November 1, 2004

Tug of Wear Over Desert Homestead Shanties

Russell Scofield of the federal Bureau of Land Management visits an abandoned cabin in Wonder Valley. (Irfan Khan / LAT)

By Hugo Martín
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The days of homesteading are long gone. But in the Mojave Desert, on the eastern edge of the ever-expanding Southern California metropolis, the sun-bleached remnants of that pioneering era dot the landscape.

Off Cactus Jack Road in Wonder Valley is a bare frame structure with a collapsing roof and blown-out walls. Outside, a line of red ants and an occasional darting lizard are the only signs of life. Inside, a vintage record player, broken and faded by the sun, lies near a dog-eared Bible on a bare concrete floor.

The shack is one of hundreds of abandoned structures in the desert, left from a time when the federal government offered small parcels of scrubland for a nominal fee to anyone willing to put down stakes.

As more and more suburban neighborhoods sprout up in the desert, however, the weatherworn shanties have lost their decades of isolation, and they're now at the center of a local dust-up. Some longtime desert dwellers see the dilapidated structures as eyesores and want them torn down, while a growing number of newcomers want to preserve the shacks as historic landmarks.
"A little empty shell that is sitting out there is a beautiful thing," said Perry Hoffman, an artist and photographer who moved from San Francisco five years ago to live in a renovated homestead cabin in Wonder Valley.

Beautiful is not how Bob Dockendorff describes them. The Yucca Valley resident helped organize a federally funded program several years ago to demolish the most blighted structures. He said some of the buildings that were razed were havens for drug makers, squatters and vermin.

"When you drove through the area, you got a bad impression," he said.

Dotting the Landscape

Such disparate views are common in the Morongo Basin, a 5,200-square-mile expanse of desert just north of Joshua Tree National Park. The basin is home to more than 66,000 residents and an estimated 2,500 abandoned homestead shacks in various states of deterioration.

Most of the tiny cabins are on 5-acre parcels that were deeded by the federal government under the Small Tract Act of 1938, one of the last of the government's homestead acts. The government's goal was to distribute 457,000 acres of desert that the Bureau of Land Management deemed disposable, most of it in the California desert. By the time the act was repealed in 1976, about 36% of the land was privately owned. The rest is federally protected desert.

Under amendments to the act, homesteaders were granted a deed only if they built a structure with dimensions no less than 12 by 16 feet. No water or power was required. The government was required to charge fair-market prices, but the land was cheap. A couple in Joshua Tree paid $125 in 1954 for a 5-acre lot about a mile from the nearest paved road.

The offer of cheap land drew thousands of applications from World War II veterans and suburban dwellers looking for inexpensive vacation homes. Several construction companies sprang up in the desert, offering to build cheap structures that met the government's minimum requirement.

A few homesteaders stayed and raised families, but many more abandoned the cabins, yielding to the desert's searing temperatures, pounding wind and fierce dust storms. Other homesteaders died, leaving the deteriorating shacks to their children, who had no love for the harsh landscape.

As development has spread into the desert, business leaders and government officials have begun to look disdainfully on the ramshackle structures. The basin's population has grown by about 24,000, or 60%, from 1980 to 2000, according to the U.S. Census.

Five years ago, Dockendorff and other desert residents teamed up with San Bernardino County officials to demolish the most dilapidated and visible examples, particularly those along heavily traveled roads. The program, dubbed Shack Attack, was funded by a $500,000 federal grant and disposed of 116 shacks. At the behest of program organizers, the owners of 335 other cabins demolished their structures.

"The worst of the worst were taken care of," said Bruce Davis, an aide to county Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, whose district includes many of the homestead shacks.

But the cleanup program eliminated only a fraction of the shacks built throughout the basin. Sun and wind have reduced many to sun-dried wood frames. Some shacks still have remnants of the pink or lime-green roofing tiles that were used on the exterior walls as a cheap alternative to stucco or wood panels.

"I think they are eyesores," said Pat Flanagan, the marketing coordinator for the Twentynine Palms Chamber of Commerce, who converted a homestead shack into a guest house at her home in Desert Heights. "They do give a bad image to the area."

Law officers who patrol the Morongo Basin say the cabins occasionally attract squatters and teenagers on motorcycles who throw rocks through the windows. But the cabins do not represent a major law enforcement problem, said sheriff's Sgt. Richard Boswell.

"We don't have an inordinate amount of calls," he said.

Still, the Bureau of Land Management has received at least 50 complaints about illegal dumping at the abandoned shanties in the last eight years.

Russell Scofield, the habitat restoration coordinator for the BLM's office in Yucca Valley, said the dumping sometimes included hazardous materials such as car batteries, which can contaminate underground water supplies.

"The main problem is that they are attractive nuisances" — meaning they attract trouble — "the same as an abandoned warehouse in Los Angeles," he said.

Consensus Is Elusive

Even family members living in the desert sometimes can't agree on what to do about the buildings.

Ronald Phenning, a carpenter who bought, expanded and moved into a homestead cabin in 1982, overlooking several abandoned shacks in Wonder Valley, considers the buildings historic reminders of a bygone era.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's part of our heritage," he said.

Phenning installed electricity soon after he bought the cabin. Over the years, he has added several rooms and a workshop, where he builds tables and other furniture. He must still haul in water from the local water district in a huge tank. An outhouse is a bathroom.

The cabins are also part of Phenning's past. His parents were homesteaders who built a 16-by-12-foot cabin near Joshua Tree in 1950. The family used the cabin as a weekend getaway where Phenning and his brothers chased lizards and organized tortoise races in the sand.

Phenning's mother, Marjorie, has fond memories of the cabin, which the family sold once the boys were grown. But she disagrees with her son, seeing blight in the abandoned shacks.

"They just look unattractive," she said. "Why don't they tear them down?"

In the last few decades, the Morongo Basin has become a refuge for artists attracted to the serenity and beauty of the desert. Over the last year and a half, Hoffman, the artist and photographer who moved from San Francisco five years ago, has renovated a homestead cabin in Wonder Valley with colorful tile, pastel paint and desert-themed artwork. He rents the cabin to other artists, so they too can be inspired by the solitude.

The shacks are not eyesores but picturesque elements of the landscape, Hoffman argues.

"I love them," he said. "They are part of the desert out here."

Christine Carraher is an artist and medical transcriber who bought a home in Wonder Valley 10 years ago and converted an adjacent homestead cabin into a studio. She said she favored the removal of individual shacks that draw neighborhood complaints. But she fears that a wholesale demolition of the abandoned cabins would ruin the character of the region and open the door to widespread commercial development.

"The day that this place looks like San Bernardino and everyplace else, I'm gone," she said.