The Meaning of Ojai Day

The Meaning of Ojai Day, by Mark Lewis

Reprinted from The Ojai Quarterly

Downtown Ojai in 1920s. Courtesy Ojai Valley Museum

Ojai Day celebrates the 1917 transformation of Ojai from a dusty, ramshackle collection of old West shops into unified design of public architecture and parks, with converging perspectives of arches and towers. What inspired Edward Libbey to transform Ojai into an architectural jewel? Mark Lewis interviewed Craig Walker, who revived the Ojai Day celebration in 1991, for this in-depth look at the origins of Ojai Day. Craig traces the impetus to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, an epochal event that launched the City Beautiful Movement, made Libbey a vast fortune and introduced him to Mission Revival architecture.

The original plan was to call it Libbey Day, to honor the man who had transformed the dusty, dowdy, backwater burg of Nordhoff into the model Mission Revival village of Ojai. But Edward Drummond Libbey was having none of it. He was proud of his role as Ojai’s guardian angel, but he preferred to celebrate the town itself on the occasion of its rechristening, rather than focus on his role in the process. As usual, Libbey got his way. And so, on April 7, 1917, some 2,000 people crammed themselves into the town’s brand-new Civic Park to celebrate Ojai Day.

“We are celebrating here today the fulfillment of a conception,” Libbey told the crowd. On every side stood examples of his handiwork: The Arcade, the Pergola and the Post Office Tower, all immaculately sheathed in sparkling white stucco or plaster.

“There has been too little attention paid to things aesthetic in our communities and in our homes,” Libbey said. “The time has come when we should encourage in ourselves thoughts of things beautiful, and the higher ideals which art encourages and promotes must awaken in the people the fostering of the love of that which is beautiful and inspiring. We must today decry with contempt and aversion all that is cheap, vulgar and degrading.”

That night the new buildings were illuminated with white light, rendering them incandescent. The effect must have reminded some onlookers of similar illuminations they had witnessed at the Panama-California Exposition, a world’s fair of sorts that had just closed on January 1, after a successful two-year run in San Diego’s Balboa Park.

Looking back at these events across a distance of 95 years, it seems clear that Libbey’s Ojai project was heavily influenced by the San Diego fair. The Panama-California Exposition had popularized the new Spanish Colonial Revival style, a baroque offshoot of the Mission style and Ojai’s Post Office Tower would have looked right at home in Balboa Park. But one local history maven, Craig Walker, traces Libbey’s original inspiration further back, to an earlier world’s fair: Chicago’s legendary World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, better known as the White City.

White City at 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Photo: Chicago History Museum Collection

The Chicago fair had an enormous impact, and still lingers in the national memory. It is the subject of Erik Larson’s hugely popular nonfiction book The Devil in the White City, first published in 2004 and still going strong on the paperback bestseller lists almost a decade later. The book focuses on a serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, the eponymous “Devil” of Larson’s title, who preyed upon fairgoers. But for most people who visited the White City, it looked more like heaven than hell.

It was there, on the shore of Lake Michigan, that Edward Libbey witnessed a testing of the hypothesis he would propagate in Ojai two decades later: that beautiful buildings inspire people to become better citizens. To judge by Chicago’s less-than-sterling reputation over the years as a bastion of civic virtue, the original experiment was rather a bust. Ojai would turn out to be a different story.


The World’s Columbian Exposition originally was scheduled to open in 1892, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the New World. But its organizers got carried away. Led by the architect Daniel Burnham, they turned the fair into an epic celebration of modern America and its apparently limitless potential. “Make no little plans,” Burnham famously said; “They have no magic to stir men’s blood, and probably themselves will not be realized.”

Big plans take time to develop. As a result, the fair did not open until May 1893. But it was worth the wait. Burnham & Co. had built an entire model city in Jackson Park. This was in effect a Hollywood set, made up of temporary buildings molded out of a kind of stucco and painted white to look like marble. Nevertheless, the effect was stunning especially at night, when they were bathed in electric light. Collectively they comprised the White City, and people looked upon them in wonder.

Some 27 million people visited the fair that year, the equivalent of a third of the country’s population. Among them was the future author L. Frank Baum, for whom the White City would serve as the model for the Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Another onlooker was Elias Disney, a carpenter who had helped to build the White City; his son Walt would one day build his own White City in Anaheim and call it Disneyland. Even the notoriously cynical historian Henry Adams was impressed with what Burnham had wrought.

“Chicago in 1893 asked for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving,” Adams later wrote. The answer was still unclear, but at least the question was framed intelligently. The White City, Adams wrote, “was the first expression of American thought as a unity; one must start there.”

All sorts of people beat a path to Chicago in 1893, including the theosophist Annie Besant, who was on her way from Britain to India. She stopped off in Chicago long enough to attend the fair’s Parliament of Religions, during which Swami Vivekananda introduced America (and the West in general) to Vedanta and yoga. Such epochal goings-on were routine at the Chicago World’s Fair, which also introduced America to the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack candy and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. But its most far-reaching legacy was the City Beautiful Movement, which the White City embodied.

“The industrial cities of the 1870s and ’80s had little planning “they evolved as crowded, ugly, haphazard affairs,” Craig Walker said. Burnham built the White City to show that there was a better way. “The belief was that cities built as a unified, planned development, with beautiful public buildings and parks, would inspire civic pride and moral virtues that would bring social reform,” Walker said. “The exposition was the blueprint for modern America; it had a major influence on art, architecture, city planning, business and industry.”

Ah yes, business and industry. The exposition was not entirely about art and moral uplift. Commerce also was highlighted, and many manufacturers built exhibits to showcase their wares. Among them was a certain glass manufacturer from Toledo, who saw the fair as his chance to hit the big time.

Edward Drummond Libbey was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1854. He followed his father into the glass business and by 1892 was the head of Libbey Glass. The firm had moved in 1888 from New England to Ohio, where it struggled for a few years before finding its footing. Now Libbey saw the World’s Columbian Exposition as opportunity to establish his firm as the premier national brand for high-quality cut glass tableware. But his board of directors balked at investing big bucks to build a first-class exhibit. So Libbey borrowed the money himself and built it anyway. It was a full-scale glass factory situated on the Midway Plaisance, west of the fairgrounds proper. Libbey’s gamble paid off: The Libbey Glass pavilion was a huge success with fairgoers.

Libbey spent a lot of the time at the fair, living above the store, so to speak, in an apartment built into the pavilion’s second floor. The building was located half a mile east of the Ferris Wheel and just short walk west from Stony Island Avenue. On the other side of the avenue lay the shimmering White City.

Most of the fair’s buildings showcased the neo-classical Beaux Arts style, which America’s leading architects had studied in Paris. Among the more notable exceptions was the California Building, which stood less than a quarter of a mile away from the Libbey Glass exhibit. Paris had never seen its like. Nor had Chicago, for that matter. The California Building introduced America, and Edward Libbey, to a new architectural style called Mission Revival.


