Sunday, June 30, 2013

Financial shortfalls threaten local museum

After 20 years of operation, the struggling Victor Valley Museum in Apple Valley will continue to stay open with a portion of $200,000 in bridge funding from San Bernardino County. (SARAH ALVARADO)

Rene De La Cruz, Staff Writer
Victorville Daily Press

APPLE VALLEY • The future of a key educational facility in the High Desert hangs by a financial thread.

After 20 years of operation, the struggling Victor Valley Museum will continue to stay open with a portion of $200,000 in bridge funding from San Bernardino County.

Because of the county’s budget reduction for 2013-14, nine positions have been eliminated in the county’s museum budget, with additional bridge funding retaining the one paid employee at the museum in Apple Valley.

The county’s museum budget of $3.1 million reflects a reduction of nearly $770,000.

In May, Director of San Bernardino County Museums Robert McKernan said the local museum had to temporarily layoff one paid staff worker because of a lack of funds.

McKernan said the county was not planning on closing “any facility in our system of museums.”

On Friday, Facility Manager of the Victor Valley Museum Rhonda Almager said she was ecstatic to be back after being temporarily laid off for almost two weeks.

“It was touch and go, but I love this place,” said Almager, who has worked for the museum system for 24 years. “It’s me and about 14 volunteers. I’m grateful to still be here.”

Since May, news of the lack of museum funds spread, with the rumor mill lamenting the impending closure of the facility.

The county’s $4.4 billion budget for 2013-14, passed June 12, reveals limited one-time sources to fund certain costs as part of a multi-year plan to address a five-year structural deficit.

A few of those one-time fund issues include covering shortfall in the county museum system, Fire Department and underfunded programs and projects in Land Use Services and Public Works.

The budget also revealed that the county will work with other government agencies to explore opportunities to “transfer the ownership/operation of the Victor Valley Museum to another entity.”

One of those entities may be the newly formed Friends of the Victor Valley Museum, which held its inaugural fundraiser and reception in November to raise funds and promote community awareness and involvement in the museum.

During the event, Brad Mitzelfelt, the county’s 1st District supervisor at the time, pledged $125,000 of remaining discretionary funds as matching funds for the nonprofit group.

The museum opened as an independent nonprofit in 1992. It closed for a one-year renovation project after the county acquired it in February 2010 after declining revenue threatened its closure.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Exhibit focuses on mysterious shacks

Kim Stringfellow’s “Jackrabbit Homestead” documents the history behind empty dwellings that dot the desert

This image of a desert shack in Wonder Valley is part of Kim Stringfellow's "Jackrabbit Homestead" exhibit. (KIM STRINGFELLOW/CONTRIBUTED IMAGE)

By Mark Muckenfuss
Riverside Press-Enterprise

Broken glass and dirt crunched under Kim Stringfellow’s sandals as she picked her way through an abandoned desert cabin in Wonder Valley, a thinly populated plain east of Twentynine Palms.

The walls were nearly skeletonized — mostly bare timber frames with a few asbestos shingles still hanging onto the weathered wood of the exterior.

In what once was a living area, a tangle of rusted coils and a wooden frame were all that remained of a couch, its upholstery shed long ago. In the ruins of the bedroom a dresser still stood, its top two drawers gaping and full of debris.

Stringfellow peered in, curious.

“You wonder about the people that inhabited these cabins and what their stories were,” said Stringfellow, 49, an artist living in Joshua Tree. “How long did they live there? How did they end up here?”

The cabins — some still occupied, others nearly ghosts — dot the desert chaparral east of Twentynine Palms. Stringfellow’s fascination with them has spawned an art exhibit, “Jackrabbit Homestead.”

The show opens at the UCR Culver Center of the Arts in downtown Riverside on Saturday, June 29 and includes photographs, historical material and a life-sized floor plan of a homestead cabin. A companion website offers audio interviews and a map showing where people can tour some of the cabins.

