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.
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.
Upon entering the front door of the hotel, your first view was of hundreds of orchid plants growing in attractive gardens –- a spectacular sight.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The famous bakery was located at 457 E. Ojai Avenue. Today the building houses AZU Restaurant.
The following article was printed in the Ojai Valley News probably in the 1960’s or 1970’s because that’s when the author (Ed Wenig) wrote for the newspaper. This article is reprinted here with the permission of the Ojai Valley News.
Ranger Bald was a man among men
An erect, elderly gentleman riding a spirited horse down Ojai Ave. to the post office was a familiar figure to residents of the valley in the 1940’s. Dismounting, he would swing into the post office on crutches, collect his mail, remount, and ride away to his apartment in the olive mill on the street that today bears his name.
Industrious, hard-working Geo. Bald come to the Ojai Valley in 1886 at the age of 22. He found his first job setting out orange trees for Edward Thacher on the land which is now known as the Topa Topa Ranch.
In 1891 George Bald married Miss Catherine Clark, the sister of the famous stagecoach driver, Tom Clark. The two went to the state of Washington to make their home for a decade. Returning to the Ojai Valley in 1900, Bald became operator of the Ojai olive mill, a new and promising industry. In the few years of its operation it was estimated that 11,000 gallons of oil were sold.
About 1902 George Bald decided to become a forest ranger. His headquarters were in Nordhoff, and his territory included the Ojai Valley, Sespe Hot Springs, Mutah, and Sespe Gorge to the Lockwood Valley.
For the next 19 years he carved out trails on the steep mountain sides in winter and patrolled his area for fires in summer. Three well-known trails he built were the Topa Topa Trail, the Ocean View Trail, and the Pratt Trail. The last-mentioned trail was financed by Charles M. Pratt, Standard Oil executive who lived on North Foothill Road, at which point the trail began. Sometimes a trail 10 miles long had to be made to reach a place only two miles distant “as the crow flies”.
Fire-fighting, too was a strenuous job for Forest Ranger Bald in the days before the development of modern fire control apparatus and improved systems of communication. When fire or smoke was observed from his lookout or camp, he would tie onto his saddle a bag of barley for his horse, lunch for himself, his fire-fighting tools, which consisted of a rake, shovel, mattock and axe, and ride off to locate the trouble spot.
For these duties he received about $60 a month from which he was expected to purchase his provisions and clothing, and grain for his horse.
In 1921 George Bald was offered the superintendency of the biggest, and often called the best, orange grove in the valley — the very orchard he had helped plant in the eighties. For the next 15 years he devoted all his efforts to the well-known Topa Topa fruit ranch. When his wife died in 1936, and the Topa Topa ranch was sold in the same year, George Bald retired and went to live in an apartment in the old olive mill.
Ranger George Bald riding in the center in the back country.
This story was written by Cricket Twichell. It is based on a piece she wrote for the Ojai Valley News in the 1980’s.
This lady knew about small beginnings. Born in Oklahoma around the turn of the century, Effie Skelton weighed in at 1 1/2 pounds. Told there was no way this child could survive, the Cherokee Indian auntie assisting at Effie’s birth ignored the doctor’s grim prognosis, wrapped Effie in soft cotton, tucked her into a shoe box which she placed in the warming oven of the wood stove and then every hour fed her a drop or two of blackberry brandy. Effie kicked into high gear and eventually became a driving force in the Ojai.
After graduating from business college, Effie saved her hard-earned money and in 1927 bought a brand new Pontiac. She had an agenda— to immediately head out west—by herself— to California. “I didn’t know how to drive backwards” said Effie” but that didn’t matter. I was only going forward.”
Ending up in Ventura, Effie married a young man who worked for Shell Oil Company. They moved to Ojai where she raised 3 children and became a realtor, specializing in Meiners Oaks properties. Her weekly column in the Ojai Valley News— “What’s Doin’ in Meiners Oaks”—- had a devoted , down-home following.
Over the years Effie became concerned because so many artifacts connected with the pioneer days of the Ojai were leaving the valley. If only we had a museum which would house these papers, tools, and etc of a bygone era! The more she thought about this, the more zealous she became in her determination to stop the hemorrhaging of the Ojai’s historical items.
Other community leaders jumped on Effie’s band wagon. Bob Browne, a local anthropologist, history buff and handyman, shared her enthusiasm for creating a museum and historical society in the Ojai. He had bought a house in the highlands above Miramonte and to his delight discovered it had been the site of a Chumash Indian village. After UCLA conducted a full-blown archaeological dig on his property, Bob wanted to house the relics which had surfaced in a place where they could be enjoyed and appreciated by.the community at large. He and Effie joined forces; and soon Lynn Rains, Arthur Waite, Bill Bowie, Lois Powers and Elizabeth Thacher hopped on board.
The founding members of the museum began working the room, asking members of Ojai pioneer families to donate articles to their worthy cause. The Forest Service offered space to store the memorabilia which came pouring in. When they needed more room, Walter Gamulski offered storage space where the American Legion Hall is today if the museum group would pay the taxes and the insurance. You betcha’!
Effie and her friends put donation cans in banks, stores, motels and public buildings. She wrote articles in the Ojai Valley News to keep the community appraised of the progress of her venture and to remind readers to donate antiques etc to add to the ever-growing collections.
In 1966, 50 years ago, the Museum opened up for business in the Arcade where the realtors office is today. At the opening reception punch was served in attractive bowls the early Chinese settlers had used for washing their hair. That day Effie got to raise two flags over the new Museum, one which had flown over the capitol in Sacramento and one which had flown over the White House in Washington. Ojai had itself a bona fide Museum!
As the collections continued to grow, in 1979 a new home was found for the fledgling Museum— on Montgomery Street at the former firehouse which had been built in 1937 with WPA funds. Bud Bower donated the services of Ojai Van Lines to transport the possessions to the new location; Bob Browne and his crew built dioramas depicting animals in the Sespe back country; eye-catching displays were concocted. People came. In one year Effie, who manned the guest book every day for over 20 years, counted 7,000 visitors from 31 countries.
What started as an idea in Effie’s noggin, grew into an institution which is thriving today. Like her old Pontiac, the Museum only goes forward!
Orestes Orlando Orr, who was born in Illinois, arrived in the county in 1878 to teach school on the Avenue. His real interest however was to become a lawyer. He was admitted to the bar in 1881 and became a member of the first law firm in Ventura County. He was elected District Attorney in 1884 at age 27, and he held the office for three terms.
He married Ella Mae Comstock in 1881. She had been born in Oskaloosa, Iowa. The lives of the couple entered a new phase when Orestes ran for the office of State Senator in 1892. The Ojai reported on November 5 of that year that “The Republican meeting at the school house last Saturday night was a rousing one. Orestes Orr made many votes for himself by his manly talk . . . .” He was elected. While serving in the State Senate, he held the chairmanship of the Roads & Highways Committee, a prominent position considering the great drive for good roads at the time. A couple of years later, he chaired the Senate Committee on Corporations.
The photographs above may have been wedding photographs, but a note on the back of Ella’s states that her dress was typical of what she would have worn to official functions in Sacramento. Unfortunately, Ella Mae died young, at age 41 in 1908. Orestes continued to practice law in Ventura County.
His son Harold held the position of Ventura City Attorney for 35 years. Harold received Earle Stanley Gardner into his Ventura law firm in 1915. Orestes’ son Charles owned the Hermitage Ranch in the East Valley, and Orestes himself lived on Signal Street at the time of his death in June of 1915.
The Dennison family is seen here gathered at their ranch in the Upper Valley in 1897, possibly for the celebration of New Year’s Day. The younger members are prepared to play tennis, while the older members are seated on chairs alongside the court, well-wrapped against the chilly air. Seated at the rear center is a bearded man, Henry Jackson Dennison, head of the family. He looks old in this picture, but he lived another twenty years. He and his wife had many children, grand-children and inlaws, as this photograph attests.
The Ojai Valley Tennis Club had been formed about a year earlier, and its first Valley-wide tournaments were played in 1896. Nina and William Soule were the first mixed-doubles champions that year. It seems probable that some of the persons seen in this picture participated in those first tournaments.
