Early Stories of Ojai, Part I

Early Ojai Stories, Part One by Howard Bald

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

The Ojai Valley in those days was a popular winter resort for wealthy eastern people who would come out for the winter.

Other than playing tennis and cards, about the only entertainment was horseback riding, and for the elder people, a team and surrey with a driver would trot them about the valley, up Matilija Canyon (the road ended at Wheeler’s Hot Springs) up through the Upper Ojai valley and onto Sulphur mountain, or over to Shepherds Inn via Casitas Pass and sometimes on to Santa Barbara. Shepherd’s Inn, situated on the line between Santa Barbara and Ventura County was a popular, rustic inn frequented by both Santa Barbara and Ojai tourists.

The Casitas Pass was approached only via what is now Foster Park, and the road followed along the foot of the north side of Red mountain. But the east and west passes were virtually the same as of today. One popular ride was to follow the beach from the Rincon to Ventura when the tide was low. I believe it was sometimes done with team and wagon. I did it only on saddle horse.

The livery stable was not only the site of horse trading and training, but also some lively prize fights were held there, sometimes right out on the street and sometimes in the stable. When held inside buggies would be crammed into a corner to make room for the spectators. Some of the younger fry had their first lessons in boxing there.

I well remember one time when the men had Mayor Smith and me matched together. We were fairly evenly matched and things were going smoothly until Mayor glanced over his shoulder to see how near he was to a horse’s heels in a nearby stall. At that instant I uncorked a left to Mayor’s jaw. Mayor considered that unfair tactics and retaliated with all he had. The riot was quelled by Sam (Mayor’s father) dragging him across the street to their home back of the post office.

Occasionally the village quietness was broken by a local hoodlum riding his horse down the boardwalk, and if a Chinaman happened to be within reach, wrapping the end of his cue around the pommel of his saddle and galloping to the the end of the boardwalk. (The Chinese all wore a long single braid down their back. I’ll mention them in particular later.)

One smart alec rode into Clyde Stewart’s grocery store and roped a fellow and dragged him over the counter. But that episode is getting into the second decade and I am trying to confine myself to the first decade. And besides, that smart alec (notice I don’t use the term hoodlum) was myself.

One November night the village stillness was suddenly shattered by a series of pistol shots accompanied by unearthly yells. It turned out to be only Johnny Joshlin celebrating the beginning of the fall rains. After emptying two six-shooters, he returned to Lagomarsino’s saloon and all was quiet again. Now I wonder how Johnny happed to have two six-shooters, for he was not a gunman.

The only law enforcement officer the valley had was constable Andy Van Curren. He was a familiar sight with his flowing gray beard, riding about the valley on an iron gray horse.

His home and the jail (they were separate buildings) occupied the area where the new Security Pacific Bank [Bank of America] and Loops restaurant [Cattywampus and Beacon Coffee] now stand.  [See Ojai’s First Jail, by Ed Wenig]

I don’t remember there ever being anything in the jail but spare coffins, for Andy sometimes acted as undertaker. I am sure that on such occasions he substituted the gray saddle horse for a team and spring wagon. (I have recently learned, though, that Mrs. Van Curren would prepare meals, and one of the small daughters would carry them over to the inmates.)

There was story of one of the valley’s most notorious rowdies (I will not mention his name, as it might offend highly respected present day descendents). His appearances before justice of the peace McKee were becoming rather frequent, and each time the fine would be a little higher. Finally, the judge fined him $10. The fellow blinked and with characteristic oath said, “Judge, ain’t that pretty steep for a regular customer?”

Another time Constable Van Curren called at his home to make an arrest. His mother met Van Curren at the front door and parlayed with him while the intended arrestee skipped out the kitchen door, saddled and mounted a horse, and rode off to the Upper Ojai.