California had not always celebrated its Mission Era heritage. After the gold rush petered out, the state’s boosters needed to give people from back East a different reason to migrate west, and California’s Spanish and Mexican heritage did not seem like a selling point for white Protestant Americans. On the contrary, the state’s boosters feared that all those Spanish-style churches and forts made California seem too foreign and too Catholic. “From the 1840s to the early 1880s, the American immigrants did everything they could to eradicate the state’s Old World Spanish architecture,” Craig Walker said. “The missions and presidios were abandoned and destroyed.”

Casting about for a viable marketing angle, California’s railroad barons brought in the travel writer Charles Nordhoff to publicize the state’s natural beauty and healthy climate. Nordhoff hit the mark with his book California for Health, Pleasure and Residence (1872), an enormous success that induced thousands of Americans to move west. Some of them ended up in the sparsely Ojai Valley, where a real estate promoter named Royce Surdam was promoting a new town site. The settlers decided to name this town Nordhoff, to honor the man whose book had lured so many of them to California.

Nordhoff’s founders took no cues from the few remaining adobe structures they encountered in the vicinity. Their new town was built out of wood, and looked like it had been plucked from Kansas or Iowa and replanted in the Ojai Valley. But not every visitor from the East was averse to adobe. When the author Helen Hunt Jackson passed through Ventura County in 1882, she ignored Nordhoff but made a point of lingering in Rancho Camulo, a Spanish-style ranch near the present-day town of Piru. Rancho Camulo served Jackson as a model setting for Ramona (1884), her melodramatic novel about a young Indian woman who lives on a California ranch during the early years of statehood.

Ramona changed everything. A runaway bestseller, it sparked a national fascination with California’s Mission Era. The state’s boosters reversed course and embraced the old missions as iconic symbols of a romantic (and mostly spurious) past. “They just rode this Ramona thing,” Walker said. In the end, Jackson’s book lured even more people to California than Charles Nordhoff’s had.

Meanwhile, California architects concocted the Mission Revival style to create new buildings that harked back to the period in which Ramona was set. Naturally, when it came time to design a California exhibit building for the World’s Columbian Exposition, state officials chose a Mission Revival motif. The California Building was hardly the first example of this new style, but it was the first one to win nationwide acclaim. It made a big splash at the fair.

“It really was the building that got America’s attention,” Walker said.

Did it get Edward Libbey’s attention? He could hardly have missed it, given its close proximity to the Libbey Glass pavilion. Was he impressed? There is no way of knowing. All one can say with confidence is that Ojai’s future benefactor first encountered the Mission Revival style in Chicago in 1893.

The World’s Columbian Exposition also put Libbey on the path to extraordinary wealth, due to the success of his glass-making exhibit. “His whole glass empire just took off,” Walker said. “It propelled him to the top of America’s glass manufacturers, and he became one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country.”

And, crucially, the fair exposed Libbey to the full effect of the City Beautiful Movement. Before long he began applying its precepts to Toledo, where in 1901 he co-founded the Toledo Museum of Art. But Toledo turned out to be too big a city for one man to beautify. Libbey continued to support the museum, but he spent more and more of his time in Southern California. In 1908 he discovered Nordhoff, and built himself a winter home high up on Foothill Road. He loved the valley’s climate and mountain scenery, but was less impressed by its tacky architecture. Eventually, it occurred to him that Nordhoff, too, could benefit from the Libbey touch.


The town of Nordhoff before Mr. Libbey’s improvements.


Nordhoff’s ramshackle business district did not amount to much: a forgettable stretch of uninspired wooden storefronts, indistinguishable from a thousand other hick towns languishing in the boondocks. In short, Nordhoff was homely. Libbey had a remedy. He had internalized the great lesson of Chicago, which was that art and human progress were inextricably linked. And among the arts, architecture was especially effective at creating a physical context for uplift. What had been true of Athens and Rome could become true of Nordhoff: Beautiful buildings would inspire civic virtue among the inhabitants, and make the town a better place in every sense. In April 1914, Libbey called a meeting of Nordoff’s leading citizens to offer a suggestion: They should essentially scrap the town they had, and build a new one.

“Make no little plans!” That was Daniel Burnham’s advice to the city planners of America, and it was Edward Libbey’s advice to the burghers of Nordhoff. His wildly ambitious proposal evidently stirred the blood of every man at that meeting, for they voted unanimously to embrace it. Why would they not, given that Libbey and his rich friends would provide most of the funds? And so the great experiment began.

There were still a few details to fill in. First and foremost, who would be Libbey’s architect, and what style would he employ? The choice ultimately fell upon Richard Requa of San Diego, whose firm, Mead and Requa, did some work for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. Libbey evidently visited the San Diego fair, was impressed by its Spanish Colonial Revival motif, and hired Requa to create something similar in Nordhoff.

But the sequence of events suggests that Libbey already had settled on the Mission style for Nordhoff, well before he ever set foot in Balboa Park. After all, he had been familiar with the style at least since 1893, when he first clapped eyes on the California Building at the Chicago World’s Fair. And he no doubt had admired the Thacher School’s administration building, a Mission-style structure built in 1911. Significantly, the first major new building erected in Nordhoff in the immediate aftermath of that April 1914 meeting was a Mission-style movie theater, the Isis. (It’s still there, almost a century later, only now it’s called the Ojai Playhouse.) Given the town’s enthusiastic embrace of Libbey’s plan, it seems most unlikely that someone would have built a major new building in the downtown district without first vetting the design with the man from Toledo.

Libbey did have other architectural choices. The most impressive-looking building in downtown Nordhoff in 1914 was the Ojai State Bank, a stately brick pile in the neoclassical mode, complete with Doric columns. Theoretically, Libbey could have put up a neoclassical village to match the bank. But that would have looked bizarre, given the region’s historical context. The closest points of reference were Ventura and Santa Barbara, each of which dated back to the Mission Era and boasted an authentic mission building. Mission Revival was the obvious choice for Nordhoff. It seems likely that Libbey had made that decision even before he called that meeting.

Libbey of course was no architect. He left the design details to Requa, who used a mixture of Mission style (e.g., the Arcade) and Spanish Colonial Revival style (the Post Office Tower) to bring Libbey’s vision to life. Meanwhile, in March 1917, the town completed its Ramona makeover by changing its name to Ojai. Now it had a Spanish-sounding name to complement its new look. (The name, like the architecture, is not actually Spanish; it’s derived from the name of one of the Chumash Indian villages that once dotted the valley.) Thus it was Ojai Day, rather than Nordhoff Day, that the town celebrated a few weeks later on April 7.