Stringfellow published a book on the subject in 2008. But she has continued to explore the cabins, built as part of the Small Tract Act of 1938, as well as their importance to the landscape and to the development of today’s desert communities. These were the original residents who helped make towns such as Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley viable.

“It looks like a wash came through here are some point,” she said, noting the alluvial soil covering the cabin’s floor. “People would build during the dry season, and they weren’t accustomed to what happened when the rain came.”

Often when a cabin was hit by a mud flow, she said, the occupants would abandon the place, suddenly realizing the utopia of free wide-open spaces and self-determination was more often than not just a fantasy.

Tyler Stallings, artistic director of the Culver Center, said Stringfellow — an assistant professor of art at San Diego State University — is one of dozens of artists seeking their own utopias in the Mojave Desert near Joshua Tree. Many of them are drawn by the open expanse and the stark beauty of the desert, as well as the affordable property that once drew the homesteaders.

Stringfellow’s show is the latest in a series of projects and exhibits Stallings has produced in an effort to connect art and the Inland region’s deserts.

“Many nationally recognized artists are choosing to ground their work in and around Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert in a relocation that is akin to the spirit of the Wild West,” Stallings said via email.


Stringfellow said many of those who built the desert cabins in the middle of the 20th century were attracted by the romance of the vast open spaces.

“Everyone wanted that John Wayne Western experience,” she said.

And for just a handful of dollars, they were able to take a stab at it.

The Small Tract Act grew out of a migration of necessity, but blossomed into something wholly different.

The genesis of the historic episode is generally credited to Dr. James Luckie, a Pasadena physician often acknowledged as the father of Twentynine Palms. In the wake of World War I, Luckie was treating veterans with respiratory problems resulting from mustard gas exposure. He encouraged many of them to relocate to the desert, where the air was warm and dry.

Some acquired land through the existing Homestead Act. But meeting that act’s requirement for cultivating a certain number of acres on a homestead was a challenge in the Mojave. In the mid-1930s, a federal land inspector suggested a different set of rules were needed for the region. The Small Tract Act, passed in 1938, provided homesteaders with five acres, requiring only that they construct a dwelling of at least 400 square feet within three years.

For a $5 filing fee and a lease of $1 per acre per year, a person could lay claim to a piece of the desert. If a dwelling was constructed and approved, homesteaders usually could purchase the land for $10 to $20 per acre.

Hundreds of homestead cabins popped up on the landscape after World War II. Even some famous names got involved. Stringfellow said Desert magazine reported that Ronald Reagan applied for a homestead at one time but never built a cabin, so the land reverted to the government.

The cabins were dubbed jackrabbit homesteads.

Stringfellow said the name came from the fact that the local rabbit population would take advantage of the ample shade the cabins offered in the desert heat. As if on cue, as she walked around the corner of another shack, a jackrabbit leaped off into the sparse brush.


Some homesteaders made a go of it. Most did not. The result is the half-deteriorated shacks scattered across the landscape. Stringfellow’s photos depict these relics. But while the images are compelling and saturated with color, she purposely avoids any of the mystique that might have drawn the early residents.

“I wasn’t trying to romanticize the cabins,” she said. “I don’t want to do romantic skies and clouds.”

Instead, she wants to intrigue.

“I’m hoping it opens people up to investigating,” she said. “I want people to go out and actually experience the landscape. You don’t have a sense of the scale unless you’re out there.”

Part of the project is a website — — that contains a map for touring the area and audio interviews with local residents and historians. Stringfellow wants people to understand that the cabins are more than a curiosity, more than a disturbance of the desert vistas.

“Maybe one of these should be made into a monument for the Small Tract Act,” she said. “I hope, at one point, the historical society acquires one.”

Such a monument could tell the history of the homesteads, and perhaps even some of the stories of those who lived there. Although, she said, she’s found more mysteries than stories.

