The following article was first printed on the front page of the Thursday, June 16, 1960 edition of “THE OJAI PRESS”. “THE OJAI PRESS” became part of the “OJAI VALLEY NEWS”. It is reprinted here with their permission. The author is unknown.The color photo of the “OJAI STATE BANK” was added to this article by the “Ojai Valley Museum”.
MAJOR JOHN DRON WINS ROUND WITH PILLARS
The Paul Bunyan of the Ojai has done it again! This time Major John Dron has been involved with a day long tussel with the one ton pillars which have long graced the front of the former Bank of America building in downtown Ojai.
Not letting board meetings, limbs of trees, or electrical wires stand in his way Major Dron personally hired the Chuck Major construction company in his “project save the pillars,” and overcame all obstacles, personally seeing the pillars safely stored by the garden gate before retiring to begin a scale drawing, showing the way his “Classic Doric” pillars, will grace the historic “Basic Baroque” Nordhoff Memorial fountain when he undertakes to move it block by block back to its original resting place, about, 30 feet inside the park.
His plan, subject to the approval of the Libbey estate Civic association board, headed by Charles T. Butler, includes the re-activating of the fountain, with water to spew from the lion’s mouth over the existing basin and into a pool of ferns, the pillars, to be covered by wisteria will form a pergola around the fountain. He hopes to persuade the Ojai Valley Garden club to continue to care for planters in the watering trough, or street side of the fountain.
Though he has underwritten the start of the project with his own funds, he hopes Ojai Valley residents will raise the required fund through subscriptions when the board approves the project. He reminds that donations to the historic seven acre park in the heart of Ojai, are “tax deductible.”
He called the moving of the one ton pillars “nothing” compared with the project moving the fountain yet to come. “The blocks will have to come out one by one, and be numbered, in order to put back together properly.”
The following article was first published in the Winter 2018 (VOLUME 36 NUMBER 4) issue of the “Ojai Valley Guide” magazine that is published by the “Ojai Valley News”. With their permission, the article is reprinted here. It ran on pages 154 and 155 in the magazine.
LOOK BACK IN OJAI 1969 Beautification Month
Contributed on behalf
of the Ojai Valley Museum
In October 1969, the Ojai Chamber of Commerce spearheaded a “Beautification for Better Business Campaign.” I had graduated from Nordhoff High School only a few months before and must tell you, at the time, my business was chasing after beautiful women and cars. I could not have cared less about sprucing up things around the valley, except for a good wash and waxing of my 1961 Austin Healy “Bug Eye” Sprite to, hopefully, impress beautiful young ladies.
So, moving on, I was ignorant of this cleanup drive.
Mr. Libbey, of Libbey Glass Co. fame, was a proponent of the “City Beautiful Movement” featured at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. At the original Ojai Day, April 7, 1917, held in Civic Park (now Libbey Park), Libbey said in a speech: “There has been too little attention paid to things aesthetic in our communities and in our homes. The time has come when we should encourage in ourselves thoughts of things beautiful, and the higher ideals which the people fostering of the love of that which is beautiful and inspiring.”
Libbey’s speech includes the word “beautiful” twice. His words and actions emphasized improving Ojai’s aesthetic qualities. As a lifelong resident (67-plus years) of the Ojai Valley, I truly believe that Libbey’s ideals have been ingrained in our town, even inspiring the 1969 beautification campaign and valleywide cleanup drive decades after his speech.
On the evening of Oct. 30, City Building Inspector Ken Swift and Hal Mitrany of the Chamber of Commerce chaired a meeting at the Ojai Woman’s Club to organize the cleanup. Thirty-eight groups were invited and about 40 representatives attended. The PTA, American Legion, Chamber of Commerce, Boy and Girl Scouts, Retail Merchants Association, Jaycees, Woman’s Club, Garden Club, Retired Men’s Club, East Ojai Valley Associates and the Committee to Preserve the Ojai were among the groups participating.
Harrison’s Rubbish Service volunteered to place collection bins throughout the city and dates were set for free trash and junk removal.
City, county and state agencies were on board. The City Council proclaimed November Cleanup and Beautification Month. The county allowed a main trash-collecting station to be located behind Libbey Park and the state furnished a truck and driver to assist groups that picked up litter along the highways.
A city beautification conference was held at the Ojai Valley Inn, attended by about 80 planners and planning commissioners from all the cities in Ventura County. Featured speakers were Camarillo officials who touted their community’s beautification successes.