At the opening ceremony, Libbey handed the deed to Civic Park to Sherman Day Thacher, who accepted it on behalf of the newly formed Ojai Civic Association. A reporter for The Ojai newspaper recorded Libbey’s speech, an earnest paean to the power of art:

“Art is but visualized idealism, and is expressed in all surroundings and conditions of society,” he told the crowd. “From the earliest age to the present time, art has been to the races of men one of the greatest incentives toward progress, refinement and the aesthetic missionary to the peoples of the world.”

Did the townspeople take Libbey seriously, with all his high-falutin’ rhetoric about Greece and Rome and beauty and virtue? Relatively few people in the crowd knew him well. He was only a part-time resident, after all. But clearly he was sincere, and most of his listeners were grateful that he had taken Ojai under his wing. Heads nodded in agreement as he launched into his peroration:

“Thus we are today celebrating, in the expression of this little example of Spanish architecture in Ojai Park, a culmination of an idea and the response to that spark of idealism which demands from us a resolution to cultivate, encourage and promote those things which go to make the beautiful in life, and bring to all happiness and pleasure.”

The crowd gave Libbey a huge ovation. And then the party began.

“Last Saturday a new epoch in the social and industrial life of the rejuvenated and resuscitated ancient Nordhoff, under a new title and new conditions, was ushered in and welcomed with joyous acclaim and much felicitation,” The Ojai reported in its next issue. “It was the most memorable day in the history of the Valley. New life, new ambitions and greater accomplishments will date from April 7, 1917.”


Ojai Day was not celebrated in 1918, due to America’s participation in World War I. But it returned in 1919 and became an annual event, as Libbey’s influence provided the town with more new buildings to celebrate: The St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel (now the Ojai Valley Museum) in 1918, the El Roblar Hotel (now the Oaks at Ojai) in 1920, the Ojai Valley School in 1923, the original Ojai Valley Inn clubhouse in 1924. Then Libbey died in 1925. The town continued to celebrate Ojai Day until at least 1928, but at some point after that, the tradition was abandoned.

The buildings, of course, remained. But as the decades passed, some of them fell into disrepair. The original Pergola was demolished in 1971, the same year Civic Park was renamed Libbey Park. “And we almost lost the Arcade in 1989,” Walker said.

Walker is a retired Nordhoff High School history teacher and an expert on the valley’s architectural history. (He inherited some of that expertise from his late father, the noted architect and longtime Ojai resident Rodney Walker.) He was a member of the citizens group that saved the Arcade, by raising funds to refurbish it and bring it up to code. In the wake of that effort, Walker led a move to bring back Ojai Day. The event was revived in 1991, and now is celebrated each year on the third Saturday of October.

Craig Walker. Photo: Raijmakers Photography

Walker also was among the people who brought back the Pergola in 1999. As a member of the Ojai Valley Museum board, he continues to lend his expertise to the museum’s projects. It was while researching a talk about Ojai architecture that Walker learned that Libbey had been an exhibitor at the World’s Columbian Exposition, where he would have been exposed to both the Mission Revival style and the City Beautiful Movement. Walker already was familiar with Libbey’s Ojai Day speech from 1917, but now he viewed those words in a new light.

“The words just echoed the real heart of what the City Beautiful Movement was all about,” Walker said. “On that day in 1917, the architectural and social ideals of the World’s Columbian Exposition were expressed in a beautiful new civic center that was created by a man who owed his own success in large part to that same Chicago exposition.”

Did Libbey achieve his dream for Ojai? Certainly his influence on the look of the town has been enormous. Walker points to all the beautiful Mission- or Spanish-style buildings that other people erected in the valley after Libbey worked his magic downtown. These include the Krotona Institute of Theosophy, Villanova Preparatory School, the Ojai Presbyterian Church, the Ojai Unified School District headquarters (formerly Ojai Elementary), the Chaparral Auditorium, and many, many others.

But an Ojai building need not be Mission style or Spanish style to reflect Libbey’s legacy; it need only be beautiful. Nor is his influence limited to architecture. Today the town is known as a mecca for artists, and Libbey, in a sense, was their prophet. He called for the community to pay more attention “to things aesthetic,” and his call has been heeded.

“It all goes to show, first of all, that one man can make a difference,” Walker said. “Libbey’s ideas must have infected the people of Ojai.”

In one way, Libbey outdid Daniel Burnham. The glorious White City burned down in 1894; only one of its buildings remains standing in Jackson Park. But Libbey’s buildings still stand along Ojai Avenue, and still perform their intended function. Burnham’s lost masterpiece was a blueprint for future cities that were never built, except, perhaps, by L. Frank Baum and Walt Disney. But the Emerald City is imaginary, and Disneyland is a theme park. Ojai is a real town, where people live. If today Ojai prides itself on its beauty and on its highly developed sense of civic virtue, then much of the credit must go to Edward Drummond Libbey, who set out to build a better town, and succeeded.

“I think it helped people realize that they live in someplace special,” Walker said. “This was Libbey’s stated intention “to inspire people to these higher ideals of civic involvement. One could say that his intention has been borne out.”

(Originally published in the Ojai Quarterly’s Fall 2012 issue. Republished with permission.)

Our Town: Helen Baker Reynolds (Part V) “School”

Helen Baker Reynolds (Part V) by Ed Wenig

[This week we quote from the chapter School, in the book “Family Album” by Helen Baker Reynolds.]

Norhoff Grammar School, where Miss Baker went to school.

“The grammar school stood just across the road, opposite our side gate. It was a drab, square, two-story building, topped with a cupola housing the school bell, and with two out-houses behind it.

“The schoolyard of hard adobe soil was bare except for one large oak and some pepper tress next to the road, which the girls and the younger children congregated at recess and played tag or drop-the-handkerchief. There also in the spring we played marbles. The marble games were segregated according to sex, since the boys scorned competition with the girls, we being, of course, inferior.

“Playing for ‘keeps’ was forbidden; it was a form of gambling. The ‘bad’ boys sometimes broke the rules,at least, so we suspected. Their ‘smart-alec’ talk about the aggies changing hands was calculated to be not loud enough for a teacher to overhear but audible to the girls nearby, who presumably would be vastly impressed by the enormity of the sin.

“Baseball was the boys’ year-round sport. It was played in the bare yard on the other side of the school, participants daring to slide into base would return at the sound of the school bell, grimy with mud or with dust, according to the season. Because of this invariable result, sliding to base was forbidden. Those who were known to have broken the rule were kept in after school. The crime was not quite bad enough to merit the rawhide strap, but it gave a boy a high standing among his fellows. If often enough, he became an athletic hero.

“I hated school. The freedom of my earlier childhood made long confinement irksome, and the gentle propriety of our home had prepared me not at all for meeting the tough-and-tumble elements which, in our grammar school at that time set the predominant tone.

“On the walls of the outhouse words were scrawled which to me were unfamiliar but which I suspected, with good reason, were simply not nice at all, and some of the children often would giggle at things that made me blush.

