Reminiscences of Early Ojai (No. 8)

The following article was written by Howard Bald and appeared in the May 16, 1973 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission. Bald used the same title for his many articles. This article has “(No. 8)” added by the Ojai Valley Museum.  All photos have been added by the Ojai Valley Museum.

Reminiscences of Early Ojai (No. 8)
Howard Bald

Gypsum mining at about the turn of the century was a minor industry and lasted but a short time. There are still craters visible on the Happy Valley school property from that operation in the Upper Ojai, near the new girls’ dormitory.

Little was said about the shipping of asphaltum in wooden barrels, and I imagine it was a rather sticky deal.

The gold strike along the foothills of the northeast side of the Ojai Valley caused quite a bit of excitement with the staking of claims and some tunneling. I never heard of any millionaires resulting from it though.

From the middle Sespe (that is, from the Sespe Cold Springs, now Hartman’s place) there were numerous homesteaders. How they expected to make a living is still a mystery to me, and many moved out without proving up on their claims. Among those who did stay were the Lathrops (Herb and father), the Harrows, the Pattons (Clarence and father), White, Willet and Cottrel.

Patton’s cabin in the Sespe.

To a small boy they were not as picturesque as the cattlemen from the Upper Sespe, but judging by the farming and mining equipment and tools that were in evidence when I went out there in later years, they must have been a pretty resourceful and self sufficient lot of men, to say nothing of being industrious.

There was Mr. Willett (grandfather of Jack Willett, who once operated The Barn on south Montgomery street). He also transported over the rugged mountains a complete line of farming implements.

So far as I remember, he used only burros. This elderly man would be seen coming out of Senior Canyon, walking and leading a string of burros, followed by a shepherd dog. There was a hitch rail where the parking lot now is back of Rains dry goods store, where he tied the burros while doing his shopping. After packing his supplies on the burros, he would disappear into Senior Canyon.

I later learned that he took three days making the round trip from his Sespe Hot Springs, camping two nights in Senior Canyon, one coming and one going. There were few well defined trails in that area, and mostly he followed the ridges. That wasn’t so difficult as it sounds, for up until that area becoming a national forest, the terrain was systematically burned off by the sheep and cattle men.

Harrows farmed the Rose Valley (where the Seabees were) as well as their home place, where they built substantial log cabins and barns. A farm wagon, plows, harrows, mowing machine and rake were all transported over the mountain from Nordhoff on very inadequate trails.

Perhaps the most resourceful of them all was Herb Lathrop, for not only did he pack and, I suspect drag, in all the farm equipment, that went ranching, but he maintained and operated a tourist resort that was equipped with conveniences that were considered quite modern in that day. It was a favorite spot for hunters and fishermen.

Herb Lathrop at his cabin in the Sespe.
Lathrop’s Cabin in the Sespe (Circa 1901 – 1902).

It was said that no huntsman needed to return to L.A. without a deer. I know from my own later experience that his cooking was tops.

These two successful hunters were part of the Ojai Valley’s “Mercer Boys” deer hunting party back in the Sespe. Circa 1900.
Horses carried the loads for the “Mercer Boys” deer hunt in the Sespe in about 1900. Note the rifles on the horses.


Each fall Herb would ride into Nordhoff leading a string of pack horses, each one laden with three boxes of beautiful red apples that I believe he traded to the grocerymen for supplies. In November of 1916 he was shot to death by a guest who mistook him for a wildcat.

When a small boy, I listened to fantastic stories of Jeff Howard (after whom Howard Creek in the Sespe was named) and his murder of the Basque sheepman. There was feuding between the cattle and sheep men and killings, but the Jeff Howard episode was one of the most colorful.

Jeff Howard

A few years ago a great grandson came here trying to find the location of Jeff’s homestead. And so far as I know, I am the only one left who could furnish that information. But in the archives of the Ventura library were found newspaper accounts of Jeff’s exploits, his arrests and several jail breaks and escapes.

The last item said: “Goodbye, Jeff. We hope we never see you again. We have to build a new jail.”

I believe a book is being written about his colorful life. He died in Arizona in 1910.

4 Replies to “Reminiscences of Early Ojai (No. 8)”

  1. Nice, I have always thought there should be a class at Nordhoff HS on local history. Maybe there is, I don’t know. I have learned a lot about Ojai since I left, that I wish I had known when I lived there.

  2. Richard,

    I’m not 100% positive, but it seems like I read that Jeff Howard lived near Sespe Creek. I’ve been researching your question, but am unable to locate the source where I heard so. If I come across it, I’ll get back to you.

    — T. Drew Mashburn
    (Ojai Valley Museum volunteer)

  3. Richard Murad,

    Per chance, do you have the book titled, “MINES, MURDERS & GRIZZLIES — Tales of California’s Ventura Back Country” by Charles F. Outland? It was copyrighted by The Ventura County Museum of History & Art in 1969. It was revised in 1986 with a second printing in 1998. ISBN )-87062-173-4.

    Chapter 1 is titled, “The Saga of Jeff Howard”. It may provide you with the answer(s) you seek.

    Best Regards,
    T. Drew Mashburn
    (Ojai Valley Museum volunteer)

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