In November, the Ojai Architectural Board of Review decided to demolish the Pergola’s two large arches that had been bombed in October 1967 and December 1968. In addition to removing an eyesore, they wanted to open up the view of the park from Ojai Avenue. The Ojai Planning Commission, City Council and Ojai Civic Center Park trustees agreed.
The city also decided to work with business owners to help pay for sidewalk repairs as some sidewalks were not only unsightly, but dangerous. Sidewalk repairs and installation of planters were coordinated with the state repaving Ojai Avenue. In addition, the city repaved 12 residential streets in the western portion of town.
Despite the fanfare and ambitious goals, Inspector Swift reported at the end of November that the beautification and cleanup campaign had fallen short, as participating organizations failed to develop, propose or implement plans. Little had been accomplished beyond some improvement at private homes. He did, however, report two successful beautification projects:
+ The Civic Center Park Board of Directors voted to demolish the bombed arches at the front of the park.
+ The Chamber of Commerce purchased and planted a permanent Christmas tree at the “Y” intersection.
That very same Christmas tree has grown into a mighty fine tree that we all continue to enjoy during the holidays and all year round.
The following article first appeared in the Friday, November 24, 1916 edition of “THE OJAI” on the front page. The author is unknown. This was written before the town name changed from “Nordhoff” to “Ojai.” The photos were added by the Ojai Valley Museum.
ANOTHER BEAUTY SPOT ON MAIN STREET
Landscape gardener F. C. Fassel, on the annual payroll of Mr. E. D. Libbey, is now grading the vacant lot between the Ojai State Bank and the Boyd Club, which within a year will be styled the “Garden of Rose,” which in beauty will outrival Eden — perhaps — with the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve looking in instead of looking out.
The ground is to be artistically embellished for the reception of all the more popular and beautiful varieties of rose bushes. All of the fine specimens so carefully nurtured by custodian Achelpohl of the Club will be transplanted in the plot, without retarding their bloom. This beauty spot will serve to add to the power of the magnet that will surely attract outsiders to the Ojai valley, adding still greater charm to Nordhoff’s civic center.
It is to be regretted that the wheels of the vehicle of progress shattered and tore out the great trailing rose bush at the corner of Clark’s deposed livery barn. In full bloom, with the rich colorings gleaming from the lower and upper branches of a live oak that served as a trellis, it was the marvel of all the tourists and the pride of the valley. It, however, still survives to bloom perpetually in thousands of “snap shots” by the ladies and knights of the Camera.
But there is some recompense for its loss. A handsome garage, built of moss covered native rock and tile adornments, is nearing completion on the corner, which furnishes an attraction less dainty, but more useful.
The new post office building of hollow tile construction, with its massive tower, is now going up. The memorial fountain, after being torn down, is assuming its former shape in a position four feet further back from the street.
The park wall and pergola is lining up handsomely.
The big park is taking on more beauty daily, and the million gallon reservoir is nearly completed.
This article first appeared in the August 26, 1970 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission. The author is Ed Wenig.
Ojai was ‘torn apart and rebuilt’
(Editor’s note: this is the second in a series of articles by historian Ed Wenig on Civic Center Park and the man responsible for its gift “to the people of the Ojai Valley” — Edward Libbey).
On September 1, 1916, THE OJAI printed an editorial from the Ventura Free Press, written by Editor D. J. Reese, who had attended the Men’s League Banquet in March at the Foothills Hotel:
“Some morning, not far distant, the village of Nordhoff is going to wake up and find itself famous. The work being done in that section just now would make the man who has known Nordhoff of old rub his eyes in astonishment if he was brought into the place suddenly. Great things are in store no doubt. The town has been torn apart and several sections have been removed hither and yon. There has been a general clearing up of everything, and everybody has an expectant look as though wondering what will happen next. The main street has been piled full of terra cotta brick, and no one seems to know what is doing. Old landmarks like the Clark stables and the Ojai Inn have vanished as before a Kansas cyclone. Only the beautiful oaks, and here and there a substantial house like the bank or the clubhouse or the Nordhoff fountain and splendid Ojai atmosphere seem to be left. Something is surely doing. Ask what it is and the Nordhoffite will throw up his hands and mention the name of Libbey. You hear about Libbey every time you ask a question. Everywhere you go you note that somebody is working hard at something or other in digging ditches or burying water pipe or clearing underbrush or building massive and magnificent cobble walls. Why, it is to be another Montecito, you are told . . . “The people there are to be congratulated that they have a Libbey who has taken an interest in their affairs. It is to be hoped they will give him free rein.”
