Cabot Yerxa: True Confessions of a Research Addict â€˘ This is a photograph of Cabot Yerxa, an early pioneer of the Seven Palms Valley (now Desert Hot Springs) and the discoverer of the thermal wells, circa 1914. 1
Cabot Yerxa • Here is Cabot, about 40 years later, in front of his iconic “Old Indian Pueblo.” • In his own lifetime, he was a legend. • Is it possible that everything we “know” about Cabot Yerxa is a lie? 2
Love Letters (and Numbers) â€˘ This article appeared in the March 2007 issue of Palm Springs Life.
Palm Springs Life, continued • Don’t get attached – most of the information is in this article is WRONG.
What’s the Problem? Ann Japenga’s Article •
Cabot Yerxa was an adventurer who sold cigars to miners in Alaska and lived with the Inuit before moving to Desert Hot Springs in 1913. Working by hand for 20 years, he built a quirky Hopi-style pueblo of 35 rooms — his monument to Native American culture. Today it’s one of one of the most crowd-pleasing historical structures in the state.
Cabot was then 62 and long divorced from his first wife. He was working as an engineer at Torney General Hospital in Palm Springs (the temporary hospital established by the Army at El Mirador Hotel). On weekends, he returned to his Desert Hot Springs homestead called Miracle Hill and worked on his pueblo with his black burro, Merry Xmas.
…When he [John Hunt] put the papers in chronological order, starting with 1945, he discovered a consecutive series of letters on yellow sheets of paper, covered with funny geometric symbols. The letter recipient, Portia Graham, was a teacher of metaphysics living in Morongo with her mother, Barbara. As Cabot wooed Portia in letters, he also informed her that as soon as the war was over he would return to his life’s masterpiece: construction of the massive cliff dwelling on Miracle Hill.
Why It’s Wrong: •
The first sentence is substantively correct.
It is implied that the 20 years he spent building the pueblo were between 1913 and 1933. He did not start building the pueblo until the late 1930s.
Cabot was 62 in 1945. He was more of a handyman than an engineer. He owned his property free and clear – it may have been a functional homestead, but legally the term “homestead” would not be applicable. This is splitting hairs, however, it is important to note that the location of the pueblo is not the same as his initial 160-acre parcel further south on Miracle Hill. His burro, Merry Xmas, died many years before (around 1920) and he owned a truck.
Barbara Whitelaw was not Portia’s mother. If Portia’s mother, Nanny Beatrice Rogers Fearis, was still alive in 1945, she would have been about 84 years old. It is likely that Barbara Whitelaw was Portia’s roommate.
What’s the Problem? Ann Japenga’s Article •
The romance evolved; Cabot introduced a mystical code. Triangles numbered 1, 2, and 3 were meant to symbolize Cabot, Portia, and Barbara: “My very dear Memory lingers Over the beauty Of [drawing of triangle 2]”
Once Portia was hooked, Cabot’s letters took a utilitarian turn, full of “contractual appeasements,” as Hunt says. He warned his bride-to-be there would be no phone in the new abode: “Peace and quiet is worth more than news and gossip to me,” he wrote.
Why It’s Wrong •
Actually, Cabot did come up with a strange, arcane numbering system to express the odd triangle of himself, Portia and Barbara. Why he did so remains a mystery.
Cabot’s letters to Portia were more prosaic than passionate. They did, however, install a telephone, an 1890s model that it still completely functional. It is in the Pueblo on the landing just before the room with the earthen floor.
Cabot built the tower before meeting Portia and he described it to her in some of the letters referenced in the article. Undoubtedly, they made good use of it in their almost 20 years together.
In a recent ceremony in the pueblo’s courtyard, Hunt presented the original letters to Lisa Lawrence, president of Cabot’s Museum Foundation, to be stored in the museum’s archives. Illuminated by moonlight, encircled by the thick adobe walls, Hunt read the letters aloud to assembled guests. Even those who didn’t believe in ghosts glanced up now and then, perhaps expecting to see Portia listening from the bower Cabot built for her.
Another Cabot Letter to Portia and Barbara • •
Here is a page from the series of letters alluded to in the article. Without the first and last page, it is necessarily out of context, however even with that caveat, this is is a very strange thing to be writing to <2> and <3>; Portia and Barbara. He starts by describing his seductive tower, goes on to complain about the backbreaking labor he’s putting into the pueblo, segues into commentary about the French woman “M,” with whom he had a 20-year romantic pen-friend relationship, gives the two of them a weird compliment about being “sincere” and alludes to “happy days,” then states his intent to come up [to the Morongo Valley] to paint with Barbara Whitelaw at an undisclosed future date. So ok, what’s that about? And if this is his idea of being seductive, it is amazing he got anywhere at all!
