Nordhoff’s Rangers Symbolized the Wild West

The Nordhoff Rangers By Ed Wenig, published in the Ojai Valley News on June 10, 1970

The term “Nordhoff Rangers” today evokes thoughts of high school football teams and athletic events in the minds of Ojai residents. But in the early days of the valley, the original Nordhoff Rangers were an integral part of the adult life of the community, ringing security and, at the same time, a sort of excitement to the lives of the townsfolk. To visiting easterners at the turn of the century the Nordhoff Rangers seemed the last remaining vestige of the Old West.

It was necessary for a Ranger to have two horses in order to carry on his work. One was for riding, while the other carried provisions and fire-fighting gear. In those days shovels, machetes, and barley sacks for beating out the flames in grass fires were standard equipment.

Days or weeks later the horses and their mounts would return, dead tired, for a brief respite from their duties. On occasion the one-block-long main street of the village would be filled with Rangers and their horses preparing to leave for the vast area north of the Ojai, or coming home from the forest.

A report to the government by Ranger James Larmer describes a somewhat typical event in a forest ranger’s life thus: “April 7, 1899. Went to Wheeler’s Hot Springs in the north fork of Matilija Canyon. While there received a message from Supervisor Slosson that fire was burning in Cozy Dell Canyon. Went there with four men. Put out fire by 8 a.m. on 8th. Worked all night. Rode 40 miles.”

Among the more famous of Nordhoff’s forest rangers was Jacinto Reyes, who was with the forest service for 31 years. As forest policeman Jacinto Reyes conscripted homesteaders to pout out forest fires, settled quarrels between cattle and sheep men, and packed out bodies of men who had perished in the mountains.

Sol Sheridan, Ventura County historian, wrote, “Jacinto Reyes is known as one of the most efficient Rangers in the service, a man whose fame has traveled far-fearlessly shirking no responsibility and stopping at nothing to protect the farmer of the valley by his intelligent devotion to the conservation of the forest growth of the mountains.”

In 1901 Jacinto Reyes was honored by being part of the escort for President McKinley’s carriage in Ventura. However, “J.D.”, as Jacinto was affectionately called, received his biggest thrill in 1905 in Santa Barbara, when President Theodore Roosevelt asked him to ride on the right side of his carriage.

(Shortly after Nordhoff High School opened in 1909, the students adopted the Nordhoff Ranger as their school mascot.)

Ethel Andrus: How One Woman Changed America

Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus a talk given to the Ojai Valley Museum by Craig Walker on May 1, 2011
Ethel Percy Andrus founded Grey Gables of Ojai, the National Retired Teachers Association, and the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP).

Perhaps you’ve seen the new AARP television commercial. It’s hard to miss if you watch CNN. The commercial opens with an interior shot of a dimly-lit farm structure; the narrator speaks:

“A chicken coop; the unlikely birthplace of a fundamental idea. It’s where Ethel Percy Andrus found a retired teacher living because she could afford nothing else. Ethel couldn’t ignore the clear need for health and financial security…and it inspired her to found AARP.”

Ethel Andrus founded AARP on the simple premise that no one should have to live in a chicken coop, that all Americans-including the elderly–should live independent, productive, and dignified lives.

What the commercial doesn’t mention is that Ethel Percy Andrus founded AARP while living here in Ojai. For several years, she ran AARP from her offices at Grey Gables–another one of her innovative ideas. Grey Gables of Ojai, established by Andrus in 1954, was one of America’s first retirement communities.

Ethel Percy Andrus believed strongly in the power of numbers. All of her organizational efforts were guided by three principles: collective purpose, collective voice, and collective purchasing power. By the time she died in 1967, AARP had grown to 1.2 million members. Today, AARP (now headquartered in Washington DC) has over 40 million members; it is the second largest membership organization in America after the Catholic Church. AARP magazine (which Ethel created, and edited for many years) has three times the circulation of any other American magazine-with over 35 million readers! Because of these numbers, AARP has become one of the most powerful research, advocacy, and consumer organizations in America!

But Ethel Andrus did so much more than just create an organization! Through her tireless efforts, she changed the lives of America’s senior citizens and, more importantly, she changed the way society views retirement and aging. If your life has not already benefited from the work of Ethel Percy Andrus…it will!