Three of Henry Jackson’s sons stand at the rear, from left to right: Rapp, Schuyler and Waldo (behind the net). At the far left is Henry’s daughter, Lulu Dennison Mallory, holding her daughter Margaret on her lap. The infant was born in October 1896. At the lower center of the picture is a young woman who romantically holds a bouquet of flowers on her lap. At the far right is a smiling young woman wishing us good luck by displaying a four leaf clover constructed of tennis rackets. Note that the Dennisons seemed to have had trouble properly trimming their palm tree.
Tennis anyone? Can you find the tennis ball in the picture?
Note: Howard Bald was an early Ojai resident. His reminiscences were written in the early 1970s.
About the middle of that first decade of the century , an occasional automobile would appear in Ojai. Naturally there was some friction between auto drivers and horsemen. Generally, the automobile people were quite understanding and would often pull to the side of the road, shut off the motor and even lead a fractious horse past the auto.
One farmer had quite a smash-up. The motorist went to his assistance and did all possible to straighten things out, but the irate farmer was not satisfied and insisted on fighting. The motorist backed off, saying, “You don’t know me.” The farmer didn’t care who he was and kept advancing and swinging.
Finally, the motorist struck one blow and the farmer went down in a heap. That motorist was Joe Rivers, a world-famous prize fighter of that day, who was training at Wheeler’s Hot Springs. He fought several battles with Ad Wolgast, who held the crown, but just didn’t make it.
The Pierponts were among the first of that day to have an auto. Phil and Austin came bowling down Ojai Avenue looking neither right nor left. Fred Houk and I were riding up on horseback, and our horses shied off the road at their approach.
I don’t think we were much inconvenienced, but we were incensed at being “run off the road” by those “stuck up so-and sos.” We turned about and galloped into town, vowing to show them a thing or two. We were doubtless relieved when arriving to find that they had not stopped and were probably headed for Ventura. Phil, Austin and I have had some good laughs over it.
I can’t refrain from relating one more horse-auto episode, even though it occurred in the middle of the second decade [1910-1919]; and I am trying to confine myself to the first decade [1900-1909]. I bought a rather attractive colt for a few dollars, because of her questionable character. After several months of training and a little expense, she became quite a docile animal. I had an interested buyer who offered quite a substantial sum of money, considering what I paid for her.
Before the deal was closed, I was riding up the upper Ojai grade with a young lady, when an auto crowded us into the bank and rammed into my colt. As a result, she developed an everlasting fear of the chugging monsters, and of course, ruined my sale.
At the time, Earl Stanley Gardner was practicing law in Ventura (that was before he took up writing). We had been on several expeditions in the Sespe and Pine Mountain country and had become quite friendly. When he heard of the incident, which was months later, he said, “Let’s sue them.” “Them” was the Bartlett Music Company.
The trial that followed was one of the funniest events that was ever staged in Nordhoff [now Ojai]. Court was held in the rear of what is now Bill Burke’s offices [the Ojai Realty Company in the arcade], and Judge [Harrison] Wilson was on the bench. At times he was practically on the floor from laughter.
The defense had gone to a great deal of expense and time, procuring evidence and witnesses to prove that the animal was a confirmed outlaw, and I was reputed to be the best rider in the county, that at one time I was unable to ride her, and that I paid only 37 dollars for her. My witnesses were winter tourists of the Foothills Hotel and Pierpont Cottages, who all volunteered their services.
All of the defense witnesses’ testimony was really a help to me, and for the sake of brevity I will eliminate details; but Judge Wilson decided in my favor. Gardner would take no pay from me. He just had the satisfaction of beating Earl Moss, who was a young Ventura lawyer, not to be taken lightly. The Ventura newspaper (I don’t remember its name) gave the country boy [Howard Bald] quite a panning for trying to hog the road with old Dobbin [“the confirmed outlaw”].
I faintly remember the furor that went up at about the turn of the century over women riding cross saddle. My mother and aunts were among the first to change. The garb they wore was a long, voluminous, divided skirt, that reached almost to their stirrups. One prominent citizen threatened to take his wife and sister off their horses and spank them if he caught them riding “astride.” Our family had several side saddles around for years, but whatever became of them, I don’t know. They would be valuable antiques today.
“Reminiscences of Early Ojai” by Howard Bald, 1973
Summer Bummerby Mark Lewis
Ojai’s Long, Strange Trip Through the Turbulent Sixties
The Age of Aquarius lingers on in Libbey Park, where Ojai’s flower children convene on Sunday afternoons to bang a drum or twirl a hula hoop. Counterculture types also can be spotted occasionally at the Pergola of a Friday evening, joining in the Peace Vigil to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The enduring hippie presence is a long-established Ojai tradition. But there was a time when they did not seem so benign.
For many Ojai residents – those of a certain age, who grew up here – the sight of tie-dyed peaceniks cavorting under the Pergola is a scene straight out of 1967, when anyone driving through downtown was sure to spot hippies lounging on the south side of Ojai Avenue. Some will smile at that memory, but others will cringe, because the Summer of Love was no love feast in these parts. There was yelling and rock-throwing and fist-fighting, culminating in three midsummer nights of violence which old-timers still refer to as “the Ojai riots.” Then the Pergola itself was bombed, and eventually demolished.
It seems extraordinary that these events could have occurred in peaceful little Ojai, which sees itself – and rightly so — as a refuge from the ills of urban life. But 44 years ago, when the 1960s suddenly erupted into “the Sixties,” Ojai seemed on the verge of losing its cherished Shangri-La status. Baffled and bewildered by all the changes, many people focused their fury on the hippies in the park, who seemed to represent a terrifying alien invasion.
Over time, passions cooled, and Ojai’s safe-haven status was preserved – with considerable help from the hippies, as it turned out. The Pergola eventually was rebuilt, and now seems as though it has always been there. The events of 1967 faded into legend, then into obscurity. To many newcomers, Ojai seems firmly rooted in a much more distant past, with its iconic Mission Revival architecture and its century-old orange groves. But a case can be made that the Ojai of today is really a child of the Sixties. Its birth was unusually traumatic, and the quickening began on a festive day in the fall of 1966, when a certain longtime resident returned to town after many years away.
The Secret Doctrine
Jiddu Krishnamurti first came to Ojai in 1922 as a messiah-in-training for Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society. He eventually rejected their World Teacher role and resigned from the society, but he continued to make his home on McAndrew Road, and to give occasional public talks at the Oak Grove in Meiners Oaks. Among his East End neighbors in the late 1950s was a young girl named Susan Diets, who would grow up to be Suza Francina.
“I often saw K standing at the bridge on McAndrew, soaking up the beauty of the valley,” Francina recalls.
For Judy Evans, who grew up in the Upper Valley during the ’50s, the K connection was more fundamental. “We actually moved to Ojai because of Krishnamurti,” says Evans, who describes her parents as “vegetarians and nonconformists.”
That description could be applied to a number of people lured to Ojai by the sage’s presence, including the potter Beatrice Wood and the restaurateur Alan Hooker, who started the Ranch House. Nor was Krishnamurti the only draw. There were also the Krotona Institute of Theosophy and the Happy Valley School (now known as the Besant Hill School). Ojai was home to some notable eccentrics, such as the woman in Meiners Oaks who went barefoot and lived in a tree. Most of the valley’s bohemians were less flamboyant; they had jobs and mortgages and looked pretty much like their neighbors. But when “the Sixties” kicked into gear, they (and their teenage children) were ready to embrace it.
As for Krishnamurti, he almost missed the Sixties altogether, at least as they unfolded in Ojai. He had avoided the town since 1960, due to a strained relationship with his business manager, D. Rajagopal. But in the fall of 1966 he returned to make peace with Rajagopal, and to give a series of talks at the Oak Grove. Alas, the hoped-for reconciliation did not pan out; the sage soon departed, and did not return until well into the 1970s. But his three-week visit in 1966 would have a lasting impact.
Despite his long absence, these talks drew enormous crowds. More than 2,000 people came to the first one, on October 29, to hear Krishnamurti call for “a revolution in the psyche, in the mind itself.”