Rebuttal Letter You would think that with that many errors, the editor of Palm Springs Life, Steven Biller, would want to correct them – WRONG AGAIN! Dear Mr. Biller, It was with great interest that I read Love Letters (and Numbers) by Ann Japenga in the March issue of your magazine. Cabot Yerxa is indeed a fascinating, if often overlooked, local hero. Our community owes a huge debt of gratitude to John Hunt for rescuing and returning original source materials to Cabot’s Indian Pueblo Museum and for saving Cabot’s grave after years of neglect. For anyone who has not visited the museum, it is a wonderful slice of local history and desert lore. Unfortunately, errors and mistakes frequently mar the story of Cabot and Portia Yerxa, which has a rather convoluted history at its base regardless of who is telling the story. Japenga’s article repeated several of those errors, compounding the problem. In short: Cabot Yerxa did move to the area that would one day be known as Desert Hot Springs in 1913 as a homesteader. He did discover both hot and cold (relatively) water wells on his property, which he dubbed “Miracle Hill.” Then, in 1918 he sold off some or all of his property and moved to Seattle where his wife and son lived. He was drafted into the tank corps in WWI. He did not return to the desert to live until the late 1930s, 20 years later, when he started building his Hopi-inspired pueblo. He substantively finished the pueblo in the 1950s, but kept working on it until his death in 1965 at the age of 81. In 1945, Cabot was 62 and Portia was 61. He worked at Torney General Hospital during the week and on the weekends returned to his Desert Hot Springs property, which was substantively, if not by legal definition, a homestead. His black burro, Merry Christmas, had died many years before, probably in 1918. He had a truck, which he used to comb the desert for construction materials for his fabulous pueblo. If Portia’s mother, Nanny Beatrice Rogers Fearis, was still alive in 1945, she would have been about 84 years old. Barbara Whitelaw was not Portia’s mother, nor was she her sister. It is likely they were friends and roommates. Whatever the situation, Cabot’s letters (and more likely his winning ways) did the trick. Cabot and Portia spent the next 19 years of their lives together sharing a wonderful love that sustained them through their later years. One of the most inspiring aspects to the Yerxa’s relationship is that they never thought they were too old to start building a dream house, or that it was too late to fall in love.
Steven Biller thanked me for my letter and never ran it, neither in print or online. The article still exists in cyberspace, misinforming curious readers on an ongoing basis.
How did this happen? • All of the information was gathered from only one source, “The Waters of Comfort” by John J. Hunt. • Some of the information was incorrect, some was misquoted or wrongly interpreted. 9
WARNIING! • So much misinformation exists about Cabot Yerxa, that learning about his life might make you “stupid-er!” • We need to determine what is true and what is not true. • To find out, we need to do detective work.
Plan of Attack! • We are going to use the tools of journalism to combat ignorance! • We will draw our information from as many sources as possible! • We will differentiate between reliable sources of information and hearsay! • The closer we get to the original source, the closer we get to the truth! 11
The Smoking Gun • The term "smoking gun" was originally, and is still primarily, a reference to an object or fact that serves as conclusive evidence of a crime or similar act. • The phrase first become synonymous with incontrovertible incrimination in an 1893 Sherlock Holmes story, The Gloria Scott. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of a grisly murder by a sham chaplain aboard a prison ship: We rushed into the captain's cabin . . . there he lay with his brains smeared over the chart of the Atlantic . . . while the chaplain stood with a smoking pistol in his hand at his elbow. • Our challenge is to FIND THE SMOKING GUN!
What are primary source documents? •
A primary source (also called original source) is a document, recording or other source of information, such as a paper or a picture for instance, that was created at the time being studied, by an authoritative source, usually one with direct personal knowledge of the events being described. It serves as an original source of information about the topic.
We have letters, photographs, articles, scrapbooks etc. written by Cabot himself. We have all of the abovementioned items generated by Cabot’s friends and family members. We have other documents that were created at the time being studied that both support and contradict Cabot’s claims and those made about him. These include census records, draft notices and cancelled checks.
The Archive • Cabot Yerxa was a compulsive hoarder. • This has been a boon to research as nearly everything he owned is still in the Pueblo. • Unfortunately, it was never cataloged and in February of last year, this was the state of the archive room. 14
The Archive, continued • We’ve done a lot of work in the last year, and the archive is no longer a Hanta Virus death trap! • Incredible discoveries have come out of “the Vault,” as we call it at Cabot’s. • Some of these discoveries contradict what we “know” about Cabot and Portia Yerxa.
What is the real story? •
Cabot Yerxa was born June 11, 1883 in Hamilton, a town in the Dakota Territories to Fred and Nellie Yerxa. • Hamilton was a railroad town, and Fred operated a general store. His family, the Yerxas, were prosperous merchants. • The Yerxas were originally Dutch, and were among the original settlers of New York. Yerxa was the phonetic spelling of Jurckse, meaning “Sons of George.”
Cabot’s mother, Nellie, was originally from Cambridge, Mass. Her maiden name was “Cabot,” however, she was not associated with the wealthy and powerful Boston family. Her father, who died when she was a child, was a brass finisher. Her brother delivered newspapers. She worked as a clerk. The family tradition holds that they were indeed descended from John Cabot, who discovered Newfoundland. 16
Cabot’s baby picture • This little guy is Cabot at 15 mos. • The photo was taken by Harry Barretz in Cambridge, Mass. • Nellie’s family lived in Cambridge and Fred’s uncle Henry owned the Cobb, Bates and Yerxa Co., the largest grocery store in Boston. • We do not know the circumstances of this journey east, but we do know that even as a baby, Cabot Yerxa was an accomplished traveler. 17
How do we know? • People’s anecdotes and “family traditions” are notoriously unreliable. • Census records form an objective history.
