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Desert Jackrabbit Homesteads Inspire Artists

Above: A Jackrabbit homestead, specifically the Siegfried/Cingel Homestead, U.S. Patent No. 1191061. Photo by artist Kim Stringfellow.

Audio

While driving through the California desert, you may come across derelict shacks spotting the landscape. These homesteads, called jackrabbits, were built by people laying claim to plots of desert land in response to the Small Tract Act of 1938. Our guests, both artists, have explored the jackrabbits in their work, through photographs, audio tours, sculpture and installation.

While driving through the California desert, you may come across derelict shacks spotting the landscape. These homesteads, called jackrabbits, were built by people laying claim to plots of desert land in response to the Small Tract Act of 1938. Our guests, both artists, have explored the jackrabbits in their work, through photographs, audio tours, sculpture and installation.

Guests:

Claire Zitzow is a local artist getting her MFA in visual arts at UCSD. Her solo exhibition "Jackrabbits and the Crow: On Dwelling and Passing" is currently on view at the Andrews Gallery.

Kim Stringfellow is an associate professor at San Diego State University. Her book Jackrabbit Homestead features photographs and text documenting the small tract act in the California desert. You can also download an audio tour at jackrabbithomestead.com.

Claire Zitzow's solo-exhibition "Jackrabbits and the Crow: On Dwelling and Passing" is currently on view at the Andrews Gallery in Little Italy. There is a closing reception on December 10th.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. If you've ever been driving through stretches of Southern California desert, you might see small dusty wooden structures like one room houses, sitting, abandoned in the landscape. You might think they're old minors' shacks from the gold rush, but chances are, they could be what's left of a 20th century dream to get some land and get out of the city. And now it's also a new inspiration for a new book of photographs and a solo art exhibition. I'd like to introduce ply gets, Claire zitso is an artist, she's getting her MFA at UCSD. Her [CHECK AUDIO]. And Claire, welcome to These Days.

CLAIRE ZITZOW: Thanks, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Kim Stringfellow is an associate professor at San Diego state university. Her book, jack rabbit homestead features photographs and texts documenting the small tract act in the California desert. Good morning, thanks for coming in.

KIM STRINGFELLOW: Good morning, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, I'd like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think you've seen these abandoned buildings in the Southern California desert? Give us a call with your questions and comments, 1-888-895-5727. So Kim, tell us, what is or what was a jack rabbit homestead?

KIM STRINGFELLOW: Well, jack rabbit homesteads are actually the physical manifestation of the [CHECK AUDIO] it allowed folks to get five acres if they proved up the property by building a very small dwelling. And they would be able to get the dwelling, the patent for the land for the five acres within three years if they built this, and it was virtually free land, essentially.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When did this start?

KIM STRINGFELLOW: Well, it really didn't get -- you know, it wasn't very popular until the 1950s, you know, we had the war, there was gas rationing, it was hard to get building materials, but after the war, the people really started to find out about this, that there was this opportunity. There was a lot of desert magazine out of Palm Springs, was one of the big boosters of the small tract act. And so people started coming out from Los Angeles and started claiming their piece of land.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And why are they called jack rabbit homesteads?

KIM STRINGFELLOW: Well, I think desert magazine was really the one that came up with that. You know, it's sort of a vernacular term for the jack rabbits, the idea was it was the only shade within miles. So the jack rabbits would lounge by them, then take off when you came up to them. So --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Clarify Zitzow, where are these structures located in the desert.

CLAIRE ZITZOW: Well, yeah, the ones that are called jack robberyitses are mostly in the wonder valley area. Those are the ones you can see most readily off the interstate, off the highway. But they popped up all over the country. But mostly out west. Just the nature of the small tract act, people were -- mostly built them out west.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, this is unforgiving country, it's not necessarily, you know, like a waterfront property. The what attracted people to building a small home in a desert?

