Sharp & Savvy: Charles Millard Pratt

Sharp & Savvy: Charles Millard Pratt (1855 – 1935)
by David Mason

Mr. Pratt was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 2, 1855. His father, Charles Pratt Sr. was, at the time, the richest man in Brooklyn and was a partner in the Standard Oil Company with John D. Rockefeller.

By 1879, Charles M. Pratt had graduated from Amherst College and had received an honorary M. A. from Yale, before joining his father’s company, Standard Oil as the company secretary. At various times he was also president and a director of the oil company.

In 1884, he married Mary Seymour Morris, the daughter of the Governor of Connecticut Luzon B. Morris. The Pratt’s had five children.

Mr. Pratt was appointed as a trustee of Amherst College, his alma mater and Vassar College, his wife’s alma mater. He became president of the board of trustees for the Pratt Institute  in New York.

He served on the boards of the Long Island Railroad, and the Brooklyn City Railroad. He was a director in the American Express Company, the Mechanics and Metals National Bank and the Union Mortgage Company.

His interests varied as he was also a director in the Pratt and Lambert Paint Company, the Self Winding Clock Company, and the Chelsea Fiber Mills.

Mr. Pratt was the first alumnus to donate a building to Amherst College, the Pratt Gymnasium, erected in 1883.

Discovering Ojai, Mr. and Mrs. Pratt purchased acreage just north of the Foothills Hotel with thoughts of building a winter home here.

Their choice of architects was the popular Greene and Greene bothers. Many glowing articles were being written about the Greenes, and the Pratts decided that they should have them design their new home.

Pratt House

The Greene brothers placed less emphasis on a formal entry and spacious living and dining areas. Instead, the entry door opened directly into the modest living room. Despite the informality, however, all details of the Pratt house design were given the Greenes’ strict attention. Mr. Pratt was a shareholder in the Foothills Hotel and, consequently, they entertained at the hotel rather than at home.

In 1916, with the Nordhoff High School in need of additional classrooms, Mr. Pratt donated the money to build two very important buildings for the school. One was for manual training and the other for domestic science and art. These additions to the school cost Mr. Pratt $25,000. In 1917, when the forest fire swept through the valley, the manual training building was burned and Mr. Pratt had it replaced immediately.*

Charles Millard Pratt became an invalid and bedridden in 1925 and spent the rest of his life at the family estate in Glen Cove, Long Island. His important contributions to the Ojai Valley had come to an end. He died in November of 1935.

The Pratt House is a Ventura County Historical Landmark and a Federal Landmark. For all times this building has been one of the Greene and Greene brothers’ masterpieces.

*As a tribute to Pratt, the 1916 Nordhoff Yearbook included the following poem:

Charles Millard Pratt

To the man from out of the East
Who bears choice gifts
To bless us and those who follow,
Gifts of gold, but also
Gifts of character and the spirit
Of plain democracy,
More enduring,
We dedicate this, our annual.

1916 Nordhoff Topa Topa Annual

JUNE 30 - SEPTEMBER 11, 2011

Sharp & Savvy: Abram Lincoln Hobson

Sharp & Savvy: Abram Lincoln Hobson (1861 – 1929)
by David Mason

Abram Hobson was born in the seaside town of Ventura in March of 1861. He obtained his early education in the public schools of the county. At the age of 16, he went to work for his father in the meat packing business and four years later, he bought out his father’s interest and entered into a partnership with one of his brothers. The name of the business was then changed to Hobson Brothers Packing Company and through the leadership of these men, the business became known as one of the most outstanding concerns of its kind in Southern California.

For a number of years, along with the meat packing company, they were also interested in the business of street paving. They became one of the leading paving contractors in the west and undertook large contracts in many western cities, even installing the gravity sewer line in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In all of their business affairs, the Hobson brothers maintained their transactions at the highest level of ethics and always enjoyed a splendid reputation for dependability and honor.

With a desire to take a wife, Abram Hobson married Helen Barnard in 1889. Helen’s father was the first president of the Seattle University and he had come to Ventura to engage in the lumber and real estate business.

Mr. Hobson’s love of fine horses was well-known and his stable included some of the best-known show equines in Southern California. An able rider, he was for years a colorful figure in local parades.

With such an outstanding background it was no wonder that the small town of Nordhoff welcomed this highly successful family to its community.

The Hobson home was built in 1907 in the popular Craftsman style. It was constructed entirely of wood with a peaked roof and wide overhanging eaves.

Upon entering the spacious bungalow, your attention was directed immediately to the striking fireplace, it had its own individual character with beautiful handmade tiles.

In the dining room, a traditional arts and crafts feature was the built-in sideboard with its long serving surface and china cabinet. The house had a welcome feeling that greeted visitors.

