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

Our Town, Part 1 by Helen Baker Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Stories of Ojai, Part I

Early Ojai Stories, Part One by Howard Bald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Reminiscences of Early Ojai” by Howard Bald, 1973

Ojai’s First Jail

Ojai’s First Jail by Ed Wenig

Andy Van Curen's Jail

For those who needed to be incarcerated for some time, Andy Van Curen, long time constable in the Ojai Valley, provided lodging in a very small, home-made jail he had built himself on his own property. According to Edna Van Curen Miner, his daughter, the jail was built of 4 inch boards, one inch thick that were laid flat, one on top of the other, and then nailed through with iron spikes an inch apart. Says she: “It was a veritable fortress from which none could escape.”

There were two adjoining cells with an iron door for each, one cell capacity was 4, the other 7. A six inch square hole in each door provided a convenient opening for air and for providing a space for passing in small dishes of food. The jail was situated first close to Ojai Avenue, in front of what is now Loops Restaurant [now Carrow’s Restaurant]. Then it was moved under a tree back of the rear parking lot of the Security Pacific Bank building [now, Bank of America].

Andy Van Curen was Nordhoff’s constable for many years. In his later life, there was a movement among some of the citizens of Ojai to elect a younger and more active man to replace him as constable. Commenting on this situation in her memoirs of the period, Helen Baker Reynolds writes: “Andy was hurt and incensed. He let it be known that if he were replaced no one else could use his jail. The movement for replacement promptly collapsed.”

Years after its use was ended, the little jail was twice offered to the City with the suggestion that it be placed in the Civic Park, but the city was not interested.

Clara Koch who had become in possession of the Van Curen property gave the jail to Audrey Ovington of Santa Barbara, who engaged William J. Brakey, the famed “moving man” from Ventura to move it. Mr Brakey took it on a flatbed truck over the Casitas Pass, and deposited it at Cold Spring Tavern. There it stands today and may be seen by anyone interested.

Ed Wenig, Ojai’s home-made jail was escape-proof, Ojai Valley News, Nov. 19, 1969.