The following article first appeared in the SPRING 2021 (VOLUME 39 NUMBER 2) issue of “Ojai MAGAZINE” on pages 122-123. The magazine was published by the “OJAI VALLEY NEWS”. It is reprinted here with their permission.
LOOK BACK IN OJAI
with Drew Mashburn
Contributed on behalf of the
Ojai Valley Museum
OJAI VALLEY Memorable Trees
TARZAN had nothin’ on me and my buddies!
In about 1966, Mark Madsen — Viking descent, not raised by apes, but kinda ape-ish — and I decided we’d build a tree fort. Mark’s parents had moved to Modesto, so Mark moved in with me to finish out the school year at Matilija Junior High School.
We knew of a huge Coastal Live Oak that was on a hillside in the old English Walnut groves that bordered the upper end of Mirror Lake and overlooked the railroad (now, the “Ojai Valley Trail”) in Mira Monte. The grand old oak’s limbs reached the ground clear around its large drip line. It was perfect for slipping under to hide because nobody could see you. This made it a great place to construct our private tree fort. We let a few of our buds know about the fort and had them give us a hand in erecting it. Not just because we liked the guys, but because we needed to rob the wood of their dads. We’d already stolen all of my dad’s extra wood and most of his nails.
I’ll bet that tree was about 60 feet high. I don’t recall how we did it, but we hung a thick, manila bull rope from about 30 feet up or better. We’d swing from one thick limb to about 3/4’s of the way across the tree’s canopy, then latch onto a smaller rope and swing a few feet further and set onto another large limb. We found an inch-thick steel cable, then attached it way up high in the oak. We stretched it out beyond the tree’s outermost limbs, then secured it way high in a Southern California black walnut tree. We even put a pulley on the cable, but we could only hang onto the pulley and ride it about halfway from one tree to the other because the cable sagged in the middle. That cable was just too dang heavy for us to get taut enough. Sometimes, we’d sling a leg over the cable and shimmy under it from one tree to the other.
Our tree fort’s floor was about 15 feet above the ground level. High enough to keep the enemies at bay. We had a bunch of dirt clod, rock and sling-shot fights with Scotty Alderson , Russell Glen and a few other dudes that were jealous of our nesting spot. Eddie Kneeland took a sling-shotted marble in the back. His mom never let him visit again. It’s good nobody got killed or lost an eye, but I’d never give up those fun times.
Unfortunately, the beautiful old oak and tree fort were razed so the Mirror Lake tract homes could be built. Fortunately, tree protection laws have been established to prevent further needless destruction of our heritage trees.
Before Mark’s parents hightailed it to Modesto, they lived in a cool old Craftsman home on N. Signal Street in Ojai. Their front yard was enclosed by many tall bushes. I have no idea what type of bushes, but a couple of them yielded tons of small, firm berries. These berries made great ammo for our small, lightweight sling shots that cost us about a dime each at the TG&Y Store. We’d load up all of our pockets with as many berries as we could stuff in them, then we’d hoof it down to the northwest corner of Ojai Avenue and N. Signal Street. (This was pre-automated traffic signal days.) On the corner was a tall tree. It was just inside the tall stucco wall of The Oaks Hotel’s property. We’d climb up onto the top of the wall and perch there until the coast was clear, then clamber up into the tree where the thick foliage concealed us. Out came our slingshots and berries. We never shot any people or animals, but man, did we splatter bunches of vehicles as they proceeded through the intersection! To this day, I believe Mark was the instigator.
I attended kindergarten in 1956-57 in Mrs. Sutherland’s class at Ojai Elementary School. Mom and Dad used to let me walk to school and home which was on E. Aliso street and backed up to Sarzotti Park. Why do I mention this? Well, I don’t recall climbing any trees before my kindergarten days. The kindergarten building was behind Ojai Elementary School (AKA: Nordhoff Grammar School) which faces Ojai Avenue. In front of the school are several really old pepper trees that line the sidewalk that parallels Ojai Avenue. I don’t think there’s a single one of them that I failed to scale their gnarly old trunks. They are some of my favorite trees in the entire Ojai Valley.
But, there are many other trees that I have found or find to be special and/or memorable to me in our lovely valley like: The huge old Coastal Live Oak in my front yard that I recently found a barely decipherable ’49 (year?) carved into its bent trunk; the monstrous old oak in my buddy’s (Danny Nickerson’s) Park Road home that had a rope swing on which we’d swing for hours on end; the leaning pepper tree that was in front of the Hitching Post hamburger joint (now, Seafresh Restaurant) and next to the old hitching post where we saw horses tied in the shade; the white bark birch trees my Dad planted on his well-manicured dichondra lawn on E. Aliso Street; the old English Walnut trees at my parents S. Rice Road home that Dad named the “Poor Man’s Ponderosa”; “Sparrow Hawk Tree” near “Crack-In-The-Rock” between old man Mercer’s citrus orchard and Shelf Road. Martin Ford introduced me to this area where we hunted with our wooden “Wham-O” slingshots; Ojai’s “Bicentennial Tree” on Soule Park Golf Course that used to be a stagecoach stop and where I’d cool down the three summers (’67, ’68 and ’69) I worked on the maintenance crew during high school; the huge Modesto Ash at my S. Padre Juan home that I built horseshoe pits under and played many a great game with my friends and family; the enormous Modesto Ash I had to have removed at my present home because it was lifting the home’s foundation. That sucker cost me $2K to remove, but worse yet, because it was so big, I had to pull a $100 building permit and provide an arborist’s report; and the list could go on and on.
We had and have so many wonderful trees in the Ojai Valley. Please….respect and honor them. Some of them will leave you with some very special memories!