One day while hosting in the Palm House Visitor Center, I met an incredible woman named Judy who had just hiked to Horseshoe Palms and back via Pushawalla Ridge. I soon learned that she was a Sunday docent at Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, 16 miles away in Desert Hot Springs. Not only is this a place on our “Must See List”, but Sunday is one of our days off work. So… you guessed it, we plan a visit to the Museum and purchase tickets for Judy’s guided tour. All I can say is, “Wow!” Thank you Judy!
Cabot Yerxa… Adventurer, Visionary, Humanitarian (1883 – 1965)
Cabot was born on a Lakota Sioux Reservation in the Dakota Territory where his parents had a Trading Post, thus beginning his eccentric life of traveling, learning, and entrepreneurship.
His father eventually moved his family to St. Paul, Minnesota where they ran a General Store. Next they lived in Mexico where the elder Mr. Yerxa taught merchandising skills and learned how to make cigars.
After his family settled in Seattle in the early 1900s, Cabot left for Alaska lured north by the gold rush. Young Yerxa wasn’t hit by gold fever, however. Instead he seized the opportunity to work behind the scenes, so to speak, by driving dog sleds and stagecoaches and selling imported Cuban cigars to gold miners flocking to Nome. Living with an Inuit family, he became fascinated with their culture and language and compiled a 320-word vocabulary of their dialect which he later sold to the Smithsonian Institute. He set up a mobile grocery business in Alaska taking orders which were filled at his father’s General Store in Seattle and shipped to the clients.
Leaving Seattle, his father moved to Cuba to build tract houses outside Havana. Political developments forced the family to move to Key West, Florida where they manufactured cigars. At some point Cabot joined his family in these endeavors and then headed back west where he married and fathered a son, Rodney. After his divorce he joined his family, who were now living in Riverside, California, to become citrus barons. Unfortunately, a freeze wiped out their crop.
So, in 1913, at age 30, Cabot homesteaded 160 acres in what is now Desert Hot Springs. Sleeping outdoors and cooking over a campfire, he lived a rugged life until building a 10 by 12 foot cabin out of 1-inch-wide boards. He painted desert scenes on postcards and sold them to train passengers at the nearby rail stop in Garnet, outside of Palm Springs. One of the first items he obtained was a burro he named Merry Christmas which he purchased on December 25th. With her aid he built his first permanent shelter, a one room cabin he nicknamed Eagle’s Nest. A lack of water forced Cabot and Merry Christmas to haul water from Garnet, a 14-mile round trip, several times a week.
With just a pick and shovel he dug a well for water and discovered the hot mineral waters of Desert Hot Springs. Six hundred yards away, he dug a second well and discovered cold water. Cabot later learned from geologists that this unusual result occurred because each well was located on different sides of the San Andreas Fault. He named the site Miracle Hill, in honor of the difference in water temperatures.
In 1918 Cabot enlisted in the Army and left the desert to serve in World War I. When he returned, a year later, he ran a grocery store and post office near Indio. Sometime later he left for Europe to travel and study art in Paris but came back to California to run a grocery store. By 1941 Cabot Yerxa had finally returned to the desert for good. He helped found the city of Desert Hot Springs and resumed his painting career specializing in works depicting the Native Cahuilla Tribe.
Cabot’s pueblo began as a one-man project in 1941 and was still a work-in-progress at the time of his death in 1965. Inspired by Hopi Indian architecture, the 5,000 square feet structure consists of some 35 rooms with 150 windows and 65 doors. Construction material includes adobe bricks made by Cabot himself with a cup of cement added to each brick. He seldom bought new building materials. Instead, he scavenged the desert as far as the Salton Sea for used timbers, masonry, glass, and wood. The pueblo’s exterior presents a flat irregular facade broken by windows and projecting beams. He shared the Native American belief that evil spirits dwell in symmetry so he purposely left walls somewhat uneven, floors not perfectly level, and doorways aslant.
