Posted by: Barbara Evanhoe | November 15, 2011

Jackrabbit Homesteads

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that Keith and I recently made a little trip to Twentynine Palms, California…home of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, and a hearty population of desert dwellers who make this rugged area their home.

The town of Twentynine Palms sits  on the easternmost edge of the Los Angeles sprawl, along California State Highway 62, and is the last place in 100 miles to buy gas if you are heading east.

The scenery is dramatic, as mountains rise up out of the sand, and although it is desert, some plants still thrive, like the toxic narcotic, Jimson Weed, which we saw flourishing along the roadside.

The large white trumpet-shaped flowers and dark green foliage seemed so foreign to the other desert plants, we had to stop and take a photo…it’s hard to believe that something so beautiful could kill you!

Just outside of the town itself, you begin to see these tiny little dilapidated shacks scattered through the desert.

A few appeared to be inhabited, and even fewer had been upgraded from shack to homestead status.

In most, the windows were broken out or boarded up, and although some still stand straight and tall, others have succumbed to the weather, and lie in ruins on the sand.

As single structures they are quite unremarkable, but there are so many of them that you just have to wonder what they are/were, who built them, and why, and what happened to the folks who used to live there?

I was so curious about the story behind the shacks, that I did some “googling” when we returned home, and learned that they are called Jackrabbit Homesteads – no doubt named for the way they multiplied –  and they have a very interesting story.

Evidently, the area – Wonder Valley as it is know today, came into existence because of the Small Tract Act of 1938.

The internet took me to a wonderful website created by author Kim Stingfellow, that is dedicated to the understanding of the Small Tract Act and the community that has developed in the Wonder Valley area.

In her website, Kim explains that the Small Tract Act of 1938 is “One of the many land acts designed to dispose of “useless” federal lands from the public domain, the Small Tract Act (STA) authorized the lease of up to five acres of public land for recreational purpose or use as a home, cabin, camp, health, convalescent, or business site to able-bodied U.S. citizens. If the applicant made the necessary improvements to his or her claim by constructing a small dwelling within three years of the lease, the applicant could file for a patent —the federal government’s form of a deed—after purchasing the parcel for the appraised price (on average $10 to $20 an acre) at the regional land office. This highly popular mid-century homestead movement reflects the quintessential American desire to claim territory and own a piece of the land even if the property in question is virtually “worthless” from an economic perspective. ”

OK. So lots of folks applied for patents, built their dwellings, and then what? Why did they leave, and where did they go, and what makes some folks now buy these little shacks and fix them up?

Many of the answers can be found on Kim’s website where you will find more of the history of the area, photos of the homesteads, interviews with people who live there now, and even a self-guided audio tour and accompanying map that takes you to select homesteads in Wonder Valley, and tells you their story.

You can also visit Lily Stockman’s 2009 blog post for more on the homesteading movement, and where it is headed today.

I invite you to spend some time in Wonder Valley with the Jackrabbit Homesteads…built in the spirit of the Old West, as people just like us tried to live a dream and carve a life for themselves in the California desert.

And, you can be sure that Keith and I will return – map in hand – to take the audio tour of Wonder Valley on our next California trip!



  1. The Jimpson weed is also known as Sacred Datura, the sacred plant of the Havasupi Indians that live at Havasu Falls. It grows wild there and in the Grand Canyon. Another variety, don’t know if it is the same, is the Moon Flower. I grow it in my garden. It is a wonderful plant, it opens at night, you can actually watch it open. It only blooms for one night. The bees love it and it smells wonderful.

  2. I hope you’re including this in the book you’re writing.

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