• Marriage, birth and death certificates round out the picture. • Genealogical records are a great place to start any historical research.
Cabot’s Death Certificate •
• • • • • •
Cabot was born on June 11, 1883 and died on March 5, 1965 at 9:30 in the morning. He was 81. At the time of his death: He had owned and operated the Indian Museum for 23 years. (since 1942) He was survived by his wife, Portia F. Yerxa. He served in WWI. He had lived in Riverside Co. for 51 years. (this isn’t true) The coroner, Charles Starr, attributed his death to a heart attack. He was cremated. 19
How do we know? • •
Birth and death dates tend to be well documented in public records – Cabot Yerxa was not an exception. Some information on a death certificate comes from surviving family members. Portia did not know that Cabot’s father, Fred Yerxa, was born in New Brunswick. She did not mention (and may not have known) that Cabot also lived in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, and Riverside Counties, as well as Seattle, Washington, during those 51 years. We have Cabot’s draft card from WWI, thanks to the National Archives. Census records to the rescue! We know where Cabot was living, and who he was living with, in 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930. In a few years, we’ll know where he was in 1940 too!
We can also trace his mother’s family back to Charles Cobbett in the 1840 census, and the Jurckse family back to Fort Orange [now Albany, New York] in the 1650s. Cabot’s final resting spot is the Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City.
Where is the Murder Room? • In 2008, two junior docents asked Michael O’Keefe, the Cabot’s Foundation Board President, to show them the “Murder Room,” where Cabot’s first wife, Mamie Carstensen Yerxa was buried after a final bloody row with Cabot. • This image is an artist’s rendering of Cabot Yerxa wielding a bloody axe. It is not an original source document! 21
Can you locate the Murder Room? • O’Keefe was unable to identify Mamie’s shallow grave. • Using this floor plan, where do you suppose the murder occurred and where does the body now lie? 22
What happened? â€˘ We cannot say for certain that Cabot Yerxa, like most people in this room, was not a murderer, but we do know that he did not kill his first wife. â€˘ We know from his draft card that Cabot left the desert in 1918 and moved with Rodney, his son, and Mamie to live with her parents in Seattle. 23
Cabot’s Draft Card On Sept. 12, 1918: • Cabot was 35 years old. • He was working as a machinist’s helper at Skinner and Eddy’s #2 in Seattle. • He was living with Mamie and Rodney at her parent’s house. 24
How do we know? • We know that he arrived in France after armistice, effectively preventing him from killing anyone during his military service. (National Archives Military Records) • In the 1920 census, Mamie was living with her parents and Rodney in Seattle. Cabot lied to the census taker and claimed they were living with him and his mother in Palo Verde, Riverside Co. • In the 1930 census, Mamie and Rodney were still living in the Carstensen family home with her parents. She listed herself as divorced and started calling herself “Beverly.” 25
How do we know? •
In the 1930 census, Cabot also listed himself as divorced, and was living alone in Moorpark, Ventura Co. • In personal e-mail correspondence with Laurie Segawa, Cabot’s granddaughter, she confirmed that Cabot and Mamie grew to loathe each other, but that at no point did Cabot murder his first wife, no matter how tempted he may have been. • If he didn’t murder Mamie, then odds are he didn’t kill anyone else. • There is no “Murder Room.”
Below: the 1930 census. Mamie lived to tell the tale.
But that’s not to say Cabot’s Pueblo isn’t haunted! • We can confirm from lack of evidence to the contrary and census records, military records and personal accounts, that Cabot Yerxa never killed anybody. However, a few people have died at the Pueblo: • Nellie Yerxa, Cabot’s mother, of a heart attack. • Cabot Yerxa, heart attack. • And the most mysterious of all, there is a cremation urn belonging to Willie Merzenich, who was a docent at Cabot’s during his teen years (under Cole Eyraud’s management) on the third floor landing. • So you might get a “spooky feeling” that isn’t just efficient air circulation! 27
The Final Resting Place of Willie Merzenich In Loving Memory WILLIAM “WILLY” MERZENICH Who Diligently Volunteered Over Half Of His Short Life Supporting Cabot Yerxa’s Dream And Museum As Our Most Experienced And Capable Docent Tour Guide BIRTH THROUGH INDUCTION 4-13-58 DEATH THROUGH SHORT CIRCUIT 7-19-89 May He Rest Peacefully In His Afterlife In A Place He Loved.
The Desert Sentinel • Heritage Microfilm scanned an entire box of microfilm discovered in the Cabot’s “Vault,” and added it to the Newspaper Archive, an online data base. • This incredible find comprised every issue of the Desert Sentinel, a DHS newspaper that spanned the 1940s to the 1980s. • This issue, Sept 12, 1974, gives credit to “Billie” Merzenich, then a 16-year-old boy scout, for three years of docent service at the museum. 29
What’s the real story? • Cabot was soon joined by a new baby brother, who Nellie and Fred sadistically named Harry Chester. • Family lore states that with female nurses in short supply, the Yerxas employed one Hughey O’Donnell, allegedly chief scout for Gen. George Armstrong Custer. O’Donnell narrowly escaped death at the Battle of the Little Big Horn by being sent on a mission shortly before the massacre began. The existence of O’Donnell has not been independently verified; however, Cabot had a lifelong fascination with General Custer. 30
The Yerxa Boys • This photo was taken by E.J. Rugg in Minneapolis. • Cabot was 2½ and Harry was 15 months.