Ojai’s homegrown intelligentsia turned out in force, along with curious teenagers like Suza Francina, who was delighted to find herself in such enlightened company. Francina, the product of a strict, Pentecostal upbringing, found herself drawn to the free spirits she encountered in the Grove. The term “hippie” had only recently been coined, but it applied to many of Krishnamurti’s listeners. Even in that crowd, they stood out.
“Everything about them had a different vibe,” Francina says.
Many of them had come up from Los Angeles: Laurel Canyon cowboys and Hollywood hipsters eager to latch onto the new thing, Indian gurus being all the rage. To be sure, Krishnamurti’s links to Hollywood went back many decades, and he had been prominently associated with the late Aldous Huxley, whom the counterculture would embrace as a prophet. But K’s 1966 visit seems to have re-forged the Ojai connection for a new generation of Angelenos, especially those who had stopped getting haircuts. Ojai would soon be a regular stop on the hippie caravan route from L.A. to San Francisco.
“Maybe they would have found Ojai anyway,” Francina says, “but they found it sooner through the K talks.”
The talks, which continued through November 13, were extensively covered by the Ojai Valley News. Writer John Nimick attended every session and explicated Krishnamurti’s philosophy in long, detailed articles, which no doubt were well read in the valley’s bohemian precincts. But most OVN subscribers skipped over Nimick’s articles and turned to the sports pages, where bigger news was brewing.
Catch a Wave
November 19 was Homecoming Day at Nordhoff High School. The gym had been decorated for a big dance featuring the Decades, a highly regarded rock band from Ventura. But first the Rangers would host Bishop Diego for a game that would determine the Tri-Valley League championship. Nordhoff was a basketball powerhouse in those days, but the football team had never made it to the playoffs. An enormous crowd showed up at the field on Maricopa Highway that Saturday afternoon, hoping to see the Rangers make history.
Before the kickoff, Homecoming Queen Jill Bryan received her crown — and a kiss — from team co-captain Steve Olsen. Playing center on offense and linebacker on defense, Olsen racked up six tackles and seven assists that day. But Nordhoff still trailed by a point in the final minutes of play, and Bishop Diego was running out the clock. Then the ball popped loose, and Olsen pounced on it. Jan Colenbrander, an exchange student from Holland, kicked a 35-yard field goal, and Nordhoff held on to win the game, 16-14.
The town went temporarily insane with joy. The victors were honored with a triumphal procession through downtown Ojai, escorted by smiling police officers. Then it was on to the dance, and a celebration that would linger in many memories for years to come. Theosophists by the thousand might beat a path to Ojai to sit at Krishnamurti’s feet, but this was still at heart an All-American small town out in the boondocks, where most people cared more about football than about expanding their consciousness.
“It was a time when athletes still dominated the scene,” Olsen recalls. The retired Chaparral High School principal looks back fondly on his own high school days, when Ojai resembled the setting for George Lucas’s classic film American Graffiti.
Just as in Lucas’s film, Ojai teenagers spent their weekend nights cruising the strip, which ran along Ojai Avenue from the Shell station (where Cluff Park is today) to the Hitching Post drive-in at Bald Street. (The Hitching Post, famous for its corn burritos with Happy Jack’s special sauce, was on the site currently occupied by Sea Fresh.) Olsen and a friend once cruised the strip nonstop for 24 hours in a ’55 Chevy: “It was just something we decided to do, and did it.”
More American Graffiti parallels: Ojai’s Top-40 radio playlist was curated by Wolfman Jack, broadcasting from a pirate station south of the border. And just as in the film, Ojai teens were devoted to drag racing. Since the 1950s, successive generations had been racing their cars in the East End, beyond the jurisdiction of city police.
“We’d drag on Gorham Road,” recalls Susana Arce, Nordhoff ’60 (she was Susie Callender back then). Carne Road also was popular, and sometimes Grand Avenue. Everyone fell into one of two categories, Ford or Chevy. “I had a ’52 Ford,” Arce says. “I was a Ford person.”
Manuel Saenz was a Chevy person. More specifically, a ’57 Chevy person. He and his friends were known as “the car guys.” They were a few years older than the high-school crowd. Saenz was 22 in 1966 — old enough to buy beer, which car guys consumed in prodigious quantities.
“In the 1960s, Ojai was the party town of the county,” Saenz says. For car guys, it was heaven: “There were eight gas stations back then, and there were eight bars that were open.”
In that more innocent era, drunk drivers were treated more gently than today. If a teen-ager drank too much, the cops were apt to give him a lecture and drive him home. “It was like Mayberry,” recalls Dan Cole, Nordhoff ’64, who played drums in Ojai’s hometown rock ‘n’ roll band, the Raiders.
Or maybe it was more like Petticoat Junction, since Southern Pacific Railroad trains still chugged into town occasionally to pick up loads of fruit from the packing house on Bryant Street. When kids heard the whistle of an approaching train, they ran down to the tracks to place pennies on the rails.
“Ojai wasn’t a very active place,” says Dr. Ray Huckins, who served as mayor from 1967 to 1970. “And that was fine as far as I was concerned. Nobody got very excited.”
“It certainly was a sleepy town,” agrees former city attorney and City Council member Jack Fay. “But I wouldn’t call it a hick town.”
Indeed not. Ojai offered highbrow cultural amenities rarely available in small-town America. The Happy Valley School staged modern dance programs featuring solemn-looking young women in black leotards, striking esoteric poses derived from Martha Graham. An eccentric impresario named Wayne Glasgow took over the Ojai Theatre in 1966, changed its name to the Glasgow Playhouse, and offered a steady diet of artsy foreign films: Godard, Truffaut, Pasolini. The Art Center that fall was mounting a production of William Inge’s steamy Picnic, to be followed by a heavy dose of Eugene O’Neill. The Ojai Music Festival was planning to bring in the avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez as its next music director, and have him conduct Stockhausen’s “Zeitmasse.”
Perusing this exotic bill of fare in the Ojai Valley News, many valley residents simply scratched their heads. But there was something in the paper for every taste. Under editor-publisher Fred Volz, the OVN ran rave reviews of New Wave films like Last Year at Marienbad, but also gave plenty of ink to church socials, and to the bowling league results from Topa Lanes.
“Ojai was culturally schizophrenic at the time,” says Richard Laubly, Nordhoff ’69. “As far as I know, only long-hairs from Happy Valley School went to Godard films, amongst the teenagers, anyway. For the rest of us, it was definitely James Bond double features at the Los Robles Theatre. On the other hand, I remember various teenagers I knew showing up at Krishnamurti talks, and we would be a little surprised to see each other there.”
One person Laubly didn’t see there was Steve Olsen, who was a jock and a surfer but not a budding Theosophist. Olsen’s focus was on football — at least until the Rangers lost their playoff game. After that, he was free to resume his regular weekend beach safaris to Mondos or Rincon, where an Ojai boy could catch a wave and be sitting on top of the world.
At least one dark cloud was visible on the horizon as 1966 drew to a close. Young men who didn’t go to college were subject to the draft, which meant they might be shipped off to Vietnam.
“The war had kicked in, and I was opposed to it, right from the very beginning,” recalls Howard Landon, who was then a Nordhoff history teacher. “And I was one of the few in town who was. A lot of people thought I was a Communist.”
Ojai’s political spectrum ran the gamut from radical leftists to the John Birch Society. But the liberals — a mostly college-educated cohort of teachers and artists and Theosophy enthusiasts — were far outnumbered by conservatives such as Dr. Huckins, who had actively supported Barry Goldwater’s presidential run in 1964 and Ronald Reagan’s California gubernatorial bid in the fall of 1966. Reagan’s victory on Nov. 8 cheered his many Ojai supporters — but some were appalled in mid-December when local anti-war activists announced plans to hold a regular Peace Vigil on Sunday afternoons in front of the Bank of America building. (This was not the current Bank of America building; it stood just east of the park, on the site currently occupied by Leslie Clark’s Nomad gallery and the Los Caporales restaurant.)
Meanwhile, there were disturbing reports in the OVN that marijuana and even LSD were making inroads in Ojai.
“Drugs were something that we had just not been aware of,” says Michael Cromer, whose family owned (and still owns) Bodee’s on the Maricopa Highway. Cromer graduated from Nordhoff in 1963, when marijuana and LSD were largely unknown in the valley. Just three years later, they suddenly seemed to be everywhere. “We thought that was something on another planet,” he says.
