Ojai’s First Store by Ed Wenig
The first general store in Ojai Valley was opened by Mr. and Mrs. L.R. Herbert in 1874 on the north side of Ojai Avenue across from the present Civic Center Park [now, Libbey Park]. Ojai pioneers recall it as a small one-story building with one room that carried everything the early settlers needed.
Hattie Waite Cota, in an article on Ojai Valley’s first store, described the amazing variety of goods it displayed. She said: “The shelves were divided into sections in which goods were placed, each item in its respective department. There was a drug, a dry goods, a boot and shoe counter, and near the entrance a small glass showcase that contained, among other things, several varieties of candy, such as peppermint, horehound, gum drops, stick candy and licorice strips, very strong and very black.”
A cherished memory of Mrs. Cota: “Some time later a millinery section was added, stocked only with children’s hats. My choice was a broad-brimmed, plain-black straw [hat] with band and streamers of corn-colored ribbon.”
Mrs. Thad Timms read a paper before the Pioneer section of the Ojai Valley Woman’s Club in 1938 and is here quoted: “Prior to the year 1874, all incoming and outgoing mail was carried by some one of the residents of the valley who happened to be riding or driving to Ventura to the post office. On March 11, 1874, the Postmaster General in Washington, D.C. appointed LaFayette R. Herbert as the first postmaster of Nordhoff [now Ojai]—an office was established.”
The Nordhoff store, as with most general stores, had a little section in the front for the distribution of mail. This addition, of course, drew many into the store who, in winter especially, lingered around the wood-burning stove in the middle of the room. Here the cracker-barrel philosophers settled the problems of the world, lent their ears for local news and gossip.
Early settlers remember the blending aroma of cheese, coffee, spices, sausages and new leather. Of course, nothing was packaged, and the storekeeper measured the amount wanted from barrels, sacks and other volume containers.
Farmers, with their wagons hauling hams, chickens in small coops or with legs tied, cases or boxes of eggs, tied their horses to hitching racks or trees and proceeded to trade their produce for coal oil, flour, sugar, harness and other needs.
Barter between the farmer and the storekeeper was the general rule. This put an extra load on the Nordhoff storekeeper, who had to take all the farm produce to Ventura and bring back goods for sale. With dusty roads in summer and deep mud in winter, this was quite a burden for heavy-laden wagons.
Through the years the little store was sold to A.A. Garland and son. Later, Thomas Gilbert bought it. Finding that he needed help in the store, he sent for his bride-to-be from Michigan and announced publicly that he was going to be married. He invited all the residents of the valley to the wedding, which was held on the hotel grounds [at the front of what is now Libbey Park] with music furnished by the Ventura band. Some years later, the Thomas Gilbert family moved to Santa Barbara.
A Mr. Brown and his wife then took over the store for a brief period, but Frank P. Barrows bought it and changed it to a hardware store. Finally, Mr. G.H. Hickey and two brothers bought it and rebuilt it. The Rains Department Store, now operating on the same site, is a successor to Hickey Brothers and is operated by Alan Rains, grandson of Mr. G.H. Hickey.
“Everything sold in Ojai’s first store,”Ojai Valley News, Nov. 5, 1969