What’s the real story? • By the time Cabot and Harry were school aged, the Yerxas moved to the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. The Yerxa family was expanding their mercantile business exponentially. • Cabot decided to join the Nome gold rush in Alaska. The family moved to Seattle and provided a support base. 32
How do we know? •
Again, census records tell us where the family was living in 1900. Cabot was on the U.S.S. Morningstar with his friend, Ralph Boyer, headed for Nome, Alaska. • Business licenses and photos confirm where Cabot was and what he was doing.
Later in life, Cabot, then a local celebrity, told his Alaska stories with a great deal of embellishment. Substantively, they are correct, but somewhat “enhanced.” Primary sources help to distinguish fact from confabulation.
What’s the real story? •
For the next five years, the all of the associated branches of the Yerxa family become very busy. Fred Yerxa’s brothers buy, sell and trade grocery stores, water rights and orchards. • Fred and Nellie had been based in Seattle, but move to Cuba to engage in some land speculation. The Yerxa family had been importing cigars from Cuba since the 1880s, and the cigar trade became the cornerstone of Cabot’s business in Nome. • Cabot overwintered with an Inupiat family and learned to speak their language, which he later translated into his “Eskimo Vocabulary,” a project he undertook while working as the Postmaster of Sierra Madre [1908-1911]. The Smithsonian Institute bought his 9-page dictionary. • Cabot traveled between Alaska and Cuba and finally settled down in Sierra Madre. He worked a series of jobs, became postmaster, went to work for his father in the citrus business and then lost everything in the orange freeze of January 5, 1913. 34
North America Map •
To get an appreciation for how extraordinary Cabot’s early life was, you need to appreciate the huge distances he traveled. • Without trains, none of this would have been possible – remember, the Panama Canal did not open until 1914. • All of Cabot’s homes/businesses were based on or near railroad lines (Havana, Cuba and Nome, Alaska being the exceptions, but they were port cities).
How do we know? – Scrapbooks! •
Cabot and his mother Nellie kept extensive scrap books The Yerxas had an ingenious way of reusing old books. They would paste pictures and typed or written notes on top of the pages in the book, creating artistic and intriguing scrapbooks. There were rarely instances when the reason for the collage was obvious. One scrapbook pasted over the leaves of “Great Men of Minnesota,” was compiled about 1910, when Cabot was the Postmaster of Sierra Madre, CA. This album contained jokes he clipped from the newspaper, programs from events he participated in and hand-drawn diagrams for correctly folding his Mason’s apron. Although created by himself for his own use, it still offers valuable clues to the researcher. He had scrapbooks for Alaska and Cuba – newspaper clippings, photos. Some of the content makes sense, but some of the “message” probably made sense only to him. Why did he think that item/article/picture was important at the time? Cabot had a rather extensive scrapbook devoted to the subject of World War I. It is comprised completely of newspaper clippings; he is not depicted in any way, no photos and no written notes. What is known about his WWI experience is quite sparse and this scrapbook sheds no additional light on the situation. So some of these scrapbooks shed valuable insight into the life and times of Cabot Yerxa and some of them are just… eccentric documents. As part of a bigger picture they are invaluable, but they are not the entire picture, just a part of it.
Scrapbook Page • Here is an example of one of Cabot’s scrapbooks. This one is actually an article about him – others have jokes, articles, pictures of ostriches, different postage schedules and all kinds of miscellaneous items. 37
Another scrapbook page â€˘ This scrapbook includes extensive advertisements and articles relating to real estate.
Cover letter from the Smithsonian • On December 14, 1909, Cabot Yerxa’s “Eskimo Vocabulary” was accepted by the Smithsonian Institute with a few misgivings. “Nine pages, 324 entries, no date, place of record or author or collector recorded.” Cabot was paid two $20 vouchers; 12¢ per word, not 50¢, as he later claimed.
The “Eskimo Vocabulary” •
When Cabot compiled his “dictionary” is open to debate. It seems likely that his research took place c. 1901 and he recorded it in 1909, while the postmaster of Sierra Madre. The entries are (mostly) in alphabetical with the phonetic spelling of what are probably Inupiat words from the natives of the Nome / Cape Prince of Wales area where Cabot lived. 100 years later, Cabot’s files are still in the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institute. 40
Wanna buy an orange? â€˘ This ad ran in the Los Angeles Times on February 3, 1907. â€˘ At this point, the Yerxa family was heavily invested in orange groves, with their primary orchard at Arbalita Ranch in Sierra Madre.
Eyewitness to history • Cabot’s writings about his life are, of course, invaluable to understanding his life and times, his mission, his eccentric architecture. • But we can’t just take his word for it. • His opinion is one piece of the puzzle – a very important piece, but not the only piece. • We’ve already seen the sort of mistakes that happen from drawing on a single source. • So far we have used public records, newspaper clippings, advertisements, census records, letters, photographs, scrapbooks, military records, the archives at the Smithsonian, a cremation urn and a tombstone to increase our knowledge of Cabot Yerxa – all primary sources - and there’s more! 42
Memory is not always reliable. • Cabot Yerxa first became a well-known around 1950, when he opened his pueblo to the public. • At that point, he was 67 years old and the events that he was recounting took place c. 1914 – 36 years before!
