As much as we think of Cabot Yerxa as Desert Hot Springs’ quintessential pioneer with a quirky personality and a vision beyond his lifetime, he acknowledged many of the other singular “characters” that provide a rich history to homesteading days. The following portrait of one of those individuals comes from stitched-together, edited sections of Cabot’s “On the Desert Since 1913” newspaper columns.
About the turn of the century, Dutch Frank and Old Man Coolidge were two of the very few men to be found in this corner of the Southwestern desert. They were prospectors and partners. Traveling with burros and replenishing their water supply from widely separate water holes, they prospected up one canyon and down another, climbed mountain ranges, struggled through deserts searching for gold or mineralized rocks. They met with some small successes, but never found a mine of big importance. After many years of this hard-roving program, Old Man Coolidge became too old for the rigors of camp life and took up a homestead claim on the flat in front of Two Bunch Palms.
Dutch Frank continued life as a prospector alone. He spoke broken German with much profanity if directed to misbehaving burros, of which he had three. The best dash, dang, blank, ding burros in the desert, if you asked his opinion. Frank was a small man with noticeably short legs. Two burros carried his camp outfit and supplies, with pick and shovel on top. He always rode the third animal. Frank could walk. I have even seen him walk, but only on rare occasions. Because no matter what he did, he always rode a burro. If only a few hundred feet to a waterhole, Frank rode a burro. And if firewood was needed for the camp, he rode a burro to look for it. When he visited me, he arrived on a burro and left on one, even though the distance was no more than a city block. While making the visit and carrying on our conversation, he sat on a burro.
Dutch Frank carried his German thoroughness into all that he did. The burro harness, straps, saddles, and equipment were always in the very best of repair. His animals were well shod, with extra shoes in the packs.
Frank did not crave company, but rather resented intrusion. I never saw him read a book. He would glance over a newspaper. However, he valued it as an easy way to start a fire. He could have homesteaded any piece of land in the desert, but nothing in this world could get him to live in a house settled down in one spot. He liked to roam, and he liked his three burros. He was a thoroughly contented and happy man. So who can say that it is better to live in a city and chase the elusive dollar, in the hope that at some future date enough dollars will have been captured with which to buy happiness? Dutch Frank was already happy without dollars.
He paid no attention whatever to desert animals. He, in a good-natured way, took them for granted and was amused rather than angry at what they did. He protected his outfit and belongings as best he could; but if they outwitted him and cut a hole in the flour sack, he only laughed. Snakes meant no more to him than flies; they were a nuisance, but nothing to be afraid of.
He was a very short man with bow legs. He was small, but active and quick. All that he did was with that German careful thoroughness. He could patch clothing as good a woman, repair tents and harnesses skillfully. Meals were well cooked. And if a forge was available, he could make burro shoes or do iron work.
Frank wore a black felt hat, the crown high, the brim stiff. Always a large red handkerchief was tied loosely about his neck. Thrust into his clenched teeth was a short-stemmed, wooden pipe. The bowl might be up or down. Sometimes he put tobacco into this ancient pipe and could light it with one match just as easy in a heavy wind. During waking hours, Frank had the pipe in his mouth, even while chopping wood or preparing meals.
He wore blue overalls, blue shirts, faded but washed clean, and heavy types of shoes. He had the soles and heels filled full of Hungarian hobnails.
Frank was never in a hurry. Anytime during the day, he would stop, take his hand axe, make a fire, prepare coffee. Of necessity and by habit, it was black and strong. Should the burros appear hungry, he stopped, unpacked, and let them eat as much desert vegetation as they wanted.
Burros were important animals to homesteaders, including Cabot. And the homesteaders tended to regard their burros as people when it came to communication. In fact, in the following, you can see that Cabot assumes he knows what runs through a burro’s mind. Dutch Frank, he points out, “talked to his burros just as naturally as he did to Old Man Coolidge or any other man.”
Frank’s largest burro was called Jimmy Barley Hay, and the next one answered to Captain Jack. The third burro, with its pack, was always lagging behind, thereby attracting to itself much profanity in mixed German and English from Frank. Its name was Joppo the Devil. Frank explained, with affection, that it was just a colt and would learn better ways later. However, it was 7 years old at the time I knew it.
Joppo the Devil was mischievous. He could untie ropes, get into food supplies, eat up prunes and pancake flour or rice, tip over canteens of water, and tangle up harnesses. He seemed to do all these things just to hear Dutch Frank expound and try first in English and then in German to tell Joppo what kind of a burro he was, where he might be going, and what his ancestors were.
Joppo would listen without much attention. But in his brain, beneath those tremendous ears, he was even then planning something else. When not properly staked out or if his stake pins loosened, Joppo would lead the other two burros off on a skylark trip out of camp and into the open desert. Sometimes, it would take Frank all day to patiently trail the three runaways into a clump of thick brush or down in a gully where they were hiding out. Frank said, “Joppo, he eeze the devil.”
Even though time does not move more quickly than it did in Cabot Yerxa’s day (we’re pretty confident in making that claim based on established science), it seems to do so. And that is precisely why it behooves us to look back to people who came before us for inspiration on how to live our lives. No, we are not suggesting you go out and buy three burros (one primarily for sitting upon), never read a book (where do we start on that one?!), or clench a pipe in your teeth while preparing dinner. But you might find a way to adapt your thinking to embrace — if not the details of, well then the spirit of — the following.
Dutch Frank carried no watch, received no mail, never knew the day of the week or month. He never worried about time or weather. On his three burros, he had all his worldly possessions and could set up camp in a few moments. Perhaps he had something we strive to attain and fail, because he had found peace of mind and a happy heart under any and all circumstances.
Cabot’s Pueblo Museum hopes that you find peace of mind and a happy heart in whatever way you can. Don’t lose sight of the fact that attitude is one of the things about life that rests in your control.