“Reminiscences of Early Ojai” by Howard Bald, 1973

Charles Nordhoff Visits the Ojai Valley

Charles Nordhoff Visits the Ojai Valley by Richard Hoye

The City of Ojai was first established as a village in 1874 and given the name Nordhoff. The village retained this name for 43 years, until it was changed to Ojai in 1917. Its original name was derived from the author, editor and journalist Charles Nordhoff, who lived from 1830 to 1901.

His name is still retained in the name of the high school, Nordhoff High School, and the name of the highest point on the ridge which forms the northern wall of the Ojai Valley, Nordhoff Peak. There is also a fountain at the center of the city which commemorates his daughter, Evelyn Hunter Nordhoff.

Charles Nordhoff is frequently confused with his grandson Charles Bernard Nordhoff, co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty; but they are of different generations. Charles Nordhoff was a well-established author in his own right. He wrote about a dozen books. His first books were about his early life as a seaman, and his Man-of-War Life (1855) was used at Annapolis as a standard reference for naval cadets. His most famous book was California for Health, Pleasure and Residence, published in June 1872. He was a deeply religious man, and one of his books was titled, God and the Future Life (1883). His Politics for Young Americans (1875) was used in public schools as a civics text.

Charles Nordhoff was a “correspondent” in Washington, D.C., for the New York Herald newspaper from 1874 until his retirement in 1890. The New York Herald was the foremost newspaper in the nation, comparable to the New York Times today. This was at a time when there was no Internet, no television and no radio. Newspapers were the principal method of mass communication. As a “correspondent” (we might say reporter/commentator) at the nation’s capital for the nation’s foremost newspaper, he was at the top of his profession and was well-known nationwide.

The following statement was included in an obituary written just after his death, which occurred in San Francisco on July 14, 1901:

“The town of Nordhoff was named for Charles Nordhoff, in appreciation of the good words spoken of the Ojai Valley as a health resort, both as a writer and in personal talks with friends.”

This is the common understanding as to how the village came to be named for the author, and it is an explanation that has been repeated many times over. Nonetheless, it is incorrect.

“Persons seeking to learn what Charles Nordhoff wrote about the Ojai Valley pick up his California for Health, Pleasure and Residence from a local library and search the book intensively only to discover that there is nothing in the work about the valley! This leads to perplexity and confusion! The book was published in 1872, and the village was named Nordhoff in 1874. . . . but, he had not written about it.”

The key to understanding what actually occurred rests in the fact that there was a subsequent edition of the work, published in 1882. The title page of the second edition stated that it was a “New Edition, Thoroughly Revised.” It is in the 1882 edition that information about the Ojai Valley is to be found. Unfortunately, it is also an edition that is less commonly shelved in public libraries.

Charles Nordhoff wrote about the Ojai Valley eight years after the village was given his name. So, it wasn’t his writing about the Valley that led to the use of his name. The suggestion for naming the village is attributed to Catherine Blumberg, wife of the man who constructed the first hotel in the center of the hamlet. She thought the use of Nordhoff’s name would be a good idea (better than the Topa Topa first considered). Nordhoff’s famous book about California had been published a couple of years earlier, and tourists were carrying it about as a reliable guide to the state.

Main Street, Nordhoff, California in 1890

A two-volume biography of Thomas Bard was written by the author W.H. Hutchinson (Oil, Land and Politics: The California Career of Thomas Robert Bard) and published in 1965. Bard was the Valley’s first real estate agent; and he later became a member of the U.S. Senate, representing the State of California. Hutchinson included the following statement in his book:

“Without visiting the Ojai, he [Charles Nordhoff] penned some glowing prose about its salubrious climate and other advantages, and it is believed that he gleaned his material from Bard and Roys Surdam. His other periodical press articles and a book about his travels first gave national publicity to the southern coast and especially to Santa Barbara.”

If complete information had been available to Hutchinson, he would have reached a different conclusion.

