Among luxury resorts, shopping centers, country clubs, and golf courses, it may be difficult to imagine the harsh realities faced by the desert’s pioneers. But recollections from an early homesteader paint a vivid picture of life without the amenities we enjoy today. Cabot Yerxa (1883-1965), who worked on his homestead from 1913 until his death — now the 35-room Cabot’s Pueblo Museum — chronicled the lives of those who dug wells, contended with rattlesnakes, and built the cabins and roads that became Desert Hot Springs in 280 articles he wrote from 1951 to 1957 (including reprints of letters he’d written) for the local newspaper, Desert Sentinel. Cabot’s Museum Foundation recently published about two-thirds of the articles in a book titled Cabot Abram Yerxa: On the Desert Since 1913, edited by Richard E. Brown. Following are excerpts from the book, printed with permission from the publisher.
IT WAS A SMELLY PLACE. The source of the water was tiny driblets of water oozing out of a five-foot clay bank. A dilapidated, rickety ladder stood there, and by going down a half-dozen rungs it was possible to fill a canteen where the slightly moving water kept the scum from forming too thickly. It was here [at Two Bunch] that we obtained our water.
The only other water in 10,000 acres was at another mud hole called “Seven Palms,” nearly five miles to the south. Wells were then unknown, and all homesteaders obtained water at these two places or the railroad tank.
For a few days Bob and I tramped over the desert, searching out corners, examining land, and exploring canyons, sleeping where night overtook us, but returning to Two Bunch for water. We walked over what is now Desert Hot Springs and encountered only rabbits and a few snakes. Bob chose land adjoining Two Bunch because, as he said, he could get water there, such as it was.
I took another day alone and, returning late in the afternoon, found broken bits of pottery on the slope of the big hill. From this I reasoned Indians had lived in the vicinity. “Good enough for Indians, good enough for me” — so I picked this hill for my claim.
I later named it Miracle Hill, because at its base I discovered hot curative mineral waters, [and] on the other side cold water. Miracle Hill is not sedimentary like the others, but thrust up out of the earth’s surface in ancient times. Round about it are beds of red clay and blue clay from which Indians made pottery. Also there were to be found rocks, building sand, good earth, and desert soil, all of which is ample reason for the name “Miracle Hill.”
EVERY MAN WALKED most of every day, for mail, for rabbits, for water, and for firewood. The coarse desert sand wore shoes out rapidly. We could not easily afford shoe leather, and so when one man was given an old auto tire, he cut it up in pieces and distributed them among the neighbors to tack on their shoes. That auto tire was all gone when I heard about it. However, for some months, I had been pounding tomato cans out flat and nailing them on my shoes for half soles. They lasted well. But Frank DeLong had a forge, and he fashioned soles and heels for his shoes out of steel shovel blades. And, man, they did wear a long time!
When the cabin was completed, we discovered there was no broom and no dustpan, and no money to send to Sears Roebuck. Some small branches and twigs bound together made a broom. But the dustpan required tin snips. DeLong had a pair, and I walked 11 miles up there to borrow them and 11 miles home. Out of an empty square oil can the dustpan was made, tin graters were fashioned out of tomato cans, and some tin repairs made to the stove pipe. Then I returned the snips, another 22 miles. So every time that it was necessary to borrow tools, it involved a walk of 44 miles. I did this many times during the homestead period.
THE WATER TEMPERATURE [in a newly dug well] turned out to be 132 degrees, was soft as rain water with soap, and tasted good. Bob and I sat down and built air castles. We visualized a city here with many people to make proper use of the hot water and climate for healthful purposes and outdoor enjoyment. Those who heard us rave about the future of this desert laughed at us, but today Desert Hot Springs is an actuality.
ONE COMMISSION that came my way was hauling a very heavy lady and her trunk to the railroad — a trip of several miles. Far be it from me to be disrespectful or curious about a lady’s age or weight, but I am explaining a problem of the transportation. So in all honesty the estimated weight for the lady was over 200 pounds, and her trunk was near that figure, too. With this task ahead of me, I patched up enough harness, with short straps, wire, and ropes, to have three burros out in front of the two [burros] in good harness attached to the wagon. This gave pulling power of five animals, which seemed sufficient for the project. When [we were] still a long way out from the railroad, there galloped up to us a group of loose burros. The leader was a large male animal, and I could see they were bent on mischief. Twice I scattered them when they approached too close to my team. Then they drew off a hundred yards and seemed to be planning trouble. All at once they wheeled and dashed closely packed together straight towards us. The big male burro was in the lead, and he guided the band at full speed just in front of the tails of those in front. The impact broke the improvised harness [and] threw the three lead burros to the ground. Then all the animals, my lead three and all [the] loose burros, galloped out of sight, leaving bits of harness here and there. Now there were only two burros left. This called for [a] readjustment of plans. So I told the lady, “From here on, two burros can haul the trunk and you must walk. Or we can leave the trunk here on the desert, and you can ride to the railroad.” She chose to ride. So the trunk was left in the sand for me to get later. But it was two weeks before I found the runaway burros and recovered parts of the harness.