“Most of the boys I considered dreadful. They were always yelling and pushing and starting fights in the schoolyard, whereupon Mr. Egerton, the principal, would haul them into the ante room where hung the rawhide strap.

“Mr. Egerton and his rawhide strap assumed in my mind an almost nightmarish quality. Actually he was a virtuous man and a conscientious principal. Toward me he was never harsh. I was even known as Egerton’s pet, being one of the minority who did the assigned homework and more often than not obeyed the rules. I knew at the time that I really ought not to harbor dislike of the principal, but the feeling of aversion persisted nevertheless. It may have been due to my inherent and home-instilled horror of violence, and Mr. Egerton, thanks to a host of obstreperous boys, seemed forever engaged in violence of the rawhide strap variety.

“Slight misdemeanors rated knuckle raps with the ruler; more serious offenses, the rawhide. He would collar the culprit and lead or drag him into the anteroom, from whence would issue horrifying sounds. Most of the boys in the schoolroom and even some of the girls would titter, a few of the boys of the bolder sort letting loose subdued guffaws, but the ‘nice’ girls would look distressed and would try their best not to listen.

“Friday afternoons after recess the whole school had an hour of singing in the assembly hall. Miss Reppy, who taught the primary grades (the one teacher whom the children loved) played the piano accompaniment, and Miss Shaw beat time for our singing, while Mr. Egerton stalked about, keeping order, ruler in hand.

[Editors Note: Mrs. Reynolds entered Nordhoff High School the year it was opened.]

“An excellent faculty had been procured, headed by Mr. Bristol, a competent, scholarly man. The community’s pride in its new school, and the spirit of the teachers, were reflected in the attitude of the 55 students, most of whom were entering high school with more or less serious purpose.

“I loved the school. With ambition and enthusiasm I proceeded to make straight A’s. Every month when I brought home a perfect report card, Father would smile his approval. I never knew at the time, however, what lay behind his invariable remark: “That’s just fine, Helen. That’s just fine. Mother, this little girl is doing all right. Yes, sir, the Ojai Valley is the Best Place in the World.”

The Intangible Spirit of the Ojai, by Ed Wenig

Our Town: Helen Baker Reynolds (Part III) “Days Ritual”

Helen Baker Reynolds (Part III) by Ed Wenig

This is the third in a series of articles consisting of quotations from passages in Helen Baker Reynold’s book, “Family Album”. The Following is from the chapter, Day’s Ritual.

Our household was a smug little world. Father was its Absolute Monarch, whose cardinal principle in dealing with children was “No Talking Back”. Mother’s cardinal principle was taken from the Bible: “Little Children, Love One Another.” If Father was Absolute Monarch, Mother was High Priestess. Between the two of them the family’s world rode its orbit with the exactitude of any heavenly body.

Breakfast was at seven o’clock. Actually the daily routine was not nearly so arduous as to demand such early hours, but, regarding the principle involved, Father was adamant. To lie abed after six o’clock was, in his judgment, slothful, and his own father always had said, “A slothful man is a sinful man.” So that was that.

Breakfast was the opening Trumpet blast introducing the daily rituals. As we assembled in the sitting room, each greeting the other with a “Good Morning!” which must ring with loving kindness (otherwise Mother would be grieved), Esing (the Chinese servant) would thrust his head in at the door, announcing “Blekfassy he alledy.”

“Good morning, Esing!” we would chorus, and all would troop into the dining room.

Along the sides of the table, with Father and Mother at the two ends, would be ranged as many of the seven children as were not away at school: also Grandmother and usually some visiting relatives or one of the old family friends who came to live with us from time to time. Seldom fewer than seven and more often nine or ten would be seated at the table.

The casual in-and-out breakfast of today, the fast consuming of coffee and toast behind sections of the morning paper, was unknown in our home. Our parents would have thought it rude and unseemly and from the standpoint of nourishment shamefully inadequate.

Breakfast with us was a ritual the pattern of which never varied. It began with a long and fervent “blessing” pronounced by Mother, while we sat with bowed heads. Mother’s blessings were not mere murmured formalities. She went before the Throne of God and took her family with her, earnestly thankful for favors received, leading us willy-nilly, into a day of Christian Goodness.

Our regular fare for breakfast included cooked cereal, bacon, eggs, steak, potatoes, two or three kinds of hot bread, fruit, jam and jelly, and a large assortment of breakfast drinks. Calorie counting was unknown. To be fat was to be healthy. Fortunately obesity did not run in our family.

Breakfast lasted for nearly an hour. It was a time for conversation. Conversation abounded at all of our meals, Esing often joining in. “In Chiny,” he would say from the kitchen doorway, balancing a tray on the palm of his hand and squinting his eyes to slits, “in Chiny we no do sings like you do”. Then he would hold forth on Chinese customs, while we listened with respect. Father sometimes would laugh tolerantly, as if humoring a child, but we young people were taught to be very respectful to servants. Mother never used the word “servant” except in the general sense. A household worker she called “Our Helper”. This was an affectation on her part; it was natural to her, expressing her Christianity.

There were duties for everyone after breakfast. Father would have had the boys up at five-thirty for the early-morning chores, but girls were accorded consideration on account of being delicate.

Of my sisters’ morning assignments the two most dreaded were cleaning and filling the coal oil lamps, a sooty, smelly job and (even worse) servicing the chamber pots. Not until I was ten years old did we have an indoor toilet. For several years after the modern fixture was available and installed in most “good homes,” Father held out against the innovation. His contention was that the things wouldn’t work; hence, they would be unsanitary. Only after one in an outdoor privy had proven its competence beyond the shadow of a doubt was he finally induced to assume the risk of having them inside. Meanwhile he saw nothing unsanitary about the chamber pot. It was time-honored; therefore, it was right.

Most of the routine of cleaning and tidying was done by my mother and sisters. Esing did the entire family laundry, with boilers steaming on the wood stove in the “wash house” outside the kitchen. I always found it fascinating to watch him sprinkle the clothes before ironing. He would fill his mouth with water, then blow in a fine spray. Mother had forbidden this unsanitary method and had shown him how to sprinkle with a whisk broom. Accordingly, Esing kept the whisk broom at hand to use when he heard Mother’s quick, light step approaching. At other times he went back to his own technique. Cheeks bulging, squirrel-like, he would blow out a spray so fine as to be no more than a mist. Between mouthfuls of water he would look at me, who stood watching him, wide-eyed, and would squint his almond eyes to slits with a mischievous, conspiratorial smile. Once in a while he would say to me, “You no tell your mudda.” This admonition always made me feel guilty, for deceiving one’s mother was wicked. I never did make a report, however.

