The following article was first run in the Thursday, November 9, 1961 edition of “THE OJAI VALLEY NEWS” (“ALL THE NEWS AND VIEWS of Oak View”) in the “B” section. It is reprinted here with their permission.
FORMER OAK VIEW BROOM MAKER LOOKS BACK FONDLY TO OLD DAYS
With the influx of families in the Ojai valley increasing each year and with subdivisions sprouting up like mushrooms after a heavy rain, it’s a little difficult for many people to realize that it wasn’t too long ago that the valley was composed mainly of large fruit orchards and a comparatively small number of homes.
One person who can remember vividly what Ojai valley was like back at the turn of the century is Percy Watkins of Oak View. When he moved there with his parents in 1901 from Nebraska, and the existing home was erected on a level plateau east of the present business district, the only other place of any consequence in the area was a cider mill.
Watkins is frank, too, in drawing a comparison of that era with today.
“Frankly,” he says, “I prefer the old days when land sold for $125 per acre and there wasn’t the hustle and bustle there is today. My place today, “he added, ” is completely surrounded by subdivisions. This has more or less forced me to do the same thing with the land I have.”
Watkins admits however, that things weren’t exactly easy the first decade or so of the family’s existence in Oak View. His father, H. L. Watkins, established a broom factory in a barn on the property in an effort to bring in enough money to keep things on an even keel.
The broom factory was then one of the few on the Pacific coast and consisted of a press manufactured in an Ojai machine shop, a treadle and a few other appurtenances necessary to turn out a finished product. Broom corn, raised on the Watkins property, furnished the bristles for the brooms, but the wood for the handles had to be shipped in. The whole Watkins family, including two boys and six girls, pitched in to aid in the manufacture of the brooms.
Watkins recalls today how he set for hours on a box twisting and pulling on broom corn — an operation necessary to get the bristles in proper alignment for fastening to the handles.
It was also necessary to use stout string to bind the broom bristles together and in the early days this was accomplished by hand-sewing — a task Watkins says was extremely difficult on the hands even though a metal guard was used. A large homemade hand-press was used to crush the broom straw into a flattened aspect prior to sewing.
CALL ON HOMES
When enough brooms were manufactured, the next and most important step was to sell them. This was done in the early days by use of a horse and wagon and calling on homes. Watkins recalls that many days were spent from early dawn until dusk calling on homes as far away as Santa Barbara — a long distance in these days of slow transportation.
Brooms then sold for fifty cents each or if the customer wished a bargain, three for $1.25. “We didn’t get rich at it,” Watkins said, “but we managed to make a living.”
That business venture lasted until the early 1940s and then folded forever, with the death of Watkins’ father. Modern machine methods employed in factories and the emergence of grocery stores within easy driving distance of homes saw to that.
At one end of Watkin’s yard today mementos of days gone by are pretty well in evidence. Old model cars, trucks and outdated machinery items give mute testimony to the early days of the Ojai valley. Outside the yard in the large field where the subdivision will no doubt come into being one of these days, two sleek horses roam rather abjectly. Their days no doubt are numbered.