This article first appeared in the Wednesday, December 13, 1989 edition of the Ojai Valley News on Page A-7. It is reprinted here with their permission. The author is Barbara De Noon.
Ojai’s first jail still exists near Santa Barbara
Barbara De Noon
Special to the News
Would you believe that Ojai’s first jail, built in 1873, is sitting in Santa Barbara County?
Let me tell you the story.
In 1873, the 50 peace-loving settlers in the Ojai Valley, tucked below some beautiful mountains (where there were more horses than people), felt the need for someone in the township to represent the law.
About the same time, a prominent lady of the town was sitting on a log one day watching her husband erect a canvas hotel (where Libbey Park is now). She was Mrs. Abram Blumberg and she said to her husband, “You know, our settlement should be call Nordhoff” (reportedly meaning Wayside Inn or Northern Hole). [But actually named for author Charles Nordhoff.]
And so it came to pass that Ojai’s first name was really Nordhoff (always remembered by our only school).
Right afterward, the residents of this infant town hired Andy Van Curen (1848-1923) as its first constable.
Andy, as everyone was fond of calling him, had an unusual appearance. He had sparkling brown eyes, “wore” a white beard, and his head was completely bald except for one fringe of hair.
The first location of the jail was close to Ojai Avenue in front of what used to be Loop’s Restaurant. Then it was moved [west] to what is now the southwest corner of Ojai Avenue and Blanche Street (later the space of Security Pacific Bank’s parking lot).
Immediately after being hired, Andy personally built the jail, using 1-by 4-inch sideboards laid flat on top of one another.
The timbers were nailed together by iron spikes, one inch apart.
There were two cells, each with an iron door, one with the capacity for four prisoners and the other for seven.
Windowless, there was a six-inch slot in each cell for air.
The jail provided extra storage for Van Curen’s coffins and tombstones as he was the only undertaker in the valley.
Prominent ladies of the town made doll dresses out of the scraps from the linings of the coffins.
Actually, Van Curen was a livery stable owner and made an unusual constable.
He was described as a man who accomplished his duties in a kindly and sympathetic manner, keeping peace in the Ojai Valley.
He arrested an occasional operator of a “blind pig” (an establishment that served illegal bootleg whiskey), but, most of the arrests were participants of violent quarrels, drunks and horse thieves.
A great-grandniece of Andy’s wife, Mrs. Charles Phillips, remembers seeing her Uncle Andy taking trays of food prepared by his wife to the prisoners arrested and participants in violent behavior.
No one, however, ever escaped from the jail, a veritable fortress.
When Van Curen had given his services for many years, there was a movement among some of the local citizens to elect a younger and more active man to replace him as constable.
Commenting on this situation in her memoirs of the period, Helen Baker Reynolds writes, “Andy was hurt and incensed.” He let it be known that if he were replaced no one else could use his jail. And so the movement for replacement promptly collapsed.
After a half-century of being constable, and before leaving the valley to move to Pasadena, Van Curen offered the little wooden jail to the city, realizing it was a relic of the Old West and of early Ojai history.
Unfortunately, the offer was turned down and the jail was sold.
It was moved on a flatbed truck and became an attraction 14 miles northwest of Santa Barbara, off San Marcos Pass, on a horseshoe bend (once deep in the forest) behind an old stage coach stop called the Cold Springs Tavern.
The old tavern, genial remnant of 100 years ago, featured refreshing drinks and exceptional food for people who traveled the pass and to this day, still does!
And you can still see the first wooden jail of Ojai, sitting in a dark corner nestled in the trees at the rear of Cold Springs Tavern.
There are those of us who think the genial relic should be returned to its home, Ojai.
Anyone interested please contact Bob Browne, curator of our wonderful local museum.