Ethel Andrus also believed in the power of years. She believed the elderly are uniquely qualified by their longevity and their retirement to bring meaningful change to society. She exemplified this through her own life. Ethel founded the National Retired Teachers Association when she was 63; she moved to Ojai and founded Grey Gables when she was 70;…and she founded AARP when she was 74! After that, she went on numerous speaking tours, wrote countless editorials, met with presidents, and lobbied Congress and state legislatures. All of this…came after retiring from a distinguished 40-year career in education! …In 1993 Ethel Andrus was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame–alongside her mentor, Jane Addams, and many other important American women like Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Certainly, Ethel Percy Andrus qualifies as one of Ojai’s most accomplished, influential, and famous residents! She was a social reformer and civil rights leader of national importance, who did much of her significant work here in Ojai. And yet, her name is seldom mentioned in listings of important Ojai residents. Nor is it widely known that Ojai is the birthplace of AARP–an organization that has improved the lives of so many Americans. This talk is an attempt to correct these oversights-and to pay tribute to a truly remarkable woman!
Ethel Percy Andrus was born in San Francisco in 1884, but grew up in Chicago. She decided at an early age to dedicate her life to serving others. She credits her father for that decision; he taught her that everyone should do good somewhere in the world, and that the greatest rewards in life come when one serves others. Ethel’s personal motto was “To Serve, Not to Be Served,” which is still the motto of AARP.

In 1903, at the age of 18, she earned her bachelors degree from the University of Chicago and began teaching English at the Lewis Institute.

During Ethel’s years teaching in Chicago–from 1903 to 1910-she volunteered at Hull House, a “settlement house” founded by Jane Addams to help low-income European immigrants living on Chicago’s east side. In a settlement house, social workers live in the community, learning first hand the needs of the residents while providing them with educational, medical, and counseling services. Ethel’s work with Jane Addams at Hull House would lay the foundation for her future work as a high school principal, and her later work improving the lives of America’s senior citizens.

In 1910, Ethel and her family moved back to California because of her father’s poor health. Ethel’s first teaching job in California was at Santa Paula High School. In 1916 she was offered an assistant principal position at Lincoln High School in Los Angeles. When the principal quit the following year, Ethel was given the job. This made Ethel Percy Andrus the first woman principal of a large, urban high school in California! She would serve in that position for the next 28 years.

At the time, East Los Angeles High School was a large school with one of the highest dropout and juvenile delinquency rates in the country. Like Hull House, it was located in an area populated by poor immigrants, representing a range of races and ethnicities. Ethel took on the challenge–not just of teaching subjects–but of transforming lives.

As an English teacher, Ethel Andrus knew the power of words, and so she used words to instill dignity and hope into her students and their families. She built a gateway into the school, with a single word written in large, wrought iron letters overhead: “Opportunity”. Every student, as they entered the school, was reminded that education was an opportunity for them to better their lives and the lives of others.

“In an age of hard-nosed, gruff male principals,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “[Ethel Andrus] might have passed for Marian the Librarian. She was a red-haired, bespectacled, soft-spoken educator… whose success came from building close relationships with both teachers and students. A former teacher once said of her: ‘When you spent time with Ethel, you felt you’d had a drink of strong, heady wine.’ Single and childless, Ethel served as a mother figure to many of her students and a friend to others. She once said, ‘I never met a child who couldn’t embrace me.’ She treated pupils with firmness and affection that produced extraordinary results.” One unruly student reported years later, “Somehow…you found yourself acting the way she wanted you to!” (Los Angeles Times, Dec. 14, 2003)

Another former student, the actor Robert Preston, recalled: “The big iron scroll on the Abraham Lincoln High School gate through which we passed read: ‘Opportunity’. Isn’t it amazing that we didn’t know until we walked out: Opportunity had red hair!”

