WHAT’S NEW DOWNTOWN?

The following story was printed in the book “Portrait of a Community (Ojai – Yesterdays and Todays)” by Ellen Malino James in 1984. It is reprinted here with the permission of  publisher Ojai Valley News.

WHAT’S NEW DOWNTOWN [in 1984]?
By Ellen Malino James

When Edward Drummond Libbey started the Arcade in 1917, he agreed to share the cost of upgrading the front footage with Ojai merchants. Nobody considered the rear of the Arcade. While the street fronts of the Ojai Avenue stores were united by the Mission style of architects Mead and Requa’s original plan, the back doors stood for fifty years in a haphazard jumble of old wood shacks, some dating back to the original 1870’s town of Nordhoff. The front arches continued to grace the picture postcards, the Arcade having become a kind of façade, like a Hollywood set. Behind it, lay a deteriorating shambles of old Western clapboard buildings.

In January, 1954, Mayor Ken Praire, City Engineer Major John Dron, and another official watch workers fix the parking lot drainage behind the Arcade. (Bill Klamser, Jr,, photo, OVN)
In January, 1954, Mayor Ken Praire, City Engineer Major John Dron, and another official watch workers fix the parking lot drainage behind the Arcade. (Bill Klamser, Jr. photo, OVN)

Architect Zelma Wilson and others foresaw that, with imagination and planning, the rear of the Arcade could become a “focal point of community life” – a village where residents and tourists alike could shop and socialize. The original plans of the Downtown Business Committee in 1971 called for plazas, fountains, covered walkways, and new shops and offices, all blending into a relaxed village atmosphere spanning the block from Signal to Montgomery Street behind the Arcade. Now, a decade later [1984], the Arcade Plaza is a local project, paid for without state or federal money. An ingenious application of the state law allowed for increased tax revenues within the redevelopment area to go exclusively for the benefit of this project.

When John Johnston came to Ojai as city manager in 1971, he recalls, “my great concern at that time was to prevent Ojai from turning into another San Fernando Valley.” Johnston, then in his late twenties, had just completed a term as City Manager of Artesia and Cerritos, where uncontrolled growth had transformed dairy farms into what was then the world’s largest indoor shopping mall.

“In Ojai,” says Johnston, “I ran into a city council that stopped this sort of development on its heels.” With Councilman Hal Mitrany and others, Johnston met with Ojai’s downtown merchants to explore ways to redevelop a “shambles” of old structures. In the back alley behind the Arcade, buildings were collapsing, Johnston recalls, “but what could we do? The city was too poor to do it on their own.”

AS A FIRST step, Johnston urged the city to form a parking and improvement district. The merchants then went to Architect Zelma Wilson, A.I.A. to design an expanded Arcade. Johnston then, in early 1972, asked Robert Hill of the California Department of Housing and Community Development to visit Ojai and to outline for the city council how the state redevelopment law could be applied specifically to Ojai’s needs.

Plans were laid for upgrading the downtown core and putting in public improvements with money from tax increments. Each time a property owner increased the value of his land and buildings within the 135-acre boundary of the agency, local tax money flowed into the coffers of the new redevelopment agency.

“So the project came out as originally hoped for,” said Johnston. “It just took a lot longer.” Ten years, in fact, from the original conception in 1972 to the dedication in April, 1982.

OJAI REMAINS one of the few towns to apply the state law on redevelopment in this novel and constructive way to its downtown area. The amount of money available to the redevelopment agency proved to be more than originally hoped for, because property values increased during the past decade beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. Yet with Proposition 13 and the inevitable decline in real estate values, the redevelopment agency idea is not as desirable as a tool as it once was.

Crucial to the redevelopment plan was the timing and local leadership in Ojai. “It is unlikely that the project would have taken place,” says Johnston, “if the interest and support were not there.”

Johnston particularly recalls the role of Clifford Hey and James Loebl: “When things got tough, they didn’t back down.” But there were many others. “Hundreds of people from all walks of life made this happen.” Just one example: Alan Rains invested in sidewalks outside his store long before the plans for the surrounding area took shape. What the redevelopment agency did was to create confidence in the community.

 

Behind the Arcade:  Before

Walk-through at Matilija Street Plaza in 1938, Floodwaters running through the street. (photo courtesy of the late Lois Heaton)
Walk-through at Matilija Street Plaza in 1938, Floodwaters running through the street. (Photo courtesy of the late Lois Heaton)

 

Back door of Ojai Realty, to the left of The Hub, on this same site since 1917 when the front of the Arcade was begun. Previously, the Ojai State Bank stood here. (photo, circa 1950s, courtesy of Alan Rains)
Back door of Ojai Realty [Love Heals in 2017, at 260 E. Ojai Ave], to the left of The Hub, on this same site since 1917 when the front of the Arcade was begun. Previously, the Ojai State Bank stood here. (Photo, circa 1950s, courtesy of Alan Rains)
When David Mason, owner of the Village Florist, opened his store more than a decade ago, he remembered how he used to play on that spot as a toddler. The Village Florist stands on the site of Doug Jordan's next to Ed Benton's. The mural on the wall of the Village Florist dates from the 1950s when David Mason would accompany his mother, Maxine Miller Mason, to work in the store.
When David Mason, owner of the Village Florist, opened his store more than a decade ago, he remembered how he used to play on that spot as a toddler. The Village Florist stands on the site of Doug Jordan’s next to Ed Benton’s. The mural on the wall of the Village Florist dates from the 1950s when David Mason would accompany his mother, Maxine Miller Mason, to work in the store. [The Village Florist was located at 242 E. Ojai Ave; in 2017 it is Osteria Monte Grappa.]
Rear view of Ojai Gift store with outhouse as it looked in the 1950s. (photo courtesy of Alan Rains)
Rear view of Ojai Gift store with outhouse as it looked in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Alan Rains)