The Intangible Spirit of the Ojai, by Ed Wenig

Our Town, Part 2-Social Life in Early Nordhoff

Our Town, Part 2 by Helen Baker Reynolds

Among the valley’s residents even in earlier times were families whose interests were not provincial. A reading club and a Chautauqua group had been formed for the purpose of study, and when mother started a Shakespeare Club it too became a focus of studious effort. The members even, from time to time, enacted Shakespearean plays. Mother, herself, in the role of Lady Macbeth, attained a degree of local acclaim. She was troubled by the necessity of saying, “Out, damned spot,” but salved her conscience by saying “damned” very quickly and almost inaudibly.

A center of community life was our Presbyterian church. Unimposing in design, it was nevertheless a joy to the eye because of the masses of climbing roses that transformed it into a bower. It stood cat-a-corner from our front gate and across from the grammar school. Church bells and school bells punctuated our days, and both rang out in the event of a fire.

In addition to regular Sunday services, many other worthy activities were centered on sound local charities: the Ladies’ Missionary Society; and a local branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. All I remember about the WCTU is that each member wore a small white ribbon bow pinned to the front of her dress, and the Ojai group sometimes sponsored a program denouncing the Evils of Drink.

Besides church and temperance and study club activities, there were other events of importance scattered throughout the year. In very early times just before the turn of the century a festive event for the young social group had been an all-day tally-ho ride around the “Triangle” to Ventura, to Santa Paula, and return. Mrs. Lord’s musicales had become quite a social feature. Mrs. Lord was our teacher of music and one who would have graced the life of any larger community. She maintained and developed her own technique as a versatile musician while giving devoted care to her family and inspired instruction to pupils.

Mrs. Lord’s classes and her recitals enriched the simple life of our valley. (Editor note: Mrs. Lord’s daughter, Agnes Gally, carries on the family tradition today, as a violinist in the Ventura County Symphony and a local string quartet.)

An afternoon tea at the Thacher school was always a gracious event, and once every year the school invited the whole valley to a reception. In the era of taffeta petticoats there would be a great deal of rustling, and the white kid gloves were everywhere in evidence. Children attending with their parents would be starched and scrubbed and on such good behavior to be almost unrecognizable. Madam Thacher, as she was always called (the mother of the headmaster) presided at all such affairs with the utmost charm and dignity. Whenever I would be led up to greet her I would have the dazzled sensation of being presented at court.

The Tournament was a tremendous event in our otherwise quiet valley. Flowers lent an added note of gaiety; backstops and grandstands were bedecked with massive bunches of lupine and California poppies.

On Saturday evening at the close of the tournament, the Thacher school held a dance. When I was a child, no one from our family attended these festive gathering, for mother disapproved of dancing. Later, when I was in high school, I questioned mother about her scruples with a good deal of tearful emotion. Why was the dancing wrong, I wanted to know? How about mother’s own Grandmother Day, who danced the mazurka so beautifully?

Mother was sympathetic. She was not forbidding me to dance, she explained; I might dance if I thought it was right. But she felt it her duty to tell me (here she showed a great deal of embarrassment) that modern dances such as the waltz, and now others she had heard spoken of as the one-step and two-step and fox trot, were likely to rouse the baser impulses in men and boys. Of course, when her grandmother was young, dancing had been quite different. There seemed little reason to fear the moral effect of the mazurka.

Living close to the village center, mother’s scruples perhaps were confirmed by the character of the public dances occasionally held in the grammar school assembly hall. For all I know, these dances may not have been quite innocuous. They were noisy, however, and to judge by the sounds, not excessively refined. The Hoodlums, who either attended or looked through the windows, uttered rowdy whoops and catcalls above the sounds of music and uproarious shouts of laughter.

Immured in our Snug Little World nearby, we heard the sounds of revelry as echoes straight from hell. No one of us, as I recall, ever commented on the noise from the schoolhouse. Mother would have felt embarrassed to take open cognizance of such goings-on, and from her, our mentor, the rest of us took our cue.

Our Town, Part 1–Dr. Saeger & Andy Van Curen

Our Town, Part 1 by Helen Baker Reynolds

When the Bakers arrived in the Ojai Valley in 1886 they came in a horse-drawn stage. At that time there was no railroad up and down the coast. About ten years later, when a coast line was under construction, a track was laid from Ventura to Ojai, and from then on, a local train with two small, creaking passenger coaches puffed into our station each evening and out again in the morning.

The village during my early childhood was still very quiet and small. Businesses extended one block along Main street, a segment of the east-west county road. Even in the business block the roadway curved casually around trees, and a hitching rack and drinking trough occupied most of the southerly side. Blumberg’s Inn, already ramshackle, stood in a grove of oaks.

On the opposite side of the street a boardwalk ran past a straggling row of establishments, general merchandise, grocery, and hardware stores, a blacksmith shop and a drug store. At the end of the block stood Schroff’s Harness Shop; at the other end Tom Clark’s Livery Stable. There was also a pool hall which we were taught not to glance into, it being not quite “nice”.

Dr. Saeger owned the drug store. In the rear was his medical office, where he doled out quinine or calomel pills, and where he also extracted teeth.

He was slow of motion and slow of speech and wore a drooping mustache. At a patient’s bedside he would sit solemn and silent; yet somehow his presence was immensely reassuring for he was a deeply kind man. My parents, who were devoted to him, used to say that Doctor Saeger never had been known to press a patient for payment, and usually he presented no bill until he was asked to do so.

Occasionally in the event of a very critical illness, request for consultation was sent to Doctor Bard, a remarkably skilled physician, who, like Doctor Saeger, practiced medicine in the best tradition of the old-time country doctor. He lived in Ventura, fifteen miles away, but, in spite of the distance and sometimes in spite of storms and floods, he would set out at once behind his spirited span of horses, in answer to a call. My family held him in reverence. He had come to attend little two-year old Sara when she was ill with pneumonia, and my parents believed probably rightly that he had saved her life.

A short distance west of the village a tiny, boxlike wooden building stood under spreading oaks. This was the jail, which Andy Van Curen, the perennial constable, had built on the grounds of his home. The jail was seldom put to use, for ours was a law-abiding town, only occasionally disturbed by some show-off galloping recklessly thru Main street, or someone being drunk on a Saturday night.

Van Curen’s jail, now at Cold Springs Tavern by Santa Barbara

A gentle, slow-moving man of indeterminate age, Andy Van Curen had held his position for years. As the population grew and became a trifle more worldly, someone started a movement to elect a younger, more active man as constable. Andy was hurt and incensed. He let it be known that if he were replaced no one else could use his jail. The movement for replacement promptly collapsed.

Andy acted as undertaker, as well as constable. He kept a supply of coffins in a shed behind the jail. Children would peep through the tiny windows, shivering pleasantly at the sight of the coffins stacked inside. Processions to the cemetery in early days, I am told, were led by Andy transporting the departed in his spring wagon. Later, however, a horse-drawn hearse would be brought up from Ventura on the occasion of a rather pretentious funeral. The hearse was black, adorned with tassels, and the two black horses were elegant with black plumes on their heads.

