It is a given that when researching information about a particular topic, one discovery often leads to another. Such is the case when we recently wrote about the T Cross K Ranch in Mission Creek Preserve, just down the road from Desert Hot Springs, California.
Cabot Yerxa’s name kept popping up in old newspapers. An intriguing name to be sure, and an even more intriguing man, we soon learned. Cabot was the first to have mentioned the T Cross K Ranch and his friendship with its owner, Frank DeLong. Cabot’s journal was so rich with historic information about the early days of homesteading that it became our primary focus for the area once our article was finished.
Cabot’s recollections became a weekly column called On the Desert Since 1913, written in the 1950s to the Desert Sentinel newspaper. A prolific writer, Cabot shared 280 articles of early homesteading in the Coachella Valley. So smitten were we with Yerxa, that we ordered his biography on Amazon. That’s when we made a discovery of our own–Cabot’s Pueblo Museum and Trading Post in Desert Hot Springs.
Although we thoroughly enjoyed reading Cabot’s recollections of early homesteading life in the desert, we soon discovered that Cabot was a private man. On the Desert is not an autobiography. Cabot did not mention his two marriages, and rarely mentioned his son, Rodney. Nor did he talk about his spiritual beliefs, or his lifelong love for art, photography and sculpture.
Cabot was also a humble man, as he never wrote about his founding of the town of Desert Hot Springs. He didn’t even describe fully the ceaseless building of his beloved pueblo museum. He referred to himself as an eccentric, a hermit, a handler of rattlesnakes and chuckwallas. A man whose best friend was his trusty burro.
But he was also tenacious, working odd jobs as a newspaper stringer before landing in Bakersfield as a railroad agent at a side track called Shale, as well as a general storekeeper, Wells Fargo Express agent, postmaster, ice house keeper and the overseer of two rough mules and a runaway horse. After five months, Cabot returned to the desert again where he built a small, rustic 10′ X 20′ stone cabin that he named “Eagle’s Nest.”
Born in Sioux territory at his parent’s trading post in North Dakota on June 11, 1883, Cabot homesteaded 160 acres at the age of 30 in now what is designated as Desert Hot Springs. Cabot’s days were generally filled with survival, namely hauling water by burro every day from the nearest settlement of Garnet. His favorite burro loved pancakes and was named Merry Christmas. However, Cabot’s business life had started far away from the desert, in much colder climes.
Cabot began working by his father’s side at six years old, where his wealthy family operated the largest chain of grocery stores in Minnesota. In 1900, under threat of running away if he couldn’t, Cabot became a young entrepreneur when he went to Nome, Alaska, at 16 years old with $1,700 dollars in his pocket and sold cigars to gold prospectors. He had read about the Klondike gold rush when he 13, but his father said no when Cabot presented his business plan. No buildings existed in Nome at the time, just a row of 8′ X 10′ tents on the waterfront.
Cabot was able to pay his monthly $150 rent by subletting part of his tent to a barber for $100 a month, and also rented space to a newspaper peddler outside his tent for $25 dollars a month. He erected his small cigar stand in the space left.
Cabot wrote, “Life was cheap, law and order non-existent, every man toted a gun and killings occurred daily.” When the government sent in the Marines, so many were shot they would patrol the street two at a time, back to back. One walked forward and the other walked in reverse. Cabot made friends with the Inuit Eskimos and learned 320 words of language, which he sold later to the Smithsonian Institute. Later, Cabot stayed with 2,500 Sioux Indians on the Dakota prairies, again absorbing the culture and language.
In 1902, Cabot accompanied his father, Frederick Yerxa, to the southern coast of Cuba, just as the Spanish American War was ending, to sell land and build houses for Americans then Pine Island in the Caribbean. At the time, the common thought was Cuba would become an American possession but when it became evident it would not, they returned to the United States. Within a few years, Cabot’s family moved to southern California. In 1906, Frederick and Cabot’s younger brother, Harry, bought a large orange ranch in Riverside County.
Cabot became Postmaster of Sierra Madre, from 1908 to 1911. A 1910 census listed him living with his wife, Margaret, in Pasadena. When Cabot’s father died in 1910, Cabot gave up his job in Sierra Madre, in order to manage his father’s citrus business the next year.
After the devastating freeze of 1913 that killed the citrus orchards, Cabot was broke and knew he had to reinvent himself. His family had lost $80,000 during the unanticipated freeze. Harry moved to Berkley, where he continued to live in prosperity and comfort. Cabot decided to dance to the beat of a different drummer, and instead became a homesteader and by necessity, a desert rat.