Vast Land Holdings
At an Ojai Valley Men’s League banquet at the Foothills Hotel J. J. Burke, speaking of improvements, told of a well of Mr. Libbey’s which “will pump at least 65 inches, and if Mr. Libbey’s plans materialize he will spend $20,000 in getting the water to his ranch. . . . The old Ojai Inn and all but one of the Berry Villa buildings have been torn down or moved away, making room for more extensive improvements in the future. Through the generosity of Mr. Libbey, Signal Street was cut through and graded to the railroad.”
In the spring of 1916 Libbey was reported to be visiting his friend, H. T. Sinclair and discussing with Mr. Thacher, Colonel Wilson and W. W. Bristol “sundry matters of importance to the community.”
On June 9, 1916 it was announced that E. D. Libbey had bought 200 more acres to add to his previous 300-acre property. “Among the early improvements will be the laying of a water main from his well on the Gally tract to his large holdings. And that is not all, as the entire square upon which once stood the Ojai Inn, is to be improved in a manner that augurs well for the future of Nordhoff, which is good news to the entire community. Mr. H. T. Sinclair has been taken into Mr. Libbey’s confidence and will be the directing head during his absence. Let us be glad, as well as thankful for so generous a promoter as E. D. Libbey.”
On June 16, 1916, we are told that Mr. Libbey has bought the last parcel of privately owned land in what is now the Civic Park. In the local paper, “The plans Mr. Libbey is making to benefit both the town and the Valley has met with the highest approbation of the committee and the cooperation of the League in every way is assured.”
It was reported on June 30 that the Berry Villa, “an historical step-sister of the Ojai Inn, now a demolished antiquity,” had been torn down and the lumber hauled away.
By July 14, fifty men in one crew were working on the Libbey pay roll. Tom Clark destroyed his barn north of his livery stable and constructed a rock wall for a modern garage. This wall can still be seen as part of the Village Drug Store.
Early in November, Architect Requa, of the San Diego architectural firm of Mead and Requa, went to Toledo and got full approval of the plans for the renovation of the main street of Nordhoff. The local newspaper reported, “The post office tower, penetrating the lower heavens 65 feet is to be a reality. There are many features that we shall be delighted to prattle about when fully assured that the architect has removed the censorship.”
In March, 1917, representatives of the Men’s League met with Mr. Libbey. A corporation was formed under the name of THE OJAI CIVIC ASSOCIATION. The incorporators were E. D. Libbey, S. D. Thacher, J. J. Burke, Harrison Wilson, H. T. Sinclair, A. A. Garland, and H. R. Cole. Said the editor of the paper: “The initial purpose of the corporation is to assume title to the valuable property acquired by gift from Mr. Libbey . . . This beautiful park and the tennis courts, covering more than seven acres, is to become the property of the people of Nordhoff and the Ojai Valley.
Concurrent with the changes in the appearance of the town of Nordhoff came a popular move to change the name of the village to Ojai. A petition was circulated under the auspices of Supervisor Tom Clark requesting the name change, and received so many signatures that it was five feet long by the time H. D. Morse, manager of the Foothills Hotel, sent it to Washington D. C. In March, 1917, Senator James D. Phelan sent the following telegram: “You may announce the change of name from Nordhoff to Ojai.”
The following article first appeared on Page A-2 in the November 11, 1992 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It’s reprinted here with their permission.
David Mason: Linking Past & Future
“In the middle of the Ojai Valley lies a little hamlet, which the people have been kind enough to name after the author of this book.”
—- Charles Nordhoff
“The Ojai Valley (pronounced Ohy) is reached by a drive of 38 miles by way of the Carpenteria and the Casitas Pass…The valley is famous even in California for the abundance and loveliness of its woods of evergreen oaks…the oaks dot the surface of the whole lower valley, and are scattered over it in single specimens and clumps…”
The description crafted by Charles Nordhoff in his 1882 edition of “California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence” is a vision shared in many ways by one special Ojai man.
Separated by a century, Charles Nordhoff and David Mason share a common bond – enthusiasm for the Ojai Valley, and the ability to communicate that to others. Nordhoff wrote eloquently one hundred years ago about the grandeur of the valley and of California. Mason, a lifelong resident of Ojai, currently gives witty, informative slide shows about the history of the valley.
“Charles Nordhoff died on July 14 in 1901. I was born 38 years later in Ojai, on July 14. That coincidence has become significant to me over time, as I have become more drawn to the early days of Ojai,” said Mason, 53. “I feel very close to Nordhoff’s era in many ways.”