Charles Nordhoff first visited the Ojai Valley for a quick, weekend turnaround on October 22-23, 1881. Here is part of a report from a Santa Barbara newspaper:

NORDHOFF AT NORDHOFF

The Ventura “Signal” says:  “For the first time, on last Saturday, in company with D.W. Thompson and wife of Col. Hollister, of Santa Barbara. Charles Nordhoff, the celebrated newspaper correspondent, and the man to whom more than anyone else Southern California owes the greater portion of her population, visited Nordhoff and the Ojai Valley. Of course, he went into ecstacies over the beautiful valley.”

— Santa Barbara, The Daily Press, Oct. 31, 1881, p. 2:1.

Charles Nordhoff doesn’t seem to have been a man who would have been lost to “ecstacies”, even though the Valley does have this effect upon some. The visit was a momentous event. Here was William Hollister, owner of the Arlington Hotel in Santa Barbara, and Dixie Thompson, manager of the hotel, escorting Charles Nordhoff on his first visit to the valley. Hollister was a man of considerable wealth, after whom the town of Hollister was named in northern California. So, both Hollister and Nordhoff had towns named after them.

“Dixie Thompson was owner of a Ventura ranch which in time would be described as the largest lima-bean ranch in the world. His name is found today in Thompson Boulevard in Ventura. The news account omits the fact that Mrs. Charles Nordhoff was also a member of the party.”

We see, then, that Charles Nordhoff first visited the Ojai Valley in October 1881. The second edition of his book on California, and the edition with information about the Ojai Valley, was published in 1882. He saw the valley before he wrote about it, and Hutchinson was wrong in this particular.

Charles Nordhoff’s interest in the valley was friendly and supportive. He visited again in 1889 and 1894. He was a member of the building committee for his community church in Alpine, New Jersey; and when a decision was made to construct that church in stone rather than wood, the architectural design for the wooden church was sent to the Ojai Valley and used for the design and construction of the Valley’s Presbyterian church (which still stands). He (a Methodist) donated money for construction of the Presbyterian church and provided books for its “Sabbath School” (we would say Sunday School).

Charles Nordhoff also established an enduring friendship with Sherman Thacher, founder of the Thacher School in the Ojai Valley. Thacher hosted a reception in the Valley for Nordhoff in 1894. There is a record that Thacher later visited Nordhoff at Coronado, California, where Nordhoff had retired. Thacher was also among the last persons outside the immediate family who visited with Nordhoff in San Francisco shortly before Nordhoff’s death.

Meiners Oaks

Meiners Oaks by Ed Wenig

Meiners Oaks, a community where nearly every home is under a Live Oak tree, takes its name from John Meiners, who owned the large area for many years.

John Meiners, native of Germany, had come to the United States about 1848 and had established a successful brewery business in Milwaukee. He acquired his Ojai ranch in the seventies, sight unseen, as a result of an unpaid debt. When he heard that his friend, Edward D. Holton, a Milwaukee banker, was going to California for a brief trip, Meiners asked him to see the property he had acquired. Mr. Holton’s evaluation was, “It is the most beautiful valley I have ever seen.”

Upon investigating his new property, John Meiners found that he owned what was perhaps the largest oak grove on level land in Southern California, much of it so dense that the ground was in continuous shade. Furthermore, to his surprise, Meiners discovered that the climate of the valley was good for his asthma.

For a long time, the oak grove was fenced and provided a pasture for a large herd of hogs. All traffic from Ojai to Matilija went on a private road through the Meiners property, using a gate which was supposed to be kept closed. So many people went through the gate without closing it that in 1893, the manager of the ranch, P.W. Soper, locked the gate. With the Meiners road closed, the only way of getting the mail to Matilija by stagecoach was a roundabout one by Rice Road.

A news item in “The Ojai” related that, as Rice Road has been flooded, “the mail was sent up to Matilija last night on horseback, the rider going across the back hill country . . .” However, Mr. Soper later gave several keys to A.W. Blumberg, operator of Matilija Hot Springs, with the stipulation that they were to be used only by mail carriers and scheduled stage coach drivers.
In 1896, the big barn on the Meiners ranch, located approximately where the Ranch House Restaurant is now, caught fire one evening about midnight. No fire-fighting equipment was available. Twenty horses, many tons of hay, harness, and farm implements were completely destroyed. “The Ojai” of February 15, 1896 reported . . . “Mr. Meiners built a large temporary barn on Monday, and the work of the great ranch goes on energetically.”

