Melting Points

As has been established, Cabot Yerxa came to our desert in 1913. But he did not live on his homestead uninterrupted. In 1918, after he acquired title to the land, he joined the Army. When the war ended and he was honorably discharged, he opened a store in Fertilla, a few miles north of Blythe. He operated his eponymous store from 1919 to 1925, when he journeyed to Europe to study art in Paris. In Fertilla, Cabot experienced the scorching heat of a desert summer, so one cannot think he was there for the weather. The following is an edited version of a letter he wrote in July of 1921 to a relative in Boston.

Dear Cousin Herbert,
No — I have not forgotten you, but I do not always feel like letters, and when I do, sometimes it is too hot. We are now in the midst of summer like all the rest of you, only with this difference: that in our weather, hot days run from 116 to 127, and a cool one is 105. So you can see that 12 or more hours a day and seven days a week in a store with this kind of weather uses up all the energy a man has. When the thermometer is 120, cans pop on the shelf like the 4th of July, bar chocolate runs off the shelf like molasses, candles melt down into a lump, and the sealing wax on olive oil bottles, etc., slips down the neck of the bottle and sticks everything up. Weevils and bugs get into all cereals, rice, cayenne pepper even, and tobacco (plug), and you can well imagine crackers, flour, etc., under those conditions. Candy gets discouraged too and melts into a thick, sticky lump. Yet people must eat, and so the store is open no matter what the weather.
I run the store all day, eat sardines or milk in the store at noon, lock it up at about seven, go home, cook my supper and eat it alone, wash dishes, keep a few books, and then I do not have anything to do till tomorrow. This is every day in the year, Sundays, holidays, EVERY day. I have been here three years doing this, because I have some plans after this that take a little money, and I am saving some here. When I got out of the Army, I did not have even a five-dollar bill. But a man who had faith in my ability to run a store said he would find me $5,000 if I would pick out a store and see it through. So here is where I am and why. Someday I will be traveling ’round again and see you and tell you the story, because it has some interesting features.
Everything went fine until cotton made that awful drop from 50 cents to 10 cents a pound. (This is cotton country.) The store lost a thousand dollars a week during the slump, because stores and banks out here had to or thought they had to help farmers with the crop. Well, I did not quite break, although two out of three banks did, and about 11 stores did out of 15. Anyway, I got through and learned many things and am still doing the best I can. The store is on the upgrade again, and I am breathing easier.
I’ll tell you some things about the store, because it is different from anything you have down east.
First, it is on the edge of the desert. Leaving this store, it is 37 miles to the next man, woman, dog, fence, building, tree, or even one single drop of water. Desert out there: sand, cactus, snakes, and 120 to 130 out there in the shade, and no shade. Men can die out there easy without water.
For customers I have Indians, cowboys, Mexicans, miners, moonshiners, Texans, ranchers and farmers. The post office is here; I am the postmaster and Spanish interpreter.
The stock in the store is mostly drugs, groceries, shoes, hats, clothing, dry goods, notions, hardware, tin ware, toys, dishes, ammunition, and other things.
Many of my customers carry guns, and I have a couple under the counter. Spanish is spoken more in the store than English.
The judge down here is one of the old original Jesse James gang. He was pardoned years ago, then U.S. marshal, and now judge. And he is a good one too.
Then there are two pardners here. They got drunk and each took a six-shooter in one hand and a candle lighted in the other. They moved about 25 feet apart in the hotel and then each held his candle and each shot at the other’s candle, the object being to put out the lights with the fewest number of shots.
Every man that goes by the door, I could tell you some story about, because this is a new country and hard to get along in.
The Colorado River is held back by a levee and sometimes it breaks. It broke this summer, and in three days 35,000 acres went underwater. For some time it looked bad for the store, but fortunately the danger is now past.
Although I work very hard and very long hours, it is not quite as bad as it sounds, because so many different things happen in a day.
When I go to the store in the morning, there will be some Mexicans that want tobacco, then will come a cowboy for a new rope or ammunition, then some Indians perhaps for calico. Then will come a Mexican. He is sick. He tells me where he aches and I give him medicine from my stock; or if I think he is too sick, I send him to the nearest doctor seven or eight miles away. Then will come a Texan, and will I write a letter for him to his people. Then a white woman wants to make a dress. I help her decide how many yards and what to trim it with. Then will come a moonshiner and lean a rifle in the corner. He will buy cornmeal and some other things and sneak back to his hangout. Perhaps then a herd of beef cattle bellows past in the dust, and I stand in the door to keep ’em out and wave my hand to whatever cowboy is driving them.
So the day passes. Cooking one’s own meals when it is 120 is no small joke, and no one that has not experienced heat like that can quite understand the conditions. I have invented some food that lets me live a day at a time, and that is enough. For instance, I take a large can of tomatoes and stir it into three quarts of boiling water, then drink the whole thing, one gallon, with bread or crackers. Once or twice, rather than have a fire in the stove with the room already 120, I have put salt on raw beef and eaten it for supper.
Well, say, I guess you are tired hearing about the desert, because it is a bit unfair to send a man a letter and make it too long.
Always sincerely yours,
The foregoing was written on the reverse side of an advertising letter that read as follows.
G-o-o-d M-o-r-n-i-n-g!
You will probably be interested in knowing that I am well prepared now to give your motor car needs special attention.
As a motorist, you will find my store a great convenience. Because when you stop for mail or groceries, you can, without loss of time, have your gasoline tank filled and get any accessories you need.
My grocery line has always been high class, as you may know, and we shall be just as exacting about motorcar accessories.
We lay special emphasis on the fact that we have taken on the Goodrich line of tires and tubes, a line that you well know and that does not require any more sufficient guarantee than the name Goodrich.
This letter is our only means of meeting you until you call and see us. Come in at your first convenience. We’ll be glad to know you and always have time to talk, whether or not you make a purchase.
Thank you.
Yours very truly,
The above photo shows Cabot Yerxa on a horse in front of his Fertilla store. Today Fertilla is nothing more than “ruins,” as marked on a Riverside County topographic map. Cabot’s letter to his cousin is included in the book Cabot Yerxa Adventurer: Memories of an Essential American Life, which is for sale through the museum’s Trading Post.