KIM STRINGFELLOW: Well, you know, at the time, there was a lot of technological innovation, so you had air conditioning that was available. . The road started to be paved up on Highway 62 in the high desert. So you had people -- it was a more easier to inhabit because of the technology. So people started to come come out, a lot of times these were renters and working class folks, and they be they didn't own a house in Los Angeles. Soap this was a way to get a piece of the American dream.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Claire Zitzow and Kim spring fellow. Of and we're talking about jack rabbit homesteads, and they're working with them. Kim has a book called jack rabbit homesteads, photographs and texts documenting these structures. Of and Claire has a -- called jack rabbits and the crow, [CHECK AUDIO] we're taking your calls if you've ever seen these structures and wondered what they were, 1-888-895-5727. Jim is on the line from La Mesa. Good morning, Jim, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, yeah, I've seen them -- out in landers, which is up in the yucca valley, above yucca, and there's quite a few of them out there, and it's really a strange juxtaposition of -- you know, you look to the right, and it's just wide open desert, 2010 palms military base, and to the left are all these rows of dirt roads, and cinder block homes that are all identical and must have had a minimum square foot knowledge for the houses and these houses appeared to be all built at exactly whatever that minimum square footage was.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Did you know what they were when you first saw them?

NEW SPEAKER: No, I didn't know what it was, but I figured it had to be some sort of a homestead situation because of the uniformity of everything.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for your call, Joe, I appreciate it. I'm wondering, Kim, what did these cabins look like at the height of homesteading.

KIM STRINGFELLOW: Well, a lot of the earlier ones were built by folks, but then people started to capitalize on this. It was very popular. So you had kit homes. So you had homestead supplies was one of the big suppliers. You could go and actually get a cinder block. It could have asbestos siding, there were different models in that that you could actual purchase. And I wanted to say initially with the small tract act, the initial idea was to get veterans to come out because they could recuperate from illnesses.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, in the desert air.

KIM STRINGFELLOW: So this was the initial catalyst for getting people these jack rabbit homesteads, but then the larger culture started to see that this was this opportunity.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, were these jack rabbit homesteads built to be lived in, Claire?

CLAIRE ZITZOW: Well, a lot of times, yes, I think people were really attracted to living in them and having a place that they could recoup for health reasons or just to have land was really attractive. But a lot of them, and Kim has done a lot of research on the ownership of the homesteads, but a lot of them, like, what the listener was -- mentioned, looking exactly the same, and they were the kits, a lot of times people would just buy the kits and build a homestead just to have the land and to hold onto it for a future purpose. So there was a lot of, sort of envisioning the desert as, you know, a future prospect. But not necessarily to live in. And most often never permanently. Most people that built jack rabbits.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Kind of staking your claim. We have another caller on the line. Good morning, David and welcome to These Days. Of.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thank you for taking my call. I actually am ark mused, because I lived in a jack rabbit home that still exists. I knew the owner, and I lived on the property for 13 years assisting her. And then I got to understand the history of her arriving there from Iowa with her husband in an old wooden van of those days. And then subsequently, she homesteaded. And around 1939, and then by 1941 she actually built a one room stone home that still exists with a second floor add on that was incrementally added several years after each -- each step of the house was planned.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.

NEW SPEAKER: Haphazardly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: David, let me ask you, what was it like living there?

NEW SPEAKER: Well, it was -- she was a very stoic individual.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You'd have to be.

NEW SPEAKER: Who was very durable, she was married to a border patrol agent. And for me, I guess because of my youth and my city lifestyle, I was naive in understanding the ramifications of being a pioneer to this desert area, which is down from mount Laguna.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you for calling in, because you really put a human face on all of this for us. Thank you so much, David. Have you talked with some people who have -- who've lived in jack rabbit homesteads, Kim?

KIM STRINGFELLOW: Yeah, unfortunately a lot of the people that, excuse me, original homesteaded are passing now. You know, they would be in their 90s often. But I've talked with family members that were children or grand children, and they remember will, you know, in the 1950s growing up at these cabins. There are still folks I've spoke with that still have these in their family, they're vacation homes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And still live there. Rarely, but some people still live in these little kits. Now, I know you've both done a lot of research into this, but you've also created work based on the actuality and the concept of jack rabbit homesteads, and I'm gonna ask both of you, but first, Claire, what interests you artistically about these structures?

CLAIRE ZITZOW: Yeah, when you see -- I mean just visually, when you're driving through the desert and kind of the nature of being in the desert is that your eyes are wide open. And when you see the structures, of course, just visually, they are very compelling. And when you get into the more, maybe into the area talking to people doing research about them, all of the layers of history are really fascinating, and I think it speaks, at -- yeah, like the caller was saying, and a lot of people out there still live in some jack rabbits. And they keep building them and making homes out of them. But a lot of them are abandoned and so the history that's built onto these structures is so fascinating. And just them being desired, a marker for desire.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In a most unusual place.

