Cabot Yerxa, Renaissance Man of the Wild West (1883–1965)

On a recent visit to Desert Hot Springs (DHS), CA, in the Coachella Valley, not far from the well-known Palm Springs, we discovered Cabot Yerxa’s Pueblo Museum. It’s a museum that also functioned as Yerxa’s home. It was built in the Hopi-Pueblo style to honour Indian people. You can see the Hopi Kachina designs portrayed on the outside wall. Mainly self-built by Yerxa over a period of 24 years, the pueblo was still a work in progress up to his death. It opened as Cabot’s Old Indian Pueblo in 1945. Housing a lifetime collection of Yerxa’s American Indian and Alaska Native artifacts, we can also find objects of early desert homesteaders. There is an array of photographs and journals in which Yerxa documented his adventurous life, and there are examples of his own artwork.

Yerxa’s pueblo is a four-storey, 5,000 square foot structure. It has 160 windows, 65 doors, 30 rooflines and 35 rooms. It was built from recycled wood and metal found in the desert area, and was adapted to the desert climate in several ways. Built into the side of a hill on his property, it is insulated against the extremes of cold and heat. The structure is on an east-west axis to take advantage of the rising and setting sun. Most of the windows face west for optimum airflow. Numerous small windows optimize airflow inside the house, and the design of the structure allows hot air to flow up and out of the building. Yerxa was a passionate desert naturalist, and could be described as an early environmentalist. Today, the museum’s electric power is supplied by 24 solar panels located on a nearby hillside.

He homesteaded his property in 1913 and discovered or rediscovered two aquifers apparently using a divining rod, one of the reasons he named his property Miracle Hill. The aquifers were in all probability discovered and used by the Indians who lived in the area for over 5,000 years. One of the aquifers was a natural hot spring which has given rise to the many spas and resorts in the area and helped develop the city of DHS. The other was a cold aquifer, which to this day provides quality fresh water to DHS of which Yerxa was one of three co-founders.

Yerxa came from a family of entrepreneurs who had a pattern of making and losing fortunes. At the age of 14, he was managing a department in his father’s Minnesota wholesale and retail grocery store where he supervised 20 people. In 1899, at 16, Yerxa went to Alaska with a friend in the heady days of the Klondike Gold Rush. He purchased 50,000 cigars and related paraphernalia from money he had saved working at his father’s business and began selling them from a makeshift tent in Nome, Alaska. But he was also curious about Native Alaskans, and spent enough time with the local Inupiat people to learn and record their language. He later sold his recorded transcripts to the Smithsonian Institute. The cigar story doesn’t end here. He went with his family to Cuba in 1902 where his entrepreneurial father became involved with real estate after the Spanish American War. Here he developed a mail order business for Cuban cigars.

Yerxa’s interest in native culture perhaps began with his birth on a Lakota Sioux reservation near the Canadian border in 1883 where his father ran a trading post. In 1903, he attended a unique gathering of Sioux, Arapahoe, Pawnee, Shoshone and Omaha Indians in the Black Hills of South Dakota. According to Yerxa, it was one of the last and greatest Sioux ceremonies. His Pueblo museum contains evidence of his human rights activism on behalf of Native Americans. It houses a folk art carving of the two-faced white man, and petitions to abolish the Bureau of Indian Affairs in their misguided attempts to “reeducate” Native Americans. As well, he gave lectures at the pueblo on the way native people were treated.

Yerxa was also somewhat of an accomplished painter and spent a year studying art in Paris. He wrote prolifically and, in the local DHS newspaper alone, published 280 articles on desert homesteading which are the centerpiece of his book, On the Desert Since 1913.

He was civic minded as well, establishing in DHS: the Improvement Association, the library, and a chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Together with his second wife, Portia, he was deeply interested in spiritualism and was a founder of the Theosophical Society Lodge in DHS.

What will always be inspiring about Yerxa is his indomitable pioneering and inquisitive spirit.