Ethel Andrus taught her students to take pride in their family heritage. Her goal was [quote] “to bring each student a sense of his own worth by treating him with dignity and respect, by honoring his racial background not as a picturesque oddity, but as a valued contribution in the tapestry of American life.” She instituted school activities that built leadership skills while breaking down cultural barriers. She established a program of community service that instilled self-esteem and confidence through service to others. As a result, the school’s delinquency and drop-out rates fell dramatically. The Los Angeles County Juvenile Court awarded Andrus and her school a special award for success in youth crime prevention. In 1940, the National Education Association published her programs as a model for other schools to follow in reducing delinquency and racial/ethnic conflict.

Andrus’ efforts to improve the lives of her students didn’t stop at the school gate; she worked to improve the community as well. Ethel was responsible for renaming the neighborhood “Lincoln Heights” and its park, “Lincoln Park”. Working with business leaders, she established Lincoln High School as a community center that reached out to immigrant families through their children. She started an Opportunity School for Adults, which raised the educational level and English skills of parents and other adults living in the neighborhood.

To set an example, Ethel went back to school herself, furthering her own knowledge as an educator. In 1930 she received her doctorate from the University of Southern California–one of the first women to do so. She then taught education classes at UCLA, USC, and Stanford during summer vacations-inspiring a whole generation of future teachers. Not only was she the first woman high school principal in California, she helped found the California Association of Secondary School Administrators and served as its first woman president.

In 1944-after 40 years in education with 28 years as principal of Lincoln High School-Ethel Andrus retired to care for her ill mother. She was 60 years old. Had she done nothing further in life, she would still be remembered as a noted educator and humanitarian. But Ethel’s mother inspired her to take up the cause of others in her retirement. “You thought your work was done when you gave up youngsters,” her mother told her, “but it’s only the beginning.” How true that would turn out to be!

Ethel volunteered with the Southern Section of the California Retired Teachers Association. She was given the position of Director of Welfare, which monitored the living conditions of retired teachers. Ethel took an interest in this because, when she retired as a principal, she discovered her pension was only $60 a month! Although she had money of her own, she found it hard to believe that a retired teacher could survive on just $60 a month!

One day she was talking with a local grocer near Los Angeles. He asked if she would check on an old woman he hadn’t seen for several days; he gave Ethel the woman’s address. The people who lived there didn’t recognize the name, but then said, “Oh, you must mean the old woman living out back.” That’s when Ethel found a former teacher living in a chicken coop. The woman was gravely ill, but had no money to visit a doctor. It was a moment that would change the life of Ethel Percy Andrus–and the lives of America’s elderly. Ethel was known for rarely expressing anger, but whenever she told that story-even years later–she could barely control herself. It angered her that society would allow retired teachers to live like that…and she decided to do something about it

The first thing she did was to organize retired teachers on a national level. In 1947 she founded the National Retired Teachers Association, with the goal of [in her words] “putting dignity back into the life of the penniless former teacher.” Ethel Andrus’ vision for retired teachers was captured in three words: independence, dignity, and purpose. One of her first projects as NRTA President was to find an insurance company that would offer medical insurance to NRTA members. In 1947 most jobs had a mandatory retirement age of 65, and it was virtually impossible for retirees to purchase health coverage; Medicare would not be established for another 18 years. Ethel hoped that with a large, national organization, she could secure a group policy. Yet, even with 20,000 members (and growing), she was turned down by over 40 insurance companies. The elderly, she was told, were uninsurable. As an alternative, Andrus decided to create a chain of 15 NRTA-sponsored retirement communities that would include medical and nursing home care. She began raising funds and started searching for a location to establish the first one–which would serve as the prototype for the others.

In 1953 she was on a speaking tour of California schools; after her talk she would ask each faculty member to contribute $2 toward the retirement home fund. One stop was Nordhoff High School here in Ojai. The morning after her presentation she spied a large, three-story house for sale on the corner of Montgomery and Grand; already named “Grey Gables”, it had several small apartments, common living areas, a library, and a large music hall. It even boasted Ojai’s first elevator! The former owner had designed it as a cultural center and a boarding house for working teachers.

Ethel Andrus applied to buy Grey Gables, which would serve both as a model retirement community and the NRTA’s headquarters. The Ojai city council at first refused to approve her “retirement home”. (We can only guess what images arose in their minds when they heard the words “retirement home”.) But Ethel Andrus, with her natural charisma and her soft-spoken but firm manner, persuaded the Council, and they reluctantly approved the project. Like the unruly boys at Lincoln High School, “somehow”…they found themselves acting the way she wanted them to!