The dopers hung out in Civic Center Park (it would not be renamed Libbey Park until 1971), and they were increasingly brazen. In those days, there was no open plaza behind the Pergola, there was no big playground, and the park was more heavily wooded. The Pergola was better known as the Wall, a name derived from the three-foot-high masonry structures that filled the spaces between the pillars. When viewed from the street side, they looked like a wall that stretched along the entire length of the Pergola. For decades, Ojai teens had sat on that wall to watch the world go by. Now, this previously benign edifice was beginning to look more like an ominous fortress, which protected the shady characters in the park from police scrutiny.
Not that Ojai was opposed to walls. A lot of people would have liked to build one around the entire valley to keep it safe from outside influences. From the traditionalists’ point of view, Ojai remained a place apart, an island of beauty and sanity and tranquility in a world gone mad. They were determined to keep it that way. But it seemed to be a losing battle. All over Southern California, small towns like Ojai were submitting helplessly to the L.A. juggernaut and trading their orange groves in for housing developments. By the year 2000, the Ojai Valley’s population was projected to rise to 80,000, as more and more people fled the city to find refuge in this rustic paradise. In the process, the newcomers inevitably would transform Ojai into the very thing they were trying to escape.
While Ojai officials cast about for ways to stave off this looming disaster, many younger residents were dreaming of escaping from Ojai itself. They yearned to bust loose and see what the outside world had to offer. They were particularly curious about San Francisco, where strange and wonderful things were said to be happening. Suza Francina was in a hurry to find out for herself. Graduating from Nordhoff a semester early, she left home in December and boarded a northbound Greyhound bus. Soon she was living in a rented room on the third floor of a house in Haight-Ashbury. It was a room with a view, and she sat there at her window watching a brave new world being born.
The Summer of Love
On Jan. 14, 1967, thousands of hippies thronged San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to celebrate the first Human Be-In. It inspired similar events in New York, Los Angeles — and Ojai, where a tribe of local hippies already had staked out Civic Center Park as their headquarters. The closest thing they had to a leader was Ben Barraza, whom the Ventura County Star-Free Press later would dub “the King of the Hippies.”
“I was one of the first ones to go up to San Francisco,” he says. “I went up to the Monterey Pop Festival too.”
At 30, Barraza was older than the average hippie. An Ojai native, he had been a football star at Nordhoff in the mid-Fifties. By 1967 he was married to Judy Evans and they had two young children. But when the counterculture blossomed, Ben grew his hair long and embraced a new role.
“He went from captain of the football team in high school to King of the Hippies,” Evans says.
Ojai’s first love-in, in March, was a peaceful event. “Barefoot youths with flowers behind their ears strummed on guitars, ate picnic lunches and proclaimed ‘love’ to all who would listen,” the OVN reported.
A few hippies from Los Angeles came up to join in the fun. “People who went said it drew a crowd of several hundred and was a peace family trip,” reported the Los Angeles Free Press, an alternative newspaper that kept close tabs on counterculture happenings.
The Ojai Valley Tennis Club was less enthusiastic about the hippie presence. In late April, during the club’s annual tennis tournament, the Los Angeles Times reported that “a group of gate-crashing hippies — not exactly the kind of people you’d expect to see in Ojai — upset the tournament committee by making too much noise during a match between USC’s Stan Smith and UCLA’s Roy Barth.”
In response, some of the hippies formed the Ojai Valley Dopers Association, or O.V.D.A., to tweak the Tennis Club officials.
“The O.V.D.A. was originally a joke on the O.V.T.C., tennis folks who gave some of us a hard time about cluttering up ‘their’ park with our loathsome longhaired hippie selves,” recalls Tony Neuron. “At one point my brother Michael and I played doubles with a couple of other O.V.D.A. members on ‘their’ courts, barefoot with old junk rackets, largely just to piss them off. They saw us as criminal lowlifes — we saw them as stuck-up snobs.”
When the tournament ended, the tennis folks left the park to the hippies. The second love-in, in May, was bigger than the first. The crowd was swelled by local high-school students such as Richard Laubly who came to check out the scene. There were also more out-of-towners, two of whom were arrested for marijuana possession.
“The love-ins were a kick — lots of hippies but also several very straight-looking undercover cops trying to blend in,” Laubly says. “But I think after the first love-in more and more people started coming into town, either just to hang out or for the following love-ins. Ojai being more or less on the route from L.A. to S.F. might have also played a part.”
The hippies were impossible to ignore. There they were lounging on the Wall, right across the street from the Arcade, which in 1967 was not yet the tourist Mecca it is today. Back then the shops catered more to local residents, who went downtown nearly every day for one reason or another.
“That’s where people congregated, that’s where they shopped, that’s where they did everything,” Vince France says.
France is an Ojai native who graduated from Villanova Prep in 1961. By 1967 he was a sergeant on the police force, which suddenly found itself dealing with a serious drug problem. And it was not confined to the hippies in the park. There was, for example, the 14-year-old boy tripping on LSD who took off his clothes in Bart’s Books one evening. “I love everybody,” he announced.
Less amusing were the youths who became seriously ill after overdosing on jimson weed, a natural hallucinogen that grows wild in the hills.
“We had five kids who damn near died,” France says. “It was crazy, it was absolutely crazy.”
Nordhoff teachers had to deal with students who would show up in class while under the influence. “We went through a real drug thing here,” Howard Landon says. “I would have kids in class who would act a little strange.”
Ojai was Mayberry no more. The straight people in town — i.e., the vast majority — looked on aghast as longhaired, unwashed vagrants in psychedelic regalia took over the park and painted “LSD” and other drug-culture slogans on the Pergola. The community demanded action, and the police complied. But in the new political context of 1967, many young people felt persecuted by any vigorous attempt to enforce the drug laws. They felt that the cops “were a little heavy-handed, and so they started to retaliate,” Steve Olsen recalls. “And because of that, there was some anarchy.”
“The Hippie set,” as the OVN called it, consisted of several overlapping groups. There were the authentic flower children, who were obeying Timothy Leary’s injunction to turn on, tune in and drop out; there were young activists who were more politically minded, and more focused on protesting the war; there were dopers, who just liked to get high; there were drug dealers, who were there for business reasons; and there were high school kids who were just there to soak up the vibe. Collectively they were the long-hairs, whereas the anti-hippie set – the car guys, the farm boys, the rednecks, the straight kids – can be labeled the short-hairs, at least for the purposes of this article.
Tension between the two groups further escalated when the O.V.D.A. began using the Pergola as a billboard.
“Ojai police, nettled by a series of provocative acts attributed to members of the Hippie set, were mulling retaliatory action Friday,” the Ojai Valley News reported on June 4. “Chief James D. Alcorn said his phone ‘has been ringing off the hook,’ with calls from citizens who are plainly disturbed by what they claim are impudent reflections on recent narcotics violations. The most recent incident was the posting of a sign near the arches fronting Civic Park, proclaiming ‘Things go better with pot.'”
There was a truce for the Fourth of July, which featured Ojai’s usual parade. It was unusually well attended that year. The theme was “Our America,” and the hippies joined in the spirit of the occasion. “I borrowed a truck,” Barraza says, “and we made a float completely out of flowers.”
But the third love-in, in mid-July, was a disaster. Undercover narcotics officers tried to bust a dealer for selling hashish, and quickly found themselves surrounded by angry young men who did not like narks. A passing short-hair saw what was going on and ran to the officers’ aid, yelling, “All right, which one of these hippies do you want me to clobber?” When the dust cleared, five people were in police custody and hundreds were bummed out.
By now, the battle lines were clearly drawn. “It became where you had the rednecks and the car guys versus the hippies,” Olsen says.
Car guys like Manuel Saenz, who had a job in a machine shop, resented the hippies for thumbing their noses at people who worked for a living. When Saenz and his friends would encounter any long-hairs, the tension was palpable. “Everybody was flipping each other off,” Saenz says.
The short-hairs often congregated in the Elbow Room, a bar in the Arcade near Rains Department Store. (Nowadays the location is occupied by the Primavera Gallery.) The Elbow Room had pool tables and a card room and a good view of the Pergola’s west arch, which constituted the hippies’ main redoubt. From their vantage point under the Arcade, the short-hairs seethed as they watched the long-hairs made teasing remarks to passersby, including women who had to pass the Pergola on their way to the Post Office.
