The road from Joshua Tree to Kelso is littered with homestead shacks in various states of ruin. A few are boarded up neatly, merely missing a door splayed nearby, paint blistering on the desert floor. Others stand sentinel with their skeletal beams silhouetted against the sky. A few have melted into the ground, with only an explosion of shingles and splintered plywood marking their existence.
The Homestead Act of 1862 granted 160 acre tracts of undeveloped land west of the Mississippi to those who built a dwelling and grew crops within five years of staking a claim. By 1934, over one and half million homesteads had been granted. In the West, nearly half a million acres remained unclaimed, but most of this land did not have the water resources to support agricultural use. While this desert land had limited productive value, there was a growing belief in the convalescent value of the dry, arid climate. The Small Tract Act allowed US citizens to claim up to five acres of vacant public land by building a dwelling within three years. Under the belief that the desert climate would alleviate war-induced respiratory ailments, veterans were given special priority in the Small Tract Act. Over forty years, the Small Tract Act transferred a over a third of federal desert to private hands. With local media romanticizing the ease and allure of homesteading, the Los Angeles regional land office processed over a thousand claims per year for the Morongo desert. Many of these mid-century homesteads were eventually abandoned due to the harshness of desert living. Today, a surreal collection of half-ruined shacks dots the Morongo desert.