Intangible Spirit of The Ojai (No. 1)

The following article first appeared in a newspaper on November 22, 1961 that, eventually, became the “Ojai Valley News”. It is reprinted here with the permission of the “Ojai Valley News”. The author is Ed Wenig. Wenig wrote a series titled “Intangible Spirit of The Ojai”, but failed to title each of his articles in the series. So the “Ojai Valley Museum” has added “(No. 1)” to the title.

Intangible Spirit of The Ojai (No. 1)
Ed Wenig

Little six year-old Rudolfo Reyes desperately clung behind his brother Pedro as they rode in a long pack train to their Cuyama home. The year was 1894. Don Rafael Reyes, his wife Maria and their 10 children, all on horseback with a long string of pack animals, were wending their way from Ventura to the Matilija Canyon, up the north fork to Cherry Creek, then over hill and dale to the adobe ranch home. This trail was the only way to reach their destination from Ventura. The present highway was not a reality until the early thirties.

On the large cattle ranch Rudolfo’s older brothers had the exciting job of herding and branding cattle in the spring and fall roundups. Of course, branding in those days consisted of the time-honored method of roping, throwing to the ground, tying, and applying the branding iron to the struggling beast — a far cry from the modern use of the narrowing corral and the chute with the animal locked in fore and aft. Vaqueros from neighboring ranches helped each other. Rudolfo had the original branding iron, in the shape of a wine glass, and also the original registration papers issued to his father, Don Rafael, in 1858.

RUDOLFO REYES — Cuyama Vaquero ready to hang up his saddle after 40 years as a cattleman.

All the hardships of the early California pioneers were part of the isolated Reyes Rancho, even into the early part of this century. With only a trail over the mountains to Ventura, and a rough and tortuous wagon road to Bakersfield, acquiring the necessities of life and the care of the sick were a problem. The round trip to Bakersfield by wagon to bring 40 sacks of flour took three or more days.

As in the case of most of the old early California ranches, the latch string was always out for strangers who often stayed overnight. Good and bad people were welcome, with no questions asked. Says Rudolfo: “Once a man working for my father turned out to be an outlaw who had killed several men. When he heard “the law” was after him, he climbed up into the attic of the old adobe. Here he waited as the officers came in. His guns were at “the ready” as they searched the ranch. The officers went away and the outlaw skipped out!”

Tarra the Roller Skating Elephant

Tarra the Roller Skating Elephant by Craig Walker

Ojai has had many unusual residents over the years that have brought the attention of the outside world to our little valley. Recently, “Earth Friend Gen” got a lot of attention by stripping down to nearly nothing and roller skating through Ojai. But “Earth Friend Gen” was not the first resident to bring fame to Ojai by roller skating naked around town. That honor goes to a talented pachyderm named Tarra who, along with her owner-trainer Carol Buckley, lived in Matilija Canyon during the late 1970s and early 80s.

Tarra starred in “Little House on the Prairie”.

Tarra and Carol met in Simi Valley in 1974 when Tarra was less than one year old. Carol was a student in the Moorpark College animal training program and Tarra had just arrived from Burma. They soon became a much sought after performing team and moved to Berry Flats, up Matilija Canyon, in 1979. For ten years Tarra, Carol and a host of adopted family members, including dogs, goats, cats, birds — and for a short time a horse and a mule — made up Tarra’s family.

Matilija Lake, the Ventura River, and surrounding wilderness were Tarra’s playground.

Tarra, the world’s only roller skating elephant.

Soon after moving to Ojai, Tarra became the world’s only roller skating elephant. Her celebrity took her around the world, always with Carol and her family in tow.

Many Ojai residents who grew up in the 1980s reminisced about Tarra on Facebook recently. Matt Meiners posted, “Remember the show ‘Real People’? Tara was on that show once. Tara lived in Matilija Canyon. One time (about 1985-6) we were driving up Matilija canyon Rd, (That steep hill off Hwy 33), and Tara was skating DOWN that hill!! There were 3-4 guys on horses with ropes holding her back…it freaked me out as I turned the corner…”LOOK, there’s an elephant on roller skates coming down the hill!!”

Betsy Michaels remembered seeing Tarra roller skating in the Ojai Independence Day Parade. Elyse Dashew added, “I think she was on the Academy Awards once, too. We would occasionally see her rollerskating down the street. One of my many Ojai fond memories.”