Behind the Arcade:  After

Merchant Alan Rains recalls:  “Our concern was that we did not want to see Ojai follow the same route as the San Fernando Valley with shops starting at Woodland Hills and running fifteen miles to wherever.  Ojai had not been growing in a healthy pattern for several years and it was felt something needed to be done to revitalize the original shopping area.”

The plaza looking east with new lanterns and landscaping. (OVN staff photo)
The plaza looking east with new lanterns and landscaping. (OVN staff photo)

 

Attractive benches, flowers, and places to rest, much in the tradition of a European town square. (OVN staff photo)
Attractive benches, flowers, and places to rest, much in the tradition of a European town square. (OVN staff photo)

 

The area behind the Arcade is no longer an eyesore, but an attractive showplace. (OVN staff photo)
The area behind the Arcade is no longer an eyesore, but an attractive showplace. (OVN staff photo) [This fountain was removed in the late 1990s.]
No more false fronts, no more shambles at the rear.

 

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

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

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

by David Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shadow box of antiques.
Shadow box of antiques.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Mason Chronicles (6)

This article was published a few years ago in the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission.

Bill Baker’s Bakery Known Near and Far for ‘Made in Ojai’

by David Mason

*****

“Do not buy in Ventura or elsewhere what you can buy at Nordhoff, especially when you can get equal value for equal price. You can get the best phonograph in the world and the best records to use with it right here in Nordhoff – The Ojai Bakery.”
The Ojai – May 27, 1909

Wilhelm Koch had the normal childhood feeling of most boys being raised in Germany. He was born in Marburg on May 4, 1873, and, undoubtedly, grew up with the hopes of attending the university in his home town. The Phillips University in Marburg was founded in 1527 and was the first Protestant university in Europe.

With the mandatory military draft in Germany, young Wilhelm’s father felt it was in the boy’s best interest to have him leave the country. His father, inspired with the ideals of democracy, sent him to America.

As a child, Wilhelm had shown exceptional talent as a sculptor, so a life career as an artist was to be his destiny. His artistic ability in America was brought out in the catering departments of some of America’s finest hotels, including the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia, the Arlington in Washington, the St. Charles in New Orleans and the Huntington in Pasadena.

With the United States entry into the first World War in 1917, the government offered a prize of $500 to the baker who produced the best wheatless bread. Wilhelm decided to enter this contest with high hopes of receiving the prize money for the sole purpose of changing his name. Not only did he win the competition, he won first and second prizes and the sweepstakes, and promptly change his name to William Cook Baker.

It was while working in Pasadena that William Baker would discover the charming seaside town of Ventura. His success was already becoming quite apparent by his being named assistant food administrator for Southern California under Herbert Hoover. So he decided to open his own bakery in Ventura and, being patriotic, it was only natural that he would name it The American Bakery.

Baker would operate the bakery for six years until the lure of the beautiful Ojai Valley attracted him. In 1923 Baker bought out the Ojai Bakery. Emile Gerstenmeyer had operated the Ojai Bakery for many years and he carried a large assortment of merchandise: candles, soft drinks, phonographs and records, books, magazines, picture postcards and, of course, fresh bread, cakes and table delicacies were on hand at all times.

Under the new ownership, the bakery changed its name to Bill Baker’s Ojai Bakery. The bakery was set to become world famous.

In 1927 Bill Baker hired the well-known Santa Paula architect Roy C. Wilson to design a new building for the bakery. Construction was to be of brick and stucco and the architecture was to be of the Spanish style, to compliment the newly built school across the street. The architect had earlier designed the San Antonio School and the Nordhoff Grammar School, along with some of the valley’s most spectacular homes.

The new bakery was very modern, the structure was actually two buildings with a drive between them. One building was used as a salesroom and the other for equipment. George Noble was in charge of the construction and Frank Harrow did the concrete work. The beautiful new building added the needed architectural enjoyment for the tourist entering the town from the east. Through all the construction, the ovens of the bakery continued to turn out their regular quota of loaves of bread and pastries with little interference.

The first of Bill Baker’s many elaborate presidential cakes was sent to President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge in 1927. The large fruitcake was decorated with a small village in the snow and a detailed Santa and sleigh – the first of the many famous cakes produced by Bill Baker’s bakery.

On Feb. 2, 1928, Bill Baker was called to Santa Barbara for a meeting with Dr. W. D. Sansum of the Sansum Clinic. The doctor was interested in finding a baker who could produce a bread to meet his rigid qualifications. Baker had been experimenting with lima bean products successfully and the American Institute of Baking in Chicago had tested his product and proclaimed it to be the best. Dr. Sansum encouraged the use of this lima bean bread in an article written for the Chicago Tribune. The popularity of this new bread grew and it was shipped to many parts of the United States, even as far as Alaska and Hawaii.