Cabot briefly went to Idaho but soon returned to California not long after the Desert Lands Act permitting homesteading was passed. Cabot’s train arrived in Banning at 2 a.m. in a swirl of dust. He and a best buddy, Robert Carr, set off on foot in the unknown, wild desert. There were 100,000 of unsettled acres. He ended up settling 160 acres near an original homestead named Two Bunch Palms.
In the beginning, he slept on the ground by a fire or in the sunshine. Then he dug a hole in a bank and lived there with no roof, no floor, no windows, no bed, no door, no chair and no stove. He cooked on a campfire. Next came a one room cabin which was 10 feet by 12 feet in size, with walls of one inch boarding. Cabot wrote that his son was the first Caucasian baby to be born in the Desert Hot Springs side of the railroad. Rodney was only ten days old out of the hospital when he and his mother, Margaret, joined Cabot at the cabin.
In order to get fresh water, Cabot walked seven miles to the railroad station in Garnet once a week, filled canteens and walked back seven miles. He recalled how a few palm trees along the track offered delicious shade and that the railroad’s water tank had it’s water piped in from Snow Creek.
Life as a homesteader was far from glamorous, and each day was a feat of survival. There was little work to be had; therefore, little money to be held. Homesteaders lived off the land, hunted small game for food and coyotes for fur.
The day-to-day menu was beans, dry pancakes, potatoes and wild rabbits. Four dollars per person a month was the average food allowance. No eggs, milk, no fruits, no vegetables, no bread, or anything bought from a store.
Homesteaders burned brush and roots for cooking, and in cold weather, for heating. Candles could be used in winter, but melted in summertime. Rats went in and out of bags if a hole was present, and if not, a hole was soon made. Rats were a nuisance until a cabin was built. Otherwise, supplies were left in the open desert and presented a first come, first served invitation to the wild things.
Thanks to the suggestion of an Indian friend, Cabot dug in an area for a week and discovered an old Indian well dug many years before. It was the last authentic Indian well in Cabot’s part of the desert, the others had been blown over with sand and the locations forgotten. This one was on the north edge of what would be later named Miracle Hill but at the time the land was owned by someone else.
Pressed for water, Cabot water witched a spot and dug a well with pick and shovel, discovering the now famous hot mineral waters of Desert Hot Springs. It became so hot while digging, he had to stand his feet in buckets of water and change them every half hour as the water temperatures rose while he dug deeper.
Nearby, through a second well, he discovered the pure cold water of the Mission Springs Aquifer. These two wells, hot and cold, give the area its name –Miracle Hill. The hot water temperature was 132 degrees and as soft as rainwater. Desert Hot Springs is one of the few places in the world with naturally occurring hot and cold mineral Springs. We now know the Mission Creek Branch of the San Andreas Fault bisects the area and on one side is the cold-water aquifer and on the other, is the hot-water aquifer.
Homesteaders were extreme water savers. Three tomato cans full was a bath in a wash tub, and then the water went outdoors to a little tree or bush. A basin of water first washed the face in the morning, the hands followed, then into a pail to mop the floor, and finally, wring the mop outside onto a tomato plant.
Nearly every family had a tomato plant and one small tree to use up water driblets. Dishes were rinsed in clear water, no soap, and rinse water was stirred into chicken food, or for the dog or cat. The dishes were then washed in soapy water, and this water carefully put on the tree outdoors.
There was no money for a pump of any kind on the newly completed well. Cabot pulled the water up on a bucket fastened to a chain. Water was now freely used with great enjoyment and appreciation. A small garden was started and Cabot hauled up 65 buckets of water each day to keep the sandy soil damp. Lettuce, radishes, onions, etc., did fairly well but desert animals ate everything, so the plan was abandoned, there being no money for fencing.
The U.S. entered World War I, and Cabot volunteered to the Army in 1918, leaving behind his beloved black burro, Merry Christmas. One story claimed he left her to roam free; another said that he left her with a friend. In any case, when he returned a year later, she had disappeared into the desert.
Always interested in art and painting, Cabot became a student at the famous, Academie Julien in 1920’s Paris, France. His early artwork, as well as some his latest paintings after art school, can be seen during Cabot’s Pueblo Museum tour. His artistic improvement is quite dramatic for just a few years. But that’s how Cabot was, whatever he aspired to do, he accomplished. Cabot was known to be incredibly hardworking, optimistic and independent.
Cabot encouraged other artists to come, stay and work at the pueblo. Two small apartments with roof decks were available to visiting artists, friends and family. Carl Eytel was the first artist ever to live in Palm Springs and make desert paintings. Cabot and Carl sometimes went on sketching trips together and visited back and forth. Cabot was an important part of the Hollywood celebrity scene located at the nearby B-bar-H dude ranch during the 1930s and 40s.