• He enjoyed a long and interesting life that, if anything, kept getting more interesting with each passing year. • He also had a commercial interest in portraying himself as “the hermit of Miracle Hill,” even if that wasn’t, strictly speaking, the “truth.” 43
Confabulation is not lying •
Confabulation is what happens when your imagination works with your memory to generate a story; in particular it is the confusion of imagined details with true events. The interesting thing about confabulation is that you cannot avoid it. Imagination and memory are two heads of the same coin. Every time you access a memory, your brain will load it up into the imagination, fill in any missing details, and re-write it back into memory. As a result, stories will change and crystallize over time. In addition to this imagination/memory link, there are a couple other interesting processes at work here: Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons our one of our brain's greatest inventions. They allow us to learn from other people's successes and failures without having to experience them directly. Your brain stores details about stories heard from others (depending on your level of empathy) in the same way that it stores facts about things you saw and experienced personally. Have you ever told a story that you thought happened to you only to realize later that it had actually happened to someone else and you had in fact related to it to the extent of adopting it as your own, unintentionally? Choice blindness. We are often not given direct access to the reasons we act the way we do. We will sometimes say something we do not want to say, or choose something based on a "gut feeling" or an impulse. One of the most active portions of our conscious mind is its ability to attach stories to our behavior… to explain it both to ourselves and to others. Choice blindness is a psychological term coined by Peter Johansson to explain the slight confabulation that must occur whenever we attempt to explain why we chose something that we do not know exactly why we chose. http://pronoia.wordpress.com/2006/05/09/confabulation/
How do these crazy rumors get started? • Cabot’s 81-year lifespan is too much to tackle in an hour-and-a-half, which means we have to pick and choose a “best of” from the rumor mill. • Sadly, the notion that he might have killed his first wife seems somewhat plausible. • Why? Well, Cabot was undeniably eccentric. • Their breakup was not the least bit amicable. • Unsubstantiated rumors abound – one is that Mamie stole Cabot’s truck and all his stuff, took the baby and headed back to L.A. Did that actually happen? We don’t know! 45
Cabot and Mamie • This is Mamie Carstensen, who became the first Mrs. Cabot Yerxa. • Their relationship was always a little weird, and by using primary sources – postcards and news clippings, we can see that “happily ever after” was unlikely to be the end of their story – and it wasn’t. 46
August 7, 1905
â€˘ Hereâ€™s a postcard Cabot sent to Mamie from Nome in 1905. (His second trip to Alaska) If she was expecting romance, or even personal interest, receiving this card must have been pretty disappointing. 47
Surprise Wedding â€˘ They got married in San Francisco in February 1908, then moved to Sierra Madre, where Cabotâ€™s parents owned an orange orchard. Cabot neglected to mention his upcoming wedding to any of his friends. 48
June 26, 1913 - Cabot •
At this point, the Yerxa family’s fortunes had hit rock bottom: An orange freeze destroyed their orchards and, heavily leveraged, they lost everything. The family moved to the bay area and Fred, Cabot’s father, died of alcoholism a month later. Harry, Cabot’s brother, started a grocery store that would later become very successful. Mamie became pregnant and she and Cabot moved to Idaho – a relocation that would only last a few months. These are the postcards that Cabot and Mamie sent to Nellie, Cabot’s recently widowed mother. 49
June 26, 1913 - Mamie •
Mamie’s postcard is much more news-y and gives a feeling for the times. They go to a “moving picture show” and have “supper.” She acknowledges Cabot’s existence (and his obsession with Native Americans) and enquires after Nellie’s health. Letters and postcards are invaluable research tools, however, it is rare that people write as if they were creating a historical document. Cabot wrote vague and contradictory justifications for why they went to Idaho later in life (apparently, he did a brief stint as a deputy sheriff). Cabot rarely, throughout his life, acknowledged other people in his writing. This holds for both letters and published articles. 50
Here’s a photo of the Yerxa family around 1916. Cabot and Mamie’s son Rodney was born at Queen of Angels hospital in Los Angeles. Cabot later claimed that he “was the first white child born north of the Southern Pacific tracks,” but this is patently untrue. Rodney was, most likely, the only baby in the area at that time. Cabot wrote that Mamie “took her place in the cabin” when Rodney was 10 days old. If this is true, then from October 15, 1914, Cabot was not a single pioneer enjoying the bachelor lifestyle, but a married man with a new baby in the house – you would never know that from reading “On the Desert Since 1913,” his column for the Desert Sentinel.
Homesteading • Cabot made much of the fact that to get potable water, he had a 14-mile round-trip through the desert to the railhead at Garnet - a trip he made twice a week with his burro, Merry Xmas. • This was a hugely motivating factor in his well-digging proclivities. • Eventually this paid off spectacularly, when he discovered the hot mineral wells of the Miracle Hill aquifer.