By June of 1928, a formal wedding in Seattle, Wash. would have at the reception an elaborate wedding cake made by the bakery in Ojai. The Lions’ convention in the east would also receive one of Bill Baker’s 30-pound fruitcakes. The Lions’ Club cake was decorated with a replica of the Ojai Valley in sugar and surrounding a miniature of the Ojai Catholic Church (now the Ojai Valley Museum).

The 1930’s would see an extensive increase in development of the bakery. The lima bean products, including the lima bean bread, wafers and the new lima bean toast, were in demand from everywhere. Baker decided to advertise the bakery and the Ojai Valley by having a new label designed for his waxed paper wrappers. The labels were silver with “Made in Ojai, California” in blue. There were 550 loaves of bread being shipped each day, advertising the news that Ojai was the center of Bill Baker’s lima bean baking industry.

With the success of the lima bean products, Baker decided to try his hand at developing a soybean bread. Doctors had long suggested the use of soybean as a health food, using it in soups, muffins, etc., but for commercial baking. It wasn’t long before Bill Baker’s Bakery had created a popular and palatable product.

As if all the new bakery items weren’t enough to keep Bill Baker busy, he decided to enter the Elks’ charity event, the “American Horned Toad Derby” being held at the Ventura Bathhouse. His entry was called “Lima Bean”, and Baker put out a press release stating: “I am keeping my Horned Toad on a strict diet of lima bean bread and toast as it has been proven that this will keep down high blood pressure and prevent acidosis. I am betting heavily on ‘Lima Bean’ to win and advise my friends to keep an eye on this contender, for he is a sure winner.” Win or lose, it didn’t matter, it’s how he played the game that was the true sport.

By the end of the year 1930, Bill Baker’s Bakery had added another truck to their delivery system and the bakery was now up to 1,600 loaves of lima bean bread a day – quite an increase from the 500 loaves a day that he was producing at the beginning of the year

.Bill Baker in bakeryCOP

The President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover received a Bill Baker’s cake in 1931, a 50-pound fruitcake made entirely with California fruits and nuts. On the top was a scene of Ventura with a Christmas angel flying overhead.

In 1936, President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt received a Bill Baker masterpiece. The Christmas cake was a 200-pound affair, a fruitcake decorated with star-spangled pillars with red, white and blue bars. In each section was set a green Christmas wreath with a pink bell and bow. The edge of the top was encircled by 200 beautifully made red poinsettias. The top was covered with a green sugar lawn and sugar shrubs, trees and the sugary path that led to the center where the White House glistened, topped by “Old Glory.” On the lawn was written “Merry Christmas to President and Mrs. Roosevelt.”

With the anticipation of the people of California in 1939 toward the San Francisco World Exposition, it was only proper that Bill Baker would have to be part of this important event. What he spent a year in designing and building was a cake weighting 1,000 pounds, which measured 5 feet across the base, 3 feet high and 3 feet across the top layer.

The base of the cake was decorated with an arched colonnade with a red tile roof. Upon the bottom layer were replicas of all the California missions in exact detail with the mountain ranges behind them. On the side of the second layer were numerous towers, replicas of the beautiful tower that dominated the exposition. Between the towers were palm trees and pink roses connecting the towers to each other.

The top of the cake was a miniature San Francisco Bay, with the three famous bridges connecting the islands to the shore. Even the bay cities were shown in their harbor districts. The most exquisite piece of icing on the cake was a miniature of Treasure Island with numerous ships sailing across the top. The cake instantly became one of the great wonders of the exposition.

200drewsbakerimage

In 1942, Baker contacted poison oak in the back yard of his home in Lake Sherwood and was rushed to the hospital in Ventura. He did not make it through the ordeal and died. The story of Bill Baker comes to an end, but the famous bakery that carries his name was just starting a new chapter.

Longtime faithful employees of the bakery, Harmon and Helen Vaughn, continued to keep the plant running. They saw to it that everything was operated as Bill Baker had desired — top quality and fair practice.

The Vaughns had arrived in Ojai on March 31, 1936 from Arkansas. They liked what they saw and decided to make a life for themselves in the small valley. They were hired by Bill Baker to work for his bakery on their second day in town.

In 1946, the Vaughns bought the bakery from Bill Baker’s widow and continued the service, retaining the Bill Baker’s Ojai Bakery name. The Vaughns ran a most successful operation, keeping up the high standard that had been set many years before and finally retired in February 1974.

The famous bakery, one of the oldest continually running businesses in Ojai, is still a success today. The building has been modified somewhat, but still retains the beauty and charm from 70 years ago.

Bill Baker's BakeryCOP 2006.163

The famous bakery was located at 457 E. Ojai Avenue. Today the building houses AZU Restaurant.

Take a walk through the wooded land of Libbey Park

This article was printed in the Ojai Valley News on March 23, 2001. It is reprinted here with their permission.

Take a Walk Through the Wooded Land of Libbey Park by Earl Bates

Walking through Libbey Park on a recent sunny day, infused with the feeling of springtime, we began taking a closer look at the trees. “Could be maybe seven kinds,” said one of the walkers. “Think there are maybe 10 species just here in Libbey Park.” said another. “Well, there are two kinds of oaks, pines, sycamores, eucalyptus. That’s five. And there’s a palm tree, that’s six.”

