Experiments in Living 1:
How Minorities Conquered the Wild West

by Ellie Robins

We all know the city dweller’s stereotype of the small rural community: politically conservative, fishbowl social structure, lacking in amenities. But in the 1940s and ’50s, when the Californian deserts were so sparsely populated that most people considered them a wasteland, new small communities started to spring up in Joshua Tree and the surrounding areas—and far from politically conservative, fishbowl kinds of places, in many instances they were little beacons of freedom in the middle of the desert, attracting those wanting to escape the force of straight white male privilege pretty much everywhere else.

I had done little to improve my homestead, but the desert had done much to improve me.

Kim Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead documents the process by which land in this area was divvied up and repopulated, beginning with the Homestead Act of 1862. This act—the brainchild of a government with a lot of land on its hands—allowed any adult who had never borne arms against the US to lease a 160-acre plot of new western land from the government for a tiny fee, and to keep the land after five years provided it had been cultivated and improved. The Homestead Act was the first American land law to enable women to own land, simply because it failed to specify that applicants must be men—a significant oversight when you consider that homesteading states like Wyoming went on to allow women to vote and hold office before the federal government granted these rights. The act didn’t specify race, either, and enabled many black families to begin to live off their own land, most notably in Kansas. In her Mojave Project, Stringfellow tells the story of two dozen black families who headed out to homestead in the eastern Mojave in the 1910s, most of them successfully proving up—that is, doing the construction and cultivation work that would enable them to keep the land.

The difficulty of sustaining yourself on 160 acres of desert land meant that few original homesteaders proved up in and around Joshua Tree, but the Small Tract Act of 1938 brought a different kind of homesteader to the area. This act, originally intended to allow convalescing veterans a warm place of their own to heal in, granted applicants leases on five acres of California desert land for five years, at a cost of five dollars a year; the renewal of the lease after those five years was contingent on the leasee making $300 worth of improvements on their plot, rather than living off it, as under the original Homestead Act. The idea attracted many people besides veterans, and the little tracts that sprang up after the act was passed were commonly called jackrabbit homesteads. Enough single women claimed these homesteads to win themselves a name: tenderfoot homesteaders. There’s also some evidence that jackrabbit homesteads were popular among gay couples, though sadly there’s less material available today about those couples’ experiences of desert life.

What we do have, though, is a series of articles written by tenderfooters for the monthly Desert Magazine between 1945 and 1950. To put those articles in context: picture a broad expanse of open space on the map, and imagine choosing your five acres on it. You might have visited to scope out the area and see whether you’re choosing land on a hillside, or in a forbiddingly hot basin, or whether there seems to be a source of water anywhere nearby. But maybe not: lots of people didn’t. Then, after you’ve dealt with all the red tape, you get your plot, and you set about proving up. Imagine also that there’s a world war on, or just finishing, and materials and gas are scarce. And now imagine that it’s the early forties and you’re a woman, there’s no equal pay legislation, no legislation even to stop employers discriminating on the basis of gender; there are six women in the House and three female senators and the FDA won’t approve the pill for another twenty-odd years. Even while you’re driving your own prefab cabin out to the desert and digging your own rainwater cistern, everyone’s telling you you can’t.

Melissa Branson Stedman, the first of our documented tenderfoot homesteaders, and an LA-based schoolteacher in her other life, “became infected with the malady” of land hunger “in its most virulent form” in the early thirties while researching an article for a magazine. When the Small Tract Act was passed, she filed for a plot as soon as possible, and after a few false starts with poorly chosen or misallocated land, got her ideal five acres of “nice flat land near the highway, with plenty of vegetation” in 1941. “A city girl with plenty of what it takes,” her bio for Desert Magazine calls her. Here she is on building that rainwater cistern:

Men friends and plumbers said it couldn’t be done, but it was done—despite a harrowing experience. While putting on the finishing coat of cement, rain, sleet and snow started to fall. In my hurry to finish, I pushed the ladder up out of the way. A gust of wind blew it out of reach, leaving me stranded in the bottom of the well. I spent an hour in the cold drizzle trying to scale the sheer walls of the cistern. Finally with skinned shins, frozen feet and a sprained shoulder, I made it. Morning found the cistern half full of ice and water and a couple of drowned rats. To this day I shiver when I think what would have happened to me if I had had to stay in that hole all night.
Melissa Branson Stedman with the snake she skinned.

Melissa Branson Stedman with the snake she skinned.

Elsewhere in Stedman’s successful efforts to do what many men and families couldn’t—make five acres of desert land habitable—she skins a snake to cure her phobia, builds an outdoor fireplace, is reassured by the presence of her revolver, and scrambles to complete work on a 12 x 14 foot cabin before the war makes construction impossible. She drove the last nail in on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Melissa Branson Stedman’s first cement job—an outdoor fireplace she cooked on while building the cabin.

Melissa Branson Stedman’s first cement job—an outdoor fireplace she cooked on while building the cabin.

Fellow tenderfooter Catherine Venn left a well-paid position as secretary to members of the Los Angeles city council, a job that feels like a “squirrel cage” as soon as she starts dreaming of the greater freedoms to come in the desert. Her six-part diary covers the year she spent living full-time on the land; when the year was up, she had to return to her job in order to keep her pension benefits, but she’d come out to her desert home whenever possible.

The most interesting thing about Catherine Venn is how slow she was to tame her tract. She drove an 8 x 15 foot cabin out to the desert and lived in it with very few changes throughout her year here, washing in an outdoors basin. After several months of desert life, she says, “I had done little to improve my homestead, but the desert had done much to improve me.” She seems to appreciate the uncolonised desert and be anxious to preserve it, even while knowing herself to be part of a new wave of colonisation. She was more open to the lessons of the desert, she says, because she had “been still, and listened, harkening to its ways and moods, brooding in its fathomless silences, absorbing its breathless beauty, its warmth and strength.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, this attitude is very different to the one we tend to encounter in men’s homesteading narratives.)

While women like Stedman and Venn won somewhat patronising homage as marvels of willful independence, gay couples who sought out the social freedoms of the desert tended to try to pass under the radar, for sadly obvious reasons. Chris Carraher, an artist based in Wonder Valley, around thirty miles east of Joshua Tree, exhibited a piece on her relationship to the probably gay couple who built the homestead cabin she now lives in back in the 1950s. The pair were jackrabbit homesteaders who headed out to the cabin for weekends and vacations. Chris says:

I have no proof that these men were gay, but neighbors here “knew” they were. When I bought the property they had homesteaded from their elderly heirs, I found faded photographic slides scattered across the floor in the old cabin. The images hint at an intimate domestic association between the two men and an excitement and pleasure in their “hideaway” in the desert. It’s easy to speculate that here was a secret garden, a refuge from the dangerous life of deception and fear that was experienced by many gay people in the suburban areas at that time. But I don’t know any of this; I can only guess from what was left behind.

Today, Wonder Valley has a relatively large, close-knit gay community, despite being on the whole a small, dispersed population, and Joshua Tree has its own gay pride festival: a little continuation of this history of acceptance. And though the area is almost startlingly lacking in racial diversity, there’s still scope here to add a new strand to the old narrative of conquering the wild west: one of new spaces in which to rethink social structures, and of oppressed people claiming their own places in the world.