Mason’s interest in the past was sparked in 1964, when a friend’s mother died. The friend asked to use Mason’s dumpster to throw out some old things. Those “old things” included hundreds of postcards and photographs of early Ojai, and other memorabilia, Mason rescued all he could from the trash bin, and he was hooked.
“I framed a lot of the postcards, and had copies of the photos made for the Ojai Valley Museum and the Ventura County Museum. Over the years I’ve collected much more, and I’ve saved things, like photos of Lake Casitas being built. I’m an incredible packrat,” he said with a chuckle.
Mason now serves as vice chairman, and is past chairman, of Ventura County’s Cultural Heritage Board. He was the first chairman of the City of Ojai’s Cultural Heritage Board, and was also Ojai’s Citizen of the Year in 1986. Mason works as a realtor, having retired after a 25 year career as a florist. He owned the award-winning Village Florist in the Arcade, and closed it three years ago.
Mason’s slide show, which he presents to groups around the county, begins with Charles Nordhoff’s birth in 1832 in what was then Prussia. He tracks Nordhoff’s life – his move to America at the age of 3 and, later, traveling around the world with the U.S. Navy. Eventually Nordhoff became editor of the New York Post, and wrote his famous book “California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence” in 1872. That 206 page volume brought so many settlers to the state that Nordhoff was the name originally chosen for Ojai.
“Between 1870 and 1900, the population of California doubled, growing from 560,000 to well over a million. In that same 30 year period, over three million copies of Nordhoff’s book were sold,” Mason commented.
According to Mason, Mrs. Catherine Blumberg suggested the town be named Nordhoff in the early 1870’s. Topa Topa was also being considered. Catherine and her husband, Abram Wheeler Blumberg, came out West because of Nordhoff’s book and built the Ojai Inn in what is now Libbey Park. Nordhoff remained the village’s name for over 40 years.
“The name was formally changed to Ojai in 1917, at the beginning of World War I. There was a lot of anti-German sentiment, which fueled the change,” Mason remarked.
With slides and commentary, Mason captures the growth of the little town from 1872, when about 50 people lived in the village, up into the 1920’s. By then, cut-glass heir Edward Drummond Libbey of Ohio had come to Ojai and put his very personal stamp on the town. Libbey bought the 360 acre Arbolada, to save the area from being cut down for wood, and began to sell lots for homes. He also built the Ojai Valley Inn, the Post Office tower, the arched entryway to Libbey Park (now gone), and transformed the front of the downtown stores into a Spanish Mission style Arcade. Libbey also made a generous donation to the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel, and had a hand in its construction.
“Mr. Libbey had the desire to make things beautiful and the money to do it. He was influenced by castles in Spain and the rural Spanish towns, with their muted colors and soft, flowing lines.
“Mr. Libbey was also a smart developer. Here he had bought the Arbolada, but then had trouble selling the lots. People would come out to Ojai to buy a lot and they’d see how rustic things were downtown, with dirt streets and wooden slats along the front of the stores. It lacked charm. It looked like a Western frontier town and there wasn’t much to do,” Mason said. “So Libbey created a golf course and a nice downtown.”
Mason feels that if Libbey were to visit Ojai today, he would be quite pleased with the town.
“He would definitely approve of the look of Ojai. He would particularly like the Redevelopment Agency’s project of 1980, which remodeled the back of the Arcade to match the front. That completed Mr. Libbey’s vision for the town,” he said. “But he would miss those arches that were in front of the park!”
The arches were torn down in the late 1960’s. Originally they stood along the Ojai Avenue entrance to the park, and were designed to provide a balance to the heavy look of the Arcade. The park arches had an overhead trellis that was covered in wisteria. And directly in front of the arches, a lion’s head fountain served as a horse trough. The fountain was in place several years before Libbey commissioned the arches.
Mason believes that there might be a resurgence of interest in the old arches, and a move to replace them eventually. Mason would support such a move.
“I have a lot of respect for Mr. Libbey’s aesthetic vision for Ojai,” he said. “It’s our heritage. It’s what makes us unique.”
[Mason later headed up a committee to rebuild the Pergola. The recreated Pergola was dedicated on July 4, 1999.]
This article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Ojai Quarterly, and is posted here with permission. “The Art of Dennis Shives” exhibit is on view at the Ojai Valley Museum from Oct. 14, 2017 through February 25, 2018.