CLAIRE ZITZOW: Yes, in an unusual place. Yeah, but also not very unusual, you know, to kind of see the desert as this place that you can -- I mean, it's a very manifest destiny relationship to kind of see a wild place or maybe your blood will run a little thicker because, you know, you can make it in this habitation, this habitat that's very harsh, seemingly, at first, of course. And it is. Without technology it's quite difficult.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Almost unlivable. There's, of course, this great romance about an abandoned structure, Kim, and I'm wondering what drew you to make these photographs of these abandoned -- well, of these jack rabbit homesteads?

KIM STRINGFELLOW: Well, like I said earlier, I'm interested in vernacular architecture, and you know, there's this narrative that's implied when you go into these kind of places. A lot of times these are like -- they have been basically left a lot of times for 30 years. So they're time capsules. So it's almost, you know, as if I'm going in and I'm able to see this past revealed. And the detritus of occupation is very fascinating. I want to say there's a lot of these that have been refurbished and they're vacation rentals, people live in these, they've built larger structures around cabins. They refer to them as built mores. There's a lot of occupation out there still. So it's not as if, you know, everyone is abandoned. But that's my focus is the abandoned structures.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, I want to tell our listeners that if they'd like to see -- actually see some of the pictures of these jack rabbit homesteads, they're on line right now on KPBS.org, and I'd like to reintroduce my guests, Kim Stringfellow is an associate professor at San Diego state university, Kim Zitzow is an artist getting her MFA in visual arts in UCSD. Of and we're talking about a project that both of them share in a way, although they've done two different works about it, jack rabbit homesteads, these kinds of things that developed in the southern tract act out in the desert. Now I know some of these structures, people still live in them. And I'm wondering when you say without modern technology it's almost unlivable? What kind of modern technology do people have in these jack rabbit homesteads now.

CLAIRE ZITZOW: Well, like Kim mentioned earlier, that's air conditioning or there's swamp coolers and different things that people can cool themselves with. But it also gets quite cold and a lot of the jack rabbits were never built with fire places or kind of heating mechanisms. Yeah, they would add on those things. They weren't built -- the prefab homes never had anything for heating. And it could get quite cold. Of.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In the desert, yes indeed. Of.

CLAIRE ZITZOW: 20 degrees out there.

KIM STRINGFELLOW: There was little -- oftentimes no water. So you see a lot of water towers around these. And people still use those because you either have to drill a well in these outlying areas or have the water, you know, brought in by truck. So it's -- in a sense somewhat primitive to what our standards here are in San Diego.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Now when you focus your camera lens on abandoned jack rabbit homesteads, you sometimes in your photographs will pick out an object or two or an angle inside these abandoned buildings. Of what draws your you eye?

KIM STRINGFELLOW: Well, you know, it's a focus on the evidence, the mundane. And the way that time, that kind of very harsh weather ages these objects that I'm interested in. So I've been just presenting, like, I have an old propane, like, a furnace, toaster, these things that you would often just completely overlook. But, you know, there's a story to that, there's a person that owned these things that set up this little household. And I'm curious about that. Of you know, what that presents.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the most interesting aspects of this whole jack rabbet homestead movement was that it attracted a number of single women. Tell us about that.

KIM STRINGFELLOW: Yeah, well, when I was doing my research, you know, I was doing a lot of research with desert magazine, and I noticed there was a couple articles about homesteading, and these were single women. So one was a five part or six part series called diary of a jack rabbit homesteader, it was by Catherine Venn. Her place was out in Palm Springs area out there. And another one was Melissa bran son stead man, which is in the Morongo valley, which is close to Joshua tree national park. I was sort of taken aback by these women who had gone out and had actually -- you know they had some help from others but they basically lived alone or would come out on weekends to put these homes together. And you know, it was very harsh back then and very sort of hard living.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So why did they say they did it?

KIM STRINGFELLOW: You know, I think there was a real attraction at the time, you know, just think about popular culture. So the western was really big, cow boys and Indians. So this was a piece of the west. This was a way to live what you were seeing in these films. So I think that was part of the attraction. Also with the technology being able to go out and to enjoy the landscape. Because you were able to do so with a little bit of comfort. In a lot of ways they were living pretty, you know, uncomfortably early on in the 1940s and '50s. But --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And this little tract of it was theirs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's a big draw. Now, Claire, you actually built a structure in wonder valley and replicated it in the exhibit now on view at the Andrews gallery. Tell us about the structure you built.

