With all the time we’ve had to spend in our homes for some eight months now, our abodes can seem small to us, even with thousands of square feet under a roof. In Desert Hot Springs’ homesteading days, cabins encompassed something like 120 square feet. Cabot Yerxa described the early 1900 dwellings in his 1962 presentation to the Desert Hot Springs Improvement Association.
Now the typical homestead cabin is 10 by 12. We had a stove on one side, and we went out into the desert and picked up wood to cook with and keep warm. We had a box on the outside of the wall with a little trap door. You open that and then you reach through the wall and get your wood out of this little box. That saved carrying the wood into the house and all of the mess and dirt.
I was here for 10 or 20 years before I ever had a piece of ice. Yet we could keep meat and butter and anything we wanted to in a very satisfactory way. We took a dish about 10 or 12 inches in diameter and about two inches deep and filled it full of water. Then we took a Mason jar or something like that and put it top down in the water. Then we took a wet rag and put it in the water, in the dish, over the jar, and into the water on the other side. We put that in the breeze, and the evaporation of water through that cloth was so fast in the desert that it would keep a piece of butter as hard as you could in your icebox.
Then if you got some piece of meat, you’d take a mesh bag — something like they put onions in — and you put the meat in the bag and hang it in a breeze. That meat would keep two and three weeks, believe it or not.
Beyond the need for providing heat and cold for food preparation and preservation, homesteaders had to be resourceful when it came to other household and personal needs. Cabot offered the following examples.
I wanted a dustpan. Sears Roebuck had a good dustpan for 35 cents, but I didn’t have 35 cents. So I said, “I’m going to make myself a dustpan.” I walked 11 miles to the T Cross K Ranch, where there was a cowboy with a pair of tin snips. I borrowed the tin snips and walked 11 miles to get home. I found an old tin can down at the railroad and cut off a piece to make the front of a dustpan. Then I walked 11 miles to return the snips and 11 miles home. I walked 44 miles because I didn’t have 35 cents. For years, I lived on $5 a month.
I told that story to a school class that came to my place one day, and the teacher said, “That’s a cute little story, but you destroyed more shoe leather in walking 44 miles than 35 cents would buy. You just wasted money.” “Well,” I said, “I took tin cans and pounded them flat for shoe soles. So to walk 44 miles, all I had to do was find two more tin cans.”
Now, you get down to clothing. We could buy a straw hat for 25 cents. You could get bib overalls for $2. I wore one hat and one pair of overalls with patches on them for four years.
We desert people couldn’t spend money, so we had picnics. And what did we do on a picnic? We would walk from here to Thousand Palms, 10 or 12 miles one day or something like that and camp out. Or we’d have a picnic at home with six or seven people. We’d get one can of fish for 10 or 12 cents, and it was either salmon or sardines or herrings or something like that. Then we’d put in some potatoes, some rice, and some onions. We were very happy, because that was a big change from rabbits. I don’t like rabbits. I’ve eaten so many rabbits that it just nauseates me to see a rabbit. And I don’t even like chicken now because they look like rabbits to me.
By the standards of the desert’s early settlers, today’s typical homeowner lives a life of comfort and ease. Yet we have red-tape, business/commercial, and technological hassles they didn’t have. We have exponentially larger expenses that cannot be avoided and may put a stress on our means. For months, we have endured a major risk to our health — and all that risk entails. What we hopefully have learned about ourselves is something Cabot and his fellow homesteaders learned about themselves: We find ways to cope, because the human spirit rises to a challenge.