Ruben Duarte wrote, “I drove by in my truck on Main St. and saw [Tarra] in Libbey Park; I could hardly believe my eyes! haha”

Tarra and Carol in Matilija Canyon.

Tarra and Carol left Ojai in the late 1980s. In 1991, Tarra was successfully bred in Ontario, Canada, but at the end of a two-year pregnancy, Tarra delivered a stillborn calf.

In 1995 Tarra retired from entertaining audiences. She gave up roller skating, but continued with another hobby–painting. Tara’s original watercolors have been featured in exhibitions around the world and now hang in many zoos across the country.

To give Tarra and other elephants a home, Carol created the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. Carol, the elephant’s lifetime companion and guardian, gave Tarra full credit as the inspiration for the Sanctuary.

According to Carol, “Life was like a fairytale, with 23 elephants joining Tarra over the next fifteen years. Tarra thrived, developing close bonds with her sister elephants, caregivers and one special stray dog named Bella. These two became inseparable.” The relationship between Tarra and Bella was covered extensively in the media, including a CBS special with Katie Couric.

Tarra the artist.

In 2009 a power shift at the Sanctuary resulted in Carol being fired and denied access to Tarra.

Recently, tragedy struck again when Tarra’s dear dog Bella was killed by a pack of canines. Tarra struggles to deal with her loss.

Today the Sanctuary Board still refuses to allow Carol to visit Tarra, leaving Tarra to wonder whether her oldest friend has abandoned her.

Carol hopes that this will not be the end of the story. Tarra and Carol have shared a relationship like no other, nearly four decades of love and support. Carol wishes only that she would be allowed to see and comfort her dear Tarra in her time of need.

Tarra and Bella

After being ousted from the Sanctuary, Carol founded Elephant Aid International to help needy elephants worldwide.

The award winning children’s books, Tarra and Bella, the elephant and dog who became best friends, and Travels with Tarra, both authored by Carol, are for sale on her web site

Further information about Tarra and Carol can be found at Carol Buckley’s website,, and the Elephant Sanctuary’s website:

Matilija Dam

Matilija and Casitas Dams by Patty Fry

The Valley’s rising population in the 1930s and 40s increased the demand for water. That demand was also evident in Ventura and in 1944, an act of the legislature formed the Ventura County Flood Control District. They employed Donald R. Warren as consulting engineer to evaluate the local water situation and he recommended a $3 million bond issue to construct a dam in the Matilija Canyon and another on Coyote Creek.

Under Construction 1946-47

[Construction began in June, 1946.] The Matilija Dam project met with major problems. Unexpected delays, rising costs and heavy criticism plagued the job. Clay began oozing from under the dam foundation in Matilija Canyon, and the carpenters walked out. The dam was eventually deemed unsafe and a lawsuit against the engineering firm ensued. This proved to be a very costly decision.

Under Construction 1946-47

Finally, despite all of these adversities, the site was judged safe and the workers completed the Matilija Dam in June, 1948. But the beautiful new dam stood embarrassingly empty for three years, as a severe drought was in progress. There wasn’t enough rain during that time to make more than a mud hole of the huge reservoir and that is what water customers were getting–mud. Finally, during the winter of 1951, a storm produced enough rain to fill the reservoir to capacity and the first spill occurred the following January [1952]. Conduit pipe carried water to the spreading grounds near the mouth of Senior Canyon at a rate of 1,350 gallons per minute. This water percolated into the ground and helped replenish the wells below.

First Spillover 1952

By March, 1952, 44,960 acre-feet of water had been lost over the Matilija dam spillway to the ocean. It was evident that a larger facility was necessary, especially when considering the long-range water picture. In the meantime, geologists tested a dam site at Coyote Creek. A possible fault caused the project to be canceled, but after further investigation, this decision was reversed. Consultants for the flood control district recommended a 90,000 acre-foot reservoir on Coyote Creek to stop the Matilija overflow, and the project was approved.

Lake Matilija

The Federal Bureau of Reclamation completed Casitas Dam in 1959. …Casitas Municipal Water District presently operates Matilija Dam, which is owned by the Ventura County Flood Control District. No water is served to customers from this source. Lake Matilija is used primarily to store water during flood periods for later transfer to Lake Casitas.

The above is excerpted from Patty Fry’s book The Ojai Valley: An Illustrated History. The book was updated in 2017 by Elise DePuydt and Craig Walker. It is available in the museum’s store and through