Essentially our main street could have been duplicated in hundreds of small Western towns’boxlike buildings with false fronts, a few loungers in front of the pool hall, buggies and wagons raising dust or scattering mud, according to the weather.

But somehow the main street of Ojai was not altogether ugly. The ancient oaks spreading their branches over the drab little buildings, the backdrop of foothills and mountains entered competition with man and easily won the contest. In spite of human ineptitude, our village was attractive.

Norman Marsh Designed Nordhoff High School (1910)








Nordhoff High School (1911)








Norman F. Marsh Designed Nordhoff High School in 1910 by Craig Walker

When Nordhoff High School first opened in 1909, classes were held upstairs in the old two-story grammar school, located where the OUSD offices are today. The driving force behind the school was Sherman Day Thacher, founder of Ojai’s Thacher School. Mr. Thacher was also responsible for hiring the high school’s first principal, Walter Bristol. In 1909 Nordhoff High School had twenty-four students and two faculty members, including Mr. Bristol.

In the school’s second year, Mr. Bristol and the trustees initiated plans to create a new campus for the high school facing Ojai Avenue at Country Club Drive. They selected Los Angeles architect Norman Foote Marsh to design the school in the California Bungalow style, popular in the Ojai Valley in the early 1900s. The Boyd Club, Thacher School, the Pierpont Cottages, and several expensive homes along Foothill Road were all done in the California Bungalow style. This style is easily recognized with its sloping roofs, gables, exposed rafters, expansive porches, shingled siding, and integration with the earth using river rock or planting. Nordhoff High School would be one of the first public high schools built in the California Bungalow style.

Norman Marsh’s Parkhurst Building in Santa Monica.

Norman Marsh was a well-known Southern California architect who was proficient in several architectural styles. He designed Santa Monica’s Parkhurst Building in Spanish-Colonial style, the University of Redlands in neo-Classical style, and Abbot Kinney’s Venice Beach development as a replica of the famous Italian Renaissance city. Marsh’s firm designed many schools, libraries, and churches, throughout Southern California.

Mr. Marsh designed the new Nordhoff High School so that, in his words, “every window will extend to the floor and will swing open their entire length. The pupils will in ordinary weather practically work out of doors.” This was a revolutionary concept in school architecture at the time, but it has since been used extensively in schools throughout America.

The new Nordhoff High School campus opened in the fall of 1911 with 40 students. In 1916 wealthy oil tycoon Charles Pratt, who owned a large Greene & Greene Bungalow home on Foothill Road, donated the funds to add a manual arts building and a domestic science building to the campus. Walter Bristol hired Norman Marsh to design these buildings also. The great Ojai fire of 1917 destroyed one of them, but Mr. Pratt donated the funds to have it quickly rebuilt.

In 1917, the name of the town was changed from Nordhoff to Ojai. Over the years there have been several attempts to change the name of the school from Nordhoff High School to Ojai High School, but all have failed. Perhaps the traditional name is too deeply ingrained, or perhaps the phrase “Ojai High” is just a bit too quirky!

In 1929 Santa Paula architect Roy Wilson designed the school’s Mission-Revival buildings along El Paseo Road, with the school auditorium added in 1936. Yet, the aging Bungalow-style building pictured at the top of the page continued to be used as classrooms until 1966 when the high school and junior high school swapped campuses. At that time it was torn down and replaced by the nondescript classroom buildings that face Ojai Avenue today.

The First Ojai Boom (1873)

Royce Gaylord Surdam

Royce Surdam and The First Ojai Boom
by John Montgomery

[John Montgomery came to the Ojai Valley in 1874 as part of the valley’s first real estate boom. The first Ojai boom was primarily the work of Royce Surdam, a local businessman who subdivided the town and sold its first lots. John Montgomery’s house was on Matilija Street. Montgomery Street is named for him.

California has experienced many real estate bubbles over the years. John Montgomery describes the first Ojai boom (and bust) in this wonderful portrait of Royce Surdam, the founder of our town–formerly known as Nordhoff. Those of us taken in by the recent real estate bubble can take some comfort in knowing we were not the first!]


Is there a boom bacillus? Most likely there is; how otherwise can we account for the resemblance of the disease to the measles with its incipiency, its outburst and decline? It is as contagious as the smallpox, as infectious as the cholera. Once let the boom microbe enter the system and the victim is as diseased as a hospital or asylum patient, his brain undermined; he peoples trackless deserts with mighty hosts, builds castles in the air and sees gold nuggets in common boulders; then finally wakes up, too often, alas, to a long a painful convalescence and the self-interrogation of “where was I at?”

One of these epidemics struck Southern California in the year 1873, the centers of infection being San Diego and Santa Barbara for Tom Scott has promised a railroad to the former and Charles Nordhoff had published in Harper’s a series of articles on Santa Barbara which caused a stream of one-lunged pilgrims to flow into that Mecca. Los Angeles and San Buenaventura were not thought of, but the hitherto secluded Ojai Valley posed as a boom-struck celebrity and was introduced into turbulent companionship by a very singular personage. Royce G. Surdam had fallen in love at first sight with this rustic beauty, and never was an ardent lover more entranced than he over his new-found enamorata. The expressive term “rattled” may be applied to his state of mind in relation to his discovery. He purchased 1,500 acres from T.R. Bard, the tract extending

Surdam’s plat for the new town of Nordhoff (1874).

from the creek at Nordhoff west to the present Meiners property. From this tract he selected a town site, named it Nordhoff and had A.W. Blumberg start a hotel, a free transfer of twenty acres being an inducement. In the spring of 1874 this solitary building was completed; and on a windy night in April a select but limited circle inaugurated the grand opening to the strains of a Ventura band, with choice selections from the repertoire of a coyote troop in the woods outside.

Surdam was so enthusiastic over his new acquisition that he could think, talk or dream of nothing else. In place of a portrait of his charmer he had a gorgeous map of her lineaments, with all the embellishments his fancy could bestow, namely: a grand public square with fountain and diverging avenues; a town hall; academy, location for a chapel; and vast possibilities. The writer will never forget his fruitless search for these attractions on his first visit to Nordhoff, and the bewildering confusion of mind resulting from their absence.

Surdam had his headquarters at the Santa Clara Hotel in Ventura; and there the unwary stranger, whether Jew or Gentile, was entrapped and like the youth in the Ancient Mariner was held spellbound to hear the story of the beauty and virtue of the new acquisition. A cure for all the ills that afflict humanity, from relapsing fever to impecuniosity, was guaranteed to the fortunate guest or investor in the charmed groves of Nordhoff.

Don Quixote sallied forth on the highway to challenge to mortal combat any man refusing to own his Dulcinea the peeress of every lady in the land; Surdam had neither lance nor sword, but not the less emphatically did he insist that all should acknowledge the marvelous superiority of his mountain enchantress. Let no one suppose the man was insincere; he believed every word he said; he was an honest enthusiast with the boom fever in his marrow.