The Milwaukee brewer lived on his ranch intermittently from the 1880s until his death in the valley in 1898. His original big house still stands on the hill above the Ranch House Restaurant and is now used by the Happy Valley School.

John Meiners organized his ever-increasing acreage into a very productive ranch. Several hundred acres to the north of the oak grove were planted in oranges, lemons, prunes, apricots and apples. P.W. Soper, father of the late “Pop” Soper, was general manager of the Meiners Ranch and lessee of 90 acres of Texas red oats, 90 acres of wheat and 200 acres of barley. A visitor who toured the ranch with Mr. Meiners in 1897 wrote, “At the Meiners Ranch we saw stalks of oats that measured 7 feet 7 inches.”

To visualize the vast area, the ranch can be described as bounded on the south by the hills of the Happy Valley School, on the west by Rice Road, on the north by the foothills near Cozy Dell Canyon and on the east by a line running through the junction of Highway 33 and El Roblar Street, north and south.

The forebears of several of the present-day residents of the Ojai Valley came here as a result of John Meiners’ interest in his ranch. The granddaughters of Edward D. Holton, who made the original favorable report concerning the ranch of Mr. Meiners and the Ojai Valley, are Misses Alice and Helen Robertson of the east valley, and his granddaughter, Mrs. Anson Thacher. Otto Busch came to the ranch as manager in 1907, and his son George Busch, now retired, was one of Ojai’s postmasters.

“He got Meiners O. for unpaid debt,” Ojai Valley News, Dec. 3, 1969

Ojai’s First Store

Ojai’s First Store by Ed Wenig

Lafayette Herbert's Store

The first general store in Ojai Valley was opened by Mr. and Mrs. L.R. Herbert in 1874 on the north side of Ojai Avenue across from the present Civic Center Park [now, Libbey Park]. Ojai pioneers recall it as a small one-story building with one room that carried everything the early settlers needed.

Hattie Waite Cota, in an article on Ojai Valley’s first store, described the amazing variety of goods it displayed. She said: “The shelves were divided into sections in which goods were placed, each item in its respective department. There was a drug, a dry goods, a boot and shoe counter, and near the entrance a small glass showcase that contained, among other things, several varieties of candy, such as peppermint, horehound, gum drops, stick candy and licorice strips, very strong and very black.”

A cherished memory of Mrs. Cota: “Some time later a millinery section was added, stocked only with children’s hats. My choice was a broad-brimmed, plain-black straw [hat] with band and streamers of corn-colored ribbon.”

Mrs. Thad Timms read a paper before the Pioneer section of the Ojai Valley Woman’s Club in 1938 and is here quoted: “Prior to the year 1874, all incoming and outgoing mail was carried by some one of the residents of the valley who happened to be riding or driving to Ventura to the post office. On March 11, 1874, the Postmaster General in Washington, D.C. appointed LaFayette R. Herbert as the first postmaster of Nordhoff [now Ojai]—an office was established.”

The Nordhoff store, as with most general stores, had a little section in the front for the distribution of mail. This addition, of course, drew many into the store who, in winter especially, lingered around the wood-burning stove in the middle of the room. Here the cracker-barrel philosophers settled the problems of the world, lent their ears for local news and gossip.

Early settlers remember the blending aroma of cheese, coffee, spices, sausages and new leather. Of course, nothing was packaged, and the storekeeper measured the amount wanted from barrels, sacks and other volume containers.

Farmers, with their wagons hauling hams, chickens in small coops or with legs tied, cases or boxes of eggs, tied their horses to hitching racks or trees and proceeded to trade their produce for coal oil, flour, sugar, harness and other needs.