The Other Side • But imagine for a moment being the wife of a homesteader. • Imagine cloth diapers, 100+ degree weather, no air conditioning and no water. • Imagine leaving your home in Sierra Madre as the postmaster’s wife, surrounded by family and friends, to go live in the desert with no companionship but a fussy baby and an adventure-seeking husband. • Imagine cooking rabbit for dinner for weeks on end. • Imagine having to deal with “biblical plagues” of rattlesnakes and packrats. 53
Eagle’s Nest • Cabot did not start building his famous pueblo until the ‘40s. Back in the teens, the three Yerxas (and the burro) lived in this cabin, which Cabot optimistically called Eagle’s Nest. The site was about a mile downhill from where the current pueblo is located. 54
Home on the range
â€˘ Bath time in the desert, left, and Rodney in front of Eagleâ€™s Nest, right. 55
How do we know? • • •
• • • •
In his column, “On the Desert,” Cabot tried to write Mamie out of his story as much as possible – while lavishing praise on other pioneer women like Hilda Gray and Estelle Carr. Without letters, diaries etc, we will never know what Mamie’s side of the story really was. She has been written out of history. We do know, thanks to Cabot’s military record and census information, as well as some of his selected writing, that they homesteaded until 1918. After he proved his claim, they moved to Seattle to live with her parents and Cabot worked as a machinist’s helper. We know from Cabot’s military record that he was stationed in France from 1918-1919. We know from the 1920 census that Cabot returned to the desert and he wanted Mamie and Rodney to join him. We also know that Mamie did not want to return to the desert and that she and Rodney continued to live in Seattle. Laurie Segawa stated in a personal e-mail that Rodney rarely spoke of his childhood, which he considered unhappy.
How do we know? • • •
We also know from letters and photos that Cabot was in touch with Rodney at least sporadically through his teen years. We know from Laurie Segawa and from newspaper clippings that Rodney and his wife Marguerite lived with Cabot and Portia for a time after Rodney’s discharge from WWII. We can’t say they rushed into it. They dated (long distance) for three years before getting married. During that time, Cabot was traveling back and forth from Alaska to Cuba (confirmed). Rodney didn’t come along for another five years, and all up they were together for about 15 years. There must have been some good times along the way, or maybe they thought “Jeeze, it can’t possibly get worse than this…” Now, whether this experience destroyed marriage for both of them is pure conjecture, but Mamie never remarried and Cabot waited until he was in his 60s before giving it another try with Portia. There is another unsubstantiated rumor: In the middle of a blowout fight with Mamie she yelled “You love that burro [Merry Xmas] more than me!” And Cabot never denied it…
Merry Xmas • Merry Xmas (never spelled Merry Christmas!) was Cabot’s most beloved burro. • In his column for the Desert Sentinel, “On the Desert Since 1913,” he ascribed quasisupernatural powers to Merry Xmas. • Cabot began writing about Merry Xmas in November 1951, just in time for the Christmas holidays, but 30+ years after he and the burro had parted company. • Merry Xmas was a male burro (possibly a gelding) but Cabot always referred to him as “it.” 58
On the Desert Since 1913 • •
In the December 20, 1951 issue, the serialized legend of Merry Xmas was well underway. Cabot bought the burro from a young miner in the Morongo Pass shortly before Christmas, hence the unusual name. He cost $10; “That was a vast sum of money for me to part with. But the little animal had much appeal and seemed very bright and intelligent. Also, it was plain to see that it would help do much of my work; it could carry water and firewood and help in many ways. So I hunted through all my pockets and managed to count out ten dollars.”
Merry Xmas in Cabot’s own words •
• • • • •
Bob Carr [a well-known writer and the friend who persuaded Cabot to move to the desert] and I wondered why the animal was so thin as it was definitely young. We found the trouble in a tooth which was out of line and preventing proper eating. So Bob and I threw Merry Xmas down and tied it up well, then we were successful in pulling the troublesome tooth and it gained weight rapidly. This turned out to be a most unusual burro, willing and quick to learn. We were very patient with it, also making rewards of candy or lump sugar when deserved. Merry Xmas learned to follow Bob or me like a dog, to come when its name was called, to lead on a rope without being pulled like most burros, and to walk three miles per hour when the average was only two. And it was taught to have another burro or several tied to its tail, and to lead by voice command — go, stop, right, or left, etc. I sometimes had eight animals all tied to the tail of Merry Xmas and I rode the last burro and it would do exactly as directed. It would follow a trail and even the single footsteps of a man in loose sand if told to do so. One thing it did, not like any other burro, was to walk side by side with me just as two men will do.
it would eat grass or vegetation near by, but when called would come to supper and eat its fair share of whatever we had, bacon, potatoes, bread, tobacco, etc. It could not read, but it would eat a newspaper with relish. At night when Bob and I were wrapped; each in a blanket, this amazing animal would come up and lay down by the fire, too Merry Xmas liked pancakes better than anything, and hot ones, too. Pancakes were standard for breakfast, and when the aroma went into the desert air, it came promptly to the door and shared in breakfast. …only drank hot water from the well. Merry Xmas and I were soon out on the open desert and into a sandstorm blowing down the White Water wash. At such times, I walked on the lee side of the burro and let it take the brunt of the drifting sand. After some hours of walking, it was with relief that we reached Two Bunch Palms, got out of the heavy winds, and could drink at the pool. We soon reached home. This last point was retold by Cole Eyeraud [the curator of the museum after Cabot] with the dramatic flourish that Merry Xmas saved Cabot’s life in a devastating sand storm.
