You've got to love the name: Wonder Valley. It's part of the Morongo Basin east of Twentynine Palms in Southern California, and despite the evocative moniker it is thousands of inhospitable desert acres owned by the federal government. The Small Tract Act of 1938 established a program to dispose of this useless public domain land by offering it at $5 to $20 an acre to anyone who, within a year, would "make improvements." These became the Jackrabbit Homesteads Kim Stringfellow examines in her new book.
The Public Land Survey System had laid an arbitrary grid across America's public domain lands, a system that worked fairly well in the well-watered Eastern and Midwestern United States, but was ill suited to the arid and often jagged terrain of the Southwest. The names that first round of settlers gave their new properties reflect both the grit and the humor of the classic American homesteader. Stringfellow mentions Aching Back, Calloused Palms, Lizard Acres, and, my favorite, Canta-Forda Rancho. But the program was a success. In 1941, prospective settlers applied for 1500 patents. A decade later, the number jumped to 12,000, and by the mid 1950's the land office had a backlog of 60,000 applications. And this was for land that would have no electricity until late in the decade, and for properties where water would have to be hauled in and stored.
By mid-century, speculators were buying the properties for an increasingly mobile, West Coast population on the lookout for weekend retreats. Stringfellow includes several pages of the ads placed in Desert Magazine by companies offering prebuilt homes in the $1500 range. These proliferated across the landscape, bringing in a demographic more leisured and less pioneering than the earlier inhabitants. In other words, weekenders who expected such amenities as roads. New tensions arose between old timers and newcomers, but the bleakness of the desert seemed to encourage tolerance, and the area was rediscovered in the latter part of the century. Alternative communities of gays and lesbians emerged. The area attracted artists and designers interested in sustainable living. Some developers built 8000 sq ft homes, while entrepreneurs of a different stripe took over older properties and installed meth labs.
And during all this time, shacks and homes fell derelict. Original patent holders died, their families wanted nothing to do with the remote getaways, and the land was all so cheap it was relatively easy to just walk away. Most of Stringfellow's photographs depict these ruins, some reflecting the eccentric buildings of older settlers, but mostly the pre-fab modernity of later structures. When she goes inside she finds, as you might expect, peeling walls, collapsed ceilings, abandoned appliances, stray personal affects, and critter damage. Sixty pages of these images tend to tell the same story over and over again. Whether photographed in their bleakly beautiful landscapes or up close with a more clinical eye, the buildings look more like garbage than evocative ruins.
Stringfellow's back-story is more interesting than her images. And when she photographs the new communities of Wonder Valley, she ignores the diversity she implies in her text and focuses on artists and designers who all look like they are posing for Dwell Magazine. Of course these are the people who may be more forthcoming and sympathetic to Stringfellow's project than the family that has moved into their desert McMansion or the couple who's cooking meth in the neighboring arroyo.
—Charles Dee Mitchell