Barter between the farmer and the storekeeper was the general rule. This put an extra load on the Nordhoff storekeeper, who had to take all the farm produce to Ventura and bring back goods for sale. With dusty roads in summer and deep mud in winter, this was quite a burden for heavy-laden wagons.

Through the years the little store was sold to A.A. Garland and son. Later, Thomas Gilbert bought it. Finding that he needed help in the store, he sent for his bride-to-be from Michigan and announced publicly that he was going to be married. He invited all the residents of the valley to the wedding, which was held on the hotel grounds [at the front of what is now Libbey Park] with music furnished by the Ventura band. Some years later, the Thomas Gilbert family moved to Santa Barbara.

A Mr. Brown and his wife then took over the store for a brief period, but Frank P. Barrows bought it and changed it to a hardware store. Finally, Mr. G.H. Hickey and two brothers bought it and rebuilt it. The Rains Department Store, now operating on the same site, is a successor to Hickey Brothers and is operated by Alan Rains, grandson of Mr. G.H. Hickey.

“Everything sold in Ojai’s first store,”Ojai Valley News, Nov. 5, 1969

Richard Robinson

Richard Robinson by Richard Hoye

Richard Robinson was an early rancher in the valley, and he first came to the valley after retiring as a ship’s captain. The romantic story of his life at sea is accented by the fact that his wife often accompanied him on his voyages.

Richard Robinson was born in Thomaston, Maine, in 1817, and he was of Welsh extraction. He began his life at sea at age seventeen. His advancement was rapid, and he captained his first ship at age twenty-three in 1840. For the next fourteen years, he captained ships that bore names such as Mountaineer, Pyramid and Hardet. These were “Yankee Clippers” engaged in ocean-crossing commerce.

Robinson pooled his resources in 1855 with several other men to commission construction of a 200-foot long clipper ship, christened the Richard Robinson. It was the custom of captains of the clipper ships to race each other, since the winning of a race provided profitable publicity. This was the way that sea captains built their reputations, and “Virtually every passage from one port to another was a race.” Robinson won a race against the formidable Dreadnought and thereby established his ship as “one of America’s fastest ships.”

Voyages could be lengthy. One of his voyages from New York City to Bombay took eighty-eight days, and that was close to breaking the speed record for the route. Ships’ captains were inclined to take their families with them on such long trips, and such was the case with Richard Robinson. He wed Mary Wentworth in 1840, the very year he first became a ship’s captain. She was a woman fit to match him.

Mary Wentworth Robinson was the first woman to receive the degree of Doctor of Education from Harvard University. She was descended from an aristocratic English line, which included Sir Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Stafford. She accompanied her husband on over thirty voyages. Three sons were born to the marriage: William, Richard and Charles. Two daughters died in infancy.

Robinson retired from the sea in 1872 and moved to Santa Barbara. In the following year, he purchased land in the upper Ojai Valley and began to farm. By 1875, he joined Judge Eugene Fawcett, Jr., and a wealthy eastern man, H.C. Dean, in the purchase of land from Jose Arnaz (land which now is largely covered by the northern half of Lake Casitas). They subdivided the land and started the development of ranches in the Santa Ana Valley.

Richard Robinson signed the voters registration roll for Ventura County in 1884 along with his sons Richard Owen Robinson and Charles Wentworth Robinson. All three stated that their birthplaces had been in Maine.

Robinson’s approach to farming was diversification. He planted many different varieties of trees and vegetables on his upper Ojai Valley ranch. By doing this, he introduced new agricultural products to the valley, and his farm was judged by his contemporaries as especially interesting for its variety.

He also tried his hand at breeding race horses. He was photographed in 1896 with a race horse and sulky. In his final years, he lived in Ventura, where he died on February 6, 1896.

For an excellent account of Richard Robinson’s life, see: Marsha Kee Robinson Strong, “The Yankee Clipper Richard Robinson,” Ventura County Historical Society Quarterly 27:1, Fall 1981, pp. 11-25.