Collecting firewood â€˘
There is no doubt at all that Cabot Yerxa was very fond of Merry Xmas and that he carried that affection with him throughout his life. â€˘ Over time, he told conflicting stories about his life with Merry Xmas and what happened later.
What’s the real story? • Cabot didn’t start writing about Merry Xmas until 30 years after they had parted ways. • To an extent, confabulation replaced memory. • In Cabot’s recollection, Merry Xmas’ contributions were emphasized, Mamie’s diminished. • To try this out for yourself, pick a cherished pet, like your first dog. What do you remember about Fluffy? Is it enough material to generate five newspaper articles? 62
Who cares? • At this point you might be wondering why that nosey journalist, Jane Pojawa, has to ruin a perfectly good story about an old guy reminiscing about his favorite burro. • Hang in there! • It is important to distinguish between reality and parable – especially with the story of Merry Xmas! 63
June LeMert Paxton • In her September 21, 1949 column “Lowly Philosophy,” June LeMert Paxton, a good friend of Cabot and Portia Yerxa’s, put in a plea on Cabot’s behalf for burro donations. “We need more burros; just lots and lots of them,” he said, hoping for burro enthusiasts to loan their pets to the Pioneer Days celebrations of October 8-9. • Newspapers from Sierra Madre c. 1910, also feature Cabot trying to round up burros for races and other “pioneer” festivities. • Bottom line? Cabot just loved burros, and whenever possible tried to get the message across about what terrific animals they are. 64
Cabot and his burros • In Cabot’s column of November 22, 1951 he wrote, “I started with one burro called Merry Xmas, bought three, some had colts so ended up with seven old enough to saddle or harness and four little ones growing up, then I went into the army of World War I. On my return I could not find even one; they had all been stolen.” • Don’t get attached! This might not be true!
Don’t be to quick to judge! • By today’s standards, abandoning your burros on the desert seems at best, weird, and at worst, cruel. • Up until the 1940s, miners routinely left their burros to forage for themselves. Sometimes they came back, sometimes they didn’t. • There are a whole lot of feral burros in the deserts of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. Most of the miner’s burros did not starve to death, and plenty of them managed to evade capture and breed. • Cabot probably did leave his burros for up to a few months in the summer when he was working away from his homestead. 66
How do we know? • •
Maybe we don’t know! Maybe Cabot was wrong, misremembering, or writing what he thought was a nicer (albeit fictional) end to the story. • Why Cabot identified himself as “Dr.” is unknown.
We do know that he pastured at least one burro in February, 1920. The 1920 census was taken on January 19, and Cabot was living in Palo Verde and running a general store.
What’s the real story? • Cabot pastured one burro in Cabazon in 1920, and that burro might have been Merry Xmas. • In a later letter, Cabot described “putting greens on Merry Xmas’ grave.” Did that actually happen? We don’t know, but the implication is that he knew Merry Xmas to be dead and to have a grave, which was probably on his own property. • Cabot was either untruthful about paying his respects at the grave of Merry Xmas, or untruthful about Merry Xmas being “stolen,” (in 2009, we would say “rescued”) because the two scenarios are mutually exclusive! • See why taking Cabot’s word for it isn’t enough? 68
What’s the real story? • The next twenty years were, for Cabot, as eventful and adventurous as the previous twenty. • He was single again and used this time to do extensive traveling. • He owned or operated a series of grocery stores and post offices.
• He studied art in Paris, and traveled in Europe, Mexico, and Central America. • In the 30s, he reconciled with his son, Rodney, lived off and on with his mother, Nellie, in Laguna Beach, but most importantly, he interested a real estate developer, L.W. Coffee, in starting a spa town north of Palm Springs. 69
Yerxa’s Trading Post •
But work didn’t start on the pueblo for several years to come. This magazine clipping from November 1944 shows him in front of his “Trading Post,” a tourist shop that featured Indian artifacts and “trained chuckwallas.”
• He was also cultivating a desert rat persona, capitalizing on being a loveable local eccentric. 70
See â€˜em live!