“A lot of young fellows like myself, we just thought that they were being disrespectful,” Mike Cromer says. “It kind of got to a boiling point.”
It was summer now, so all the teenagers were out of school and hanging out downtown. Some lined up with the car guys, some with the hippies. Others just milled about, not taking sides but eager to see what would happen.
Up in San Francisco, the Summer of Love was in full swing. In other cities, fear and loathing were more predominant. All through the long, hot summer of 1967, ghettos erupted in violence. First Newark went up in the flames; then on July 23 the riots spread to Detroit, where they continued for five or six nights, and 43 people were killed. In Ojai that week, people stared at their television sets in disbelief. Could anything like that happen here? Ojai was too small to have a real inner-city ghetto, but it did have a park full of hippies, and clearly there was trouble brewing.
Looming over everything else was Vietnam. On July 23, the OVN reported the death of Army Sgt. David Allen Stephens, Nordhoff ’64, the first Ojai man to be killed in the war. Married only eight months, Stephens left behind a widow who was pregnant with a daughter who would never know her father. Ojai mourned his death, and brooded over its meaning.
Some of the short-hairs were ex-servicemen. They bitterly resented the hippies for opposing the war, and therefore dishonoring the sacrifices made by men like Allen Stephens. “They thought we were being unpatriotic,” Barraza says.
The animosity was further fueled by a whiff of class conflict. The car guys and farm boys tended toward blue-collar occupations, which left them subject to the draft. Whereas many Ojai teenagers who lined up with the hippies were the sons of college graduates and were college-bound themselves, and therefore (at the time) exempt from the draft.
The situation was combustible; it would not require much of a spark to set it off. On July 28, a short-hair got into it with a long-hair, and events began to spiral out of control.
Up Against the Wall
A hot summer evening, well lubricated in the usual way. Young men looking for trouble, and finding it. Push comes to shove, punches are thrown, the police move in to break it up, someone takes a swing at a cop and lands in jail. Just another Friday night fight in a small town with too many bars and not enough to do. But this one lit a fuse.
Mike Cromer remembers it all clearly, 44 years later. He and a friend had just returned from Santa Barbara and were cruising down Ojai Avenue past the Wall.
“Some of these hippie characters yelled at my buddy, and he was kind of an aggressive character,” Cromer says. The friend jumped out to have a little chat with the long-hairs. Cromer quickly found a place to park his car and returned to the scene to find a fistfight in progress. The cops broke it up and hauled the participants down to the police station, which back then was located at the east end of the Arcade. Other young men gathered in front of the station, in support of one side or the other. A second fight broke out, and one youth was arrested for assaulting Chief Alcorn and Sergeant Gene Meadows.
“And that was the beginning,” Cromer says.
There was no more serious violence that night, but both sides were now girding their loins for battle. The tension continued to build throughout the weekend. The downtown area overflowed with spectators, most of who were eager to see the long-hairs get their comeuppance. Saenz recalls that many older people in the crowd were urging the short-hairs on: “The adults were yelling, ‘Get the hippies! Get the hippies!'”
In Ben Barraza’s telling, it was car guy Rick Watson who finally threw down the gauntlet. On Sunday afternoon, Watson and some friends decided that enough was enough. They marched up to the Wall and told the hippies to abandon their fortress by 5 p.m., or face the consequences. The long-hairs who received this ultimatum ran to tell Barraza, who immediately began mobilizing his troops and gathering weapons.
“We had a big stash behind the Wall — pipes and clubs,” Barraza says. “We were ready.”
Somewhat to his surprise, these supposedly peaceful flower children were ready to rumble. “They were ready to put their lives on the line and fight for that Wall,” he says.
(Note: Some longtime Ojai residents might recall a young man named Marc Lewis who lined up with the long-hairs during the period in question. He is no relation to the author of this article.)
For three nights — from Sunday, July 30, through Tuesday, August 1 — Ojai teetered on the brink of civil war. The short-hairs knew most of the long-hairs; they had all grown up together, gone to school together, played football together. Now they were at each other’s throats.
“Every night something would happen downtown,” Alan Rains says. “A window would be broken or a car would be vandalized.”
Each night after dinner, Rains and Charles Barkman would go down to the Rains store and stand guard on the roof.
“The Wall was just about directly across from our front door,” Rains says. “There were lots of people across the street raising Cain.”
The two armies faced each other across Ojai Avenue, the long-hairs under the Pergola, the short-hairs under the Arcade. Rocks were thrown, and handfuls of BBs, and the occasional cherry bomb or firecracker. Grass fires were set in nearby lots. Scores of onlookers — men, women and children — stood on the sidelines or mixed with the combatants, egging them on. The tiny Ojai Police Department, vastly outnumbered, did its best to keep things under control.
“It was just unbelievable,” says Cromer, who was in the thick of it.
There was no general melee, but there were frequent fistfights and brawls. Whenever punches were thrown, the police would quickly move in to stop the fight. Sometimes they had to arrest a combatant who failed to simmer down. On Monday night, short-hair Jerry Puckett got rambunctious and ended up in the grip of four or five officers, who proceeded to frog-march him off to jail. Some long-hairs mistakenly thought that the cops were ganging up on a hippie, so Puckett’s arrest “triggered a storm of rock-throwing,” the OVN reported.
A news photo of Puckett being subdued by Ojai’s finest went out on the wire, and apparently ran in other county newspapers. Their coverage of the disturbances inspired short-hairs from Santa Paula and Ventura to drive to Ojai to get in a lick at a hippie. On each successive night, the crowds were bigger and the mood was uglier.
“It got worse and worse as it went on,” France says. “It was scary times for awhile there.”
With tensions rising to dangerous levels, the police decided they needed to take action to head off a disaster. They called in reinforcements from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol. Then they waited.
By sundown on Tuesday evening, at least 500 people were milling around in the downtown area, waiting for the show to begin. Just after 9 p.m., a brawl broke out near the Post Office, and the police made their move. They barricaded Ojai Avenue at Signal and Montgomery streets and rolled down the avenue in force with their lights flashing. Wearing helmets and carrying nightsticks, they waded into the crowds and ordered everyone to disperse.
But that was not the end of it. Someone was lurking in the shadows behind the Arcade, carrying a six-pack of Molotov cocktails. He tossed one toward the back of the police station, but it exploded harmlessly on the pavement.
The bomb-thrower, apparently, was Roger Stine, a 22-year-old doper who lined up with the long-hairs. Not that Ben Barraza had approved Stine’s commando mission. Most of the hippies were peaceful people, Barraza says: They were just out to defend themselves from the rednecks. But Stine and his cohort were something else entirely.
“These kids were on the fringes,” he says. “They were violent kids with violent thoughts, and they saw their chance to do something.”
Stine concocted his cocktails in empty soda bottles, mixing alcohol and liquid soap to create a napalm effect. “I think he was going to burn down the Arcade,” France says.
He never got the chance. Rains and Barkman, patrolling the Arcade roof, spotted Stine on an exposed deck on the second floor of Tobey’s Super Market, in the building that now houses Rainbow Bridge.
“He was heading to the top of the roof to heave this cocktail,” Rains says. “He had one in his hand.”
Rains and Barkman rushed to intercept the intruder. Stine ended up in the hands of the police, who charged him with felony possession of a Molotov cocktail. (Stine could not be interviewed for this story; he died in 2000, at the age of 54.)
Police had cleared the Arcade area, but disturbances continued for several more hours on the fringes of downtown, where short-hairs and long-hairs traded punches in parking lots and on street corners. It was well after midnight before the two opposing armies finally disbanded for the night. The following morning, Fred Volz in the OVN relayed Chief Alcorn’s warning to everyone in town to stay home that night, and to enforce the curfew on their teenagers. That warning, plus the massive police presence, seems to have persuaded most people that things had gone far enough.
“And that was the end of it,” France says.