We were wondering who could tell us about the trees of Libbey Park, and a few days later, we met arborist and Ojai resident Paul Rogers. We asked him if he could give us a little tour and identify the different trees in the park.

We started our tree tour with Rogers in front of the post office, walked east on the sidewalk, under the canopy of a young live oak and into the pergola. At the center of the pergola we turned right into the main front entrance of Libbey Park. This entrance is guarded by two young valley oak trees, one on each side. Surrounding these two small native oaks is a group of evergreen pear trees, their bright green leathery leaves sparkling in the sun. This lovely species of pear tree is a long way from its original home, it is a native of Taiwan.

Non-native plants may look as natural as natives, but when whole plant communities are considered, natives are generally a more positive factor in ecosystem stability. Some people think more consideration should be given to the native plants that have lived and evolved the Ojai region for many thousands of years. “We are trying to define what trees are going to be here,” said Rogers.

Looking toward the post office we can see a little grove of mock orange shrub and two large live oaks. The medium-sized tree with the long skinny beans hanging from its branches is a catalpa, or Indian bean tree, native to the southeastern United States.

Looking back toward the fountain, at the Kittie Pierpont memorial, is a pistache tree. And past the fountain, in the northeast corner of the park, are a half-dozen of California sycamores.

Walking across the pavement to the south side of the fountain, we entered the heart of Libbey Park, pausing for a moment at the Austin Pierpont Rose Garden. Then we read the plaque at the base of the flagpole. “In grateful acknowledgement of the gift in the year 1917 by Edward Drummond Libbey of this wooded land…”

As we faced south, looking over the dedication plaque and past the flagpole, we saw a beautiful big pine tree. “Monterey pine, native of California,” said Rogers. “It likes the coastal environment. It’s not necessarily a good choice for inland areas, but this one is doing well here.” We walked about 25 yards along the paved path to the first intersection, then turned right down the park’s central walkway.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Rogers. “It’s like a continuous canopy through the park.” Large old live oak branches reach way up over the path, their ends mingling in an ethereal feeling with the blue sky.

“We have a lot of big trees in here,” said Rogers. “See that one over there, that’s another valley oak, it’s about 250 years old. We have some in town that are over 500 years.”

We continued walking along the central path through the park. “Deodar cedars, sometimes called California Christmas tree,” said Rogers. We walked past three large specimens of deodar, then under the wooden trellis structure, and followed the path to the right of the tennis court bleachers.

“This is another Monterey pine,” said Rogers. “They were donated to the city, probably from people’s Christmas trees.” The smaller one is about 10 years old and the larger one perhaps 15. “They are fast growers,” he said.

“These are red iron bark eucalyptus, beautiful pink flowers as you can see.” We looked at a couple of them just past the Monterey pines. Then as we looked up high, “Those skyline trees are red gum eucalyptus, they are the ones having an insect problem,” he said.

Several more young California sycamores are establishing themselves in the lawn area of Libbey Bowl. We walked to the seating area of the bowl and paused, looking at the unusually shaped sycamore tree at the west side of the seating area. “There is a lot of lore about it, saying it was bent over by Indians to mark a spot. Whether that is true or not I don’t know.” Rogers explained that this old sycamore is not in a happy environment, because of so much paving around it. “We need to aerate this asphalt, we need to create a better environment,” he said.

“That’s (an example of) the conflict between development and the environment,” he said. “It would be terrible if these tree were not here.”bentsycamore

Ojai Valley sold for 45-cents an acre

The following article was printed in the Ojai Valley News in the 1960s or 1970s, and is reprinted here with their permission. It was written by Ed Wenig.

Ojai Valley sold for 45-cents an acre

Fernando Tico
Fernando Tico

The entire Ojai Valley of over 17,000 acres was once an outright gift of the Mexican government to a prominent Ventura man, Don Fernando Tico. It should be added, too, that in the ensuing years the Ojai Valley was sold and resold for sharply advancing prices of approximately 45 cents to 62 cents, and then one dollar an acre!

The Ojai Valley had long been in the possession of Mission San Buenaventura when the Mexican government, in 1833, secularized (confiscated) all Mission property. In 1837 “Ranch Ojay” was granted to Don Fernando Tico, who held a high appointive position in the civil government of the Ventura area.

Fernando Tico built a little house in, what is now, the eastern part of the present city of Ojai and lived there some years. But he soon found that he was “land poor”. Taxes were too high. For that reason he even refused an additional gift of the Rancho Santa Ana, which was offered to him by Governor Alvarado. He moved back to Ventura, after selling the entire valley for $7,500 to Henry Storrow Carnes of Santa Barbara. In 1856, Carnes sold Rancho Ojay to Juan Camarillo for $10,000.

Juan Camarillo had come from Mexico in 1834 and was a successful merchant in Santa Barbara. He had soon begun buying and selling land grants, one of which was the Rancho Ojay. After holding it for eight years, he sold it in 1864 for $17,754 to John Bartlett.

It might be said that year 1864 marked the first subdivision of the Ojai. Four days after he purchased the land, Bartlett sold one-third to John B. Church for $6,000 and two-thirds to John Wyeth for $12,000. A month later Church and Wyeth sold half the valley to Charles H. Russell and Henry M. Alexander. These gentlemen bought the rest of the grant in the same year, and in 1868 the entire Ojai Valley was reunited again when it was sold to John P. Green, acting as attorney for Thomas A. Scott, former Assistant Secretary of War under President Lincoln.

