He got Meiners O. for unpaid debt

The following article first appeared in the December 3, 1969 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission. The photo of John Meiners is used here by courtesy of the Ojai Valley News. The other photos were added by the Ojai Valley Museum.

He got Meiners O. for unpaid debt
by
Ed Wenig

Meiners Oaks, a community where nearly every home is under a Live Oak tree, takes its name from John Meiners, who owned the large area for many years.

John Meiners (1826 - 1898)
John Meiners (1826 – 1898)

John Meiners, native of Germany, had come to the United States about 1848 and had established a successful brewery business in Milwaukee. He acquired this Ojai ranch in the seventies, sight unseen, as a result of an unpaid debt. When he heard that his friend, Edward D. Holton, a Milwaukee banker, was going to California for a brief trip, Meiners asked him to see the property he had acquired. Mr. Holton’s evaluation was perhaps it was the largest oak grove on level land in Southern California, much of it so dense that the ground was in continuous shade. Furthermore, to his surprise, Meiners discovered that the climate of the valley was good for his asthma.

Hogs grazed there

For a long time the oak grove was fenced, and provided pasture for a large herd of hogs. All traffic from Ojai to Matilija went on a private road through the Meiners property, using a gate which was supposed to be kept closed. So many people went through the gate without closing it that in 1893, the manager of the ranch, P. W. Soper, locked the gate. With the Meiners road closed the only way of getting the mail to Matilija by stagecoach was a roundabout one by Rice Rd. A news item in “The Ojai” related that, as Rice Road had been flooded, “the mail was sent up to Matilija last night on horseback, the rider going across the back hill country. . .” However, Mr. Soper later gave several keys to A. W. Blumberg, operator of Matilija Hot Springs, with the stipulation that they be used only by mail carriers and scheduled stagecoach drivers.

The barn and livestock area on the Meiners Ranch. A fence surrounds the main oak grove seen in the distance.
The barn and livestock area on the Meiners Ranch. A fence surrounds the main oak grove seen in the distance.

In 1896, the big barn, on the Meiners Ranch, located approximately where the Ranch House Restaurant is now, caught fire one evening about midnight. No fire fighting equipment was available. Twenty horses, many tons of hay, harness, and farm implements were completely destroyed. “The Ojai” of February 15, 1896 reported, “Through the flames the horses could be seen plunging and dashing about insanely in the midst of the burning firey furnace; twenty fell victims without a single rescue.” But, the article goes on to state further, “Mr. Meiners built a large temporary barn on Monday, and the work of the great ranch goes on energetically.”

House still stands

The Milwaukee brewer lived on his ranch intermittently from the 1880’s until his death in the valley in 1898. His original big house still stands on the hill above the Ranch House Restaurant and is now used by the Happy Valley School.

John Meiners and his wife can be seen sitting on the raised, covered porch on his hillside home on the Meiners Ranch.
John Meiners and his wife can be seen sitting on the raised, covered porch on his hillside home on the Meiners Ranch.

John Meiners organized his ever-increasing acreage into a very productive ranch. Several hundred acres to the north of the oak grove were planted in oranges, lemons, prunes, apricots and apples. P. W. Soper, father of the late “Pop” Soper, was general manager of the Meiners Ranch, and lessee of 90 acres of Texas red oats, 90 acres of wheat, and 200 acres of barley. A visitor who toured the ranch with Mr. Meiners in 1897 wrote, “At the Meiners Ranch we saw stalks of oats that measured 7 feet 7 inches.”

To visualize the vast area, the ranch can be described as bounded on the south by the hills of the Happy Valley School [Oak Grove School now], on the west by Rice Road, and on the north by the foothills near Cozy Dell Canyon, and on the east by a line running through the junction of Highway 33 and El Roblar St., north and south.

The forebears of several of the present day residents of Ojai Valley came here as a result of John Meiners’ interest in his ranch. The grand-daughters of Edward D. Holton, who made the original favorable report concerning the ranch of Mr. Meiners, and the Ojai Valley, are Miss Alice and Helen Robertson of the East Valley, and his great grand-daughter, Mrs. Anson Thacher. Otto Busch came to the ranch as manager in 1907, and his son, Geo. Busch, now retired, was one of Ojai’s postmasters.