But not quite, because now the out-of-town news media descended. “200 Youths Clash in Ojai; Molotov Cocktails Found,” blared the Oxnard Press-Courier. A TV news crew from Santa Barbara set up shop on Ojai Avenue and interviewed Alcorn and Barraza. That night, Ojai residents sat in front of their TV sets and saw their own peaceful little town described as the scene of a riot. Newark, Detroit … and Ojai?
Of course, Ojai’s so-called riots were not remotely comparable to Detroit’s. No one was killed here, or even seriously injured; there was no looting, no buildings set afire, no cars overturned. There were many arrests, but only Stine faced a really serious charge.
“There were some scuffles and pushing around,” Barraza says. “There weren’t that many scuffles, actually. Nothing really happened.”
Perhaps not, but the possibility was there. “The turmoil was very chaotic and threatening,” Rains says. “It was squelched before it turned into something major.”
Pictures at a Revolution
Suza Francina was still in San Francisco while Ojai went through its days of rage. But she returned to her hometown later in August and ended up staying at Ben and Judy Barraza’s place near downtown. She was not their only guest.
“I had a little commune going in my house on Willow Street,” Barraza says.
Other hippie hot spots included the Art Center, Orchid Town, Ojala, Camp Comfort, the Happy Valley School (then located in Meiners Oaks), and much of the East End. Also popular were the dumpsters behind the Bayless Market, where hungry flower children could scavenge for food. But the Barraza house was their main headquarters.
“That was the hippie hub,” Francina says. Fortunately, she had moved on to new digs by October 29, when a county narcotics task force raided the house on Willow Street, arresting the Barrazas and eight other people.
“The narks thought that we were selling acid,” Barraza says. And in fact, as he now concedes, at least one person staying in the house was indeed selling LSD. Acid trips were central to the hippie experience in 1967, and many Ojai flower children indulged – including, on occasion, Suza Francina.
“The hope was, of course, that psychedelic drugs would change human consciousness,” she says. “LSD has been totally marginalized and misunderstood by the mainstream press. Kids should not be taking it. But even though I probably will not take any more drugs ever again this lifetime, it has given me a deep appreciation for cultures that use psychedelic substances in sacramental or religious contexts. I had a spiritual awakening on LSD that has stayed with me my whole life.”
The charges against Barraza and his housemates apparently didn’t stick, and the hippies declined to be chased out of town. They were reinforced by new arrivals, who had heard good things about this little town in the Ventura County backcountry.
“Ojai had a reputation for drawing these people,” France says.
Between the Krishnamurti talks, the love-ins and the riots, Ojai was well known in counterculture circles. Filmmaker Edgar Beatty, who was shooting a documentary about the hippie movement, included a scene shot in Ojai of a group of local flower children, including Judy Evans Barraza, discussing various cosmic matters in a sheltered glade in Dennison Park. (The word “groovy” was frequently employed.) His film, which premiered in New York in December 1967, was titled The Hippie Revolt.
Beatty was not the only filmmaker drawn to Ojai by its counterculture ambiance. One weekend in late November, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider checked into the Ojai Valley Inn to work on the script for Head, a surrealistic send-up of all things psychedelic. Rafelson was to direct, Schneider was to produce, and they had brought along an up-and-coming screenwriter named Jack Nicholson to collaborate with Rafelson on the script.
The choice of Ojai as the setting for their brainstorming session evidently was not a coincidence. Twelve months earlier, Nicholson had been a face in the crowd at the Oak Grove, dragged there for the K talks by his theosophically inclined wife. At the time, Nicholson’s acting career was going nowhere, so he was shifting his focus to screenwriting with an emphasis on counterculture themes. Clearly he considered Ojai a source of good material. His script for Head would recycle the sage’s pronouncements and put them in the mouth of the Swami, a guru-like character clearly inspired by Krishnamurti.
Head was supposed to make movie stars of the Monkees, who were also guests at the Inn that weekend. The three filmmakers and the four Monkees spent several days getting high and dictating their ideas into a tape recorder. The film that emerged from this process would be a resounding flop, thus proving the O.V.D.A. wrong: Things did not always go better with pot.
(Nicholson, Rafelson and Schneider, sans the Monkees, would have much better luck with their next effort: Easy Rider.)
Ojai’s cosmic reputation also lured the novelist Thomas Pynchon to town – or so one might reasonably conclude after reading his 2009 novel Inherent Vice. Pynchon is said to have lived in Manhattan Beach during the late 1960s while writing Gravity’s Rainbow. As it happens, the protagonist of Inherent Vice is an ex-hippie-turned-private-investigator named Doc Sportello, who lives in a town very much like Manhattan Beach. At one point Doc drives up to Ojai to investigate a mysterious sanitarium, and he talks his way in by name-checking Ojai’s favorite sage:
“I believe,” said Doc earnestly, “that just as chakras can be identified on the human body, so does the body of Earth have these special places, concentrations of spiritual energy, grace if you will, and that Ojai, for the presence of Mr. J. Krishnamurti alone, certainly qualifies as one of the more blessed of planetary chakras, which regrettably cannot be said for San Francisco or its immediate vicinity.”
The Inherent Vice plot also features a bank called “the Arbolada Savings and Loan,” which makes loans to “ranchers, local contractors, maybe some Rosicrucians and Theosophists now and then.” Clearly, Pynchon knew Ojai fairly well. Nor was he the only counter-culturally inclined Angeleno to undertake that 90-minute pilgrimage via the Ventura Freeway. With the hippie movement now in full flower, and the caravan route from L.A. to San Francisco heavily traveled, many long-haired strangers passed through Ojai in those days. And some decided to stick around.
Most were more likely to crash at Camp Comfort than to check into the Ojai Valley Inn. All in all, they were not the sort of tourists that Ojai was eager to welcome. But they came anyway. To many people in town, it seemed as though their peaceful community was being overrun by bizarre-looking aliens, who were infecting the local teenagers with their deeply weird ways.
Susie Arce returned to her hometown in the fall of ’67 to teach English at Nordhoff. She found a community that felt itself besieged by the forces of chaos.
“The whole world changed in the Sixties,” she says. Small towns like Ojai “were unprepared for this huge shift. Things just erupted. And nobody knew what to do. It was a shock, I guess.”
The riots had settled nothing. Hippies still hung out in the park and lounged on the Wall, which they generously shared with their fellow travelers, the anti-war protesters. Many older people in town suspected a sinister collusion between the local long-hairs and those campus radicals one read about in the newspapers. It all smacked of an anti-American conspiracy. “They really worried a lot about Communists,” Arce says.
Civic Center Park remained the focal point, and a source of deep concern. Both park and Pergola were owned by the Ojai Civic Association, which had received them as a gift from the philanthropist Edward Drummond Libbey half a century earlier, in 1917. The association trustees were unhappy about the hippies but were unable to evict them without closing the park to everyone else.
The Pergola’s west arch, near the Post Office, posed a particular problem. It was 50 years old and beginning to fall apart, like the rest of the Pergola (and the Arcade as well). The hippies (or their doper friends) seemed to delight in vandalizing it, and in scrawling provocative slogans on its sides. Then someone decided to blow a hole in it. The deed was done on December 30 at 3:30 a.m., using what the OVN described as “a handmade bomb.”
The newspaper said the bomb was made up of shotgun shells filled with black powder. But Tony Neuron drew a different conclusion.
“I actually was on the scene, right by the Post Office, the morning after the ‘explosion,’ ” recalls Neuron, who these days is a librarian in Roanoke, Va. “I ran into Major [John] Dron, who was standing by the first arch holding an empty 12-gauge shotgun shell. It did not look like it had been ‘filled with black powder.’ It was undamaged, and looked like just what you would expect to be ejected from a shotgun after firing. The terra cotta building block that the original Pergola was built of was extremely brittle, and the damage I saw was consistent with a shotgun firing into it.”
Whether the vandal used a bomb or a shotgun, the damage to the arch was relatively minor. No one was arrested, but outraged city officials blamed the hippies.
“Last night’s act is a felonious one and is a definite threat to the health and welfare of the community, and stronger action will have to be taken,” Mayor Huckins said.
Garfield Jenks, president of the Civic Association, complained that the park had been hijacked by hippies. Major Dron, an association trustee, was even more vociferous:
“This outrage is but the culmination of a long series of insensate and vicious efforts to destroy and deface the park,” Dron said. In response, the association must “enforce rigorous measures to prevent the park from being turned into a disgraceful shambles of broken furniture, scarred trees and a headquarters for dope addicts.”