History of the Ojai Theatre

History of the Ojai Theatre by Elise DePuydt

Ojai Theatre, 1954; playing Elizabeth Taylor in Elephant Walk

The Isis–isn’t this an exotic sounding name? How about Bijou, Rialto, Majestic, Palace, or Regency? What images do these names bring to mind?

Movie theater owners in the 1910s thru the ’20s wished to evoke the mystery of the exotic or the pomp and privilege of royalty in both the name and design of their theaters. Names such as “Bijou”, the French word for jewel; “Granada”, a city in Spain; or “Rialto”, an Italian island, stimulated the imagination, convincing the public that when they passed through those theater doors, they were embarking on a thrilling adventure. Movie theaters became garish, dazzling and grand palaces.

Those were exciting times for the fledgling film industry. Americans fell in love with moving pictures right from the start. But the earliest cinemas, in a period from about 1905 to 1912, were small neighborhood store fronts. A movie theater opened in Pittsburgh in 1905 that was cleverly called The Nickelodeon. The name is a combination of nickel (the amount charged to get in) and “odeon”, the Greek word for theater. By 1907, about 4,000 of these small nickelodeon cinemas were scattered around the U.S. The shows were a series of individual movies each only several minutes long, cobbled together to fill a half hour program accompanied by music. People flocked to these shows, almost in a frenzy. From eight in the morning until midnight visitors streamed in and out as nickels filled the box office coffers. Viewers were spellbound.

Isis was the name give to the mission-style, single-screen theater built on the southwest corner of Ojai Avenue and Signal Street in the town of Nordhoff in 1914 (Nordhoff’s name was changed to Ojai in 1917.) Isis is an Egyptian goddess, and for reasons unknown her name became a popular one for movie theaters in the United States. Cinema Treasures, a non-profit group dedicated to recording the history of American theaters and providing a forum for their preservation, lists on their website over 20 theaters named Isis in the United States built during this period. However, most are now closed or demolished. Others, like Ojai’s, may have undergone a name change. A newspaper ad indicates there was an Isis Theatre in Ventura.

During World War I, the U. S. film industry began to dominate as European countries were preoccupied with war. The development of the studio system in California, with its center in Hollywood, and the promotion of actors and actresses as movie stars further propelled the United States into the lead in the 1920s. Silent film era stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks became known around the world. With the advent of “talkies”, Hollywood entered into the “golden era” of film-making during the 1930s and ’40s.

Every town in America had to have a movie theater and the towns of Ventura County were no different. Oxnard, Santa Paula, and Ventura had quite a few over the years – most of them now long gone. The oldest remaining theater in Ventura is the downtown Majestic Ventura Theatre that opened to great fanfare in 1928 and now is a concert venue. Ojai and Fillmore today have the oldest movie theaters in the county. The single-screen Fillmore Towne Theatre opened as the Barnes in 1916 and is now owned by the City of Fillmore.

The Isis Theatre was built by John Joseph (known as J.J.) Burke on the corner occupied for twenty years by The Ojai newspaper office and print shop. Houk’s ice plant and butcher shop were also on this corner. The newspaper building was moved a short distance south on Signal Street (across from where the post office parking lot is today) to make room for the new theater. According to an article in The Ojai of May 1, 1914, the redevelopment of the corner was considered a remodeling of the entire building, though in fact the building was practically new and enlarged. Walter Houk also built a new ice plant at this time. According to the article, a large oak tree at the site was cut down to make room for the expanded project.

The finished building contained the new theater and Houk’s meat market and ice plant. The Ojai of May 29, 1914 describes the project, “The new building will be 32 feet on Ojai Avenue and 75 feet long on Signal Street. The style of architecture is to be Mission. A big Mission front will cover this and W.E. Houk’s meat market. The outside of the walls will be plastered, and the interior finish will be pressed tin–very ornamental and attractive, and will make the building practically fire proof. A polished maple floor has been decided upon, so that with moveable chairs, the place will make an ideal hall for dances.” The theater was built for vaudeville shows, dances, lectures and to show movies.

Ojai’s 1914 Isis edges out the Fillmore Towne Theatre in age by two years. The Isis wasn’t grand but for this small, rural village it was a triumph. The first film shown was The Valley of the Moon on August 19, 1914 based on the Jack London novel. The Ojai, August 14, describes the event, “This will be the first showing of this photoplay in any small town in California, and being one of the most expensive productions, our people should congratulate themselves upon being able to see it. All the scenes in this picture are taken in California, around San Francisco Bay and beautiful Carmel by the Sea.” Admission prices were: adults 20 cents and children 10 cents.

E.A. Runkle managed the theater in the early years and presented two regular shows a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. After the Saturday show the chairs were moved aside for dancing. Claude Munger cranked the primitive projector while the impromptu piano player kept pace by watching the film. The piano players were E.A Runkle’s wife Ethel and Claude’s sister Marion Munger. Movie ads in the local paper were profuse and filled a half page at times.