Orchid Town was an attraction in the ’40s and ’50s

This article was written for an appeared in the Ojai Valley News on June 11, 1999.  It is reprinted here with their permission.

Orchid Town was an attraction in the ’40s and ’50s

by David Mason

“Gardening is one of the best things in the world to make you forget your troubles, so as you go along, take a little time out and relax in your garden amongst the flowers.”
                — Louis Boyle, Out West, 1952

The lavish two-story hotel with its sweeping veranda would have no overnight guests. The post office has not postmaster, the Orchid Café couldn’t serve a decent cup of coffee and there were no children learning their ABC’s at the Deer Little School.

The blacksmith shop was silent and no hymns were heard coming from the Community Church. The Last Chance Saloon never served liquor; the jail never held a prisoner; and the justice of the peace? Well, he never married a single couple.

This may sound like a very dull town, but on the contrary, it was probably one of the most exciting old beautiful towns in all of Southern California.

El Rancho Rinconada, Orchid Town, was the dream of a wealthy man.

Overview of Orchid Town on the El Rancho Rinconada.
Overview of Orchid Town on the El Rancho Rinconada.

When Louis Boyle purchased the 77-acre ranch in the Ojai Valley in March of 1939, it consisted of a small house, garage and barn. Within a year, the land would start to spring forth with an array of exotic plants, for Mr. Boyle’s dream was to develop his ranch into a paradise of flowers.

Mr. Boyle was not raised in the flower business. His father had come to California with his family in the 1890s and had obtained employment in the iron and steel business, which he did quite successfully. His company manufactured barrels, canteens, camp stoves, tin cans and garbage cans.

The elder Boyle eventually took over the Pacific Stove Company, which made heaters and stoves; one popular line of heaters sold for 90 cents each.

One employee was an ambitious man by the name of Parkie O’ Keefe, the plant superintendent and salesman, who would sell stoves, write up the orders, come back to the plant, change clothes and work to make the stoves.

In 1913, Bob Merritt came to work for the Pacific Stove Company. After a few years, Mr. Merritt, longing to go into business for himself, convinced Mr. O’ Keefe to join him. The elder Boyle sold the stove manufacturing end of his business to them and retained a financial interest in their business, which came to be known as O’ Keefe and Merritt.

The Boyle manufacturing company was sold to the United States Steel Company in 1939 and it was then that Louis Boyle came to the Ojai Valley and bought El Rancho Rinconada.

He was not the first man to see the possibilities in this secluded ranch in the little valley. The previous owner, Loring Farnum, had attended Thacher School from 1898 until 1900 and was so impressed with the Ojai Valley that in 1908 he purchased the ranch and named it El Ranch Rinconada. He built a white farm house, planted a prune orchard and raised horses.

The original Farnum house was one of the 60 buildings in the valley that was lost in the great 1917 fire. Mr. Farnum was on the Boyd Club Board of Trustees and he was the first person to introduce radio to the Ojai Valley citizens.

Louis Boyle was enthusiastic about creating a sprawling ranch of orchids and other unique plans. He had attended the 1938 Pasadena Flower Show, where a large display of cymbidium orchids had caught his eye.

The Orchid Ranch would have to be unique, the land encircled by the mountains was too magnificent to construct just ordinary rows of lath and greenhouses.

The idea of creating a western town as a front for the flower beds was decided upon as an attractive way to conceal the lath house structures. Mr. Boyle and his helpers spent months going through junk yards, picking up old doors, windows and lumber.

The first building was the hotel. The imposing structure would stand out from the rest of the town. The windows were actually shadow boxes that held a variety of treasures. Each window box told a different story of the history of the Old West. They included old guns, powder horns, lamps and spectacles. Some contained wooden tools, music boxes, branding irons and straight razors.

 La Casa de Las Orquideas (the old Hotel) and wishing-well.
La Casa de Las Orquideas (the old Hotel) and wishing-well.

 

Shadow box of antiques.
Shadow box of antiques.

 

Upon entering the front door of the hotel, your first view was of hundreds of orchid plants growing in attractive gardens –- a spectacular sight.

Inside of a Lath House.
Inside of a Lath House.

The rear side of the false front was also a treasure trove. Hung on the walls were old western pictures and newspapers. Out front stood a wishing well.

Further down the street, other false fronts continued to be built on both sides, until the town had almost all of the conveniences one would expect in a small town.

There was the drug store, church, hardware and general store. Then they had the little school, assayer’s office, the town hall and bank, the opera house and Last Chance Saloon –- and the largest building, Kate’s House, was named for one of the ladies of early San Francisco.

There was also the Chinese Laundry, King’s Harness Shop, Wells Fargo, Pony Express and The Picture Gallery.

The Picture Gallery was extraordinary. The walls were covered with beautiful pictures of orchids, the handiwork of many artists, who years ago contributed in their greatest ways to symbolizing the beautiful flowers.

The gallery consisted of more than 1,000 prints of orchids, offset in their placement on the walls to make room for the collection of museum quality antiques that were also neatly arranged in the gallery.

An office building and library were built on a low rise at the base of the mountains, so as to afford a panoramic view of the ranch. The atmosphere of the office was more like a home instead of a place of business. The library contained a large collection of rare botanical books, collected from around the world.

Over the years, the Orchid Ranch would become one of the main sources of elaborate displays at flower shows, winning many awards.

Lath House which shaded plants at Orchid Town.
Lath House which shaded plants at Orchid Town.

The various displays that Mr. Boyle entered in the shows were replicas of his greenhouses that were showplaces within themselves, adorned with exquisite garden statuary that added charm to the meandering rock-lined walks that encircled the beautiful beds of graceful orchids.

The camellia plants would add another source of color and beauty to the ranch. Planted throughout the property were more than 7,000 camellia bushes, consisting of 150 different varieties. Many of them were rare and unusual.

The 1948 forest fire would take its toll on the Orchid Ranch, as well as the entire Ojai Valley. At El Rancho Rinconada, lath houses burned to the ground, destroying the precious plants and flowers that the lath had been protecting. The camellias that were planted along the outskirts of the ranch, closer to the surrounding hills, were lost when the fire swept into the little valley.

The ranch was repaired of all fire damage and, in short time, was back in full operation. As though to add insult to injury, the next year it snowed on the little town. To protect the orchids, which were only covered by lath, smudge pots had to be moved in.

By 1952 there were more than 50,000 cymbidium plants growing on the ranch. Mr. Boyle learned all he could about the flowers, mostly through trial and error. His passion for cymbidiums was a major contributor to the flower’s popularity.

During the years that the ranch was in operation, the cymbidium orchid became the most popular flower for stylish corsages. Florists from around the world were supplied with the blooms shipped from El Rancho Rinconada.

There was no lovelier orchid than the cymbidium and there was no finer selection in the United States than those grown at Orchid Town, El Rancho Rinconada. Many different varieties of cymbidiums were propagated there in the many specially designed greenhouses built for the young seedlings.

The names of the cymbidiums read like a list from “Who’s Who,” including: Anne Boleyn, Bach, Mozart, Beau Brummel, Cleopatra, Godiva, Goldilocks, Hiawatha, Pocahontas, Paul Revere, Joan of Arc and Marco Polo. The royal family was not forgotten; plants were named for Queen Elizatbeth I, Queen Mary, Princess Margaret, Prince Charles and Windsor Castle. President Lincoln and President Wilson were also included in the list.

Many other unusual flowers filled the ranch greenhouses, among them the waxy red Hawaiian anthuriums and the cypripedium orchids, also known as the Slipper Orchid.

The ranch would continue to delight people from around the world, whether it be those fortunate enough to have been invited to the many private parties and official affairs that were held there, down to the excitement felt by the smallest florists across the country who received their shipments of the exquisite flowers from the ranch.

Orchid Town's main entrance.
Orchid Town’s main entrance.

When Mr. Boyle died in August of 1954 the glory of El Rancho Rinconada began to fade, but not to the memories. I’m sure the many hours I spent as a child, admiring the quaint place and the beautiful creations of God, had a lot to do with influencing my life.

The property was eventually sold to Camp Ramah and there aren’t many of the original structures left. The office and library, the main house and guest house remain. The western town is gone and the one sign of an earlier day is the wishing well.

Camp Ramah has maintained the land with spacious lawns, tree and flowers, and the serene atmosphere remains. Today, the former El Rancho Rinconada is used for the health and enrichment of young people’s lives, not unlike what it did for the flowers many years ago.

 

Meiners Oaks

Meiners Oaks by Ed Wenig

Meiners Oaks, a community where nearly every home is under a Live Oak tree, takes its name from John Meiners, who owned the large area for many years.

John Meiners, native of Germany, had come to the United States about 1848 and had established a successful brewery business in Milwaukee. He acquired his Ojai ranch in the seventies, sight unseen, as a result of an unpaid debt. When he heard that his friend, Edward D. Holton, a Milwaukee banker, was going to California for a brief trip, Meiners asked him to see the property he had acquired. Mr. Holton’s evaluation was, “It is the most beautiful valley I have ever seen.”

Upon investigating his new property, John Meiners found that he owned what was perhaps the largest oak grove on level land in Southern California, much of it so dense that the ground was in continuous shade. Furthermore, to his surprise, Meiners discovered that the climate of the valley was good for his asthma.

For a long time, the oak grove was fenced and provided a pasture for a large herd of hogs. All traffic from Ojai to Matilija went on a private road through the Meiners property, using a gate which was supposed to be kept closed. So many people went through the gate without closing it that in 1893, the manager of the ranch, P.W. Soper, locked the gate. With the Meiners road closed, the only way of getting the mail to Matilija by stagecoach was a roundabout one by Rice Road.

A news item in “The Ojai” related that, as Rice Road has been flooded, “the mail was sent up to Matilija last night on horseback, the rider going across the back hill country . . .” However, Mr. Soper later gave several keys to A.W. Blumberg, operator of Matilija Hot Springs, with the stipulation that they were to be used only by mail carriers and scheduled stage coach drivers.
In 1896, the big barn on the Meiners ranch, located approximately where the Ranch House Restaurant is now, caught fire one evening about midnight. No fire-fighting equipment was available. Twenty horses, many tons of hay, harness, and farm implements were completely destroyed. “The Ojai” of February 15, 1896 reported . . . “Mr. Meiners built a large temporary barn on Monday, and the work of the great ranch goes on energetically.”

The Milwaukee brewer lived on his ranch intermittently from the 1880s until his death in the valley in 1898. His original big house still stands on the hill above the Ranch House Restaurant and is now used by the Happy Valley School.

John Meiners organized his ever-increasing acreage into a very productive ranch. Several hundred acres to the north of the oak grove were planted in oranges, lemons, prunes, apricots and apples. P.W. Soper, father of the late “Pop” Soper, was general manager of the Meiners Ranch and lessee of 90 acres of Texas red oats, 90 acres of wheat and 200 acres of barley. A visitor who toured the ranch with Mr. Meiners in 1897 wrote, “At the Meiners Ranch we saw stalks of oats that measured 7 feet 7 inches.”

To visualize the vast area, the ranch can be described as bounded on the south by the hills of the Happy Valley School, on the west by Rice Road, on the north by the foothills near Cozy Dell Canyon and on the east by a line running through the junction of Highway 33 and El Roblar Street, north and south.

The forebears of several of the present-day residents of the Ojai Valley came here as a result of John Meiners’ interest in his ranch. The granddaughters of Edward D. Holton, who made the original favorable report concerning the ranch of Mr. Meiners and the Ojai Valley, are Misses Alice and Helen Robertson of the east valley, and his granddaughter, Mrs. Anson Thacher. Otto Busch came to the ranch as manager in 1907, and his son George Busch, now retired, was one of Ojai’s postmasters.

“He got Meiners O. for unpaid debt,” Ojai Valley News, Dec. 3, 1969

Richard Robinson

Richard Robinson by Richard Hoye

Richard Robinson was an early rancher in the valley, and he first came to the valley after retiring as a ship’s captain. The romantic story of his life at sea is accented by the fact that his wife often accompanied him on his voyages.

Richard Robinson was born in Thomaston, Maine, in 1817, and he was of Welsh extraction. He began his life at sea at age seventeen. His advancement was rapid, and he captained his first ship at age twenty-three in 1840. For the next fourteen years, he captained ships that bore names such as Mountaineer, Pyramid and Hardet. These were “Yankee Clippers” engaged in ocean-crossing commerce.

Robinson pooled his resources in 1855 with several other men to commission construction of a 200-foot long clipper ship, christened the Richard Robinson. It was the custom of captains of the clipper ships to race each other, since the winning of a race provided profitable publicity. This was the way that sea captains built their reputations, and “Virtually every passage from one port to another was a race.” Robinson won a race against the formidable Dreadnought and thereby established his ship as “one of America’s fastest ships.”

Voyages could be lengthy. One of his voyages from New York City to Bombay took eighty-eight days, and that was close to breaking the speed record for the route. Ships’ captains were inclined to take their families with them on such long trips, and such was the case with Richard Robinson. He wed Mary Wentworth in 1840, the very year he first became a ship’s captain. She was a woman fit to match him.

Mary Wentworth Robinson was the first woman to receive the degree of Doctor of Education from Harvard University. She was descended from an aristocratic English line, which included Sir Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Stafford. She accompanied her husband on over thirty voyages. Three sons were born to the marriage: William, Richard and Charles. Two daughters died in infancy.

Robinson retired from the sea in 1872 and moved to Santa Barbara. In the following year, he purchased land in the upper Ojai Valley and began to farm. By 1875, he joined Judge Eugene Fawcett, Jr., and a wealthy eastern man, H.C. Dean, in the purchase of land from Jose Arnaz (land which now is largely covered by the northern half of Lake Casitas). They subdivided the land and started the development of ranches in the Santa Ana Valley.

Richard Robinson signed the voters registration roll for Ventura County in 1884 along with his sons Richard Owen Robinson and Charles Wentworth Robinson. All three stated that their birthplaces had been in Maine.

Robinson’s approach to farming was diversification. He planted many different varieties of trees and vegetables on his upper Ojai Valley ranch. By doing this, he introduced new agricultural products to the valley, and his farm was judged by his contemporaries as especially interesting for its variety.

He also tried his hand at breeding race horses. He was photographed in 1896 with a race horse and sulky. In his final years, he lived in Ventura, where he died on February 6, 1896.

For an excellent account of Richard Robinson’s life, see: Marsha Kee Robinson Strong, “The Yankee Clipper Richard Robinson,” Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly 27:1, Fall 1981, pp. 11-25.

Sharp & Savvy: John Meiners

Sharp & Savvy: John Meiners (1827 – 1898)
by David Mason

Mr. Meiners was born in the town of Oldenberg, Germany, and received his early education and business training there. In 1848, he immigrated to America and settled in the town of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

He built a starch factory and sawmill, both of which he sold in 1860 to invest in a distillery. The company distilled wines, alcohol, spirits and whiskey. Their trade was mainly local, but occasionally items were shipped to France and Germany. By 1861, the distillery was operating at its capacity of 500 bushels per day.

Mr. Meiners acquired his property in the Ojai Valley in the 1870’s, sight unseen as a result of an unpaid debt. Mr. Meiners had never been to California and wasn’t sure if he had struck a good or bad deal, but, nonetheless, the deed was done.

He became aware that a banker friend was planning a trip to the area, so he asked if his friend could locate the 1,200 acres and let him know how it appeared. When his friend arrived in Santa Barbara, he was able to secure transportation over the mountains to the little valley where the Meiners’ land was located. It was in the westerly portion of the Ojai Valley. What his friend wired to Mr. Meiners was just a very few words; “it was the most beautiful valley he had ever seen”.

Within a few years, John Meiners moved his family to California and to their new ranch. He built a large house on a bluff overlooking the ranch and named it “Cheery Acres.”

He then put the ranch into production, planting fruit trees, wheat and barley. The center of the ranch was covered by a thick forest of oak trees, which he fenced off from the rest of the ranch to raise hogs.

Mr. Meiners found that the climate in the Ojai Valley was also good for his asthma and he longed for the day he could spend more time here. For years, he continued to commute between his California ranch and Milwaukee.

Since the ranch continued to produce excellent crops, Mr. Meiners planted even more and then put in several hundred acres in oranges, lemons, olives, prunes, apricots and apples.

Finally turning over his Milwaukee business to his son Gustave, Mr. Meiners was able to stay in California and work the ranch he enjoyed so immensely.

In December of 1898, John Meiners passed away and his heirs continued to operate the ranch until 1924. The ranch was then incorporated by the Ojai Ranch and Development Company, which subdivided 800 acres.

Today, Meiners Oaks is still sheltered by the towering oaks that led the friend to say; “it was in the most beautiful valley he had ever seen”.