Dennis Shives His Way
For the better part of seven decades, self-taught Ojai artist Dennis Shives has followed his own path, often while going barefoot. Now, that long and winding road has led this notable free spirit to the Ojai Valley Museum, which this fall is honoring him with a career-retrospective exhibit. After forging a career on his own terms, far from the art-world limelight, Shives finally is ready for his close-up.
THE BUILDING was nondescript, an unassuming stucco affair fronting on El Roblar Drive west of Padre Juan Street in Meiners Oaks. But its display window was lit up at night, and something in it caught the eye of the artist Gayel Childress as she passed by one evening in the early 1980s.
“There was this wonderful wooden Gatling gun in the window,” she says. “I said I had to meet whoever made that.”
The creator turned out to be Dennis Shives, an artist and woodworker who used the building as his studio and the window as his gallery. Childress discovered to her delight that Shives’s hand-cranked Gatling gun actually worked, except that it fired rubber bands rather than bullets. He had crafted it a few years earlier using wood left over from another project – oak, ash, a bit of walnut – and part of a bronze light fixture he had salvaged from the Smith-Hobson House while it was being converted into Ojai’s City Hall. Childress was charmed by this whimsical, one-of-a-kind creation, and by the man who made it.
“I’ve been a fan ever since,” she says. “He really is a wonderful artist.”
That’s high praise coming from Childress, a co-founder of the Ojai Studio Artists group. Nor is she the only one who thinks so.
“A really incredible talent,” says Khaled Al-Awar, who in years past has featured the Gatling gun and other Shives pieces in his Primavera Gallery in the Arcade.
“He’s brilliant,” agrees Danna Tartaglia, who sells Shives prints, and framed photographs of his “Making Faces” rock art, in her Tartaglia Fine Arts gallery. “He’s an original – maybe the original Ojai artist.”
But Tartaglia and Al-Awar agree that Shives is not the easiest artist to represent, because of his unconventional attitude toward his career. He insists on asking dauntingly major-league prices for his major pieces, in part because of all the work he puts into making them, and in part because he seems too attached to his creations to let them go.
Partly as a result, Shives has struggled all his life to make a decent living, and to win wide recognition in the art world. Nevertheless, he has remained true to his chosen vocation. And now, on the eve of his 70th birthday, the spotlight finally has found him, in the form of a career-retrospective exhibit opening Oct. 14 at the Ojai Valley Museum. Which prompts the question: After a lifetime of wandering in the wilderness, is Dennis Shives ready for the red carpet?
BORN in Santa Paula in 1947, Shives mostly grew up in Ojai’s Upper Valley, where he attended the Summit School. Later he attended Matilija Junior High and Santa Paula High, from which he graduated in 1965. As a child he was drawn to art, due in part to encouragement from his maternal grandmother, a talented amateur painter.
“I always knew I would be an artist,” he says.
But he hated the art classes he took in high school and at Ventura College. There were too many rules about how to make art, and too much emphasis on how to make a living from it.
“I really didn’t learn anything in school,” he says. “So actually I’m self taught.”
The point of art classes, as Dennis saw it, was to tame the wildly creative urges that welled up within him, and channel them in approved directions. He declined to submit. He was a classic case of the child who refuses to color inside the lines.
“They are trying as hard as they can to kill that thing within you,” he says. “You’re supposed to be who you are. People need to do what they need to do, instead of sitting and copying other people.”
Despite his interest in the visual arts, the first career he pursued that of a musician. A true child of the ‘60s, Shives grew his hair long and tried his hand at rock ‘n’ roll, playing harmonica and singing with the Ojai All Stars, the house band at a rowdy, rough-and-tumble dive called the Ojai Club (located where Ojai Pizza is today). This was a fraught period when the local flower children and the local rednecks were frequently at odds.
“We were the hippies and they were the alcoholics,” Shives says. “This was a drunk cowboy town. There was a brawl every Saturday night.”
The All Stars’ lineup also included local guitar legend John Orvis, along with the brothers Norman and Curtis Lowe and others.
“We had a great time,” Shives says. “But then I switched into the arts.”
He took up woodworking, sculpture, painting, and whatever else intrigued him. He was a craftsman too, creating gold and silver jewelry, custom-carved rifles, exoticlooking furniture, even a house in Alaska for his Ojai friend Jack Estil. He never worried about not being formally trained. He just plunged in, and figured it out for himself.
“What the process is all about is learning not to be afraid,” he says. “Fear is the biggest killer of creativity.”
His longtime friend Sergio Aragones, the famous Mad Magazine artist, admires Shives’s extraordinary versatility.