The Isis quickly became the happening spot in town. The headlines for an article in The Ojai dated April 1, 1921 exclaim “Yama Yama Dance Attracts Large Crowd”. The first paragraph reads, “For unadulterated terpsichorean pleasures and harmless hilarity, the Yama Yama Yum Yum dance given Tuesday evening by the Runkles, the musical wizards of the Isis Theatre, was a replica of the recent hard-times dance of pleasant memory given by the same management, under similar inspiring conditions and surroundings–faultless music, a big crowd and entrancing decorative effects.”

Fred and Lidie Hart bought the Isis from J.J. Burke in 1926 and reopened it as the Ojai Theatre.

The Hart’s renovated the building inside and out. The Ojai on May 7, 1926 describes the
changes: “The walls have been redecorated and now present a beautiful and harmonious appearance. Soft shades of pink have been used on the walls, attractive boxes decorated with designs of flowers and ferns have been made for the indirect lights and additional side light with soft shades. For the greater comfort of guests Mr. Hart has installed 42 of the finest divans obtainable. There are three rows of them and they have been installed on raised platforms to give entirely unobstructed vision. The two new projecting machines are giving great satisfaction and will add considerably to the enjoyment of patrons.” Shows were given on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with Mrs. McCaleb providing the music. Prices were: divans 50 cents, other seats: adults 30 cents and children 15 cents.

Talkies came to Ojai in 1930. “Ojai turned out in force Saturday night to greet the talkies just installed in the Ojai Theatre and indications were that the innovation will be popular with the film fans,” reports The Ojai on Feb. 14, 1930. In October of 1930, Fred Hart leased the theater to Oliver Prickett and George Damon, Jr., owners and operators of the Alcazar Theatre in Carpinteria. Prickett and Damon installed new lamps in the projection room making it possible to change reels without interruption on the screen.

It is fortunate for Ojai that over these many years, theater owners sold the building only to buyers who were committed to keeping it as a movie theater. When theater manager William Swanson bought the building from Hart in 1935 an article in The Ojai dated July 23, 1935 reports, “The sale was made to Mr. Swanson in preference to other prospective purchasers who wanted the property, in order to make possible continuance of the theater which Mr. Swanson has operated so successfully for two years, and to prevent any other line of business–possibly of a nature which would compete with established concerns–getting possession of the corner.”

At this time the property included the theatre, Dr. King’s offices and the Busch grocery that were part of the property sale. Swanson proceeded to renovate the theater which included a new floor with a slope of five feet from back to front so better visibility is assured. The stage was removed making room for more seats, and a new enlarged screen of an improved beaded material was installed, along with rest rooms and a new box office. The first film shown in the newly renovated theater was Shirley Temple’s newest film, Curly Top.

The Flesher Family bought the Ojai Theatre from Swanson in 1949 and owned it for several decades with the Lawrences. Also in 1949, it was reported in the local paper that Wilbur Jerger presented a series of silent films he called the Great Films Series but the attendance was low. He endeavored to get an annual film festival started in the valley that he wanted to call the Great Film Festival. It is unknown what became of Jerger’s idea but in 1988, a group of locals formed the Ojai Film Society that has now been showing independent and foreign films on Sunday for over twenty years. In 2000 the group launched the Ojai Film Festival, which after several years became its own entity and celebrated its 10th Anniversary in 2009.

Through the years new owners upgraded and renovated the Ojai gem. One of the most dramatic renovations took place in 1966 when Wayne Glasgow took over the closed theater, changing the name to the Glasgow Playhouse and completely renovating the inside and out in an elaborate Scottish motif. Glasgow’s wife Anne traveled all the way to Scotland to acquire Scottish antiques. Billed as a theater that would only show movies for adults, the Glasgow Playhouse opened on June 15 and 16 with a premiere screening of Shakespeare Wallah–four months before its West Coast debut in Los Angeles. The first night’s screening was followed by a sumptuous champagne buffet supper served in the gardens of the historic Oaks Hotel (now the Oaks at Ojai.).

Glasgow’s grand plans soon faltered. By June of 1967 the theater was already closed and didn’t reopen until January of 1970, according to the Ojai Valley News. The theater, not entirely out of Glasgow’s hands, opened under the management of Ted and Ruth Morris, owners and operators of the Los Robles Theatre on Maricopa Highway (open from 1964-1972, now Rabobank) and the Fox Theatre in Santa Paula. Ted Morris comments in the Ojai Valley News of January 28, 1970, “This is the most extravagant theater I’ve ever seen in a town this size.” Morris pointed out the handsome cabinets and soft reclining seats.

Glasgow can best be described as a character and was dubbed Ojai’s “bad boy” in the 1970s, though friends considered him smart and entertaining. He was often in the newspaper for one reason or another. Glasgow eventually retired in Hawaii and died there in 2005.

After a number of defaults, Glasgow eventually gained title to the theater. Ventura County records show a deed transfer from Ted and Betty Flesher to Wayne Glasgow in 1975. His troubles continued, however, and with numerous liens on the property, Glasgow was under court order in the 1980s to sell the property. The financially troubled Glasgow era ended in 1983 when Khaled Al-Awar, who weathered long and difficult negotiations with Glasgow, finally succeeded in purchasing the theater. In spite of his shaky reputation, Glasgow demonstrated his love for the theater by making sure it sold to someone committed to running the movie theater, something Al-Awar promised to do. Al-Awar, owner of the Primavera Gallery in Ojai, made repairs and improvements to the building and changed the name to the Ojai Playhouse. He also worked hard to get first-run films in to town as the theater’s reputation had been badly damaged. Al-Awar was also one of the founders of the Ojai Film Society.

