The desert has long attracted those some would call eccentric, others visionary, men who have built structures that embody their visions. Consider George van Tassel and the Integratron in Landers; consider Leonard Knight’s work on Salvation Mountain near Niland, and, consider Cabot Yerxa and his Old Pueblo Home in Desert Hot Springs. In the case of Cabot Yerxa, his combination home, art gallery, work-shop, museum, and trading post is as colorful and expansive as his life story. The pueblo began as a one-man project in 1941, and was still a work-in-progress at the time of Cabot’s 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 materials; instead, Cabot scavenged the desert as far as the Salton Sea for used timbers, masonry, glass and wood. He was said to have taken nails from abandoned cabins, straightened them, and incorporated them into his pueblo. The front door is recycled from an old wagon. The pueblo’s exterior presents a flat, irregular facade broken by windows and projecting beams. Irregularity was a deliberate part of Cabot’s construction plan. He s h a r e d the Indian belief that evil spirits dwell in symmetry, and so purposely left walls somewhat uneven, floors not perfectly level, doorways aslant. The pueblo is now a museum, one of the most fascinating in the desert area. What were the trading post and personal living quarters of Cabot Yerxa occupy the ground floor. “Ground” is an appropriate word, because the living room floor is dirt. The room is dominated by a huge stone fireplace, and tucked beside it is Cabot’s tiny bedroom. A kitchen, dining room, office and storage space take up the remainder of the first floor. An apartment suite built for Portia, Cabot’s second wife, occupies the second floor, which also has an area to showcase the art work of Cabot and his friends, and his collection of curiosities accumulated through the years. The third floor consists of one large room with many windows, affording views of the nearby mountains. The room was once used as a classroom for metaphysical and theosophical studies that Cabot and Portia pursued.
The life of Cabot Yerxa is almost as fantastic as the design of his sprawling pueblo. He was born in 1883 in Hamilton, Dakota Territories, and spent his early years on the Sioux Reservation where his parents ran a trading post. The family left there for St. Paul, Minnesota, where they ran a store. The elder Mr. Yerxa next took the family to Mexico where he taught his merchandizing skills and developed a taste for cigars, at least for making them. The family next settled in Seattle, and soon young Cabot decided Alaska was his land of opportunity. Lured north by the gold rush, Cabot drove dog teams and a stage coach in the area of Nome, then set up a store specializing in selling cigars to the gold miners flocking to the area. He became interested in the culture and language of the Inuit, enjoyed their hospitality, and compiled a 320 word vocabulary of their language which he sold to the Smithsonian Institute.
Cabot set up a mobile grocery business in Alaska, going to different areas and taking orders which were filled at his father’s store in Seattle and shipped to the clients. It was while engaged in this enterprise that he met then Vice President Theodore Roosevelt and maintained a longtime friendship with him. Cabot’s father next sold his General Merchandising company and moved the family to Cuba, where he built tract houses outside Havana. Political developments in Cuba forced the family to move to Florida, where they manufactured cigars in Key West. Next Cabot headed west. He married, fathered a son, Rodney, and was divorced. Cabot joined the Yerxa family in moving to Riverside and investing in a promising citrus ranch. They lost their fortune in the freeze of 1913. Cabot then homesteaded near the desert area which later became Desert Hot Springs. At first, he lived a rugged life, sleeping outdoors and cooking over a campfire. Then he built a 10 by 12 foot cabin out of one inch wide boards. He used his artistic talent to create post cards of desert scenes which he sold to train passengers at the nearby rail stop of Garnet, outside Palm Springs. One of the first items Cabot obtained was a burro he named Merry Christmas in honor of the day he purchased her. He credits the burro with saving his life during a sand-storm near Whitewater, 16 miles from home. Cabot flattened himself against the animal’s back, protected his eyes from the blowing sand, and told Merry Christmas “Take me home.” She did.
A newspaper account of this adventure appeared in the Riverside Enterprise. The burro was also known for her eclectic eating habits. Cabot shared what-ever he was eating with her, in gratitude for her saving his life, and she reportedly ate anything, and even drank water from a bottle and chewed tobacco. With her aid, he built his first permanent shelter, which he called Eagle’s Nest, a one room cabin situated in a hole Cabot excavated on what he later called Miracle Hill. The most pressing problem was a lack of water. Cabot and Merry Christmas hauled water from Garnet, a fourteen mile round trip, several times a week. Then, Cabot dug a well, the first of, Cabot dug a well, the first of the hot water sources that later became the basis for the city of Desert Hot Springs. He dug a second well about 600 yards from the first and discovered cold water. This unusual result occurred, Cabot later learned from geologists, because each well was located on the opposite side of the San Andreas earth-quake fault. In honor of the different water temperatures, he named the site Miracle Hill. The U.S. entered World War I, and Cabot joined the Army in 1918, leaving behind 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. Cabot next went to Furtilla, California, now a ghost town, near Indio, and ran a grocery store and the post office there. Sometime later, he went to Europe to travel and study art in Paris, but again returned to California where he ran a grocery store in Moorpark. By 1941, he’d returned to the desert and helped found the city of Desert Hot Springs. He continued his painting career, specializing in works depicting the Cahuilla Indians.
In 1945 Cabot Yerxa married for a second time. His wife, Portia Graham, 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. At age 82, Cabot Yerxa died of a heart attack in his home, the pueblo he had worked on for more than twenty years. Widely recognized for the unique structure he built, Cabot was also known for his good deeds and philanthropy. The city marked his passing by lowering flags to half-staff and closing City Hall. More than 400 mourners attended his funeral. After Cabot’s death, the structure was nearly destroyed but his friend, Cole Eyraud, literally held off the forces of destruction by standing in the path of a bulldozer, shot-gun in hand. He then bought the property, helped restore it, and, when he died, left it to the city of Desert Hot Springs as a museum and art gallery. Visitors today are struck by the sprawling structure’s marriage of folly and ingenuity. Cabot Yerxa’s legacy stands as a monument to the spirit of adventure and creativity, inspiring and attracting many who answer the call of the desert.
Unfortunately, no photographing was allowed inside…
This article was courtesy of the Morongo Basin Historical Society
Directions: Take Twentynine Palms Highway west toward Desert Hot Springs. Turn left at traffic light on N. Indian Canyon Dr. Continue on N. Indian Canyon to Pierson Blvd. and turn left. Follow Pierson to Palm Dr., and go right. Follow Palm Dr. to Desert View Ave. and turn left. Cabot’s is up a short distance on left.