At first, Grey Gables was just the large, three-story house along Montgomery Street north of Grand. In 1954, she purchased Sycamore Lodge, a motel next to Grey Gables that fronted Grand Avenue; later, several apartments were added on the back and west side of the property. The Acacias nursing home was built in 1959. Early residents of Grey Gables were attracted by Ethel’s vision of an active life of service, and so the Gables soon became an important asset to the community. Its residents served on local boards, tutored in the schools, taught classes at the Art Center, and volunteered throughout the valley. In 1959 the Ojai city council-which had originally balked at the project-awarded Ethel Andrus and her Grey Gables residents a city proclamation honoring their many contributions to the community

At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the NRTA exhibit featured a large, 3-dimensional model of Grey Gables; it was promoted as the future of retirement living in America. With its attractive buildings, lush gardens, swimming pool, travel programs, on-site medical facilities, and volunteer opportunities within the local community, Grey Gables became a model for future retirement homes across America.

A small house next to Grey Gables served as the headquarters for the NRTA. Ethel Andrus asked several former colleagues to move to Ojai to serve on the NRTA Board and help run the organization. One such person was Ed Wenig, who had been the drama teacher at Lincoln High School. Ed became one of Ojai’s first historians, and was instrumental in stopping the freeway into the valley.

In 1956, two years after founding Grey Gables, Ethel Andrus finally located an insurance broker who would write health policies for NRTA members. That man was Leonard Davis, a small-time insurance broker from Poughkeepsie, New York. Just as Ethel predicted, membership in NRTA multiplied as retired teachers, desperate for health insurance, joined the NRTA. The new NRTA Health Plan was a huge success!

It wasn’t long, however, before Ethel began hearing from other retirees, begging her to create a plan for them.
In 1958, Ethel met with Leonard Davis and her Ojai attorney-Jack Fay-at the Ojai Valley Inn. Over dinner they outlined a new organization that would represent-and insure-any retiree 65 years of age or over. Later that year, Jack Fay filed incorporation papers for the American Association of Retired Persons. At 74, Ethel was now president of two national organizations–and Director of Grey Gables. In addition, she started a magazine for AARP-Modern Maturity-which she both published and edited; her spirited editorials soon became the voice of America’s seniors. With a small staff, she ran both national organizations from her offices at Grey Gables in Ojai.
In 1963, when AARP and NRTA reached a combined membership of over 400,000 members, Ethel moved their administrative offices to Long Beach, but kept the membership operations in Ojai. From 1963 until 1967, she divided her time between Ojai and Long Beach. Of course, much of her work involved traveling to Washington DC and various state capitals to advocate for the elderly. For all this she took no pay.

Her partner, Leonard Davis, formed his own insurance company, Colonial Penn, which offered low-cost health insurance to all AARP members. Needless to say, his association with AARP turned into a goldmine. After paying AARP a royalty for each policy sold, Leonard Davis and Colonial Penn reaped huge profits. At one point Davis appeared in Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. But, Ethel Percy Andrus’ spirit of selfless service and giving must have affected him, too, for he became one of America’s great philanthropists. One of his projects was to expand Ethel’s work in researching the needs and capabilities of the elderly. In 1973 he established the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Research Center at USC. Today, it is the oldest and largest gerontology research center in America.

While Ethel Andrus was AARP president, the organization began offering many other important benefits to its members: She set up a mail-order discount prescription drug service; she pioneered the concept of senior group travel; she negotiated discounts for AARP members at restaurants, hotels, and car rental businesses. (So popular were these discounts that now most businesses offer senior discounts regardless of AARP membership!) In 1963 she founded the Institute for Lifelong Learning to provide classes and seminars focused on the interests and needs of retired persons. She also turned AARP into a nationwide volunteer organization…today, over 168,000 AARP volunteers assist seniors with tax preparation, teach computer skills, instruct driving refresher courses, and much more.

