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The Last Homesteads of Wonder Valley, California

Remnants of a final wave of federal land grants, hundreds of 1950s "jackrabbit homesteads" still haunt a distant corner of the Mojave desert.
An abandoned jackrabbit homestead, Wonder Valley.
An abandoned jackrabbit homestead, Wonder Valley. Kim Stringfellow

When she thinks back on her family's first trips to their homestead in Wonder Valley, California, Joanne Anderson remembers the desert tortoises. "Finding them was the fun thing about going out to the cabin," she's said of their post-war weekends in the far-flung corner of San Bernardino county, five hours from their house in Pasadena. "They were all over the place in those days."

There weren't many other settlers out there in 1948, when Anderson's father, James Hart, obtained his five sandy acres through the Bureau of Land Management's Small Tract Act. As a WWII veteran, Hart got priority in his application for the land, just a short distance from the Mojave Desert's Joshua Tree National Park. Arid, undeveloped, and sparsely beautiful, Wonder Valley was deemed “useless” by the federal government, and so was portioned out for mostly recreational use at $10 to $20 an acre. The sole requirement was that the applicant "proved up" the land with a small house.