilities to speculation and exploitation.

Scott Monteith, Andy Woods, myself, and fellow Wonder Valley resident Ellie Greenwood (who later had to drop out) began to meet and formulate ideas in late summer of 2007.  Together we formulated a mission of “Discovering the history, celebrating the culture, and strengthening the community of Wonder Valley.” The name we finally decided on was the Wonder Valley Homestead Cabin Festival, highlighting the twin foci of Wonder Valley and the homestead cabins. We also considered whether “festival” was really the right term for what we had in mind, but the association of the word with a time of celebration for special observations and cultural events seemed to best describe what we were doing.

Scope was the subject of much discussion. We ultimately decided that we needed to limit ourselves to a pair of exhibitions, one at Fi-Lox-See and one at The Palms in Wonder Valley. For the flagship show at Fi-Lox-See (“Homestead Obsession“) we decided to hew as closely as possible to a framework of featuring only Wonder Valley artists for whom the cabins were already a central subject. The exception was an invitation for participation to special guest from San Diego Kim Stringfellow, whose research on the cabins for her upcoming book was to be an important educational component of the Festival. At the same time, we wanted to be sure the Festival included as wide an artistic view of the homestead cabins as possible, so we made the show at The Palms (“Homestead Show ‘n Tell“) open to anyone, from anywhere, with work that concerned, included, or was inspired by the cabins. – Chris Carraher

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