Although AARP is non-partisan, and doesn’t support political campaigns, it has a powerful presence in Washington DC and the state capitals. It lobbies on issues that are important to older Americans–and is supported in its lobbying efforts by its large membership base; nearly one in five voters are AARP members! During her years as leader and spokesperson for AARP, Ethel Andrus scored many important legislative victories. She helped pass Medicare and Medicaid; she also improved Social Security, secured tax benefits for seniors, instituted cost-of-living increases for pensions, outlawed mandatory retirement, and ended discrimination against the elderly. These are all things we take for granted today, but they were not easy victories at the time.

For all of her success in building two national organizations, Ethel Percy Andrus’ most important achievement was in changing America’s image of retirement.

“As it is,” Ethel observed in 1958, “when you leave a job, they often just give you a gold watch, and all you can do is look at it and count the hours until you die. Yet think of all the grand things we can do that youth can’t. Think of all the things we already have done. Someday, the retired citizens of this country will have the dignity they deserve.”

In numerous editorials and speeches Ethel Andrus promoted retirement as the beginning of one’s creative life–not the end of it. “Creative energy is ageless,” she would say; it is focusing on ourselves and our own problems that defeats us. Retirement is an opportunity to move beyond ourselves by serving the needs of others and, in so doing, be fulfilled as human beings. She urged seniors, “Retire, not from–but to service!

Through her dedicated efforts, Ethel Andrus brought millions of retirees out of their isolation and back into the mainstream of American life. She encouraged these retirees to find part-time jobs, go back to school, travel, get involved, and most of all to volunteer in their communities. She built a gateway over the entrance to retirement and framed it with a single word: “Opportunity”.

When Ethel Percy Andrus died in 1967, she was interred in a small garden at Ivy Lawn Cemetery in Ventura; one of many eulogies was written by the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson:

“The life of each citizen who seeks relentlessly to serve the national good is a most precious asset to this land. And the loss of such a citizen is a loss shared by every American. In Ethel Percy Andrus, humanity had a trusted and untiring friend. She has left us all poorer by her death. But by her enduring accomplishments, she has enriched not only us, but all succeeding generations of Americans.”

Those of us who grew up in Ojai during the 50s and 60s probably rode our bikes by Grey Gables several times a week. Little did we know that inside a team of elderly retirees, led by an 80 year-old dynamo, was quietly revolutionizing retirement in America. Little did we know that their accomplishments would give us the opportunity to live the independent, productive, and dignified retirement Ethel Percy Andrus envisioned over 60 years ago. Little did we know… “Opportunity had red hair!”

For a more detailed history of Dr. Andrus and AARP, read “The Age of Reformation: Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus and the Founding of AARP” on this site.

Ojai Village Pharmacy: 120 Years of Unbroken Business

When Vickie Robertson, long-time employee of Ojai Village Pharmacy, discovered that she had been working in the oldest pharmacy in Ventura County, she became a historical sleuth. “Wow,” she said, “I wonder how many people know this,” and began her investigations.

Robertson traced a lineage of pharmacists in Ojai who have owned the business since 1891. As she searched through books, talked to historians, and waded through reels of microfiche at the Ojai Library, she discovered that the store’s line of pharmacists had been unbroken since Dr. Benjamin Levan Saegar first established the Ojai Drug Store in Nordhoff (Ojai’s original name).

In the first issue of The Ojai newspaper (partly owned by Dr. Saegar), dated October 27, 1891, the Ojai Drug Store advertised, “Constantly on hand – a full stock of fresh drugs, cinnamon from Ceylon, ginger from Borneo, perfumes, fancy chocolates and toilet articles, stationery, cigars, tobacco, etc. Physicians prescriptions a specialty and promptly attended to day and night.” The population of the town was 300 people.

As Dr. Saegar was the first person in town to have a telephone and a drug store with soda fountain, his store became a hub of the village. People came to make phone calls for a few pennies, meet their friends, have an ice cream float, and exchange news of the day.

According to historian David Mason, “The Ojai Drug Store also doubled as the newspaper office, and Dr. Saegar was the paper’s first editor. People could drop off articles, ads, and pay for subscriptions while filling their prescriptions.”