ONLY ONCE IN THE FOUR YEARS of homesteading did we ever have a piece of ice. It happened this way. Neighbor Green had to drive his mule team one day to Palm Springs to get a bottle of liniment or something. When he started back he purchased a piece of ice from Mrs. Coffman’s Desert Inn, just then in the beginning. … But anyway, she had a large icebox with different things in it. Also at the time a Chinese cook was in charge of the icebox. He charged 25 cents to each and all who wanted the icebox “opened.” And then you paid extra for what you selected out of the icebox. It might be a bottle of pop, a cucumber, or whatever it was, you paid its value, plus 25 cents for having had the icebox “opened.” Green wrapped the piece of ice in many blankets and at last reached this side of the desert. The day was hot. He drove three miles out of his way to break off a very small piece of his dwindling cake. This he wrapped in many gunny sacks and left at the Yerxa cabin door, as no one was home, unfortunately, on this historic occasion. We had five hens loose in the yard and one of them, investigating the cool wet sacks, decided that this was the very first cool place she had ever seen in the desert. Therefore she sat down on this very comfortable place and laid an egg. So when we came home at dark, at the cabin door were some wet gunny sacks with one white egg on top, but the ice had entirely melted and disappeared under a temperature of 110 degrees.
HOMESTEADERS’ CABINS had always a small screen cage nailed to the north side of the building. They reached through a window from the inside and stored perishable food in the cage. No one had ice. But a surprising coolness can be created by wrapping any dish with a wet cloth. Desert air evaporated the water so fast that most food kept very well by this plan.
ANOTHER FACT TO BE NOTED besides the general optimistical outlook was that each settler was sure that he had the very finest claim in the whole desert. Each man would listen politely while another was explaining the good qualities of his homestead, but at the first break in the conversation, the listener would then expound at great length with convincing detail why his very own claim was by far and above any denial the best ding-busted piece of desert land between here and Mexico.
IN THIS CITY would be established sanitariums, hospitals, rest homes, many swimming pools and bathing facilities for those seeking better health. Following naturally would come paved streets, electric power, stores, churches, schools, and homes for many contented people. To this city would travel thousands of people from throughout the whole United States, people seeking winter sunshine, and those who needed the desert and the hot mineral water to greatly improve their health. Many would be cured of their various ailments.
We talked about it so much and visualized it so well and in such detail, that we were impatient with people who could not see the future and the importance of the healing hot water. Bob said that our land was worth over $1,000 an acre. This talk sounded very foolish to all who listened to us, because we had on ragged overalls and could muster no more nickels or dimes than anyone else. And also, true to relate, we could not sell an acre of land at any price. People simply were not interested in such fantastic dreams.
EVERY CABIN-DWELLER had field glasses and surveyed the desert carefully several times a day. We had no other excitement in our lives. We looked curiously for any sign of life, human or animal. Many days passed when nothing could be noticed.
MISS HILDA GRAY, who was one of the very first homesteaders here, came down on a visit some years ago. She was alone and driving a coupe. It was after dark, and she attempted the short-cut road round the east end of Miracle Hill, which is exceedingly soft. Her car stalled and settled down in the sand like a sitting hen on a nest.
Now Miss Gray is not a young woman, neither is she strong or husky, but alone in darkness she got that car out, because she knows the desert and has courage. There was no shovel, but she had a frying pan and tin pie plate. With these two implements, she got down on her knees and shoveled the sand away from in front of the wheels, then pulled small brush, filling the holes and some of the sand ruts ahead of the car to give the wheels some traction. Thus by careful driving she was able to move her auto to safer ground. And then she went back and repaired the roadway so that no one else would get bogged down in the same place. This would even have been quite a feat for a man.
THE FIRST RULE OF THE DESERT is quietness. Some well-meaning person sent me a duck once. But I had to get rid of him to stop all the noise!
Today it rains. In any other country that would not be worthy of comment, but here on the desert it is a real event. I have just tended to all [my] animals — the goats, chickens, large pet lizards, chuckwallas, tortoises, and the varied snakes in the pits. The rain makes the air chill. I have brought in a large box of dry firewood gathered off the desert floor. With this, the old stove now glows and the cabin is warm again. I wish you might pull up a chair and join with me in several hours of smoke-talk. We would be separated and apart from a world torn by tragedy and uncertainty. It is warm within — there is a storm outside — and it is on days such as this that we of the desert are repaid for the many hours of work and lonesomeness.
Cabot Abram Yerxa: On the Desert Since 1913 is available for purchase at Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs.