The following article was in the “Ojai Valley – California” brochure in about April of 1958. It was published by the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce. The author is unknown.
One of the outstanding highlights of the year is the annual Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament, sponsored by the Ojai Valley Tennis Association. Housing the players and staffing the event is a community project of major proportions. One of the oldest tournaments in the United States to be held continuously in the same location, its 50th anniversary was celebrated in 1957.
Included in the five to six hundred who participate each year are prominent families of the tennis world, with third and fourth generations still returning to play in The Ojai. Among those families are such famous names as Sutton, Bundy, Sinsabaugh, Vines, Connolley, Falkenberg, Browne, Kramer, Brough, Flam, Cheney, Fleitz, Betz, Olmeda, Franks, and Douglas.
The competition covers all age groups, with twenty contests being played simultaneously on the many private, school and public courts throughout the Valley.
The theme of the tournament is “Sportsmanship First.” It is the only large tournament in which an eleven-year-old is on an equal footing with a Davis Cup player; a school girl may play before the same gallery on the same No. 1 Court just vacated by a Wimbledon champion.
The Ojai Valley Trails Association, Inc., an organization of nearly five hundred members, is dedicated primarily to the development and maintenance of the network of trails in the mountain ranges surrounding the Valley. The promotion of pleasure riding, horse shows, camping and hiking is a secondary aim of the association.
A public gymkhana and practice field on a five-acre site on Bryant Street was donated through a lease agreement by the Richfield Oil Company and has been developed as a practice field for gymkhana events and as an arena for public riding events.
During the year the Association puts on at least one official outing a month, including moonlights rides, steak barbecues and brunch and breakfast rides. Twice a year the riders take a two-day overnight camp trip into the mountains.
The Association sponsors two horse shows a year. Other annual events are the gymkhanas sponsored, twice a year by the Thacher School, and the shows conducted by the Skirt and Quirt Riding Group, an organization of women and girls.
The Ojai Valley Summer Recreation Program includes an intensive swimming program led by the American Red Cross. This activity is held every year at the Matilija Pool with four of five hundred children receiving instruction. Private swimming instruction is offered each year of the Ojai Valley School and the Ojai Valley Inn. There are public swimming pools at Wheeler Hot Springs, Matilija and Ojala – all located in the canyon area.
The recently organized Ojai Police Boys’ Club, with a gymnasium on South Montgomery Street, features boxing, wrestling, weight-lifting and pool. Baseball, basketball and football are being added to the program. One of the novel features of the program is the appearance of top figures in the Southern California boxing and wrestling world at many of the matches conducted in the Boys’ Club. This has been possible because Soper’s Training Camp in Matilija Canyon is the training base for many of these notables.
The boys of the Valley are also provided an exceptional baseball program under the Ojai Valley Recreation Council. There are fourteen teams in three classes –- Farm, Twilight and Pony Leagues. They average more than fifteen boys per team, ranging in age from nine to fourteen, in the latter two groups. The Farm teams comprise more than one hundred boys under the age of nine.
More than 55 men work with these boys. Each team gets over 300 man hours of supervision per week. The schedule for each league totals 18 games. Uniforms and equipment are furnished by merchants of the Valley.
Three diamonds –- in Oak View, Meiners Oaks and Ojai –- are in use constantly from May to early September. The annual season winds up with three All-Star games and contests played with teams from other cities from up and down the West Coast.
Each year has seen more and more boys participating in this program. Wives, who have to serve supper two hours late three days a week, not only have become reconciled to it but are rabid fans for their offspring’s team.
In the Ojai Civic Center Park are excellent tennis courts open to the public and maintained by the Ojai Valley Tennis Club. This facility provides a beautiful open-air bowl with stage and seating accommodations for over 700 persons.
In the canyon area, on Highway 399, fishermen find Matilija Lake and Dam, a camping and fishing paradise, with an excellent stock of trout, bass, bluegill and catfish. Rowboats are permitted and available for rent. The lake and camp area covers approximately two hundred acres, with barbecue pits, tables, restrooms, trailer accommodations and campsites.
At the base of Matilija Dam is Matilija Hot Springs. Here are found hot sulphur baths, a pool, barbecue pits, tables and a wonderful trout stream reserved for children under 16 years of age.
Camp Comfort, located on Creek Road, offers about 40 acres of park area with forty barbecue pits, three hundred tables, a pavilion, volleyball courts, horseshoes, swings and slides, restrooms, concession stand and game rentals.
Within the city limits of Ojai is Sarzotti Park, jointly run by the city and county, with barbecue pits, tables, restrooms, swings and playground equipment and a baseball diamond. The Jack Boyd Club, located on this 11-acre park, is a community center for all age groups, community and service organizations. This club is supervised by a full-time director who operates a year-round recreation program supported by funds provided for in the City budget.
In the upper valley, on highway 150, overlooking the Ojai, is Dennison Park with camping, trailer parking, barbecue pits, tables, playground equipment, etc.
The northern and eastern boundaries of the Valley join the 284,744 acres of Los Padres National Forest. Approximately 67,000 acres are open to deer hunting and fishing streams extend over about 150 miles.
There are closed areas, due to fire hazards, during the dry season and the Sespe Wildlife Area remains a closed area at all times. This is perhaps the largest remaining nesting area of the condor of North America. Latest count reveals some 50 to 60 birds in the Whiteacre Peak Area.
Camp grounds within the forest include Wheeler Gorge (70 camp units) and Lion Canyon (20 units), where water is good at all times; Sespe Gorge (12 units), Sandstone, Pine Mt. Area (6 and 17 units). Throughout the forest, where trails have been developed, are at least 64 camp grounds suitable for trail camps in open season.
On each side of the Valley are privately owned trout farms.
Available to members and guest of the Ojai Valley Inn and Country Club is one of the best 18-hole golf courses in the country.
Many auditoriums and halls are used for parties, dances and varied program activities, including the school auditoriums, the Ojai Valley Grange Hall, American Legion Hall, Ojai Art Center Gallery, Woman’s Clubhouse and the Masonic Hall.
Many quiet road and country lanes provide safety for the cyclist or the person who prefers to just stroll in an uncrowded rural community.
This article was first published in the Ojai Valley News on October 22, 1994. It is used here with their permission.
MATILIJA HOT SPRINGS HAS COLORFUL HISTORY
By David Mason
“Matilija Hot Springs has had its grand opening for another season. The resort features a first class dining room, hot sulfur baths, medicinal waters, no fog and no winds. Board at the hotel is $12.00 a week and up; in tents, $2.50 a week.” – THE VENTURA FREE PRESS, MAY, 1904
Fountain of Life, Mother of Eve, Jacob’s Well and Celeste are the names of just a few of the springs that gush from the boulders in the Matilija Canyon.
When the springs were discovered in 1873 by J. W. Wilcox, he thought they might in some way be used for medicinal purposes. Wilcox camped beside the hot springs and bathed in the water for several weeks and discovered that his Mexican-War injury was slowly disappearing.
By 1875, the springs came into the ownership of R.M. Brown. With picks, spades, crowbars and an iron wheelbarrow, Brown set out to create a resort, taking advantage of the natural surroundings and the many hot and cold springs that flowed so freely out of the ground.
During the next two years, Brown built a long rambling building with a porch the entire length of its front and sides. The building became a hotel with 20 rooms to let. He also built six cabins for additional sleeping rooms.
The Arroyo Matilija, now Matilija Creek, ran behind the hotel, and there was a small footbridge to cross the river to a green meadow on the other side. In the meadow was built a large bathhouse with hot showers and sulfur baths. For an additional fee, one could even enjoy a “mud bath.” Brown then constructed a good road to his resort.
The Matilija Springs opened to the public in 1877, but not under Brown’s ownership, for he had sold the whole of the land, buildings and resort to Capt. Gardner even before the buildings were finished. Gardner gave the area the name of Matilija Springs. Gardner brought with him from San Francisco, Captain La Guad as the resorts new manager. La Guad was well known in San Francisco as a very fine chef. The guest and all the employees were very fond of the new manager.
Gardner decided to expand his operation in the canyon by bringing in hundreds of beautiful thoroughbred Angora goats. He felt that within a very short time, he would have a thriving wool-bearing ranch, however he did not take into consideration that with the low and thorny underbrush, the animals silken fur would be ruined. The goats stayed around the resort for a few years, as a great source of amusement for the guests.
In 1881, Gardner sold the springs to a Mr. Wilcoxen, from Arizona, to be used as a private home. The Wilcoxen’s had wanted a place with healing qualities because of the failing health of a grandson, Arnold Carver, who lived with them. The boy died after a serious fall, while out hunting one day. The Wilcoxen’s then opened the springs to other family members and visitors.
The resorts popularity grew as publications about the Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties included the hot springs. In 1883, Thompson and West wrote “These grounds, intersected by limpid streams, seem to have been selected by nature as a spot of earth where the chemistry of her great laboratory for the cure of diseases displays itself in great perfection. There are twenty-two of the springs and it is a remarkable fact that the quantity of water discharged never varies: It is the same in the hottest and driest spells of weather.”
The temperature of the water flowing from the springs was from 35 degrees to 150 degrees. The mountain streams were full of trout and the neighboring hills were the home of deer, quail and rabbits.
As for the health benefits, the papers wrote; “The pure mountain air, freedom from wind and dust, and the equal climate, combined with its healing waters, stimulate nature to her own best restoration processes. The effect on the healthy body of the sojourner here is to incite them to the highest mental and bodily efforts. A wholesome feeling of energy pervades and fits a man for his best and steadiest work.” The Matilija Springs resort was destroyed in the flood of 1884.
A. W. Blumberg who owned the small Blumberg Hotel in the town of Nordhoff, now Ojai, filed a claim on some of the land in the Matilija Canyon, and decided to use the springs to create a new resort and health center, appropriately call Matilija Hot Springs.
Blumberg built several small cozy cottages and furnished them for the comfort of guests. Around these cabins and among the nearby boulders, he placed tents for camping parties, and in another area, he built a stable for horses. He then built a small store for the convenience of campers and another building which was used for an office and dining room.
The new Matilija Hot Springs would now accommodate up to 100 people aside from those who had chosen to live in tents and board themselves.
Stagecoaches were the only means of public transportation to the Matilija Hot Springs, and the tourists flocked to the new resort. With so many tourists, it became necessary to open another business, the Matilija Post Office. The post office opened for business on July 22, 1889 and remained in operation for 27 years. The outlook for the future of the springs seemed very bright. All the guests were enthusiastic over the beauty of the canyon and its healing waters.
In 1901, the Blumbergs sold the resort to S. P. Creasinger, a real estate broker and developer. Creasinger paid $20,000 for the resort on eighty acres and an additional three hundred and twenty acres. By 1903, Creasinger was advertising his “Popular Summer and Winter Resort” as a “beautiful spot tendered attractive by nature (which) had been made more beautiful by the hand of artifice and the generous expenditure of money. A mammoth pleasure pavilion and numerous new cottages are among the improvements. The grounds were even illuminated by electric lights.”
Creasinger lost the Matilija Hot Springs in a bankruptcy hearing in January 1904, and the property came into the ownership of Sim Myers of Oxnard, who purchased the place for $12,000. It would end up costing Myers more than he had anticipated. In July of 1907, Myers was charged with selling liquor without a license.
Mr. A. C. Rallya, of Chicago, a member of the Thiel Detective Agency, brought the charge against the Hot Springs. Rallya stopped at the springs for about a week and claimed to have evidence of infractions of the law. Myers, not contrary to formal charges of like character, offered no defense and the court imposed a fine on him of $300. Other charges being in evidence, the court promised Myers immunity from them, providing he would promise not to sell intoxicating drinks from now on.
The local paper, The Ojai, reporting the incident, said that they “hope that the charming resort has sufficient real attractions to afford Mr. Myers a successful career without evasion of the county ordinance.”
Then another flood raged through the canyon, with damage estimated at $50,000 to the resort’s buildings. This loss caused Myers to lose his investment. The Levy’s Bank of Oxnard took over the resort and leased it for many years, and it turned out to be a financial disaster for the bank.
In 1920, Joe Linnel, who had managed the old Blumberg Hotel in the town of Ojai, took over the Matilija Hot Springs. In 1938, G. E. Mann was in charge of the resort. Mr. and Mrs. Ray Robertson leased the Matilija Hot Springs in 1941 and ran a successful operation until 1949.
Many names of famous guests appeared on the register of the splendid “Old Western Hotel” during its years of public attraction. One of the guests was President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, who stayed overnight and enjoyed the dining room that had achieved a reputation far and wide for its delicious food served in the atmosphere of splendor that surpassed many of the “big city” restaurants.
In 1946, the Ventura County flood control district bought the springs and the land surrounding it. The county wanted the land to build a dam in order to create a water storage lake behind the resort.
In 1965, Mr. and Mrs. Bill Olivas leased the Matilija Hot Springs resort and spa. The 1969 flood did considerable damage to the swimming pool and some of the buildings, but through the efforts of Bill Olivas, the resort was restored to its former glory.
In 1988, the county sold the property to a Santa Barbara man, and it is once more closed to the public.
Wheeler Hot Springs: New Owners Confront Old Issuesby Mark Lewis
From TheOjai Quarterly, Spring 2011 issue.
Most Ojai visitors arrive from the south on Highway 33 and turn right at the Y, heading toward the Arcade or the Ojai Valley Inn. But there was a time, not all that long ago, when many of these drivers would turn left instead, and smile gratefully at the highway marker proclaiming that Wheeler Hot Springs was only six miles away.
“It was almost a pilgrimage for me,” said Arthur von Wiesenberger, co-publisher of the Santa Barbara News-Press, as he recalled his regular Sunday trek over Casitas Pass and up the Maricopa Highway to take the waters at Wheeler. “I looked forward to Sunday,” he said. “There was a special energy there. I’d come back and face the week rejuvenated.”
Wheeler nostalgia is not confined to out-of-towners. Many local residents flocked to the resort to soak in its spring-fed hot tubs and enjoy a massage, followed by dinner and perhaps a jazz concert. “It was awesome when it was open,” recalled Jerry Kenton, co-owner of the Deer Lodge. “I used to go there on dates. It was great.”
When the resort closed in 1997, many people assumed that it would eventually reopen under new management. But a decade passed and nothing happened. Then, late in 2007, Wheeler began to show signs of life.
No announcement was made, but the resort had acquired new owners: Daniel Smith, a dentist who lives in Malibu and practices in Agoura Hills, and his wife, Maureen Monroe-Smith, who according to her Linked-In profile is an editorial assistant at Momtastic.com and the owner of Zuma Canyon Vineyards. For a while, to judge from the construction activity at the site, they seemed to be putting a lot of money into the place. But three-and-a-half years later, Wheeler has yet to reopen, and the new owners have yet to make their plans public.
“They try to keep it real private,” said Kenton, who co-owns a rental property right across the highway from Wheeler. “He [Smith] doesn’t want any publicity.”
The Kenton property is listed for sale with Sharon MaHarry of Keller Williams Realty, so MaHarry is often on the site. She said she never notices any activity at Wheeler, and has no idea what the Smiths have in mind.
“It’s a mystery to everybody in town,” she said.
Nevertheless, Smith was reasonably forthcoming when the Ojai Quarterly telephoned him last October to ask about his plans.
“We’ve been doing a tremendous amount of work to improve the property,” he said. “Unfortunately, the county has made it extremely difficult to re-open it.”
Smith said he would consider doing a sit-down interview on the Wheeler site. But when we got back to him a few weeks later to set it up, he asked us to hold off on our story.
“We’re at kind of a crucial point here,” he said. “At this stage, I don’t really think we want to put people on the property. What we’re doing is not really defined yet. We’re just not sure on direction yet.”
If the OQ would wait for a month, Smith said, he would tell us what was going on. So we waited more than a month, until January, and then we called him back. He did not return our calls.
It seems that the Smiths have run into a bit of bad luck at Wheeler. (See below.) But they are hardly the resort’s first owners to find themselves in this predicament. For more than a century, Wheeler Hot Springs has been luring visionary developers into the Santa Ynez Mountains only to break their hearts. Yet Ojai would not be what it is today without Wheeler, and the other hot-springs resorts that once graced the area. Lanny Kaufer, whose family operated Wheeler on and off from 1969 through 1993, notes that the resort will continue to loom large in Ojai’s history, even if it never reopens.
“The hot springs were the major draw that brought people to Ojai in the first place,” he said. “That’s what put Ojai on the map.”
Deer Hunter Discovery
The Chumash phrase for hot springs translates into English as “tears of the sun.” It is often assumed
in Ojai that the Wheeler hot springs were sacred to the Chumash, but this cannot be confirmed: No archeological evidence for the Indians’ presence at the site has turned up thus far, and Chumash elder Julie Tumamait-Stenslie knows of no ancestral stories about the springs that have been passed down to her generation.
“The stories were lost,” she said. “We don’t know of anything documented. You want to trace legends and lore, but I’ve always come up to a dead end.”
Nevertheless, there was a Chumash village nearby, so it seems reasonable to theorize that the Indians knew of the springs, and that they considered the site a special place. There are those in Ojai who would go further, and assert that a Chumash curse afflicts anyone who tries to exploit the springs for commercial purposes. Tumamait-Stenslie said she does not know whether her ancestors put a hex on the place. What she does know is that over the years, the site has been extraordinarily unlucky for its would-be developers, and for other people as well.
She did not name names, but anyone who delves into Wheeler’s tangled history can identify many people who came to grief there — beginning with Wheeler C. Blumberg, for whom the springs are named. Wheeler was born in Clarence, Iowa in 1863. His father, Abram, was a lawyer. When Wheeler was 9, the family moved to Los Angeles for the sake of his mother’s health. She had read a book by the travel writer Charles Nordhoff, who touted Southern California’s climate as a cure-all. When her health failed to improve in L.A., she and Abram decided to try their luck at a new town site that R.G. Surdam was developing in Ventura County.
These were the great days of the famous spa towns such as Vichy, Marienbad, and Saratoga, where upper-crust tourists “took the cure” by soaking in thermal springs and sipping mineral water. Surdam no doubt had pricked up his ears in 1872 when he heard that hot springs had been discovered in Matilija Canyon. Someone else already was developing a health resort at the springs, but Surdam was free to found a town in the nearby Ojai Valley. He found a useful ally in Abram Blumberg, who agreed to build a hotel on the present site of Libbey Park. It was Wheeler’s mother who suggested naming the town Nordhoff, in honor of the writer. But the Blumbergs did not linger long in the town they co-founded. By 1887, Abram had sold the hotel and opened his own health resort, Ojai Hot Springs, in Matilija Canyon.
Abram advertised his springs far and wide as a cure for pretty much whatever ailed you, including syphilis and cancer. Wheeler drove the stagecoach that met their guests at the train station in Ventura and brought them to the resort. Wheeler was notorious in Nordhoff for his reckless driving. “Women and dogs had to scramble out of the way when he came barreling through,” said Wheeler’s grandniece Ginger Morgan.
The road from Nordhoff to Matilija Canyon terminated at Lyon Springs, a smaller resort further up the canyon from Abram’s place. Beyond that point, there was nothing but an old Indian trail into the mountains. Wheeler Blumberg went up that trail with a rifle one day in 1888, and shot a deer near the North Fork of the Matilija Creek. The deer hit the ground near a bubbling hot spring. A second hot spring burbled nearby. Right there and then, in the middle of that unspoiled wilderness, Wheeler had his epiphany. He filed a homestead claim on the springs site; extended the road from Lyon Springs to his new property; and installed a spring-fed swimming pool, a bathhouse, and fourteen guest cabins. By 1891, Wheeler’s Hot Springs was open for business.
The springs were not the only attraction: Wheeler also offered fishing, hunting, camping, trail riding, swimming, and nightly dances. He even used hydropower from the creek to power his own electrical plant, which bathed the resort in electric light while the rude village of Nordhoff still got by with kerosene lamps.
Wheeler’s Hot Springs was a success from the start. But in 1894, Wheeler began to behave erratically. “It seems that he thought his wife’s heart was on the wrong side and he began
pounding on her chest to put it right,” wrote Patricia L. Fry in The Ojai Valley: An Illustrated History. Wheeler was committed to an insane asylum, but he soon recovered and was back at his resort.
The Blumberg family sold Ojai Hot Springs after Abram’s death in 1899. (It was later renamed Matilija Hot Springs, and it’s still there, although currently not open to the public.) Wheeler held on to his own resort, which continued to prosper. It was not all smooth sailing: In 1904, the Anti-Saloon League of Southern California caused a sensation when it engineered Wheeler’s arrest for selling liquor without a license. But those temperance crusaders could not keep him down for long. He built a sizeable house on a cliff overlooking his resort, and tried to persuade his adult children to live there with him and be his partners.
“I don’t care to have outsiders in with me, so I thought it best if it all seemed satisfactory to all of you to incorporate it in the family,” he wrote to his eldest son, Clarence.
But then Wheeler suffered another breakdown — and this time, it made news all over Southern California.
“Wheeler Blumberg, proprietor of the springs bearing his first name, has been a raving maniac in the hands of the sheriff since he was incarcerated in the county jail yesterday morning,” the Los Angeles Times reported on May 21, 1907. “Blumberg is a desperate man, and for days he has produced a reign of terror at his springs resort, where he locked himself in his room with two or three guns and pistols and with big knives. He shot 15 holes through the walls of his room, and would occasionally make sorties outside, when everybody about the place would take to the hills.”
A posse managed to capture Blumberg alive and bring him to Ventura, where he was stuffed into a straitjacket, heavily sedated, and strapped to a couch in a padded cell. The sedative had little effect: According to the Times, he continued to scream at the top of his lungs and strain desperately against his bonds until the following morning, when he died “from utter exhaustion.” He was 43 years old.
The Fires Up Above
After Blumberg’s death, the resort’s name contracted from “Wheeler’s” to “Wheeler,” as control passed to the founder’s son-in-law. Webb Wilcox was a young man from Illinois who had hired on in 1903 to drive the resort’s stagecoach. Two years later he married the boss’s daughter, Etta Blumberg. By 1913, when he was named postmaster of the newly established Wheeler Springs Post Office, Wilcox was clearly the man in charge.
The stagecoach era had passed. The railroad now delivered the resort’s guests all the way to Nordhoff, where they boarded a big Stanley Steamer motor coach for the short, scenic drive out to Wheeler Springs. The resort was thriving and so was the town, and this was not a coincidence.
“Being situated as Nordhoff is, the railway station for the three great health resorts — Matilija Hot Springs, Lyon Springs, and Wheeler Hot Springs — our beautiful and fertile valley gets a great deal of advertising and comes to the notice of many people who would not otherwise come this way,” The Ojai newspaper noted in 1913.
Wheeler clearly was the newspaper’s favorite: “Situated in another canyon, a little at one side of the main Matilija Canyon, but reached by a pretty mountain road, is the famous Wheeler Springs, under the management of that prince of good fellows, Webb Wilcox. Hot and cold mineral springs, fine trout fishing, commodious camp grounds and good treatment have been prime factors in establishing the fame of Wheeler’s Springs. While this place has not been open as a resort for so many years as the other two, it has been popular from the first. As seasons pass the crowds increase, and the resort is becoming more and more popular for winter guests.”
Then in June 1917, a carelessly maintained campfire near the resort touched off the epic Matilija-Wheeler Fire, one of the worst forest fires in California history. The town, which had just changed its name to Ojai, almost saw its brand-new Arcade go up in flames.
“With 200 men we worked like demons for five days and five nights before we got the best of that blaze,” the legendary forest ranger Jacinto Damien Reyes recalled years later. “But it was not until 30,000 acres was a blackened waste. In that fire we had a terrific battle to save the buildings of the Wheeler Springs resort and while we were busy at that the fire burned out of the forest and into the town of Ojai.”
The flames roared over Nordhoff Ridge and down into the town, but were stopped short of the Arcade. Even so, the fire killed five people, destroyed 70 houses and other structures, and forced many terrified residents to flee the valley in panic. Future historian Walter Bristol recorded his reaction: “The glow of the flames reflected by the smoke-filled air made the scene an inferno never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it.”
Ojai rebuilt, the forest regenerated, and Wheeler Springs continued to attract tourists from all over Southern California–and sometimes from further afield. During the 1920s, heavyweight-boxing champion Jack Dempsey stayed there while he trained at Pop Soper’s, just down the road.
In 1926, Webb Wilcox reaped a potential bonanza when the state agreed to pay for the proposed Maricopa Highway to connect Ventura with Bakersfield. The new road would allow Wheeler to draw visitors from the north as well as the south. Thinking big, Wilcox sold a half-interest in Wheeler to R.F. Just, proprietor of the Battle Creek Sanitarium of Long Beach. They planned to build a similar sanitarium at Wheeler. Apparently that plan fell through, because in August 1929 the Times reported Wheeler’s sale to resort developer L.W. Coffee, the future founder of Desert Hot Springs.
Coffee envisioned Wheeler as a mountain resort along the lines of Lake Arrowhead. He drew up plans to subdivide part of the property for vacation homes. But his investment was poorly timed. Two months later, the stock market crashed, the nation tumbled into the Great Depression, and Coffee’s plans came to naught. In 1934 the Times reported that Wheeler was “back under sole management of Mr. and Mrs. Webb Wilcox.”
Not for long. With the recently completed Maricopa Highway running right through the middle of Wilcox’s property, he found himself in possession of some prime highway frontage. In 1935, he built a new “Cottage Resort” just east of the road. Essentially a motel, it consisted of a handful of cottages perched precariously atop a terrace carved into a steep hillside, supported by a massive retaining wall that reared up dramatically from the highway. At the base of that wall he built the Webb Wilcox Cafe, and next to the cafe he installed his tiny Post Office building, which was little more than a glorified shack. (“Ripley’s Believe it or Not” designated this structure “the U.S.A.’s smallest Post Office,” and Wilcox — ever the promoter — placed a sign to that effect on its roof.)
Having created a new fiefdom east of the highway, Wilcox disposed of his interest in the old resort, which was on the west side of the road. And with that, Webb Wilcox parted ways with Wheeler Hot Springs. By 1943, if not earlier, it had been acquired by one L.E. Needham, who apparently had little luck with it.
Wheeler was hit hard by the great flood of 1938, and again by World War II, when gasoline rationing kept many would-be tourists at home. (It is said that during the war years, an enterprising Nordhoff High School student operated a weekend bordello in the resort’s vacant cabins.) When the war ended, the picture seemed to brighten, due in part to the construction of Matilija Dam. Wheeler faced less competition after the new dam obliterated Lyon Spring and blighted the prospects of Matilija Hot Springs. But the polio scare was a severe blow, because people were afraid to patronize resorts with swimming pools.
A bigger blow was imminent. Three decades had passed since the 1917 fire, and the brush had grown back. In September 1948, a butane leak in a shed near the Wheeler swimming pool touched off another catastrophic blaze. Once again, the citizens of Ojai looked up to see flames descending upon them from Nordhoff Ridge. A sudden shift in wind direction saved the town from destruction, but not before 13 homes were destroyed, and a man died of a heart attack while fighting the flames.
Wheeler Springs survived, but the resort was on a downward spiral. In 1953, a retired Los Angeles produce wholesaler named Sam Sklar acquired control and announced plans to put up a 400-room hotel. It was never built, and Sklar soon went bust. The next owner was none other than Art Linkletter, the famous radio and television personality. Inspired perhaps by the opening of Disneyland in 1955, Linkletter spent a lot of money on a new Wheeler Springs attraction called Kiddie Land, adding rides and other features that appealed to children. He failed to prosper.
“We saw Linkletter several years after at a party and asked him about Wheeler,” wrote Fred Volz, the longtime Ojai Valley News editor, in a column. “He just grimaced, turned away and started to talk to a friend. We later heard he dropped a bundle.”
Meanwhile, Webb Wilcox continued to preside over his “Cottage Resort.” Etta Blumberg Wilcox died
in 1941, and Rose Blumberg (Wheeler’s widow) in 1947, but the Blumberg clan was still represented in the neighborhood by Etta’s younger brother Carl, who lived in Wheeler’s old house on the cliff. “It was filled with antiques,” said Ginger Morgan, who recalls many family gatherings there. “It was nice.”
The house passed out of the family after Carl’s death in 1959. As for Wilcox, he finally retired in 1960 and moved into a trailer house near his old cafe, which now had new owners. None of his children had stayed in the area, so when Wilcox died in 1962 at the age of 81, it marked the end of an era. That same year, Wheeler Springs lost its status as a U.S. Post Office, due to a lack of business. The resort was still open, but its glory days were long past.
The Turning of the Wheel
For Evelyn Landucci, it was love at first sight. The year was 1969, and Evelyn, a devotee of the Human Potential Movement, wanted to establish a New Age “growth center” in Southern California. She and her husband, Frank Landucci, had driven up from Los Angeles to check out Wheeler Hot Springs as a possible site.
“My mother had been going to Esalen,” said Lanny Kaufer, Evelyn’s son from an earlier marriage. “She envisioned an Esalen South.”
The Esalen Institute in Big Sur was an old hot springs resort reborn in the early ’60s as a New Age retreat. Wheeler Springs in 1969 was mostly a trailer park plus a few dilapidated relics left over from the resort’s heyday, including a lodge, a cafe, a dancing pavilion, the swimming pool — and Webb Wilcox’s old postal shack, still topped by that sign proclaiming it “the U.S.A.’s smallest Post Office.” All in all, the resort was not an impressive sight. But the hot springs still burbled, the mountain scenery remained unspoiled, and some of the buildings looked salvageable.
“It seemed like the perfect spot for what they had in mind,” Kaufer said.
The karma was not perfect, given that Wheeler’s previous owner, Rollen Haslam, had shot himself to death at the resort a few years earlier. But the Landuccis took the plunge and acquired Wheeler Springs from Haslam’s widow. (Or technically from Art Linkletter, who still owned the mortgage.) A few weeks after escrow closed, the canyon was scoured by the great flood of ’69, which turned the creek into a raging torrent. When the waters receded, the resort was pretty much gone.
The Landuccis soldiered on, with help from the Small Business Administration. The SBA was dubious about funding a “growth center,” so instead the Landuccis rebuilt the ruined lodge as a gourmet Italian restaurant, which opened in 1975. Their children — Lanny, Michael, John and Gilda — pitched in to help. “It was a family operation,” said Lanny Kaufer, who waited on tables.
One of their regular customers was the rock star Jimmy Messina (of Loggins & Messina), who owned a ranch in the area. Messina urged the Landuccis to divert the hot springs water from the old swimming pool to a spa stocked with redwood tubs. “They’re all the rage these days,” he said. The Landuccis took his advice and added spring-fed tubs to the mix. Between the restaurant, the spa, and the big dances they hosted, Wheeler Hot Springs was now back on the map, especially for people who lived in the area. But the Landuccis needed to expand their reach.
“The business was doing well, but not nearly as well as it could have in its fully realized form as a resort,” Kaufer said. “They had always intended to have overnight guests and knew that was the key to success. Without it, Wheeler was predominantly a weekend business. And although they were making slow progress, it was a time-consuming, expensive process to try to get the county’s approval for their plans.”
Enter Roger Bowman, a Wheeler regular with an entrepreneurial bent. He offered to help the Landuccis find a buyer for the place, and ended up buying it himself around 1980.
He put a lot of money into retooling the restaurant and spa as “Bowman’s at Wheeler Hot Springs.” His then wife, Ojai clothing store owner Barbara Bowman, contributed her designer’s touch to the project. “When we had it, it was fabulous,” she said.
The Bowmans emphasized the site’s presumed connection to the Chumash. They marketed their restaurant and spa as “built on an ancient Indian healing ground,” where the Chumash once visited the springs “to cleanse and purify their spirits.”
“The thought to incorporate an Indian motif had nothing to do with marketing,” Roger said. “It was the natural feeling of the property. This is where Barbara came into play. She was able to capture and embellish that feeling. It wasn’t just using an Indian motif. It was to be much higher order, much more spiritually oriented, than that.”
Early on, while researching the Indian connection, Roger encountered a devotee of Chumash lore who warned him that the place was cursed. This amateur shaman offered to help Roger ward off the evil spirits by performing an esoteric ceremony involving an eagle feather and an abalone shell. Roger politely declined.
“Do I believe in curses? Well, obviously I don’t, because I ignored the rite and went into it,” he said. “Maybe I should have listened to him.”
The Bowmans’ version of Wheeler Springs offered a vivid contrast with their neighbor across the highway. The old Webb Wilcox Cafe had long since evolved into the Wheel, a lively roadhouse operated by Mary Sullivan. It too was packed on weekends, especially on Sunday afternoons when Jerry Pugh’s rock band, Studebaker, played its regular gig. “I played there for 11 years straight,” Pugh said. “It was good times.”
The Wheel’s clientele mostly arrived on motorcycles, and they drank a lot of beer and ate a lot of Wheelburgers. They also made a lot of noise, especially on certain holidays. The neighbors noticed.
“On St. Patrick’s Day you knew you wouldn’t get any sleep,” said Joe Barthelemy, the proprietor of Serendipity Toys. Joe and his wife, Lilly, had bought the old Blumberg house in 1977, expecting to raise their family in tranquil surroundings. Lilly had enjoyed playing pool in the Wheel back in the early ’60s when she was a teenager. Those were the days when Johnny Cash had a house down in Casitas Springs, and he is said to have been a regular at the Wheel’s bar. But by the ’80s, the Wheel was a much noisier — and rowdier — place. “It just got worse through the years,” Lilly said.
The Wheel was a less-than-ideal neighbor for Roger Bowman as well, but he had a bigger problem. His restaurant and spa were doing well, but the 85-acre Wheeler site was very expensive to maintain. “Just to clean the palm trees cost $10,000,” Barbara Bowman noted. So, like the Landuccis before him, Roger Bowman sought the county’s approval to take in overnight guests. His plan was to put in yurts, in keeping with the resort’s esoteric motif. “We needed to expand to have the property be financially viable,” he said. But county officials resisted, due to concerns about waste disposal.
Bowman also had to fend off a wrongful-death suit involving a gruesome after-hours accident at Wheeler in which a fast-moving car ran into a chain strung across a roadway, with fatal results. Bowman said he ultimately prevailed, but fighting the lawsuit took its toll. As his Wheeler losses mounted, Bowman grew increasingly frustrated. “It was a lot of work and a lot of money,” he said. Around 1983 he shut it down and reconveyed the property back to the Landuccis, to their chagrin.
In retrospect, Bowman thinks that amateur shaman may have had a point about the Wheeler site. “It has an ongoing history of people encountering disasters there, and I was just one of a series of them,” he said. Yet in a way, he was lucky: “I only lost money.”
The Curse Continues
The Landuccis were not thrilled to have Wheeler Springs back on their hands. But Evelyn’s youngest son, John Kaufer, stepped into the breach. Having worked in the film industry, he envisioned a resort that would appeal to Hollywood types and other well-heeled Angelenos. The spa reopened in 1985, and among the employees was Julie Tumamait-Stenslie.
“I was a receptionist there,” she said. “John wanted to build cabins. He was starting to get the restaurant on the map and get the L.A. crowd up.”
According to an Ojai Valley News account, John signed the papers to take control of Wheeler on July 1, 1985. Just a few hours later, people at the resort began smelling smoke. Tumamait-Stenslie was there that day with her then-husband Jerry Pugh. “We had just had a hot tub and massage,” Tumamait-Stenslie recalls. “We looked up and saw a wall of flames coming down from the north.” They raced across the highway to rescue Studebaker’s equipment from the Wheel.
The Wheeler Fire, as it is known to history, was touched off by an unknown arsonist just north of the resort. Once again, as in 1917 and 1948, a fire that began at or near Wheeler Hot Springs quickly burned its way to the top of Nordhoff Ridge and threatened Ojai with destruction. Firefighters put up a desperate fight and the town was saved, with no loss of life. But at least one ghost was evicted from his old haunt. Among the structures that burned was Wheeler Blumberg’s old house, the one he had shot full of holes back in 1907. As the flames closed in, Joe and Lilly Barthelemy and their family were forced to evacuate. When they returned the next day, only the chimney was left standing.
Wheeler Springs itself survived (as did the Wheel), so John Kaufer proceeded with his plans. The restaurant reopened with a new feature: performances by well-known jazz musicians. “And it really took off, and began to attract people from Los Angeles,” Lanny Kaufer said.
But the Wheeler Fire had not yet claimed its last victims. On a rainy Friday afternoon in October 1987, a problem developed with the line that supplied the resort with water from a cold spring in the hills above. John and two employees, Cristina Gilman and Kenny Farchik, trudged up to take a look. Looming over them was a big oak tree. It looked healthy from the front, but its uphill side had been gutted by the fire of 1985. As John and his helpers grappled with the water line, they heard a loud crack as the oak abruptly collapsed on them. “The tree leaped like a dragon,” Farchik told the News. Gilman was killed instantly. John died the in the hospital the next day. He was 31 years old.
“From that point on, my parents just wanted to sell the business,” Lanny Kaufer said.
Enter Tom Marshall. As described in a Los Angeles Times article in 1993, Marshall was a Brooklyn native with a checkered past as a stockbroker and restaurant promoter. His biggest claim to fame was as a co-founder of Broadway Joe’s, a short-lived chain of restaurants associated with Joe Namath. By 1987, Marshall had reinvented himself as a Hollywood producer, although one with few films to his credit. That fall, not long after John Kaufer’s death, Marshall heard about Wheeler Hot Springs and drove up from L.A. to steep himself in a tub. He was smitten by Wheeler’s beauty and serenity–and by its possibilities. After a long courtship, he struck a deal with the Landuccis to sell him the place in 1993, although they retained a major financial interest.
Marshall, like all his recent predecessors, wanted to restore Wheeler to its original status as a full-fledged destination resort. His was the same vision, essentially, that had inspired Wheeler Blumberg when he first stumbled over the hot springs a century earlier. Marshall wanted to add cabins, a banquet hall, and meeting rooms; expand the restaurant and spa; and build a bottling plant so he could sell Wheeler-branded mineral water. Arthur von Wiesenberger, who was (and still is) a bottled-water expert, did some consulting for Marshall at the time. “I think Tom was trying to bring [Wheeler] to a different level,” von Wiesenberger said: Less rustic, more upscale.
That would take money. Marshall’s first plan was to sell stock in his venture. When that didn’t pan out, he turned to private financing. His biggest and least likely investor was the Dewar Foundation of Oneonta, N.Y. Dewar had been founded decades earlier by an heiress whose money came from the company that evolved into IBM. In 1993, Dewar’s guiding spirit was Frank Getman, an Oneonta mover and shaker who shared Marshall’s enthusiasm for Wheeler’s potential. Getman steered $1.5 million of Dewar’s money into Wheeler, and threw in some of his own.
But Marshall, like his predecessors, encountered resistance from Ventura County officials, and meanwhile his cash-flow problems mounted. At some point he apparently stopped paying his withholding taxes. Then his paychecks started bouncing. In the fall of 1996, he was charged with passing bad checks to his employees, and the Internal Revenue Service seized Wheeler Springs to auction it off for unpaid payroll taxes.
To forestall that move, Marshall had Wheeler declare bankruptcy.
According to news reports at the time, Marshall resolved the bad check charges by pleading guilty to one misdemeanor count and paying a $330 fine. He later left town, and the Ojai Quarterly could not determine his current whereabouts.
Several people interviewed for this story portray Marshall as the villain of the piece, and wonder how he managed to evade prison. His former attorney, Paul Blatz, is more charitable. “I don’t think he was a crook,” Blatz said.”I think he just got over-extended.”
The resort limped along under Chapter 11 status until Jan. 23, 1997. On that day the federal bankruptcy trustee shut it down, putting some 60 employees out of work. “The cash-flow problem was difficult,” the trustee’s attorney told the Ojai Valley Times. “That doesn’t mean the place will be closed forever.”
Enter Eliot Spitzer
When the dust settled, the new owner of Wheeler Hot Springs was the Dewar Foundation, which had no interest in running a resort. Dewar immediately starting looking for a buyer, with no success. Meanwhile, Frank Getman ran into the Wheeler curse in the person of New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. In June 1999, Spitzer’s office sued three Dewar board members, including Getman and his son Michael, for allegedly mismanaging the foundation’s assets by investing in Wheeler Springs.
“It is the responsibility of my office to protect the assets of charities which are created to do good in our communities,” Spitzer said in a press release. “Because these individuals acted irresponsibly, they do not deserve, nor can they be trusted to oversee the millions still left in the care of this foundation.” In particular, Getman and his fellow board members were accused of “imprudent loans to a risky start-up mineral water business in California–Wheeler Hot Springs.”
This was a humiliating experience for Frank Getman, a prominent citizen in Oneonta. In 2002 he resolved the matter by resigning as Dewar’s president and agreeing to pay the foundation $500,000. The settlement included a provision that would allow Getman to recoup some of that money if Wheeler ultimately sold for more than $2 million. That was considered highly unlikely: Spitzer’s office said the Wheeler property was not worth more than $750,000.
Years passed, and Spitzer found bigger fish to fry. His high-profile probes of Wall Street heavyweights propelled him into the New York governor’s mansion. Meanwhile, Dewar kept trying to unload its Wheeler white elephant. According to Michael Getman, they came very close to a sale several times over the years, but something always went wrong at the last minute.
Meanwhile, rumors periodically swept Ojai that some potential white knight was kicking the tires out at Wheeler Springs. “I heard a brewing company was going to buy it,” Julie Tumamait-Stenslie said. “Then I heard Oprah was going to buy it.” One rumor she knew wasn’t true was that the Chumash would buy Wheeler with profits from their Santa Ynez casino. “They’re not interested,” she said.
At one point, Roger Bowman was contacted by a friend who asked his opinion of Wheeler as a potential investment. Bowman said he described the site’s fraught history, “and concluded that from my point of view, the property has certain barriers it presents to owners. I have concluded that this was due to Indians protecting against commercial enterprise on their ritual ground.” His friend did not pursue a deal for Wheeler.
For a few years, Mary Sullivan at the Wheel had that stretch of Maricopa Highway all to herself. In 1998 she brought back Studebaker as the house band, but that didn’t last long. Jerry Pugh did not care for some of the shady characters who now hung around the Wheel and its cottages. “It wasn’t the same element,” he said. Sullivan was now over 70 and in declining health. She seemed less up to the challenge of running a respectable biker bar, and things began to get out of hand. “There were some horrifying things that happened at that place,” Tumamait-Stenslie said.
County health inspectors finally closed it down in November 1999 when they discovered that it no longer had a source of potable water. Sullivan apparently could not afford to fix the water problem so she retired, after 30 years at the Wheel. The property soon acquired a new owner, Bob Hope. (No, not that Bob Hope.) He and his wife, April, live with their family in a house up the hill from the bar. But the Wheel has never reopened.
Eventually, Wheeler Hot Springs acquired a new owner too. It sold in the fall of 2007 — for $3.3 million. Improbably, the Dewar Foundation ended up making a tidy profit on its investment. Frank Getman died in 2009, but not before seeing his faith in Wheeler vindicated. (Getman had the further satisfaction of seeing Eliot Spitzer brought low by the sex scandal that forced him to resign as governor in 2008.)
Which brings us back to Dan Smith and Maureen Monroe-Smith. Like Marshall and Bowman before them, the Smiths first encountered Wheeler Springs as customers rather than as potential investors. “My wife and I used to go there all the time when it was open,” Smith told the OQ last fall (before he stopped returning our calls).
Disappointed when Wheeler closed, the Smiths eventually became curious as to why it had never re-opened. Maureen did copious research, and the couple ended up buying the place. Dan said their plans for it include making Wheeler energy self-sufficient by generating their own electricity at the site. They also plan to market bottled water with the Wheeler Springs brand. And, unsurprisingly, they want to add overnight accommodations.
But before they can even reopen the restaurant, they will have to bring the resort up to code. “They would have to put up some sort of sewage treatment plant,” said Steve Offerman, an assistant to County Supervisor Steve Bennett.
Working with the county on this issue “has been a very difficult process,” Smith said, echoing the complaints of previous owners. But county officials note that they have received no formal application regarding Wheeler. “The ball’s still in their court,” said Winston. “It is all dependent upon what they propose.”
Across the street, Bob and April Hope have the same problem as the Smiths. They want to reinvent the Wheel as a bed-and-breakfast place, and Bob said he has long since fixed the potable water problem that drove Mary Sullivan out of business. But to reopen the Wheel would require a new septic system, and the Hopes and county officials do not see eye-to-eye on how that should be accomplished. The Hopes want to use a kind of septic system which they said is legal in Malibu and in Santa Barbara County, but not here. “Ventura County won’t even look at it,” Bob said bitterly.
In separate conversations, both Bob Hope and Dan Smith alluded to the possibility that they might resolve their problems by combining their properties (and thus reuniting what Webb Wilcox tore asunder back in 1935). “If they were united it would be easy,” Smith said. But he scoffed at the $3 million that Hope (at the time) was asking for the 40-acre Wheel property. “It’s a little unreasonable,” Smith said.
That’s how things stood last October, when Smith (in a second, much shorter conversation) declined to provide a tour of his property and (as it turned out) cut off any further communication with the OQ. Four months later, the Smiths’ neighbors know of no new developments since the fall concerning Wheeler Springs. Which is not to say that there have not been any.
“No one really knows what’s happening across the street,” April Hope said. “They’re very, very tightlipped.”
Maureen Monroe-Smith finally broke radio silence in mid-January when she responded to a Facebook message. But her reply only added to the mystery surrounding Wheeler. At the moment, she wrote, “there is really nothing for us to report back to you on any future plans for the property. [And] our partners in this property are not granting site visits to anyone at this time.”
Who are these partners? Apart from the Smiths, the only other person listed in Ventura County property records for the Wheeler address is Rickey M. Gelb, a prominent commercial real-estate developer based in the San Fernando Valley. When contacted by the OQ, Gelb said that he owns 50 percent of Wheeler Hot Springs LLC, while the Smiths, who are the managing partners, own the other 50 percent.
The three partners originally acquired Wheeler Springs at the height of the real estate bubble in 2007, only to see the economy tumble into the Great Recession. Gelb said that after laying the groundwork for reviving Wheeler as a full-fledged resort, he and the Smiths hoped to bring in another partner “who has the expertise to bring it to the next level.” But the recession interceded, and now the project is “on hiatus.”
“I’m not sure what we’re going to do with it, to tell you the truth,” he said. “We don’t have the dollars to bring it to a finished product.”
Further complicating the situation, Gelb added, is that the Smiths have separated. “That did slow things down,” he said.
The Smiths decline to be interviewed, so there is no way to determine whether they would agree with Gelb’s assessment. Nor do they appear to have taken any of their neighbors into their confidence. So the mystery endures, and Wheeler Springs remains padlocked.
“It’s like a chess game,” April Hope said. “Everybody’s waiting to see how it plays out.”
Wheeler Springs Hopes Eternal
The highway sign is still there at the Y, but it tells a lie: Wheeler Springs is not really six miles away. For all practical purposes, there’s nothing there.
“It would be fantastic for Ojai if that thing came back to life,” Sharon MaHarry said. “People would come from all over, as they once did.”
To Barbara Bowman, the solution is clear: The county should ease up and work with Wheeler’s owners, “rather than putting stumbling blocks in the way.” She points to the Ojai Valley Inn, the town’s biggest employer and a magnet for visitors who spur the local economy. “That’s a huge draw for Ojai,” she notes. “We could use another one like it.”
Wheeler Hot Springs “could be an outstanding destination point,” she said. “It was a big draw in our day, and Ojai is much more famous now.”
But Julie Tumamait- Stenslie recoils from the idea of a Wheeler aimed at upscale out-of-towners. That would price out the locals. “Make it a place where anyone can come,” she said. “Build something that is actually community based and a healing center that can actually benefit people.”
If that sounds impractical, she said, then consider Wheeler’s track record: In recent decades, owner after owner has tried to turn the place into a full-fledged resort of one kind or another, and all have failed. “There it sits, with nothing going on. There’s something there that prevents it from becoming a 5-star place or a 4-star place.”
There’s also something there that keeps tempting new owners to try their luck, despite the history. Even if Gelb and the Smiths end up falling short, someone else will surely pick up the dice. Eventually, someone might even succeed in reopening the place. Then all the old Wheeler Springs regulars would come out of the woodwork and head up Highway 33, eager to reconnect with whatever it is that makes the resort special. Even after a 14-year hiatus, Wheeler still exerts its pull. Were it to reopen tomorrow, von Wiesenberger said, “I’d be coming back up there next week.”