The park was closed. But then it re-opened, and the hippies drifted back in. The summer of 1968 was less troublesome than the one before, but the basic conflicts remained unresolved. The cells of the old Ojai jail behind the park tell the tale: Their walls are covered with peace symbols and drug-related graffiti dating from the late 1960s.
Some of the messages are defiant – “LSD is here to stay” – but others are poignant. One night, by the light of the moon, a young prisoner named Kerry Donat O’Connor cast a spell on the two officers who had arrested him. He scrawled a notice to that effect on the wall of Cell 3. Then he added these lines:
I started at the top
Now I’m falling to the end.
Undestined to be destined
For my life will never end.
Kerry is my name
And faith my only nation;
Time and space my dwelling place
And death my destination.
And all the while, Ojai boys kept dying in Vietnam.
Howard Landon was hit especially hard by the death of his former student George Skakel, Nordhoff ’64. “George Skakel was a brilliant young man,” Landon says. Skakel, a cousin of Ethel Skakel Kennedy, also was known for his sense of humor and venturesome spirit. After graduation, he bummed around the world for a while, then enrolled at UC Santa Cruz. Then he was drafted into the Army. “He was against the war,” Landon says, but Skakel chose not to dodge the draft, “more or less to please his father.” He was killed in action in Quang Tri Province in March 1968.
Raymond Bunch had lined up next to Steve Olsen on the offensive line the day the Rangers beat Bishop Diego. After graduating in June 1967, Bunch went straight into the Marines. He was killed in action at Khe Sanh on July 5, 1968.
In Ojai, opposition to the war was gradually increasing. But most people still viewed the Peace Vigil protesters as unpatriotic or worse, and feelings ran high. “I got my mailbox blown up once,” Landon says.
Richard Laubly, another Landon student, caused a major ruckus by resigning from the Parks and Recreation Commission to start a Ventura College chapter of the anti-war Students for a Democratic Society. His SDS chapter never really got off the ground, but he caught considerable flak just for making the effort.
“When I resigned from the Parks and Recreation Commission to join SDS, it stirred up a lot of that conservative sentiment,” says Laubly, now an education trainer based in Paris. “My father, who taught at Ojai Elementary, was threatened with losing his job, for example.”
Despite all the hostility, Ojai’s anti-war protesters continued to march through the Pergola with their placards, and the long-hairs and dopers continued to line the Wall with their freak flags flying. The structure seemed to symbolize hippie defiance.
“It was decided that it would be wise to eliminate that symbol and show them who’s boss,” Steve Olsen says, relating the story as he has heard it. “So a group of local citizens decided to take it into their own hands, and placed dynamite and blew it up.”
On October 28, 1968, a little before 4 a.m., someone dropped an explosive device into the hole created by the first blast 10 months earlier. This time, the vandals did a more thorough job: The explosion fractured the Pergola’s west arch. The City Council immediately condemned it and had it partially demolished, for safety reasons. Fingers pointed to the usual suspects.
“They tried to blame it on us,” Barraza said. “We didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Indeed they did not. No one ever was arrested in connection with the blast, but Ojai is after all a small town. Before long, everyone thought they knew the main bomber’s identity. And he was no hippie.
“I heard it was Pete Rowe who did it with half a stick of dynamite, and that Gar Jenks [of the Civic Association] put him up to it,” Barraza says.
Vince France, who later served as Ojai’s police chief, says he doubts that Jenks had anything to do with it. Concerning Rowe, France chooses his words carefully. “My theory would be Pete,” he says. “But it’s only a theory.”
Mike Cromer says his lips are sealed.
“I don’t have a theory, I know exactly what happened, and I’m going to take it to the grave,” he says, with a chuckle. “I wasn’t involved, but I had close friends who were.”
Peter Rowe died in 2008 at the age of 70. Many stories are told about this colorful character, but his biggest claim to fame was his supposed role in the Pergola bombing.
“He was a cowboy-type guy, and he was very tough,” Manuel Saenz recalls.
There’s no doubt that the bombers were short-hairs who wanted to strike a blow at the hippies. But Barraza thinks there was a wider conspiracy at work. His theory — and it’s a popular one in Ojai — is that the bombers were given a green light by the powers that be, who wanted an excuse to demolish the entire Pergola. That would deprive the hippies of their fortress, and make it easier for the police to see what was going on in the park.
Another possible motive for getting rid of the Pergola was that city planners wanted to open up the park with a plaza and a fountain as part of Ojai’s ambitious downtown redevelopment effort. The Pergola was old and in the way.
Jack Fay recalls no collusion between the city establishment and whoever bombed the arch. The Pergola was falling apart due to its age, he says, and the bomb accelerated the process.
“The damage to the structure had made it a danger to the public,” he says. “So the city proposed removing it and not replacing it.”
But a vigorous new protest movement sprang up, with the aim of preserving or replacing the Pergola as part of Edward Libbey’s original vision for Ojai. For two and a half years the battle raged, while the new plaza was constructed, and the mutilated Pergola continued to deteriorate. Finally, on March 2, 1971, the Civic Association conveyed ownership of the venerable structure to the city, which quickly made its move. The bulldozers rolled during the early morning hours of March 4, when the protesters were still asleep.
“The city struck at dawn, and had the job done before anybody got wind of it,” Fay recalls with a chuckle.
After 54 years on Ojai Avenue, Edward Libbey’s Pergola was no more.
“It was like a commando thing,” France says. “People woke up and it was gone.”
But at least one unidentified hippie noticed what was happening and moved to retaliate. That same morning, he took a sledgehammer to a newly constructed brick wall near the Ojai Library, a block west of the Pergola. After doing considerable damage, he spray-painted a defiant message on the vandalized structure: “A Wall for a Wall!”
The Pergola’s demise foreshadowed the end of an era. By 1973, the U.S. had withdrawn its forces from Vietnam, and the counterculture was on the wane. There were still hippies around, but they were increasingly difficult to distinguish from the car guys.
“The hippies won in the long run,” Saenz says, “because two years later everyone had long hair.”
So, fast-forward to 1997. Civic Center Park is now Libbey Park and downtown Ojai is a jewel, thanks to the city’s redevelopment efforts. But local history maven David Mason knows something is missing: The Pergola.
Mason’s restoration campaign had been stymied for years by several longtime City Council members. They remembered all too well the events of 1967 through 1971, when the Pergola was a perpetual battleground and an impediment to the police.
“I had to wait until the last one retired from the Council,” Mason says.
Then he went to work, with help from David Bury, Joan Kemper and others. On July 4, 1999, the brand-new Pergola was dedicated. It was a faithful replica of the original in every important respect, except one: the Wall was missing. The spaces between the pillars were left unobstructed. “The police preferred not having a wall there, so we took that out,” Mason says.
The former short-hairs, now middle-aged and longer-haired, did not object to the Pergola’s restoration. “I think it was the correct thing to do, absolutely,” says Mike Cromer, who these days presides over his sprawling Rancho Grande guest ranch in Rose Valley, while his daughter Michele Cromer-Bentivolio runs Bodee’s.
As it happens, the City Council that dedicated the new Pergola included two members of Nordhoff’s Class of 1967: ex-jock Steve Olsen and ex-hippie Suza Francina.
Rebuilding the Pergola “brought a feeling of wholeness and harmony back to that part of our downtown core,” Francina says. “I think for those of us living in Ojai in the 1960s this was a conciliatory moment that brought closure and harmony to the community.”
(Further evidence of closure: The bronze plaque bolted to the new Pergola’s west arch lists the many “community donors” that contributed to the project. Buried in the middle of this long list is a cryptic, Pynchonesque reference to “the O.V.D.A.” Apparently this was a conciliatory moment for the Ojai Valley Dopers Association, too.)
Both Francina and Olsen served terms as mayor while they were on the Council. They have not always seen eye to eye politically, but both agree that Ojai has put the trauma of ’67 behind it. Many contentious issues still divide the town, and the debate often gets heated. But it seldom gets physical.
“As time went on, everyone reconciled,” Olsen says. “I don’t see any negative. I see that we have healed from any of those issues 100 percent.”