There are many now in the valley who would champion its cause with all the ardor of its first boomer. Is she not the ever youthful bride he imagined her to be with perennial orange wreath adorning her lovely crest? Has she not the magic balm of health he promised to all her votaries? Are not the diverging avenues, the grand square, the academy and the public fountain among the probabilities, nay the certainties of the near future? Whether he exaggerated or not, the fact remains that to Surdam the valley owes its first boom: his persistent praise called attention to its beauty, its excellence; and many who would have passed to other points in search of health or homes were induced to cast anchor in the romantic haven so warmly recommended.

So successful, indeed, were Surdam’s efforts that lands east of the town advanced in a few months two hundred percent, jumping from ten to thirty dollars an acre. Additional accommodations were soon necessary to harbor the throng of home and health seekers who came into the valley, so that McKee’s canvas tent was transformed into an attractive building, under the appropriate title of Oak Glen Cottage.

While Surdam insured success to the valley, he himself in his personal speculation failed to meet the success he anticipated and that his energy deserved. People did not want narrow town lots when broad acres were to be had so cheap. Then he refused to subdivide his outside lands and held them at a high figure, and thus others profited by his efforts while he himself reaped little or no benefit. His expenses were heavy; livery teams, surveying and advertising were sapping his means; and the purchase money had to be forthcoming. He held on so long as he was able; but thee came a day when, with a heavy heart, he parted with his idol. In December 1874 the writer acquired his outside tract of 1,300 acres; and shortly after Colonel Wiggins purchased the townsite, also the Blumberg Hotel, improving the same by adding the west wing.

For nearly 12 years the boom virus lay dormant in Surdam’s system to break out afresh in the excitement of 1887 when he undertook to float the Bardsdale property. On this occasion he displayed some of his old spirit, but it never reached the acme of his first craze.

Poor Surdam, prince of boomers, to think that all should end in an overdose of morphine and a coroner’s inquest!

The promised railroad did not materialize in San Diego, but fine buildings and substantial improvements did; and Santa Barbara owes the Arlington, the Clock Building, Odd Fellows Hall, etc. to the boom of 1873. It died hardest in Santa Barbara, but in 1876 the fever was over, and the languid patient had scarcely strength left to raise a small mortgage.

The Ojai Valley, on the contrary, held its own. Whatever start it got in the excitement it retained. It had its wet years and its dry years; barley would lodge and wheat rust. Noisy croakers would wander off Jason-like in search of a golden fleece, lose their husky voices on the trip and return speechless as to the defects and drawbacks of the valley; but the majority of the substantial residents continued nestling in contentment and somnolent in the feeling that life’s aims were attained.

Early Stories of Ojai, Part VII (Downtown Nordhoff)

Early Stories of Ojai, Part VII (Downtown Nordhoff) by Howard Bald
Written in 1972 by longtime Ojai resident Howard Bald.

Main Street of Nordhoff

Nordhoff (now Ojai) has generally been described as a quiet, peaceful little place, and generally it was. Several oak trees strung along Main Street from Tom Clark’s livery stable [Ojai Village Pharmacy] to Schroff’s harness shop [Ojai Cleaners] furnished the only shade, for there was no arcade until 1917.

There were three gaps in the row of buildings on the north side of Main Street. One was between Lagomarsino’s saloon and Archie McDonald’s blacksmith shop at the east end of the business block [the Hub], and Barrow’s hardware store stood alone. There was an alley on both the east and west side of that building, which I think was the site of the present hardware store [Rains].

Corner of Montgomery and Main looking west.

The east alley was used by pedestrians. I think the board sidewalk prevented vehicles going through. But the sidewalk ended at the west corner of Barrow’s hardware, so that alley was quite generally used by horsemen as well as pedestrians.

West of that alley was Bray’s plumbing shop, and from there on to Signal street was the livery stable with its buggy sheds, corrals, and hay sheds. West of Signal on the site of the Oaks Hotel stood a small, whitewashed, clapboard building where Chet Cagnacci was born at the turn of the century and later, I believe, Tommie Clark.

Corner of Signal and Main, looking east.

Across the street about the site of Van Dyke’s Travel Agency [Library Book Store] stood Dave Raddick’s residence, then easterly a break then the meat market [The Jester]. On the southwest corner of Signal and Main was The Ojai newspaper printing office where the theater now stands and easterly across the street, where the present post office is located, was Charley Gibson’s blacksmith shop. There was a gap between the blacksmith shop and Lauch Orton’s plumbing shop, the barber shop and post office. Through that gap could be seen the Berry Villa, which is now the Post office employee parking place.

A little distance east of the post office, briefly, stood C.B. Stevens little grocery store, then the entrance and exit to the Ojai Inn, which is now our city park. A leaky, redwood horse trough and a hitch rail extended onto the barranca. It was always shady, and teams of horses and buggies were customarily tied there while the out of town folks did their shopping.

The Ojai Inn.

I once had a Plymouth Rock hen who would bring her brood through the alley between the saloon and blacksmith shop to scratch around where the horses were tied. Sometimes she would miscalculate and be overtaken by darkness, so hen and chicks would simply fly up on a vacant spot on the hitch rail and settle down for the night. Our stable and chicken coop was just back of Dr. Hirsch’s office [Dr. Phelps], and more than once at about bedtime, I would carry them back to their own nest.

Schroff’s harness shop east of the barranca stood high enough from the ground that one could step from a saddle horse onto the porch, which was convenient for ladies riding sidesaddle to dismount and mount.

The corner of South Montgomery and Main was open and was used mainly by Thacher boys to tie their

Presbyterian Church on southeast corner of Main & Montgomery.

horses while attending services at the Presbyterian church, which then stood where [Jersey Mike’s] parking lot now is. That building is now the Nazarene Church [Byron Katie’s headquarters] on N. Montgomery and Aliso.

I could go on and on and on with details of the village of Nordhoff at the turn of the century, but I fear that would become too boring, so I will get on with some of my memories of the activities of the time.

Early Stories of Ojai, Part V (The Ojai Train)

Waiting for the train to arrive.

Early Stories of Ojai, Part V (The Ojai Train) by Howard Bald
Howard Bald recounted life at turn-of-the-century Ojai in these articles from 1972.

Much has been written over the years about leading citizens of the Ojai Valley and their contributions to the community. What I propose to do is to try and present a picture of the everyday citizen, something of what life was like at the turn of the century and the decade that followed, of some of the industry and activities that have long been forgotten.

Unfortunately, there are not many left to help me on points that have become dim in my memory. I trust, though, that there will be no more inaccuracies in my statements than there have been in statements made by people who are better qualified to be historians than I am.