One shack she photographed had remained largely undisturbed since its abandonment. She found shirts hanging in a closet and an old manual typewriter.

“There had been a note posted to the door that was, ‘Be back soon … something, something,’” she said. “It was probably like the last thing that was left there. So this thing has been flopping in the wind for 25 to 30 years, it’s just sort of faded out.”

Such experiences only pique her interest more.

“I think I’ll always be photographing these,” she said. “I never really get tired of looking at them.”

Jackrabbit Homestead
  • ART EXHIBIT: “Tracing the Small Tract Act in the Southern California Landscape, 1938-2008, a project by Kim Stringfellow”
  • WHERE: Culver Center of the Arts, 3824 Main St., Riverside
  • WHEN: June 29-Sept. 28, 2013
  • CLOSING EVENTS: Panel discussion, 3-5 p.m., and reception, 6-9 p.m. Sept. 28
  • HOURS, INFORMATION: 951-827-4787 or

Monday, June 24, 2013

100 years later, Stoddard-Waite Monument in Cajon Pass is rededicated

Stoddard-Waite Monument rededication ceremony, held on 05/18/13 at the Stoddard Waite Monument in the Cajon Pass. Group photo with members of the Stoddard, Waite, and Brown families and members of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society. (Mark Landis)

Nick Cataldo, Correspondent
Redlands Daily Facts

Last month the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society sponsored an event celebrating the 100th Anniversary Rededication of the Stoddard-Waite Monument in the Cajon Pass.

This white obelisk near the truck scales along the 15 Freeway south of Highway 138 on property owned by the San Bernardino County Museum Association, was built to honor the pioneers who came to Southern California in the 1800s. On one side of the monument is the inscription "Santa Fe and Salt Lake Trail, erected by the Pioneer Society of San Bernardino, 1912." On another side, etched on a brass plate, is the inscription "Sheldon Stoddard and Sydney P. Waite came over this trail in 1849 and helped erect this monument in 1912."

Attending last month's festivities were about 50 people, including a group of individuals who had special cause for celebration. This assemblage consisted of descendants of the two men whose names are emblazoned on the monument.

In December 1849 a group of hardy pioneers arrived at this site -- for centuries a Serrano Indian settlement known as Amuscopiabit and during pioneer times as "the Willows" -- with a wagon train traveling from Salt Lake City. The group became famous as the "Death Valley 49ers." Among them were 19-year-old Sheldon Stoddard and 12-year-old Sydney Waite who were traveling with their parents. They all rested at the Willows, after entering the Cajon Pass by way of Coyote Canyon.

This narrow, twisting gorge had been heavily used for pack trains of mules between Santa Fe and Los Angeles during the 1830s and into the 1940s.

By the late 1840s, emigrant parties traveling by wagon departing from Salt Lake rolled slowly down the Cajon. One such caravan was the Jefferson Hunt party who were bound for the gold fields of Northern California.

Many of the wagons had to be dismantled and dragged over the rocky streambed that runs through the narrow Coyote Canyon. Two of the individuals who helped get the wagons through were Stoddard and Waite.

Original Stoddard-Waite Monument dedication ceremony, held on 05/18/1913. In the automobile are surviving pioneers Sheldon Stoddard and Sidney Waite.
The Stoddard-Waite Monument was erected by the San Bernardino Society of California Pioneers, aka Pioneer Society, in December 1912, but for various reasons the dedication was held off until May 18, 1913.

The location was chosen so that "modern-day" motorists traveling along the Santa Fe-Grand Canyon-Needles Highway -- later known as the National Old Trails Road -- could easily pull over and contemplate the history of the trails and roads serving the area.

The 1913 dedication was carefully planned by Secretary John Brown Jr. and conducted by President Silas Cox.

Transportation was arranged in automobiles for elderly participants and a caravan starting at John Brown's residence at Sixth and D streets in San Bernardino drove to the site.

A surprising number of pioneer survivors -- including Sheldon Stoddard and Sidney Waite -- were present.