For Susie Arce, the 44 years that have passed since the Summer of Love also measure her career at Nordhoff, where she is retiring this June as assistant principal. She too sees Ojai as a different place today.
“People have learned to work together in many ways,” Arce says. “The hostility is gone, I think.”
Vince France, now retired from the force and living in Porterville, makes a similar point. “I think everybody mellowed,” he says. “I know I have.”
Meanwhile, the hippies are back in the park, and nobody seems to mind. Of course there are far fewer than in 1967, and they’re better behaved. They no longer seem like the heralds of change; more like artifacts from a lost past. Some of the older ones may share Doc Sportello’s predicament in Inherent Vice, “caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into the darkness … how a certain hand might reach terribly out of the darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.”
Ben Barraza, now 74 and living in Phoenix with his daughter, has known some hard times since the Summer of Love. But he still looks back fondly on his reign as the King of the Hippies.
“I loved those times,” he says. “It was exciting.”
Judy Evans also lives in Phoenix but is divorced from Ben, and she is not at all nostalgic about the Sixties.
“The aftermath was that people who were hippies ended up becoming drug addicts,” she says. “There weren’t any real good outcomes that I can see. I don’t see that anything was accomplished.”
But the hippie movement did accomplish something in Ojai. It helped save the town from the creeping urbanization that seemed so unstoppable in 1967. The political coalition that stopped the freeways and stymied the developers and thwarted the mining companies has many components, but it rests at bottom upon an alliance between well-to-do retirees and green-minded activists. The latter might not be hippies per se, but they tend to draw inspiration — and some of their tactics — from the Sixties counterculture. Over the years, they have applied that activism to the essentially conservative project of keeping Ojai pretty much the way it is. And the town’s old-school conservatives, such as ex-Mayor Huckins, seem reasonably pleased with the results.
Huckins, long retired from politics and from his medical practice, now says that all that talk about riots and bombings was greatly exaggerated. “We always had a fair number of hippies,” he says. “The majority were local. They never caused any trouble. They were mostly good kids.”
Ojai of course has changed quite a bit since 1967, and not always for the better. But, remarkably, it remains a small town surrounded by ranches and orange groves, offering a serene haven to its fortunate residents — including those latter-day hippies who still cavort in the park.
“It’s a quiet little town,” Huckins says. “It was, it still is, and as far as I’m concerned it always will be.”
Note: This editorial was published in the Ojai Valley News in May of 2008. The OVN won 3rd place from the National Newspaper Association for the editorial.
In the past 18 months, we have had three incidents in Ojai involving firearms – a shooting on Drown Street in February 2007, a shooting on Fox Street in September 2007, and reports of gang members brandishing a pistol in Meiners Oaks on March 20 of this year. These are ill portents for our quiet community. Lines of race and class are drawn sharply now that were never before so distinct. A climate of fear and hostility has crept into our lives. We gradually grow apart from each other, with fewer and fewer of those casual interactions that once blurred these boundaries of race and class and created, in myriad multiplying ways, our community.
Gang influences flourish in this void, where neighbors, instead of becoming friends, become some abstract “other.” People start looking out for themselves as defined by their narrow self-interests, and lose sight of the larger benefits of opportunity and safety that accrue to the altruistic purposes of looking out for each other.
It was not always like this. Back in the day, Ojai had a one-man gang task force named Anselmo “Chemo” Quijada. Pronounced “Chummo,” he was everywhere and knew everyone, from 1955 until his retirement from the Ojai Police Department in 1980.
Virtually all Ojai old timers have Chemo stories – about how he would instantly size up a suspect to determine whether they were a bad kid doing bad things or a good kid doing bad things. And he would treat them accordingly – there was no one-size-fits-all policing in those days.
“He kept a lot of guys out of trouble by handling things personally,” said Vince France, Ojai’s police chief back in the 1970s. France would know. He was one of those trouble-makers. “I probably wouldn’t have been a police officer except for the fact that Chemo took a personal interest in me. He treated me almost like a son … I could easily have gone the other way.”
France spoke fondly of his teen-age days as a local rowdy, when he’d be caught in the act of underage drinking and the cops “would pick me up in a squad car and ride me around until I sobered up, then take me home.”
Another of these wayward-trending youths was Keith Nightingale, who was one of France’s partners in adolescent mischief-making and went on to a successful career as a military officer and now globe-trotting government contractor. “I grew up with him and he did a great deal for the boys of Ojai and kept a lot of us out of jail – figuratively and literally … He always had an understanding mind as to when a boy was being a boy or was really going bad and would adjust as needed.”
Boyd Ford said that his son, Dennis, had broken into the nearby Presbyterian Church, camped out for the night, and was discovered by the police. Quijada “came right into our living room with Dennis, (mother) Maxine and I and talked to all of us. You don’t get that anymore.”
Another Chemo story involved kids smoking marijuana in the Matilija Junior High School parking lot in the late 1970s. Quijada made them discard the illegal substance and ordered the kids to tell their parents they’d been smoking pot, and said he would call the parents later to make sure his orders had been followed. He did and they had. Names have been withheld to protect the guilty.
One project that Quijada provided for Ojai boys was a productive outlet for their aggression. “He was acutely aware that Ojai had nothing much for boys, so he started a boys’ athletic club where Ojai Coffee Roasting is now. It got a pretty big clientele and he staged fights Friday night and Saturday afternoon between boys so they would stay positively engaged.”
Ojai had few Latinos in those days, and Quijada took a personal interest in all of them. We have a growing Latino population now – in fact, as a percentage of our school-age population, Latino enrollment has nearly tripled since the days of Chemo Quijada nearly a half century ago.
France believes that the gang members of today are mostly hardened criminals with “no conscience. I don’t know that the approach Chemo had would do any good,” he said. But he did allow that early intervention from caring adults could make a positive difference. One policing problem now, France said, is that the system doesn’t allow the same kind of flexibility and discretion that Chemo routinely employed. “Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances.”
Nightingale said, “I’m afraid Ojai is so large and economically segregated that a ‘Chummo’-type person could not work the magic now that he did then … the best we can hope for is that we find several Chummos working their constituency, recognizing that if one person can be made better, we are all better.”
A quiet beat cop who rarely drew attention to himself, nearly 1,000 people turned out for a benefit for Quijada when he was suffering from the cancer that claimed his life in 1985. “It was the damnedest thing you ever saw,” said France. “All these politicians and movers and shakers right next to the crooks that Chemo had arrested. I think we raised more than $20,000.”
Ojai’s best days may yet be ahead of us, if all of us who call this place home shoulder the responsibility to make that happen. And we can best do this in quiet ways – one-on-one, with watchful eyes and open hearts. We are all role models, whether we like it or not. It is good for us in Ojai to remember we have such a rich legacy of role models on which to pattern ourselves. For Ojai to live up to its promise, we have to carry a little of Chemo Quijada’s spirit within each of us.
Note: The Ojai Police Boy’s Club was founded by Chief J. D. Alcorn; Anselmo “Chemo” Quijada was the acting director. The City of Ojai donated $500 to start the project. Boxing, wrestling, judo, and fencing were taught under personal and competent supervision. The ring used was purchased from “Pop” Soper, a well-known character of the boxing world. Many famous boxers trained at his camp in Matilija Canyon. Those who probably trained in the ring purchased by the Police Boys Club were Jack Dempsey, Jack Roper, Jackie Fields, Barney Ross, Mickey Walker, and many others. Boys from fourteen to eighteen years of age were eligible. Boxers of note would drop by the club and give instruction to the boys on the finer points of boxing. Each month a scholarship was given to a member by a prominent member of the community.
The Pierpont-Ginn House. After the death of her husband in 1905, Josephine Pierpont married the San Francisco publisher Frederick Ginn. She commissioned the famous California architect Julia Morgan to design a house for her in 1908, shown in this picture, one of Julia Morgan’s first residential works. The family’s first home then became the main house for Pierpont Cottages.
Note: This was one of Julia Morgan’s first residences. She is best known for designing Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
The above is an excerpt from Ojai: A Postcard History, by Richard Hoye, Tom Moore, Craig Walker, and available at Ojai Valley Museum or at Amazon.com.