The Hobson daughter, Grace, loved living in the Ojai Valley. The Nordhoff Union High School, which started in 1909, was the center of her life and she would be the valedictorian of the first graduating class in 1912.

With the transformation of the town of Nordhoff by Edward Drummond Libbey, Ojai’s greatest benefactor, to a Spanish-style city during the years of 1916 and 1917, it was only natural that the Hobson family would want their home to match the new design that was being built all over the valley. Architect Richard Requa, who was doing so many of the Spanish buildings, agreed to help the Hobson’s to change their Craftsman-style bungalow into a striking Spanish-style home.

As each room was being transformed, the family vacated that room until it was finished. Most of the work was to the exterior of the building. The interior remained generally the same.

A smaller house, also in Spanish design, was constructed a short distance from the main house, and the walkway between the two buildings was shaded by a wisteria covered pergola.

Completed in 1925, the estate with its two houses, tennis court, miniature golf course and formal gardens, was definitely a beautiful Ojai showplace.

When Abram Hobson died in 1929, daughter Grace and her husband Fred Smith moved into the smaller house to be near her mother, Helen Hobson, for the rest of her life. Grace continued her father’s charitable work in the valley, and throughout the county of Ventura.

After the death of Grace Hobson Smith, her husband presented the estate to the city of Ojai as a gift from the Hobson-Smith family. In 1976, the historic Hobson home became City Hall for the community and today it is one of the most attractive and unique government buildings in the state of California.

The generosity and support of the Hobson and Smith families continues through the present day, under the auspices of the Smith Hobson Foundation, directed by Gregory and Jeffrey Smith, the great-grandsons of Abram Lincoln Hobson. Beneficiaries include Ojai Valley Museum, Ojai Valley School, Ventura County Museum, Claremont Colleges, Ventura County Symphony, New West Symphony among many other worthwhile recipients.

JUNE 30 - SEPTEMBER 11, 2011

Sharp & Savvy: Abram Blumberg

Sharp & Savvy: Abram Blumberg (1836 – 1898)
by David Mason

The Blumberg Hotel

Mr. Abram Blumberg was a very successful business man, town promoter and builder. His wife, who was quite sickly, had spent a considerable amount of time reading about California in the books written by the notable author; Charles Nordhoff, and encouraged her husband to give up his business affairs and leave Iowa to seek a better climate in the west.

They traveled first to the town of Los Angeles in 1872, but still Mrs. Blumberg’s health did not improve. After traveling around California, looking for a place where the weather might help her, they happened to read of a new town being promoted by a Mr. R.G. Surdam, in the Ojai Valley.

The Blumberg’s arrival in the valley did much to help settle Mr. Surdam’s town. They arrived in 1873 and almost instantly, Mrs. Blumberg began to recover from her illness. Deciding to stay, Mr. Surdam offered Abram Blumberg 20 acres in the center of town on which to build a small hotel, it was completed in 1874 and called the Ojai Inn, however most of the valley habitants referred to it as the Blumberg’s Hotel.
The Ventura newspaper printed glowing reports on the progress in the valley; “No time should be lost by the Ojai people in making their little valley as attractive as possible. It can be made a most delightful resort.” January 1874.

However, the town did not have a name, some were favoring the name “Topa Topa”, but Mrs. Blumberg felt that because of the wonderful books written by Charles Nordhoff, which was responsible for so many of the valley’s first settlers, they should name the town Nordhoff in his honor.

Meanwhile, in the hotel, the first child was born in the new town of Nordhoff. Irene May Blumberg on September 29, 1874.

Abram Blumberg was killed on the streets of Los Angeles while bicycle riding with his wife, hit by a Trolley Car in 1898.

JUNE 30 - SEPTEMBER 11, 2011

The Beautiful Drives of the ’90s

The Beautiful Drives of the ’90s by Ed Wenig

Tourists arriving in the Ojai Valley in the 1890’s asked much the same questions as tourists who arrive in the valley today. “What can we do and see in Ojai? What drives would you suggest?”

Here is the reply given in an article by the editor of THE OJAI in 1897, under the heading, TO OUR VISITORS.

“One day, or an afternoon should be devoted to the Matilija, going by the hill road north of Nordhoff, digressing if possible to visit the Crawford place and get the eastward view from that point, and penetrating the canyon beyond Matilija to Wheeler’s or Cliff Glen. The hot springs of the Matilija are famous, but the rugged scenery is well worth seeing for its own sake. The return should be made by the Laguna on the Ventura road where the live oak vistas are finest. (Note: The Laguna, once also called Mirror Lake, is now dry, and lies immediately south of Henderson Field). If possible El Nido Ranch should be visited on the way.