As part of the program, those two men, along with R.T. Roberds, Mary Crandall, Jane Smithson and George Miller, gave their recollections of the route. Pablo Belarde was the earliest of them all, having arrived from New Mexico by pack mule in 1844.

After Mary Harris uncovered folds of American flags from the monument, Reverend Mark B. Shaw delivered the invocation, De La Montaigne Woodward, Henry M. Willis, Judge Benjamin F. Bledsoe, W.J. Curtis and Joseph E. Rich gave addresses and there was plenty of singing. After the ceremony there was a basket picnic and all had a great time.

One hundred years later to the day, the Stoddard-Waite Monument Rededication of May 18, 2013, also was a rousing success.
Stoddard-Waite Monument rededication ceremony, held on 05/18/13. In the car, all relatives of the Stoddard Family. Front seat L to R: Nancy Armstrong Bob Sleppy. Rear seat L to R: Ginger Urquhart, Donna Fees, Debbie Mcfadden. (Mark Landis)

The activities began at 9 a.m. at the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society's Heritage House at Eighth and D streets in San Bernardino, when President Steve Shaw welcomed everyone and presented a slide show featuring the old "Pioneer Society," followed by a special gift to descendants of Stoddard and Waite.

After everyone convoyed up to the Stoddard-Waite Monument in the Cajon Pass, San Bernardino County Museum Association caretaker Mike Hartless talked about the Indian village followed by my own historical overview of the Willows.

Then, in honor of those pioneers who arrived more than a century and a half ago, descendants of Stoddard, Waite, and other families proudly talked about their ancestors who helped turn the Cajon Pass into an important gateway into Southern California.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Budget cuts put San Bernardino County Museum on shaky ground

The San Bernardino County Museum has cut eight positions due to a loss of state and federal funding. Further layoffs could endanger the museum s accreditation, county officials said. (Gabriel Luis Acosta/Staff Photographer)

Joe Nelson, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Supervisor James Ramos is leading the charge in an effort to save jobs and programs at the San Bernardino County Museum, which stands to lose its accreditation due to budget cuts.

The museum lost out on $766,000 in state and federal funding this fiscal year, roughly 50 percent of its projected revenue of $1.8 million, county Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereaux said at a budget hearing last week, when the Board of Supervisors adopted a $4.4 billion budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Ramos said the museum system is a "vital asset" to county residents and tourists, and that it is crucial for the museum to think creatively as the state and federal funding it has depended on for many of its programs dries up.

The county museum system consists of the main museum in Redlands, which is in Ramos' 3rd District, the Victor Valley Museum and Gallery in Apple Valley and seven historical sites in the San Bernardino Valley and the High Desert.

"What we need to do is create a revenue-generating model and work with the museum association and museum commissioners to make sure we're all on the same page with a plan," Ramos said Friday.

He said he'll help arrange meetings with museum officials and the county Economic Development Agency to draft a revenue-generating plan.

"I'm hoping to get this done within the next three months," Ramos said.

The museum initially stood to lose 13 positions, but Devereaux said he was able to save five of them by pulling together $550,000 in "bridge funding," which buys the museum another year to figure out how to generate other sources of revenue.

Devereaux said the museum will probably end the year $500,000 in the red, which means the county would have to dip into its reserves to cover the loss.

The staff reductions will result in significant cuts to services and programs the museum has traditionally provided.

Among the amenities that will be lost are the live animal exploration station in Redlands, educational outreach programs for elementary, middle and high school students, the Museums on the Roads and Geological Sciences programs, and weekend programing.

The museum in Redlands also will no longer have security guards.

County Museum Association President Robert Christman said the museum now has roughly 30 employees, but will definitely lose its accreditation in 2015 if it loses nine to 13 employees.

Accreditation, Christman said, had enabled former Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, to secure grants for the museum.

"If we lose our accreditation, all that goes away," Christman said.