The Al-Awar family successfully operated the Ojai Playhouse until 2007 when Mark and Kathy Hartley took over the historic place and financed a major renovation, restoring the Isis to the glory of its early years in what they call an “early Hollywood” style. During the renovations the false ceiling in the lobby was removed and the original ceiling of ornate tin was uncovered. This may be the same ornamental tin mentioned in the May 29, 1914 article (paragraph 8 above.) The Hartleys changed the name back to the Ojai Theatre though the marquee still says Ojai Playhouse.

What you see today as the theater lobby may not have existed in the early years and there are few around to remember. Old newspaper articles mention two other businesses occupying spaces in the same building. Helen Peterson, who worked at the theater from 1945 to 1950, describes a ticket booth that jutted out from the face of the building with double entrance doors on either side. The entrance was further east than today. Inside was a hall area with curtained doors to the right and left that entered the theater proper. Off to the right were restrooms and the Flesher’s theater office. She sold candy from the booth and there was no popcorn concession. Local historian, Terry Hill remembers in the 1950s a ticket window to the right of two double doors (see the post card photo from 1954.) He recalls a popcorn concession that was directly behind the seats on the other side of a wall. The Flesher & Lawrence Insurance business and Roy Roberts, Realtor were both listed in the Ojai Directory of 1954 as being located next door at 139 E Ojai Avenue (where The Jester is today.) Historian David Mason remembers that there was a waiting room with chairs inside to the right of the entrance. According to Hill, Wayne Glasgow constructed the new entrance and big lobby during his1966 renovation.

Americans love for movies has only grown over the decades and thanks to the Hartley’s, and all the previous owners, Ojai residents have a unique opportunity to view first-run films in one of the oldest single-screen theaters in the country. And though the theater was closed for periods, it has been continuously run as a movie theater for close to 100 years. Kathy Hartley comments in the Ojai Valley News in May of 2008, “One-screen movie theaters are dying all over the United States. The only way we can make it is with the help of the community. I’m hoping they’ll come back and support us.” Support our Ojai treasure–see a movie in Ojai. Keep the Isis alive!

Ojai Theater Inside, Mark and Kathy Hartley renovated the historic theater installing comfortable new seats, new carpeting, wainscoting and other beautiful touches.

Note: Old photos of the Ojai Theatre are rare so if you have any please contact the Ojai Valley Museum at 646-1390. You can either donate the photos to the museum or loan them for scanning.

Elise DePuydt is the Office Manager of the Ojai Film Society and author of A Photo Guide to Fountains and Sculptures of Ojai: Art, History & Architecture.

 

Elise can be reached at redepuydt@att.net.

Published in the Ojai Valley Visitors Guide, Spring 2010

Update: June 2011

The Ojai Theatre reverted to Khaled Al-Awar in 2010. He returned the name of the theater to the Ojai Playhouse.

The city-owned Fillmore Towne Theatre is currently closed.

Ojai Village Pharmacy: 120 Years of Unbroken Business

When Vickie Robertson, long-time employee of Ojai Village Pharmacy, discovered that she had been working in the oldest pharmacy in Ventura County, she became a historical sleuth. “Wow,” she said, “I wonder how many people know this,” and began her investigations.

Robertson traced a lineage of pharmacists in Ojai who have owned the business since 1891. As she searched through books, talked to historians, and waded through reels of microfiche at the Ojai Library, she discovered that the store’s line of pharmacists had been unbroken since Dr. Benjamin Levan Saegar first established the Ojai Drug Store in Nordhoff (Ojai’s original name).

In the first issue of The Ojai newspaper (partly owned by Dr. Saegar), dated October 27, 1891, the Ojai Drug Store advertised, “Constantly on hand – a full stock of fresh drugs, cinnamon from Ceylon, ginger from Borneo, perfumes, fancy chocolates and toilet articles, stationery, cigars, tobacco, etc. Physicians prescriptions a specialty and promptly attended to day and night.” The population of the town was 300 people.

As Dr. Saegar was the first person in town to have a telephone and a drug store with soda fountain, his store became a hub of the village. People came to make phone calls for a few pennies, meet their friends, have an ice cream float, and exchange news of the day.

According to historian David Mason, “The Ojai Drug Store also doubled as the newspaper office, and Dr. Saegar was the paper’s first editor. People could drop off articles, ads, and pay for subscriptions while filling their prescriptions.”

In 1911 Dr. Saegar sold the store to W.V. Skillman who owned it only briefly although he did find the time to refurbish the soda fountain. The following year Skillman sold it to S. D. Nill who owned the business until April 1916 when he sold it to entrepreneur and pharmacist John Flanagan.

The Ojai reported, “He (Flanagan) is a thorough business man, and knows the needs of the trade, and that he must be able to deliver the goods at the right prices, to hold the trade, as communities are loyal to home interests if the ‘home interests’ are loyal to the community. Drop around and get acquainted. Mr. Flanagan is a live wire and thrice welcome.” In early 1917 Flanagan expanded his business to a larger space at 202 Ojai Ave at the site of Thomas Clark’s old horse livery.