Cabot with a rattlesnake, above, and a handbill for his trading post, right. 71
How do we know? • Cabot returned to the desert to live full-time around 1938. • By the early 1940s he was well –established as a local fixture and was trading on the slogan “On the Desert Since 1913.” • He had established the “Cabot Yerxa look” – a hybrid western costume that fitted both his personality and his lifestyle. • His Trading Post was a tourist’s dream come true and featured a museum of curiosities, Indian arts and crafts and a snake pit. “Desert snakes, trained chuckwallas etc, - see ‘em alive 10¢.” 72
Location, location • Cabot’s original homestead, Eagle’s Nest, and the Yerxa Trading Post are in a different location than the pueblo (the bottom dot). • The pueblo is not on Miracle Hill and has its own well – not the original Discovery Well. 73
What’s the real story? • Cabot’s final twenty years – 1945-1965, were to be the most productive of his entire life. • Cabot, who had been an eccentric teenager and an eccentric adult, was becoming an eccentric senior. • By the late 1930s, he was amassing building materials for his greatest achievement to date – Cabot’s Old Indian Pueblo Museum, a one-of-a-kind structure that would serve the commercial purpose of being a tourist draw, while also meeting his housing requirements. • Practical considerations aside, the pueblo also crystallized his philosophical and aesthetic beliefs. It was more than a building; it embodied the Cabot Yerxa way of life. 74
Cabotâ€™s Old Indian Pueblo Museum
What’s the real story? • • •
• • • •
Cabot spent the rest of his life “improving” the pueblo, but most of the construction occurred between 1944 (when he was working in Palm Springs) and 1951 (when he opened to the public). The Pueblo is further up the hill from his previous structures – Eagle’s Nest and the Yerxa Trading Post. He did have occasional day labor help, and he did purchase some of his adobe bricks, but that should not detract from the tremendous undertaking of building this completely unique sculpture out of found materials. Cabot turned 60 in 1943. He did not think for one moment that he was too old (or too poor) to start building his dream house. He also didn’t think he was too old to fall in love. He married Portia Fearis Graham on August 8, 1945. He was 62, she was 61. Apparently the “honeymoon” started somewhat earlier. 76
How do we know? • In this entry from Cabot’s guest book (a tradition started by his mother, Nellie) cartoonist Si Seadler wrote “We toasted a honeymoon couple tonight in Cabot Yerxa’s paradise.” The date was March 9, 1944, a year before they made it legal. • June LeMert Paxton also signed in - she was visiting on April 18.
What about <3>? •
If Barbara Whitelaw was ever disappointed that Portia ended up with Cabot, she didn’t let it taint their friendship. This guest register shows that she was visiting them at the pueblo on March 19, 1953. She gave her address as “La Quinta,” so apparently she stayed local as well.
The Freedom of Information Act •
The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law ensuring public access to U.S. government records. FOIA carries a presumption of disclosure; the burden is on the government - not the public - to substantiate why information may not be released. Upon written request, agencies of the United States government are required to disclose those records, unless they can be lawfully withheld from disclosure under one of nine specific exemptions in the FOIA. This right of access is ultimately enforceable in federal court.
Basically, the government works for “we, the people” and we have a right to know how our money is being spent and what they do all day long. • Some records are easier to obtain than others, but unless a government agency has a compelling reason to withhold information (usually due to “privacy” or “security” - or they just plain don’t know), they legally have to give you the information you request!
I spy for the FBI! • Cabot and Portia’s background checks turned out squeaky clean. • There were no scandalous arrests, allegations of un-American activities or unlawful assemblies. • Their neighbors never tried to rat them out. • Some of our other local eccentrics weren’t so lucky. 80
Edwin John Dingle •
• • • •
Edwin John Dingle [1881-1972], also known as Ding Le Mei, is a local hero here in the Hi-Desert and history has remembered him as being very bright, very forward thinking, and a champion of the New Age. The Science of Mentalphysics claims to have instructed more than 220,000 students over the years. Mentalphysics combined the teachings that Dingle received in Tibet with Western sensibilities about science. Many of his “crazy” ideas about meditation, vegetarian diet, and focused intent turned out to be completely right on, both medically and spiritually. He was an established journalist and entrepreneur before starting the Institute of Mentalphysics in LA in 1927. In 1941 the Mentalphysics Spiritual Teaching and Retreat Center was dedicated in Yucca Valley (now Joshua Tree). And despite all of this, Dingle spent many years on J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI hit list.
Los Angeles Times Obituary • In 1972, the Los Angeles Times had nothing but good things to say about Ding Le Mei’s legacy. • But in 1952, things were different and a number of people found his teachings to be scandalous and worse – fraudulent! • J. Edgar Hoover took a personal interest in one such allegation. 82
Mrs. Louise L. Schneiderâ€™s Letter
Evolution, Sex and Nuts • •
This is a perfect example of why you should mind your own business. One never knows when something they commit to writing might come back to haunt them, and had Mrs. Schneider known she was creating a legal document, she might have checked the grammar and spelling. So instead of pulling the plug on “fake preacher” Edwin John Dingle’s religious cult, she just comes across as a busybody with a bizarre obsession with her elderly neighbor’s sex lives.
J. Edgar Hoover’s reply • Mrs. Schneider’s indictment of “Evolution, Sex and Nuts,” didn’t go very far, but her comment about mail fraud did. Hoover was quick to turn this “charlatan” over to the Internal Revenue Service to investigate tax evasion. 85
Conclusions • First and foremost, keep an open and inquisitive mind, because what we “know” is subject to change based on the availability of evidence. • Never trust one source; the “truth” must be weighed from both objective and subjective realities to form a complete picture.
• Don’t judge people and events by today’s standards. • Do not assume that what you read in a book or magazine or newspaper is true. • People are rarely reliable sources for information about their own lives!
Conclusions • There is no such thing as “too much information.” • We used public records, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, FBI files, an architect’s floor plan, a topographical map, advertisements, census records, a geographical map, letters, photographs, scrapbooks, an urban legend, postcards, military records, the archives at the Smithsonian, a receipt, two guest books, a cremation urn and a tombstone to investigate Cabot Yerxa’s life and we barely scratched the surface. • Discovering the “real story” does not detract from the legend at all – in fact, it is even more interesting! • The same techniques that work for investigating Cabot Yerxa will work for anybody, so enjoy your research! 87