Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Jackrabbit Homesteads


Joshua Tree, California is a strange place. But J-Tree doesn't hold a candle to the desert communities east of here when it comes to freakiness. If you've ever taken a road trip along Highway 62 through the Mojave, you've noticed the seemingly abandoned shacks peppered across the desert landscape and probably wondered to yourself, who in god's name would live out here? There is no town, no shade, no paved roads off the highway, no water, no source of food or supplies. Just tiny shacks here and there, and every so often a leather-skinned old timer working on his rusted truck out back. There's a pretty interesting story behind all this.

In 1938 a curious second-coming of the homestead act was passed in California, initiating what the LA Times called "one of the strangest land rushes in Southern California history." People fed up with city life and eager for a taste of the pioneer spirit flocked to local land bureaus and signed deeds for five acre parcels of desert wilderness for as little as $10 per acre. The project, initiated by the Bureau of Land Management aiming make a buck off of what the government considered "worthless land," really took off after WWII when rations on building supplies were lifted.

Thousands of so-called "jackrabbit homesteads" popped up all across the high desert, eagerly and simply built by GIs back from the war and working class families looking for reprieve from urban life in Los Angeles and San Diego. For most of these new-wave homesteaders, this was an opportunity to own land for the first time without debt. Many of the homesteads were vacation homes for people who otherwise could never dream of having a second house. But it was every man and woman for themselves: water was extremely scarce -many homesteaders relied on above-ground water tanks that had to be filled periodically by a fire truck- and electricity was non-existent until the late 1950s. It was no Little House on the Prairie, but it was still pretty rough living.

The outpost community of Wonder Valley, east of Joshua Tree and the Marine Corps base in 29 Palms, is the most vivid example of the jackrabbit homestead craze. Hundreds of abandoned structures- most are one-room constructions built from prefab homestead kits- lie scattered around the desert in various states of disrepair. They remind me of empty shells outgrown and left behind by hermit crabs. Because the Mojave desert is so arid the wood doesn't especially rot, but the desert sun breaks down plastic, warps wood, peels paint and melts rubber so that many of the structures appear twisted and gnarled as if in some surrealist dream.

Although most of the homesteads are now abandoned, there are a handful here and there that still house some elderly die-hard desert dwellers or their offspring. But the majority of shacks that have been abandoned have been stripped by meth-heads, scrappers, tweakers and other opportunists looking to rip off everything from copper wire to the kitchen sink, literally.

But all is not lost! There's a new, more uplifting chapter in the story of the jackrabbit homesteads. A small but growing community of artists and musicians have moved back out to Wonder Valley and reclaimed a number of homesteads as homes and studios for next-to-nothing, and taken on the restoration project as part of an underground bohemian enterprise in desert living. You can read about their project here.

Hats off to them. I love the desert and I cotton well to outdoor living, but I think I'll keep my air conditioning and running water. For now at least.


  1. a feel like i had the best mini history lesson on j.tree of my life! this is all so fascinating. ok i love you. bye.

  2. Wonderful post, Lily! Great photos, too.

  3. Thanks for the history! This is such a cool tid bit to know.

  4. I lived out here at one time in my early childhood, when my family first moved to the desert but I never did know why all of these little shacks were out here. Now I do. This explains a lot! Thank you. (I came here actually looking for pictures of the house we lived in for a short time - we called it The Bottle House and it was decorated with glass and bottles all along the perimeters outside.)

  5. (The glass bottle decorated house/shack was out in Wonder Valley somewhere.)

  6. I did just this. I am artist who moved out here for next to nothing, while I live and create in this beautiful place on my 5 acres! Great article!

  7. I just bought a homestead cabin on 5 acres in Johnson Valley. Its Awesome! You can walk around naked


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