CLAIRE ZITZOW: Yeah. I took a lot of materials from outside of shacks and from actual shacks, ones that were obviously dilapidated, and a lot of metal piping and rebar and a lot of times just a lot of the jack rabbits were in the middle of being maybe refurbished or maybe rebuilt, so there's a lot of materials around them. And I took them out of the metal, and built a skeletal structure out in it 29 palms and it was just a very simple skeletal structure. And then I made handmade paper, white handmade paper to kind of cover the whole structure with. So it has this really penetrable quality. And I think it's something we haven't mentioned of course too, about the jack rabbits issue also why they're really attractive because of this layering of history. And we often even in this conversation forget about, you know, the whole impetus to go out west and to own land in the way that we see owning land, which is in these parcels. But for the longest time, this land was inhabited by native people and was taken away. So that is another really important history to kind of be aware of and sensitive to. So I was thinking about all of these things when I built this -- this handmade paper house. And I documented it, had a local photographer out there document it for me over three weeks, and it just fell apart and disintegrated. And you'd talk about, like, the things that you find inside homes that are sort of remanents of domesticity and things that are like a time capsule and kind of get weathered by the desert. And the paper, of course, was kind of an even faster sort of illustration of that. And then I built a very similar structure inside of the gallery. So you have this dislocation kind of between space and time you see an image of the jack rabbit I built out in the desert, and it's very similar to the one right before you so you have this separation in physicality.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, well, part of your exhibit's name is on dwelling and passing, and the way that your paper structure disintegrated, a lot of these hopes and dreams of the jack rabbit homesteader seems to have disintegrated too over time. Is it fair to say most of these structures are now abandoned?

KIM STRINGFELLOW: I wouldn't say most are abandoned. But a lot of them have simply fallen back into the desert. They have no longer exist. I mean, this is a process that's continuously happening. I think the one on the cover of my book, I believe this one has completely fallen down since I've photographed it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, really. Did you speak to anyone as to why they did abandon these properties?

KIM STRINGFELLOW: You know, I think for a lot of people they were almost maybe dill taunts. But again, there was quite a few families that have been handing these down.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Really. That's very interesting. Now, I know the two of you not only have shared an interest in documenting and exploring the concept of jack rabbit homesteads, but you've also done work on the salton sea. Of what are the connections there, do you think, between what you see in these buildings and what -- and that whole area of strange evolution that we call the salton sea?

CLAIRE ZITZOW: Yeah, I think for me they both in a similar way kind of represent how we envision and how we sort of prospect. The salton sea also is a very, very interesting and confusing ecological system, but also one that was created to, you know, to an extent by man trying to control natural resources. So -- and the fact this it's failing has a lot to do with, you know, in a way, like our failure to kind of maybe recognize where we are and the limits of our environments, to kind of work -- work with those environments, so they're both -- they both have this failure, not in had, you know, this negative way necessarily. But hopes and aspirations that end up -- and varying physical and you can see beautiful, romanticized ways are both these romantic places. And these nostalgic places. But they both kind of represent our relationship to sort of owning and controlling land, I think.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Kim, what's your take on that?

KIM STRINGFELLOW: Oh, I fully agree. I mean, I think it's a mirror to tower 40, the salton sea. We have to deal with these kind of marginalized environments. And you know, there's also very much the sort of romanticized idea of these kinds of places have are very attractive for, say, a photographer like myself to document. So they're also somewhat unusual. They're something in California that the jack rabbits, I feel are very specific, although they're throughout the southwest, and you could even get a jack rabbit homestead patent in Florida, but there were just a few of those properties available.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are there -- is there something similar, we're almost out of time, but just really fast, is there something similar in the kind of people that would be drawn to jack rabbits and are drawn to the salton sea?

KIM STRINGFELLOW: Well, I think a lot of artists are drawn to it. And that was one of the aspects of my project. I don't like to just look at the past, but also the present and the future. And I noticed there were a lot of artists like myself that had been attracted to these, using these cabin structures in that, using them as studios. They were a more affordable way to live. I have a couple people in the jack rabbit homestead audio tour talking about that specifically.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have got to stop you there because I really want to tell everybody that your book is called jack rabbit homestead by Kim Stringfellow, and Claire Zitzow, solo exhibition jack rabbits and the crow on dwelling and Pazzing, is currently on view through the seventeenth at the Andrews gallery in little Italy. I want to thank you so much for speaking with us. Of.

CLAIRE ZITZOW: Thanks Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And if you'd like to comment please go on-line at KPBS.org/These Days. Thanks for listening.

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