During this same period, Thomas S. Clark owned the property along Ojai Ave between Signal and Matilija streets to the boundaries of the present Rains Department Store. Clark was also the County Supervisor for Ventura from 1904 to 1936. In 1895 he opened a horse stable and livery on the corner of Ojai Ave and Signal St. In 1910, when automobiles became available, Clark expanded his livery business into an auto livery. He enlarged the building to110 Signal Street, part of his property behind the former horse livery. Clark had the first auto showrooms in the Ojai valley.

In 1917 Clark sold his auto livery to E.A. Runkle who consolidated the “auto, livery and stage coach” business to the Signal St location enabling Flanagan to move his pharmacy to the corner location on Ojai Ave the following year.

In 1917 while World War I raged in Europe, two major fires descended upon Ojai, one in June and one in September. The June blaze took five lives and destroyed 70 homes, a church and part of the high school. Tom Clark’s home on Matilija and Signal was saved by a bucket brigade. “The second fire (in September) was caused from a gasoline stove explosion in the lunch room of Miss Elvie Presley at 11 o’clock and spread quickly in all directions,” reported The Ojai.

This second fire destroyed much of the downtown area including all the buildings along Ojai Ave up to the present Tottenham Court. Although townspeople and merchants helped move the drug store’s medicines and bottles away from the flames, Flanagan’s loss was considerable. He had over $3 – 3.4K in damages from broken bottles, exploded packages, and melted candy’s, soaps, chocolates and perfumes. Until Ventura County took over the fire department in the late 1920’s, local volunteers and US. Forest Service rangers fought the fires. Ojai was provided with it’s first fire truck in 1918 thanks to the generosity of E. D. Libbey.

Due to the damage and loss all businesses experienced, “The Ojai” urged “all the people of the Ojai to buy their goods more generously than ever before, of our local dealers, who have suffered so seriously and not to permit reduction in prices for slight damage by water, fire or smoke.”

Town benefactor E. D. Libbey built the Arcade and Tom Clark replaced the wooden frame building with massive stones that form the Signal Street walls today. John Flanagan celebrated the opening of his new store on June 27, 1918 with music and dancing. “The residents of the Ojai enjoyed a royal good time,” the Ojai reported. “Ice Cream and sodas were served free to all who cared to indulge and there were plenty of good smokes for the smokers.”

In 1919 George and Ida Crampton took over the Ojai Drug Store from Flanagan. Flanagan left the pharmacy for the automobile business and started the new Dodge car agency in Ventura. After the purchase Crampton invited the town “to an open house to come to his store for a good time. The products of his soda fountain will be dispensed free during the evening,” The Ojai reported. The population of Ojai was 500 people.

In 1924, the Cramptons sold the pharmacy business to R. J. Boardman, who ran it as Boardman’s Drug Store until 1947 when he sold it to Dr. E. K. Roberts and pharmacist Tom E. Clark who named it The Village Drug. (Dr. Roberts was Tom Clark’s brother-in-law).

Roberts and Clark owned the business until the early 1955 when they sold it to Mr. Ripley. However, within four years, Ripley sold it to pharmacist Alex Golbuff.

Golbuff ran the business from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM six days a week and 9 AM to 5 PM on Sundays for twelve years. One day in 1968, as the legend goes, Leonard Badt walked into the pharmacy and said, “I would like to buy this business.” Golbuff, fed up with working so many hours for so many years, said, “Take it!” And Badt did just that.

When Badt purchased the pharmacy business, he also had his eye on owning the land and building as well. He then approached Tom S. Clark’s daughters and asked to buy the property. They promised to sell it to him.

Thomas S. Clark and his first wife Ella Bakeman had nine children. After she died at the age of 55 in 1924, he remarried. When Clark died in 1940, he had willed the buildings on the corner of Ojai Ave and Signal St to his second wife Ida Brambel Clark.

Ojai resident Tom Clark Conrad, whose mother Margaret was one of T.S. Clark’s daughters, said, “My mother and her three sisters bought the property from Ida Clark and then sold it to two other sisters Dortha Clark Roberts and Elizabeth Clark. When Roberts and Clark died, the estate honored the promise made earlier to Leonard Badt and sold him the property. Badt’s two sons still own the building.”

In 1967, Stan Lazarus purchased the “other” drug store, Ojai Pharmacy, then located at 328 E. Ojai Avenue and the current location of Bonnie Lu’s. He bought the business from the Carsner family. A very popular man about town, James E. “Jack” France managed the store. After the tragic death of Leonard Badt in 1982, Lazarus purchased the “Ojai Drug Store” business from Leonard Badt’s estate and merged the two stores renaming it Ojai Village Pharmacy. June Conrad, Tom’s wife, said, “My friend Doris de Groot Mayfield had her first date with her future husband at the soda fountain in that pharmacy in 1942.” This year Ojai Village Pharmacy celebrates 120 years of unbroken pharmacy business in Ojai.

Many thanks to those who made this story possible: David Mason, Patricia Frye, Tom and June Conrad, the Ojai Valley Library, the Ojai Valley Museum, and most of all – Stan Lazarus and Vickie Robertson. Mason said, “It’s a nice thing that she (Robertson) has done and worked it through so long. It’s good for the historic preservation aspect of the valley. The Ojai Museum should have a copy of her findings, and I would encourage her to do other projects.”