For instance, at the dedication of the new post office a few years ago it was stated that the new building stands on the same spot the post office stood at the turn of the century. Another person in her memoirs stated that Ojai (Nordhoff) never had a saloon. Also the Ojai newspaper wrote an account of Mr. Gridley murdering a Basque sheepherder in the Sespe. All of which I know to be absolutely inaccurate. But more on those subjects later.

Now it is not my purpose to start right in criticizing others, but to show how easy it is to make misstatements. I will doubtless make my share of them.

Arriving in the village of Nordhoff (Ojai was Nordhoff until the time of the first World War) in the spring of 1900, I was a scrawny, squint-eyed eight yar old with a supposedly short time to live because of TB. The long severe winters of northern Washington and Idaho kept me wrapped up in bed a good part of the year, so a mild climate with plenty of freedom was recommended by the doctors.

Well, I took full advantage of the freedom and in that way gained a wider knowledge of what was going on than the average boy of that time.

One of the things that stands out in my memory was the Nordhoff train. It was not until I had grown up that I realized that the train had arrived only two years before my arrival in the Ojai Valley.

Two trains plied between Los Angeles and Nordhoff. As the train left Nordhoff at 6 am, its sister train left Los Angeles. They crossed at Moorpark, where the crews had their lunches, then continued on to their respective destinations. So each train took 12 hours to make the one way journey.

On long summer evenings one popular source of entertainment for certain men, boys and dogs was to sit on the board sidewalk, where the arcade is now, and at the sound of the train whistle down near Grants Station [where Rotary Park is now], all would take off on a trot for the [Nordhoff] Depot.

Near Schroff’s Harness Shop (where the Ojai Cleaners now is) we cut down Montgomery Street and below the lumber yard, now Wachters, we went across to Fox Street.

At the same time the Matilija Hot Spring’s big lumbering overland stage, driven by either John Oretega, Bill Olivas (father of the Billy Olivas who is currently making headlines at Matilija Hot Springs) or Bob Clark would wheel in a cloud of dust, followed by Wheeler Blumberg with his four white horses hitched to a four-seated buckboard. Nordhoff’s taxi, which comprised a team of horses attached to a buckboard, would be there along with an assortment of country folk with a horse and buggy to meet incoming friends or family.

The Matilija Stage

As the train crossed S. Ventura, S. Montgomery and Fox streets huffing and puffing, with steam jetting from both sides and the bell clanging, there was general pandemonium, for many of the country horses were terrified of such a monster and resorted to lunging, bucking and rearing. Not infrequently would be heard snap of a buggy shaft or a wagon tongue amid the barking of dogs and shouting of women and children on the ground greeting incoming family.

When the Matilija and Wheeler Hot Springs guests were all loaded there would be a popping of four horse whips, as the stages departed through town on a dead run. In later years I have wondered just when the horses settled down to a jog trot, for certainly they couldn’t endure such breakneck speed for long.

The Taxi

Finally as broken harness and buggy shafts were mended and the more terrified horses were led out across the bridge and all the passengers had departed, the boys and dogs would straggle off to their respective homes and the men back to their visiting along the boardwalk or to Dave Raddick’s pool room. I don’t believe the patron’s of John Lagomarsinoa’s card house were ever diverted from their evenings carousel by the arrival of a train.

Early Stories of Ojai, Part IV (Nordhoff Rangers)

Early Stories of Ojai, Part IV (Nordhoff Rangers) by Howard Bald

Note: Howard Bald was an early Ojai resident. His reminiscences were written in the early 1970s.

In 1898 the Santa Barbara National Forest (now Los Padres) was created with headquarters in Nordhoff. Willis M. Slosson was sent out from the east as supervisor. The boundaries extended from Castaic up into San Luis Obispo County and north into Kern County.

Men were recruited from all parts of the back country, and they were largely homesteaders, cowboys, miners, and such. Their pay was $60 per month. They had to own at least two horses and maintain them. Generally the ranger (they were all rangers then) had to provide his own quarters. There were no fringe benefits.

With Nordhoff the national forest headquarters, and since the only means of getting around was via saddle and pack horses, there was a great deal of forestry activity in the valley, that is, mountain men coming and going. A more rugged, hardy, self-sufficient, picturesque group of men would be hard to imagine. Though as a whole they were rather short on formal education, they accomplished a prodigious amount in the way of trail building, and maintaining, investigating mines and homesteads, issuing grazing permits and performing fire suppression.

They were also deputy and game commissioners.

Of course thee were no telephones at first, no lookout stations, no airplanes or helicopters, or radios, and but few trails. Sometimes a ranger would ride a day or more to get to a fire. The nearest ranger to a fire might recruit a few men—homesteaders, cattlemen or miners, and with just a few simple tools attack the fire.

One wonders now how they accomplished so much with so few men and little equipment, when one hears of the hundreds of men, bombers, fire engines and other sophisticated equipment that is employed to suppress the same fires today and at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Among some of the more colorful men of that period was Jacinto Reyes, who to this day is a legend among people in the back country, not only for his fire fighting but also for his horsemanship, endurance, rescue work, and ability to settle sometimes violent disputes among homesteaders, cattlemen, or miners. Then there were his brother Geraldo Reyes, Frank Ortega (father of ex-Ventura postmaster Melito Ortega) and Fred de la Riva. They were what we called in that day “California Spanish.” They were great horsemen and very capable.

My father, George Bald, became one of them in 1903 and until the mid-twenties was chief ranger of this area. Trever Isenberg, Jerome Larmer, Bob Clark, Bob Miller, Bill Herbert, the Leiber brothers, Tom Dunsmore, Gene Johnson were among others of that day I remember. They were what one might call, at that time, “real Westerners.”

There is, to me, an amusing story that might give an idea of how that breed of men could impress the uninitiated easterner. In later years it was recounted to me many times.

Sarah McMullen was a nurse who came to take care of Loring Farnum, a semi-invalid who bought our Rinconada Ranch (J.D. Reyes and I gave it that name), later the Orchid Ranch, which is now owned by Camp Ramah. She always began the story with: “The worst fright I ever had was being confronted at Mr. Farnum’s front door by three of the awfullest looking men I ever laid eyes on!” Then there would be a detailed description of the three. “Two were huge, very dark complexioned men with high cheek bones and dark, piercing eyes. The third man was short with a sandy complexion and legs like a pair of ice tongs.” The refrain would be: “And that was your father!”

They wore broad-brimmed, low-crowned hats and red bandanas, and, of course, were unshaven. They curtly asked to see Mr. Farnum. I was trembling so,” said Sarah, “I could hardly speak when I went back to Mr. Farnum’s room and said there are three of the most terrible men I ever saw who said they want to see you. Mr. Farnum said, ‘Well, show them in!'”

As I pictured the scene, Jacinto and Geraldo Reyes and my dad were returning from a week camping in the mountains. They were tired, dusty and, of course, thirsty, and they knew that Mr. Farnum was always generous with the drinks.

“Reminiscences of Early Ojai” by Howard Bald, 1973