“Another drive should include the eastern end of the valley here the greater orange ranches are… One may proceed to Mr. Hall’s ranch where the oldest olive trees are to be seen and the celebrated Whale Rock, and to “Overlook,” Dr. Pierpont’s charming resort, and to Mr. Green’s where the first gold was found, and reach Mr. Thacher’s School at Casa de Piedra Ranch, most interesting to strangers perhaps at recess, from 10:20 to 11 a.m. A 1/2 mile north of Topa Topa Ranch of a hundred acres f citrus fruit whose reputation in the San Francisco markets is an enviable one. A little further drive will include Glencoe Ranch at the head of the valley, and the homeward trip will lead by “Old Nick’s” wine ranch and along the Ojai Avenue back to the town.

“The Upper Valley” is worth another day’s excursion. Dennison’s stock ranch, Hobart’s well kept apricot and almond ranch, Robinson’s, Gray’s, McGuire’s, Pinkerton’s and others, and the large winery of Mr. Bracken are all interesting. The top of Sulphur Mountain may be reached from the upper Valley by comfortable road, and the view of the ocean and the islands amply repays the two or three miles of ascent.

“But if one has entered the valley by the Creek Road one should leave it if possible by driving through the Upper Valley and the Santa Paula Canyon. This drive is one of the most beautiful in Southern California.”

“For those who enjoy horseback riding, Senior’s Canyon, and the Sespe Trail, starting from Gridley’s interesting ranch should not be neglected.”
Horse-drawn rigs were the standard means of transportation for both Ojai residents and sight-seeing tourists. P.L. Smith, Ojai Livery Stable proprietor, proudly advertised a brand new passenger wagon “covered with three seats across, finely upholstered, for carrying passengers over the beautiful drives of the vicinity… just the vehicle for taking parties over the Casitas or down Creek Road, or to the several springs and resorts.”

Horseback riding excursions were also popular for the local folk. There was some discussion whether girls should wear long divided skirts and ride astride their mounts, or ride side-saddle with their flowing skirts hiding pretty ankles. Side-saddles gradually disappeared, however, the chaperones being the last to give them up.

SAN ANTONIO creek drive (Picture courtesy of Howard Gally)

Golf in Ojai (1899)

Golf in 1899 Cost Only 15 Cents a Day in Ojai by Ed Wenig

A gala occasion was celebrated in Nordhoff on Saturday, January 14, 1899, when the first golf course in the valley was opened to the public. Mrs. Mary Gally had supervised the laying out of the course north of the Gally Cottages with the help of some easterners who knew something about golf links.

The greens were patches of sand. Buckets of wet sand hung on posts at the beginning of the fairways for the use of the players in making their tees. Bunkers were made of strips of three-foot wire – netting placed on the top of one-foot ridges of earth. Burned-out hollow stumps and many squirrel holes dotted the fairways.

“Hold my caddy”
The game was a great novelty to the residents of the valley. The players on the opening day, mostly visitors from the east, were followed from hole to hole by the wondering “natives” who chattered continuously, asking the names of the various clubs, how to score, etc.

Mr. Hubby, a local authority on golf terms obligingly explained the game to the onlookers. One of Mr. Hubby’s favorite stories was that of a young lady in the east who had learned to rattle off golf terms with such authority that one golfer remarked that she must be very well posted on golf. “Oh, yes,” she replied, “I know nearly all about it except that I haven’t yet learned how to hold by caddy!”

At the close of the formal opening, refreshments of ice cream, cake and preserved ginger were served at the Gally Cottages.

Although the opening day was pronounced a great success by all who attended, the editor of THE OJAI called the attention of the valley residents to an unfortunate aftermath in the next issue of this paper. He wrote: “After the day was done the putting of greens were an offence to the landscape. The ladies wore those high-heeled shoes that left their imprints deep in the sands as a reminder that society had been at large very recently. It has taken four men all week to repair this damage. Dear people, when you play golf here will you please wear tennis shoes or shoes without heels, that the putting greens may not be put out of repair and other players out of temper and into profanity?”

Players on the course paid 15c for one-half day; 25c for one day, $1 for one week, $2 for one month, and $10 for the season. Caddies were paid 10c for nine holes, and 20c for an eighteen hole round.

Interesting Rules
Because of the particular hazards of the course the Green Committee of the newly-formed Ojai Valley Golf Club found it necessary to make additional rules to the ones laid down by the U.S. Golf Association. Some of these were:

  1. A ball fastened in the netting of any bunker must be dropped behind the same and within a club’s length without penalty.
  2. A ball driven onto the ploughed ground or grain field may be dropped at the point where it left the course under penalty of one stoke.
  3. If ball goes into a squirrel hole, it may be dropped behind the hole, or if unrecoverable another ball may be dropped in its place without penalty.
  4. All stones and pebbles, loose branches and twigs may be removed, provided the ball is not disturbed. If the ball lies on a stone it may be dropped behind the same without penalty.
  5. A ball is in unplayable position near the stumps may be dropped behind the stumps without penalty.

