What possible connection could a pampered Southern socialite have with the rugged, lawless California desert terrain of the early 20th century?
Short answer: She preserved it.
Minerva Hamilton Hoyt was bona fide American royalty. She was born on a Mississippi plantation in 1866 and attended finishing schools in a rarified and privileged atmosphere. She married Dr. Albert Sherman Hoyt, a surgeon from New York and moved to New York City and then to Pasadena.
In southern California, Minerva did the de rigueur round of cultural and civic affairs, but she also became passionate about gardening, making excursions to the nearby deserts, as did many others in their newfangled motor cars. following the death of her infant son and, later, her husband in 1918, however, she sought out desert places for their solitude and comfort.
At that time the southern California desert was becoming as endangered as the passenger pigeon. Besides incursions by miners, ranchers and homesteaders, the sheer number of visitors motoring through in their cars threatened to destroy the region.
Cactus gardens were the rage in the 1920s and Spanish mission-style houses needed a touch of authenticity, so mature plants were dug from deserts and transplanted to city gardens. Joshua trees, described by one botanist as “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom,” were often set ablaze by motorists passing through at night. In 1930, the tallest Joshua tree in existence was burned.
By then Minerva Hoyt had become a consummate organizer. She had connections in high places and the tenacity to devote the rest of her life to the task of preserving the desert regions of southern California.
As president of the National Garden Club, she put together a tremendously popular exhibit of desert plants that appeared in New York, Boston, and Chelsea, England; she served on councils and wrote reports identifying land that should be preserved for state parks. In that capacity, she identified the Anza Borrego region and the Joshua tree forests of the Little San Berdardino Mountains as worthy of protection.
She rode the political currents, persisted through the inevitable ebb and flow of success and failure. Eventually, she came to feel that the desert would be best protected as a national, rather than a state, park, and so she began dunning the president. The timing was fortuitous: It was the Depression, and President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to create jobs–some of them in national parks. On August 10, 1936, President Roosevelt created the Joshua Tree National Monument. In 1994, President Clinton signed the Desert Protection Act, adding over 200,000 acres to Joshua Tree.
Minerva Hoyt died in 1945. She is called the “Apostle of the Cacti.”
Having spent weeks in these same deserts, I understand a little of Hoyt’s fascination with these prickly, fantastical, alien places. (Except for creosote scrub. I love the antiseptic smell and tenacity of the homely creosote, but miles of these scrubby bushes just seem barren to me.)
Minerva Hoyt chose a tough cause, one that set her directly in the path of ignorance and inertia. Yet, her dedication helped create Anza Borrego and Joshua Tree–two incredibly beautiful places that now belong to everyone.