“He’s the true Renaissance man,” Aragones says. “He’s a man who can do everything – and well! He has spent his life perfecting every craft.”
And to what end? To amuse himself, and other people, by telling stories that make everyone smile. There is an implied narrative embedded in most Shives pieces, whether it’s a painting of snails in a garden eating a flower, or a carved-wood door featuring a charging rhinoceros, or a soapstone sculpture of an octopus going for a walk.
“It was the storytelling process that I was interested in,” he says. “You’re playing with the story. It’s a way of entertaining people.”
When Shives turned his hand to creating parade floats, he entertained the entire town. People in Ojai still talk about the one he and his friend Rick DeRamus came up with in 1984, the year the Los Angeles Summer Olympics held rowing events at Lake Casitas. Shives’s float for that year’s Fourth of July parade was inspired by the legend of Old Hoover, the monster-sized largemouth bass said to lurk in the Casitas depths, too wily for any angler to hook.
“All the local kids dressed up as minnows and frogs,” he says, “and we chased ‘em down the street with the fish.”
For the 1986 parade, Shives and DeRamus constructed an even more elaborate version of Old Hoover. This second mechanized fish float was 40 feet long, 10 feet wide and 14 feet high, with a tail that wagged, gills that emitted air bubbles, and a huge mouth that swung open and shut as the bass pursued a man in a frog costume riding a bicycle along Ojai Avenue.
This was classic Shives: He put in seven months, uncompensated, to create Old Hoover II, then spent his last $5 on gas so he could drive it in the parade. People loved the float, of course, but they didn’t pay anything to see it.
“I never did anything that made me money,” he says. “I just barely scraped by.”
That period in the early ‘80s when he had the building on West El Roblar Drive was an anomaly. Generally, Shives has made his art in borrowed spaces, or at home. These days his studio is the house on Willow Street he shares with his life partner, the acupuncture provider Laurie Edgcomb. Here, Shives is surrounded by his sculptures, paintings, carved masks, bubble-blowing devices and fanciful furniture pieces. Many have attracted the attention of collectors, but Shives seems reluctant to part with them.
“Making art is completely different from making money,” he says. “I’m not doing this to sell stuff. I’m doing this because it makes me want to get up in the morning.”
On the other hand, he concedes, “You need to make a living.”
Indeed, and making a living as a working artist poses enormous challenges. Those who succeed usually find that they must put as much time and energy into marketing their art as they do into creating it.
“I guess you have to go out and seek it and chase it down,” Shives says, with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. He’d much rather drive his ancient Volkswagen van out to the East End, take off his shoes, and go for a walk in Horn Canyon.
Shives is not averse to making a buck or two, if he can do it his way. He sells hand-carved wooden walking sticks, baby spoons and magic wands (a Shives specialty). He also sells copies of his charming 2014 book, “True Stories To Be Read Aloud,” a collection of autobiographical stories. (A follow-up collection is due out this fall.) And, while he seems reluctant to sell his paintings, he happily sells prints of them at Danna Tartaglia’s gallery. She says they are popular choices with visitors looking for something Ojai-esque to take home with them – such as “Smudgepot Bears,” featuring merry ursine revelers cavorting in an orchard on a cold winter’s night, with Chief Peak providing the backdrop.
“I’m not sure what success is,” Shives says. “I do what I do, and feel pretty successful in my own little realm.”
Case in point: Shives is spectacularly successful at sand sculpture. He has a shelf full of first-place trophies won at contests held at Cayucos Beach and elsewhere. This probably is the art form for which he is best known outside of Ojai, but these are things he cannot sell – and that’s partly what attracted him to sand sculpting in the first place. He creates a large-scale piece in a few hours, takes a photograph, and walks away.
“If these things last the afternoon, they’re lucky,” he says. “Nothing lasts forever.
SHIVES is a familiar sight in Ojai: tall and tanned with long white hair, a flowing beard and a gentle smile, he favors khaki work shirts and cargo shorts, and gives the impression that he has never owned a pair of socks. If you want to walk a mile in his moccasins, you’ll have to do it barefoot, for when Shives hits the trail in the Los Padres National Forest he does it sans shoes.
“For two years, I took every Wednesday off and walked with him,” Khaled Al-Awar says. “This man has an incredible knowledge about nature.”
Roger Conrad of the Ojai Valley Museum says that Shives’s art is powerfully informed by his strongly felt connection with the natural world.
“His vision is derived from nature with childlike enthusiasm to see, touch, and create vivid experiences for himself and those that interact with his art,” Conrad says. “Whimsy is his language to find the spiritual in all living things. His message is that the lives of all creatures matter.”
