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Homesteader Legacy Leaves Desert Littered With Abandoned Shacks

About 2,000 dilapidated abodes remain in San Bernardino County as a result of the 1938 Small Tract Act, which spurred settlement. Area's current residents are gradually demolishing them.


WONDER VALLEY, Calif. — With Joshua Tree National Park in one direction and mountainous desert wilderness in the other, Steve and Peggy Smith figure they have some of the most scenic five acres in Southern California.

If only it weren't for the property next door.

Just a few paces off their eastern fence line is a ramshackle structure of wood framing and aluminum siding, long since tarnished by weather and vandals.

"This used to be a nice cabin four to five years ago," said Steve Smith, 52.

Then the roof blew off in a windstorm, kids began kicking holes in the siding and junk collectors started prying off the metal window frames. Today it's nothing but an eyesore.

The shack is among hundreds of such structures in the unincorporated region surrounding Twentynine Palms and is one of roughly 2,000 dilapidated remnants of a 62-year-old desert homesteading law used primarily in Southern California.

The shacks are legacies of a bygone era, a period when the federal government dispersed land to accommodate the demands of those searching for a private slice of the American desert.

Today, as retirees and families escaping Southern California's sprawl fill up the region, the shacks are seen as something less romantic, a blight on an otherwise stunning vista.

Their presence litters San Bernardino County's High Desert from Twentynine Palms to Barstow and has prompted a grass-roots effort to tear them down.

"It had its time," said 70-year-old Robert L. Dockendorff, who moved eight years ago to Flamingo Heights, an unincorporated outpost in the center of the shack zone. "But I think today the government knows better. People know better."

Dockendorff has led a movement for more than two years to remove the shacks, an effort that has gained renewed vigor in recent months as its successes have grown.

The program, which in its first phase targets the abandoned shacks lining the area's major highways, is working so well that volunteers next year plan to ask Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) for more federal money to keep it going.

Lewis was instrumental in arranging a $500,000 U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant to help pay demolition costs.

Of the 145 shacks targeted to date, owners of 113 have agreed to tear them down themselves, leaving much of the original grant money intact. Dockendorff believes the volunteers, who work with county agencies, can eliminate all abandoned shacks from along main roads within 18 months.

The goal, he said, is "to give the impression that the place is clean."

Among those looking forward to that day is Jim Kelly, a 10-year resident of Wonder Valley.

He and other volunteers are responsible for contacting homestead property owners and ridding the area of 37 shacks to date.

Most of the owners were surprised to hear from the volunteers. Many now live outside California and had long since forgotten about their desert plots. In some cases, the homesteaders' children inherited the land but had only a vague recollection of their parents' owning a home in the desert, said Kelly, 76.

"A lot of them were built in the '50s," he said. "After a while, people lost interest and the cabins fell into decay."

The federal Small Tract Act of 1938 seemed like a good idea at the time: Give people a chance to own a piece of the desert simply by choosing a government-approved parcel and leasing it for three to five years.

They were given a patent to the land, the federal equivalent of a deed, if they built a structure during that time. It had to be no larger than 400 square feet.

The Bureau of Land Management, then called the General Land Office, identified sections thought to be of marginal value for plants and wildlife and parceled them off, mostly in five-acre lots. The program saw its greatest growth in the decade after World War II.

From 1938 until the act was repealed in 1976, nearly 70% of the 457,000 western acres classified as suitable for disposal under the Small Tract Act was in California. Most of that was in San Bernardino County.

About 36% of the land classified was transferred to private ownership, said Mike DeKeyrel, land section supervisor for the BLM's Barstow office.

Some homestead shacks became the nucleus for permanent homes, but most were abandoned, left to the ravages of raging winds, periodic downpours, transients and vandals.

The land's remoteness was perhaps the biggest obstacle to property owners. Even today, much of the homesteaded area remains without water or electricity.

"The idea was the federal government would sell off all these five-acre tracts and basically create this private development, but it didn't happen that way," DeKeyrel said.

Today the desert's later arrivals are getting closer to undoing the act's unsightly effects.

The Smiths see the difference around their neatly kept Wonder Valley spread now that some of the structures have been demolished. They hope to have the same happen with the shack next door.

The elderly Orange County woman who owns it won't sell despite not having seen the property in 40 years, Steve Smith said. He's willing to wait.

"Mother Nature," he said, walking around the gutted structure, "will take this down in due time."

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