In 1911 Dr. Saegar sold the store to W.V. Skillman who owned it only briefly although he did find the time to refurbish the soda fountain. The following year Skillman sold it to S. D. Nill who owned the business until April 1916 when he sold it to entrepreneur and pharmacist John Flanagan.

The Ojai reported, “He (Flanagan) is a thorough business man, and knows the needs of the trade, and that he must be able to deliver the goods at the right prices, to hold the trade, as communities are loyal to home interests if the ‘home interests’ are loyal to the community. Drop around and get acquainted. Mr. Flanagan is a live wire and thrice welcome.” In early 1917 Flanagan expanded his business to a larger space at 202 Ojai Ave at the site of Thomas Clark’s old horse livery.

During this same period, Thomas S. Clark owned the property along Ojai Ave between Signal and Matilija streets to the boundaries of the present Rains Department Store. Clark was also the County Supervisor for Ventura from 1904 to 1936. In 1895 he opened a horse stable and livery on the corner of Ojai Ave and Signal St. In 1910, when automobiles became available, Clark expanded his livery business into an auto livery. He enlarged the building to110 Signal Street, part of his property behind the former horse livery. Clark had the first auto showrooms in the Ojai valley.

In 1917 Clark sold his auto livery to E.A. Runkle who consolidated the “auto, livery and stage coach” business to the Signal St location enabling Flanagan to move his pharmacy to the corner location on Ojai Ave the following year.

In 1917 while World War I raged in Europe, two major fires descended upon Ojai, one in June and one in September. The June blaze took five lives and destroyed 70 homes, a church and part of the high school. Tom Clark’s home on Matilija and Signal was saved by a bucket brigade. “The second fire (in September) was caused from a gasoline stove explosion in the lunch room of Miss Elvie Presley at 11 o’clock and spread quickly in all directions,” reported The Ojai.

This second fire destroyed much of the downtown area including all the buildings along Ojai Ave up to the present Tottenham Court. Although townspeople and merchants helped move the drug store’s medicines and bottles away from the flames, Flanagan’s loss was considerable. He had over $3 – 3.4K in damages from broken bottles, exploded packages, and melted candy’s, soaps, chocolates and perfumes. Until Ventura County took over the fire department in the late 1920’s, local volunteers and US. Forest Service rangers fought the fires. Ojai was provided with it’s first fire truck in 1918 thanks to the generosity of E. D. Libbey.

Due to the damage and loss all businesses experienced, “The Ojai” urged “all the people of the Ojai to buy their goods more generously than ever before, of our local dealers, who have suffered so seriously and not to permit reduction in prices for slight damage by water, fire or smoke.”

Town benefactor E. D. Libbey built the Arcade and Tom Clark replaced the wooden frame building with massive stones that form the Signal Street walls today. John Flanagan celebrated the opening of his new store on June 27, 1918 with music and dancing. “The residents of the Ojai enjoyed a royal good time,” the Ojai reported. “Ice Cream and sodas were served free to all who cared to indulge and there were plenty of good smokes for the smokers.”

In 1919 George and Ida Crampton took over the Ojai Drug Store from Flanagan. Flanagan left the pharmacy for the automobile business and started the new Dodge car agency in Ventura. After the purchase Crampton invited the town “to an open house to come to his store for a good time. The products of his soda fountain will be dispensed free during the evening,” The Ojai reported. The population of Ojai was 500 people.

In 1924, the Cramptons sold the pharmacy business to R. J. Boardman, who ran it as Boardman’s Drug Store until 1947 when he sold it to Dr. E. K. Roberts and pharmacist Tom E. Clark who named it The Village Drug. (Dr. Roberts was Tom Clark’s brother-in-law).

Roberts and Clark owned the business until the early 1955 when they sold it to Mr. Ripley. However, within four years, Ripley sold it to pharmacist Alex Golbuff.

Golbuff ran the business from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM six days a week and 9 AM to 5 PM on Sundays for twelve years. One day in 1968, as the legend goes, Leonard Badt walked into the pharmacy and said, “I would like to buy this business.” Golbuff, fed up with working so many hours for so many years, said, “Take it!” And Badt did just that.