One of Howard Gally’s childhood memories of the early days of the golf course was his mother’s indignation upon learning that her smallest son had been held by his heels and lowered into a burned-out hollow tree by a player to retrieve his ball. Today Howard says he still finds parts of long-lost golf balls in the area where the course was located.

MARY GALLY – standing in the middle of the back row. In the same group are Willian Thacher and Mr. and Mrs. Harry St. Claire.

The Casitas Pass Stagecoach Road

The Casitas Pass Stagecoach Road by Richard Hoye

A stagecoach road was constructed over Casitas Pass in 1878.  Prior to the construction of the road, the pathway across the pass between the Ojai Valley and Carpinteria consisted of little more than a trail. It was an historic trail, being part of El Camino Real; but it needed to be widened to accommodate stage coaches.  It was in use as a stagecoach road for only a short while, until the arrival of rail service between Ventura and Santa Barbara in 1887.

Interest in a stagecoach road over Casitas Pass was prompted by the difficult passage between Ventura and Carpinteria along the coast.  Steep cliffs reached right to the breakers, and passage was commonly possible only at low tide. One of the major concerns of the Santa Barbara County board of supervisors when it met for its very first session in 1856 was how to get a road built between Ventura and Santa Barbara.  The Casitas Pass stagecoach road was the first practical solution.

In the middle of the 1870s, land in the Ojai and Santa Ana Valleys was subdivided.  Real estate sales were promoted, and travelers’ accommodations improved.  Persons interested in getting a stagecoach road constructed met in June 1875 to discuss ways and means, and representatives at the meeting were from both Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Funding, of course, is the usual first consideration for such projects; and apparently, at the time, it was necessary for counties to obtain state approval to float bonds.  That approval came with An Act to Provide for the Construction of the Casitas Pass Road, in County of Ventura, passed by the state legislature on January 12, 1878.  No money was provided by the state.  The county was authorized to go into debt.

A contract for construction of the road was awarded to William S. McKee early in May 1874.  William McKee was the owner of Oak Glen Cottages in the Ojai Valley.  He had opened his cottages for travelers and health-seekers only the year before.  His interest in stimulating travel between the Ojai Valley and Santa Barbara is evident, and he apparently had the skills and resources to manage construction of the road.

The road itself was only the width of a stagecoach, quite narrow by current standards; but it did require real construction effort.  The grade needed to be gradual enough so that horses could manage to pull heavy stagecoaches up and over both the east and west passes.  McKee met the target for completion of the road, and it was accepted by the Ventura County board of supervisors in August 1878.

The opening of the new road, of course, deserved a celebration.  A picnic was staged on September 10, 1878, on the banks of the Rincon Creek, which runs along the Ventura County and Santa Barbara County line. Celebrants enjoyed the pleasant canyon setting, within view of what they called the “Twin Elephant Rocks.”

The stagecoach road did not follow the current route of the grade which rises today from Lake Casitas to the east Casitas Pass.  The current route is on the north side of the canyon. The stagecoach road climbed the grade on the south side of the canyon, and a dirt road is still visible on that side of the canyon.

Fresh teams of horses were placed on the stagecoaches at both ends of the pass.  In the Santa Ana Valley, at the base of the east-end grade, there was a large barn. It was sufficiently large to permit a stagecoach and team to drive into the barn, and the changing of the team was done inside the barn. That barn was located near the current Casitas Dam and stood there until 1923.

At the western end of the pass, at Rincon Creek and the Santa Barbara County line, James and Belle Shepard opened Mountain View Inn in 1876 (a couple of years before construction of the stagecoach road). They were very successful in welcoming persons who were traveling to and from the Ojai Valley and Santa Barbara, and their Inn became a half-way house, enjoyed by all.

The name of Mountain View Inn was changed to Shepard’s Inn in 1896, and it seemed to gain ever-greater renown (even though by that time the stagecoaches no longer ran over the pass). The quality of the food, the excellence of the service, and the scenic setting were great; and the Inn hosted famous persons, such as Theda Bara, Mary Pickford, Enrico Caruso and even President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905.

The need for the stagecoach road suddenly ended when rail service was established between Ventura and Santa Barbara in 1887. Stagecoaches were still in use for a while, but only to destinations not directly served by the railroad.

In later days, the Ventura Bicycle Club staged an Independence Day ride between Ventura and Santa Barbara in 1891. Their route passed over the old stagecoach road across Casitas Pass.  Automobiles were not to appear for another decade. A mission bell was placed at the summit of the west Casitas Pass in 1907 to mark the way as El Camino Real. A report that year appearing in The Ojai newspaper stated that the pass was “perfectly safe for motors, always provided the chauffeur knows how to handle his machine.”

Completion of construction of the Rincon highway in 1912 directed most through traffic along the coastal route, and the route of the old stagecoach road retired to the status of one of California’s favorite backcountry roads.