In the last blog post I shared a couple pictures of Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs, an incredible place that happened to be just 10 minutes away from our RV park. I’m kind of obsessed, and went back more than once to take the excellent guided tour, and a lot of photos.
The story of Cabot’s Pueblo would be incomplete without Cabot Yerxa’s personal and family history, but it is practically impossible to write about everything that Cabot and the Yerxa family experienced without writing a whole book. Or at least two separate blog posts. Seriously, it is hard to comprehend how much this man did and saw in one lifetime: from the Dakota Territory to Mexico to Alaska to Cuba to Seattle to Southern California – and that is just by the age of 22. A year-long trip to Europe in 1925, including time in Paris spent studying painting at the Academie Julien and visiting the landmark Exposition that introduced the style and term Art Deco to the world, would constitute its own book.
Let’s start with the name. Cabot is his mother’s maiden name, a prominent early family in Boston. Yerxa is Dutch, originally spelled Jurckse, and now, at least, pronounced YER-ba. Settlers to New England in the early 18th century, the Yerxa family divided during the American Revolution, with loyalists moving to Canada and the rest remaining in Boston. Cabot’s father, Frederick Yerxa, was born in New Brunswick, Canada (draw your own conclusions) but emigrated back to Boston, where he met and married Helen Cabot.
Cabot Yerxa was born on June 11, 1883 on a Lakota Sioux reservation in Dakota Territory where his father and older brothers ran a trading post. Three years later, the family moved to the Minneapolis/St Paul area where they founded Yerxa Bros. Grocers, responsible for the family’s first fortune.
Cabot did get an early start in life. He was working in his father’s stores at age six, and by 14 he was managing a department with 20 people reporting to him. When he was 16, Cabot used his savings to open a tobacco store in Nome, Alaska, following the gold rush. Cabot ventured out from Nome to visit the Inupiat people, and he not only learned their language but recorded it, complete with pronunciations and English translations. Eventually the Smithsonian Institute acquired Cabot’s book, the first known recording of the Inupiat language.
In 1902, when Cabot was still just 18 years old, his father sold the grocery business in Minneapolis and moved the family to Cuba. After the Spanish-American War Cuba was expected to become a U.S. territory. Fred Yerxa bought cheap tracts of land and built houses for the expected influx of Americans while his family lived in a plantation home on the Isle of Pines, with plans to grow pineapples.
After a couple years in Cuba, the family moved to Seattle and opened a grocery store to cater to the miners going to Alaska. Cabot spent the summer again in Nome, but the family’s fortunes turned when competitors drove Fred out of business after he tried to undercut prices, and the family left the Northwest.
In 1906 the Yerxa’s settled in Southern California, in a one room cabin in Pasadena. Cabot supported the family with his earnings from a job at the Pacific Electric Building in downtown Los Angeles. He started as an office boy but moved up to building manager, working in an office suite that included Pacific Electric Railroad’s founder Henry E. Huntington.
Fred Yerxa’s next venture was an orange ranch in the Sierra Madre area, bought with the proceeds from an unexpected and lucrative offer to purchase land still held in Cuba. While in Sierra Madre Cabot served as postmaster from 1908 to 1911. Also in 1908 Cabot married Mamie Carstensen, a woman he met in Seattle.
Cabot ran the family’s citrus ranch until 1913, when an unprecedented freeze devastated the citrus industry. The Yerxa family lost everything, and Fred died just a few months later. Cabot traveled up the West Coast working a variety of jobs until his friend,“Cowboy Poet” Robert V. Carr, wrote to him to suggest they look into homesteading in the Coachella Valley. The original Homestead Act of 1862 was amended in 1877 to include the Desert Land Act, which required irrigation of a claim in order to earn title to the property.
Cabot and Bob Carr each claimed 160 acres near Hilda Maude Gray, the first person to homestead Desert Hot Springs in 1908. She sounds like another interesting story Cabot didn’t have a horse or burro, and had to walk 14 miles round trip to the nearest drinking water well at Garnet Train Station in modern day Palm Springs. (He eventually acquired a beloved burro, named Merry Xmas.) By the way: his wife Mamie and newborn son were there too, living in a rudimentary shelter built by Cabot. I guess it’s not such a surprise that after they moved to back Seattle during World War I, Mamie never returned to the desert and eventually divorced Cabot.
Cabot was friends with the noted German American landscape painter Carl Eytel, who had been living in Palm Springs since 1903. During his years as a homesteader Cabot would accompany Eytel on treks through the desert and work on his own paintings. Eytel was a friend of the Cahuilla tribe, and honored after his death by being one of the few non-Indians buried in their cemetery (another interesting story).
It was possibly through Eytel that a Cahuilla Indian tipped Cabot off about a well near his homestead. Cabot found the well, and then used a divining rod to look for water on his property. He discovered hot mineral water just outside his door, cold water only 600 feet away, and both of drinkable quality. Cabot appropriately named his homestead Miracle Hill. While it certainly must have felt like a miracle, the reason there are both hot and cold aquifers so close together is thanks to the Mission Creek branch of the San Andreas fault bisecting the area. Living on a major fault line could be considered a small tradeoff for such a convenience.
Cabot went on to dig a number of wells in the area, keeping detailed records of their location, depth and water temperature. It didn’t happen for another 20 years, but he was correct in predicting that the natural mineral springs would lead to the area’s growth and prosperity, and he was one of three founding fathers of the city of Desert Hot Springs in 1941. This is around the time Cabot started building his Pueblo.
Finally, the Pueblo. Well, almost. Keep in mind that Cabot’s homestead was secured in 1918 when he was 35. Between then and 1941, Cabot worked in a shipyard in Seattle; served in the Army Tank Corps in World War I; ran a general store and served as postmaster near the Arizona border in Fertilla, California; spent a year traveling Europe via Central America; ran another general store outside of Los Angeles.
In 1937 Cabot moved full time to Miracle Hill. He used materials from a house he had previously built to construct a new building and opened his first trading post, where he shared his collection of Native American artifacts and souvenirs from his travels in Alaska and Cuba. Celebrities like Lionel Barrymore who were staying nearby at the winter getaway B-bar-H Guest Ranch (whose marketing included the line: “trade a Cad or a Jag for a nag”) discovered Cabot and his trading post. The Hearst New York newspapers journalist Louis Sobol, another guest at B-bar-H, published some of Cabot’s letters in the Journal-American.
Cabot started work on his Pueblo in 1941, at the age of 58. Stay tuned for Part II, with plenty of photos including an exclusive peek inside.