When Badt purchased the pharmacy business, he also had his eye on owning the land and building as well. He then approached Tom S. Clark’s daughters and asked to buy the property. They promised to sell it to him.

Thomas S. Clark and his first wife Ella Bakeman had nine children. After she died at the age of 55 in 1924, he remarried. When Clark died in 1940, he had willed the buildings on the corner of Ojai Ave and Signal St to his second wife Ida Brambel Clark.

Ojai resident Tom Clark Conrad, whose mother Margaret was one of T.S. Clark’s daughters, said, “My mother and her three sisters bought the property from Ida Clark and then sold it to two other sisters Dortha Clark Roberts and Elizabeth Clark. When Roberts and Clark died, the estate honored the promise made earlier to Leonard Badt and sold him the property. Badt’s two sons still own the building.”

In 1967, Stan Lazarus purchased the “other” drug store, Ojai Pharmacy, then located at 328 E. Ojai Avenue and the current location of Bonnie Lu’s. He bought the business from the Carsner family. A very popular man about town, James E. “Jack” France managed the store. After the tragic death of Leonard Badt in 1982, Lazarus purchased the “Ojai Drug Store” business from Leonard Badt’s estate and merged the two stores renaming it Ojai Village Pharmacy. June Conrad, Tom’s wife, said, “My friend Doris de Groot Mayfield had her first date with her future husband at the soda fountain in that pharmacy in 1942.” This year Ojai Village Pharmacy celebrates 120 years of unbroken pharmacy business in Ojai.

Many thanks to those who made this story possible: David Mason, Patricia Frye, Tom and June Conrad, the Ojai Valley Library, the Ojai Valley Museum, and most of all – Stan Lazarus and Vickie Robertson. Mason said, “It’s a nice thing that she (Robertson) has done and worked it through so long. It’s good for the historic preservation aspect of the valley. The Ojai Museum should have a copy of her findings, and I would encourage her to do other projects.”

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.

Shangri-La: A Matter of Preservation and Progress

Long before James Hilton published Lost Horizon (1933) and Frank Capra produced his film on the same subject (1937), The Ojai, that mystical harmonious valley enclosed by majestic mountains and fed by tumbling streams, was regarded as Shangri-la by those in search of wealth, health, spirituality or any mixture of the three. And therein lies the problem: what constitutes an earthly paradise for some demands stasis; for others, “forward movement” which always involves friction.

Consider the earliest days of The Ojai and its Garden of Eden reputation. Why wouldn’t residents and health seekers alike wish to preserve an atmosphere that guaranteed relative immortality in a world being decimated by phthisis, wasting disease, graveyard cough, acute, galloping, or military consumption? In the 1800s and early 1900s, fully one-fifth of the world’s population was dying of what we today identify as tuberculosis. Theories for medical cures abounded. All were unpalatable; none were effective, and some were deadly: arsenic, atropine, strychnine, calcium, gold, mercury, colloidal preparations of silver, copper, aluminum and silver, boa constrictor excreta, blistering, fresh blood (hopefully but not always from animals), pig-spleen extracts as well as an inhalation of the breath of healthy animals or the effluvium of maggoty meat.

By the early 1900s, antiseptic or hot air inhalations emptied as many hospital wards as death itself as patients fled from the painful treatment. The in-hospital cure rate: a meager and likely inflated three to five per cent.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 brought brilliantly colored posters trumpeting “Go West and Breath Again.” New York Evening Post editor Charles Nordhoff’s California for Health Pleasure and Residence (1873) not only brought throngs seeking all three to the country’s 31st and most romanticized state, but also gave the name of its author to the village on the valley floor in 1874. By the 1890s, The Ojai set its claim into print with its masthead: “For the Good of Mankind, by Telling of the Greatest Sanitarium for Throat and Lung Troubles in the Known World” “The Famous Ojai Valley.”

Bob Clark driving the tally-ho from Santa Barbara to The Ojai over the Casitas Pass Road, 1904.