“Whimsical” is a word often applied to Shives, and it’s not one that connotes serious artistic purpose in today’s high-powered art world. Untutored artists like Shives who lack academic credentials often are pigeonholed as outsider artists or folk artists. But Gayel Childress says Shives falls into none of these categories.
“I love outsider art, but his is quite sophisticated,” she says. “He has that outsider spirit, but his art is certainly not naïve. I don’t think there’s a term for Dennis. He’s one of a kind – part inventor, part engineer, part dreamer, part carpenter, part painter. Little touches of everything.”
Conrad, who is helping to organize the museum’s upcoming Shives exhibit, is similarly unwilling to hang a label on this unique artist.
“His art defies categorization,” Conrad says. “Some of his work seems primitive but other works display the hand of a seasoned artist. He pleases himself and dismisses being labeled. Above all else his art is enchanting and fun.”
The museum exhibit is a big deal for Shives, and his friends and supporters are thrilled for him.
“It’s his time,” Childress says. “I really want everyone to see this show. I want everybody in Ojai to know about him. I just want to see him honored because he surely deserves it.”
“It’s about time,” Aragones says. “He deserves it because of the variety of his art.”
To be clear, Shives had not exactly spent the past few decades hiding his light under a bushel. He creates his strikingly original artworks and steampunkish devices, and puts them out there. He writes and publishes his stories and reads them aloud to audiences. He paints frogs and other fanciful figures on classroom walls at the Monica Ros School. He shapes his sand sculptures for all the beach-going world to enjoy, if only for an afternoon. And everyone who drives along Ojai Avenue through the center of town has seen his work – he crafted the replacement lion’s face for the Pergola water fountain, after the original deteriorated.
Shives also provided facelifts for the stone lions at the entrance to Foster Park, and he designed the life-size sleeping bear that reposes near the front door of the Ojai Valley Museum (one of his “Specialty Monuments” for Rodger Embury’s Rock & Water Creations).
“The most important part of the whole thing is to stay an artist,” he says. “Most of the people I know who went to art school don’t do art anymore.”
Remaining an artist allows Shives to wake up in the morning knowing that he will spend the day doing what he wants to do, and being who he is. “Then I feel as good as I can feel.”
Shives is pleased about the upcoming exhibit in part because he hopes to inspire other would-be artists to follow their own paths, as he did.
“What you’re doing is inventing your life,” he says. “Anyone can do this if they really wanted to. You sit down and figure out how to do it. But most people are too smart for that. They go for the money.”
Not Dennis Shives. He chose freedom instead. He’s happy with the way things have worked out for him, and he thinks more people should make the same choice, so that they “can have a great life too.”
“I had a wonderful time,” he says. “I really did.”
This article first appeared in the Ojai Valley News on February 19, 1999. It is used here with their permission.
Evelyn Nordhoff is Returned
“The People of The Ojai can best show their appreciation of the generosity of the donors by keeping the fountain free from defacements, and by gradually developing around it village improvements of other kinds.” –The Ojai, Saturday, October 15, 1904
The journey to the town of Nordhoff, now Ojai, was long and tiring.
The dusty road was hardly passable in many places and the fact that the buggies had to ford rivers at least a dozen times didn’t help. The wild berries hanging down from the low tree limbs seemed to cover the trail.
There was a sign of relief when the buggies made it to the small camping area, now Camp Comfort, to take a rest. The stream was always running with cool water and the towering trees provided a shady nook.
When travelers finally reached the small western town of Nordhoff, the first stop was the conveniently placed watering trough and drinking fountain in the center of town.
The fountain was a beautiful addition to the small community which had earlier lacked any architectural charm – it’s design would eventually become known as “Mission Revival” and it was one of the earliest examples.
The Ventura Free Press called it “one of the finest fountains in the state,” and described it in detail.
“On the side facing the middle of main street, we see the drinking place for horses, consisting of a stone trough about twelve feet long, two feet deep and two feet wide, always full of running water supplied from a pipe running out of the lion’s mouth.
“A division, the centerpiece of the fountain, runs lengthwise directly back of the horse trough, and is made prettier by having the stone cut into mouldings at either end. This piece is about fourteen feet long and fully eight feet high in the middle, and is rounding at the top. At each end of this, only a few inches above the ground, the poor thirsty dogs find drinking places.
“The drinking place for humanity is found on the side next to the Ojai Inn, and consists of a large bowl hollowed out of a piece of stone, into which runs a tiny stream of water from a small lion’s mouth.