Today Cabot’s Pueblo is a museum. The ground floor used to be a trading post and living quarters for Cabot Yerxa himself. Dominated by a huge stone fireplace, the living room floor is dirt and tucked beside it is his tiny bedroom. A kitchen, dining room, office, and storage space take up the remainder of the first floor. The second floor was an apartment suite for his second wife, Portia, known for her work in metaphysics and the belief in other life in other worlds. She and Cabot welcomed contact with these beings. The third floor consists of one large room with many windows, affording views of San Jacinto, Santa Rosa, and San Gorgonio Mountains. This room was once used as a classroom for metaphysical and theosophical studies pursued by Portia and Cabot.
In 1965 Cabot Yerxa died of a heart attack in his pueblo, the home he had worked on but never finished for the past 20 years. He was 82.
After Cabot’s death the pueblo was nearly destroyed, but his friend, Cole Eyraud, stood in the path of a bulldozer with a shot-gun in his hand. Eyraud purchased the property in 1970 and when he died, in 1996, he left it to the city of Desert Hot Springs as a museum and art gallery dedicated to preserving the legacy of Cabot Yerxa, a lover of people and the desert. (desert.us)
A Map of the Pueblo Museum
We park in Lot #3 and the first stop on the map we encounter is Number 8, a tall carved sculpture of a Native American…
Waokiye was carved on site by Peter Toth in 1978 as part of his “Trail of the Whispering Giants.” It is 43 feet tall and carved from a fallen sequoia. The feather is 15 feet tall and carved from an incense cedar. In Lakota Sioux language, Waokiye means “traditional helper.” ( Museum brochure)
A palo verde tree greets us on our way to the Upper Courtyard, Number 4.
The Tool House and Ancient Weather Rock are located here.
We visit the Trading Post, Number 3, and purchase our tickets. Then we step outside into the Main Courtyard.
This bright succulent is called a pencil plant. Drought resistant, the plant’s green sticks turn bright orange when under stress. Gardeners often deliberately deprive the euphorbia tirucalli of water and nutrients to encourage its colorful display. (ftd.com)
Abutting the Courtyard is Cabot’s Old Indian Pueblo, Number 1… an eclectic mashup of repurposed materials utilizing the 3 Rs- reuse, reduce, and recycle.
We have time before the tour begins, so we head into the Meditation Garden, Number 10. Oleander, cacti, and brittle bush escort us to the Garden, through it, and up to…
…the Well House, Number 9.
The well-house stored hot water that was pumped from a well inside the Pueblo building, which then flowed by gravity into its rooms. Cabot built himself a small spa tub inside the well-house where he enjoyed the healing mineral waters. (Museum brochure)
From the Well House overlook I take a picture of the unfinished portion of the back of the Pueblo.
And now I greet Judy with a hug as we recognize each other. She starts the tour in the Main Courtyard before we proceed inside the Pueblo where no picture-taking is permitted.
My head spins learning about Cabot and his parents! What an incredible life he lived filled with the spirit of risk and adventure, the thirst for knowledge and enlightenment, and the compassion and love for Native Americans to adopt and share their wisdom.
Before we leave we revisit the Well House and take more pictures.
Walking back to the car we stop at Number 5 on the map, the Studio House.
Cabot encouraged artists to come, stay, and work at the Pueblo. Two small apartments with surrounding roof decks were available for visiting artists, friends, and family. (Museum brochure)
Even though Jeff and I walked less than a mile in total, I am exhausted… mentally! But I am so inspired by this incredible man’s story! Cabot Yerxa was truly struck with desert fever and the preservation of Native American spirituality. That’s what happens here. The desert lures you in slowly, one sense at a time. Then, you discover the wisdom and strength of our native elders who respected the land and in turn were provided for by Mother Earth. You are changed forever. At least that has been our experience. Our hearts melt in the hot sun with appreciation and our thirst can only be quenched by learning more. Yikes, we are becoming desert rats!