Cabot recalled no man ever refused to work, because they were glad to get anything that would turn into a dollar. The wage scale was not important. Cabot often walked seven miles with a canteen filled with water to last all day hanging from his neck, carrying a pick or shovel or other tools, worked all day then walked seven miles home again to earn $1.60 or $2 dollars for the whole day.
In 1926, Cabot opened a large general county store with a meat market in Ventura County and stayed there 11 years, until 1937 before he returned to the desert with his Mom in tow.
For forty years, the desert had always been Cabot’s ultimate destination. The purpose of the store was to accumulate money to use for development of plans there. It had ties to Desert Hot Springs because Metropolitan Water District needed an easement for a pipeline to cross some of Cabot’s desert land in the building of the Colorado Aqueduct.
In 1941, at the age of 58, Cabot began to build his old pueblo museum and home out of re-purposed railroad ties, telephone poles, and any salvaged materials he could haul from abandoned cabins, driftwood from the Salton and glass panes for framed windows. For most of the construction, he hauled sand in a Model T Ford. The rocks and water for cement were transported in barrels.
Cabot believed in reuse, recycle and reduce and his enduring legacy remains. He collected things obsessively, and recycled virtually everything. Cabot believed as long as he was building, he would continue to live, so he continued to build his museum and home the rest of his life. Cabot made the adobe bricks himself, with a cup of cement thrown in for good measure.
In 1945, Cabot married for a second time. His wife, Portia Graham, a psychologist, was known for her work in metaphysics. Both she and her husband shared a belief in the probability of the existence of other life in other worlds and welcomed contact with those beings. They became good friends with George Van Tassel (1910-1978). Cabot built his wife an observatory on the pueblo’s roof, where she enjoyed long hours of watching the night sky. Of course, George became famous as the builder of the Integratron, circa 1954, in Landers.
Cabot’s Hopi-inspired pueblo features 35 rooms, 150 windows, 65 doors and is four stories high. Since Cabot recycled materials from many places, all the doors and windows are different from each other, and unique in size and design to the structure.
Cabot’s wife had the second floor to herself for living quarters and to teach piano lessons to students. Cabot preferred to sleep in a small rustic alcove on the lower level, or outdoors on one of the patios on warm desert nights. Visitors today are struck by the sprawling structure’s marriage of folly and ingenuity, right down to Cabot’s ingenious but simple wooden door handles and locks.
The well house on the hill stored hot water that was pumped from a well inside the Pueblo building. From the well house, the water flowed by gravity into the rooms. Cabot built himself a small spa tub inside the well house where he enjoyed soaking in the healing mineral waters that he discovered so many years before.
Cabot continued building to the time of his death in 1965 at the age of 81 when he succumbed to a heart attack while reading the morning newspaper. Over 400 people attended Cabot Yerxa’s funeral. It was the largest gathering for a funeral in Desert Hot Spring’s history. Flags flew at half staff in his honor.
Cabot’s Pueblo Museum stood abandoned for many years until Cabot’s friend, Cole Eyraund, stepped in and bought the dilapidated structure. Cole owned the Cabot’s Old Indian Pueblo from 1976 to 1967, fixed it up and once again opened it’s door to the public. Cole used the one story building with its round window as his lapidary workshop. After Cole’s death, his family donated Cabot’s Old Indian Pueblo to the city of Desert Hot Springs. That pueblo still stands today, as Cabot’s Pueblo Museum – a spectacular desert treasure, and a fitting monument to Cabot Yerxa’s faith and love for this desert community.
Waokiye was carved on site by Hungarian-born American sculptor, Peter Wolf Toth, in 1978 as part of his Trail of the Whispering Giants to honor Native Americans. It is 43 feet tall and carved from a fallen Redwood tree. The feather is carved from an incense cedar tree. In the Lakota Sioux language, Waokiye is said to mean “traditional helper.” Overall, Toth has created more than 74 sculptures, including at least one in each state of the United States, and in several Provinces and territories of Canada.
Tuesday-Sunday (closed Monday), 9:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Tuesday-Saturday (closed Sunday-Tuesday), 9:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.
The Museum courtyard, outer buildings, Trading Post, and Water Gallery are FREE and open to the public during regular Museum hours. Admission is for a guided tour inside the Pueblo. Although it is not mandatory, we highly recommend it.
Be sure to check out the trading post and the weekend activities which are fun for the whole family. The trading post features art, Native American collectibles and books.
$13 General admission for tours.
$11 Seniors, Active Military, and children ages 6-12.
Cabot Abram Yerxa: On the Desert Since 1913, published by Cabot’s Museum Foundation, 2011.
Celebrating Desert Milestones by Hi Desert Publishing Company, 2019.