“The donor has not forgotten the tired traveler, but has built a broad resting place for him on a big slab of stone. The Ojai newspaper refers to as ‘an ornament we should be proud of.'”
The fountain, built in memory of Evelyn Hunter Nordhoff in 1904, was indeed an improvement to the downtown block. The community of Nordhoff, the principal settlement in the Ojai Valley, had been established in 1874 and was still in its early stages of development. Evelyn Nordhoff was the daughter of Charles Nordhoff, the well-known author for whom the town was named.
Evelyn Nordhoff’s early life was spent at the family home on the New Jersey palisades, in an area which would eventually become known as “Millionaire’s Row.”
As a young woman, Evelyn enrolled at Smith College, located in west-central Massachusetts and founded in 1871 for the education of women. Her schooling was cut short after one year, with the reason given that “she was needed at home.”
Evelyn learned to etch copper and gained notice by producing decorative, printed calendars. She also created artistically-worked leather pieces.
According to researcher Richard Hoye, “An opportunity opened for Evelyn to visit England when her brother Walter was posted there as a newspaper correspondent.”
In 1888, the first Arts and Crafts exhibition was staged in London, and a co-founder of the exhibition society, Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, presented four lectures on bookbinding. Evelyn’s attendance at these lectures piqued her interest in that line of work.
When she eventually returned to America, the Nordhoff family made a touring visit to California. The Ventura County newspaper reported that the Nordhoffs passed through the seaside town and went directly to the Ojai Valley.
Returning to New York City, Evelyn obtained work with a bindery to pursue her interest in the art of bookbinding. There she learned to sew pages and to mend old books. This was the first level of the craft. Evelyn would learn the business from many teachers before she became proficient in the skill of bookbinding.
Evelyn opened her own workroom in Greenwich Village across from the New York University. Her artistry in the work of bookbinding began to gain attention for the young Evelyn as a woman and an artist. She possessed the Nordhoff sense of independence, and the initiative in pursing against the odds.
Training in a craft from which women had previously been excluded reflects a high degree of personal determination and she was a good example of a confident and talented woman, the first woman in the United States to take up the vocation of artistic bookbinding.
Evelyn Nordhoff spent her summer months in California with her parents, who, by this time, made their home in Coronado. In late summer of 1889, when Evelyn would again have departed from Coronado after a summer’s visit, her parents did not realize that this would be their last parting with their daughter, for in November they received word she had died.
She had suffered an attack of appendicitis, was operated on, and failed to recover.
The Nordhoff fountain was given to the community of Nordhoff by sisters Olivia and Caroline Stokes in Evelyn’s memory. The Stokes sisters had inherited wealth from banking, real estate and other interests in the New York City area. They were lifetime companions, never married, especially devout and well-known philanthropists. Their gifts were numerous and worldwide.
The Stokes sisters visited the Ojai Valley in 1903, staying at the Hughes home on Thacher Road, and were probably influenced by Sherman Thacher, founder of a nearby boys’ school, to build the fountain as a lasting memorial to this talented young lady.
Richard Hoye suggests that, “There may also have been a temperance motive. The banning of liquor was strongly supported in the community and by the Stokes sisters. A drinking fountain closely located to a horse trough would remove an excuse that stage drivers and their passengers might have had to resort to alcohol to slacken their thirst after a dusty trip from Ventura to the mountain town.”
In 1917, when Edward D. Libbey, Ojai’s greatest benefactor, began his transformation of the small town, he had the fountain moved back four feet to widen the roadway.
Libbey removed the Ojai Inn and built a beautiful, wisteria-covered, arched and walled pergola. With the fountain as the center focal point, an attractive entrance was created into the Civic Center Park, now Libbey Park.
In the 1960s, the whole structure began to shown signs of age and suffered major damage from vandalism. In the turmoil of this period, the entrance arch was damaged by explosives and by 1971 the pergola and fountain were removed.
The bronze plaque on the fountain that was inscribed, “In memory of Evelyn Hunter Nordhoff, this fountain is given to the people of Nordhoff, 1904” was returned to members of the Nordhoff family.
With the restoration of this landmark – the pergola and the Nordhoff fountain – the bronze plaque has been returned to the people of the Ojai Valley. The plaque will once again be placed on this beautiful fountain which will be rebuilt in memory of Evelyn’s aspirations and accomplishments – a spirit which has prevailed in the history of the Ojai Valley, in its schools and its artistic culture.
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.”