Alice B. Chase, of Lynn, Massachusetts, was afflicted with a lung weakness that brought her and her unmarried daughter, Alice P. Chase, to The Ojai for the first time in January of 1904. The winters of Lynn, located 10 miles northeast of Boston, were dreary snowfall was excessive; the cold, piercing. In 1912, Mrs. Chase was to recall that first trip, when writing to Alice Barnett Clark, married to Ojai stagecoach driver Bob Clark, in 1905:

I well remember when we first saw Nordhoff and Bob gave us our first drive and picked so many flowers and gave Miss Chase her first riding lesson (Cal. style). By the time this reaches you, you ought to have some flowers for we came to Nordhoff on January 6th  I think and the next day we found over 40 varieties of flowers and Bob was able to name them all. Oh, it was so beautiful, and what is best the beauty comes back again every year. (1/01/1912)

At the other end of the spectrum, the Clark family had emigrated from famine-stricken Ireland in 1855. Tom Clark, Bob’s uncle, was drawn to the gold fields of California  “Oh, Mary, there’s gold there, now never you mind” finally settling down to farming in Sonoma County. In 1868, however, Clark read of The Ojai in one of the 5,000 handbills distributed by T. R. Bard in the San Francisco Bay area, advertising land at $3 to $5 an acre in the Upper Ojai; $9 an acre in the Lower. (Bard kept the mineral rights for his employer, T.A. Scott, railroad magnate and Lincoln’s former Assistant Secretary of War.) Bard’s crew first cut a rough road from the Lower to the Upper Ojai, hand-drilled wells into the side of the magnificent Sulphur Mountain in search of the crude so valued then and ever since.

Most who purchased his parcels of surface land sought to improve it to accommodate their more basic needs. It was those who “improved” the land, however, who provided the amenities allowing the wealthy of fragile health to come to the valley. The Chases, for example, spent their winters at the luxurious steam-heated three-story Foothills Hotel, completed in 1903, “a station of the world’s great highway,” where “men and women talk of Nice, and Paris, and Vienna, and Hongkong [sic] and Honolulu as mere stopping places on the road, the while they drink in the view and are glad that the Ojai was made for the delectation of the happy.” (Sheridan, Sol N., “Ventura County, California.” Sunset Magazine Homeseekers’ Bureau: San Francisco, California, 1908.)

The Foothills Hotel, completed 1903, burned in fire of 1917.

By the time Tom Clark was interviewed by historian Yda Addis Storke in the 1880s, he had acquired 180 acres of land in the Upper Ojai, “making the wilderness to bloom like the rose. … He has erected a comfortable home and has one of the finest ranches in the valley, raising Morgan horses, Poland China and Berkshire hogs and Jersey cattle. Mr. Clark also has a splendid vineyard and makes his own wine, a superb article.” Ms. Storke further admired the fruit orchard, rose garden and Clark’s extensive wheat fields.

The article closes with an anecdote told by Clark of a visiting minister, “Mr. Clark, I must congratulate you,” stated the reverend gentleman. “The Lord has placed you in a fine vineyard.” “Yes,” said Clark, “but the Lord had nothing but brush and stones here when I first came.” For Clark, Shangri-la was opportunity, his dreams realized after years of hard labor: taming the land and dealing with the grizzlies that passed with ease through his fences.

Blacksmith Lorenzo Dow Roberts, an old-time Democrat, was forced to leave North Carolina because of his outspoken abolitionist beliefs. He then emigrated from his new home in Bloomington, Illinois in search of a cure for his chronic “bronchitis.” When he first arrived in The Ojai, he could speak only in a hoarse whisper, wrote Signal editor W.E. Shepherd, in 1873. “Now, he can yell so as to be heard a mile.” With his newfound energy (he had gained 44 pounds in his 11 months in the valley), Roberts attempted the first subdivision of the lower valley, which he named “Ojai.”

Although his proposed subdivision for the village failed while that of the more aggressive valley booster, Royce Surdam, materialized, Roberts, the invalid, continued his smithing and carriage making. Roberts thrived in his Grand Avenue “hospitable cottage with white picket fence, almost hidden from view by huge pepper trees and other ornamental shrubs,” enjoying his Shangri-la to the age of 73, while Royce Surdam, who had won the contest of the founding of the village, passed away at age 56 from an overdose of morphine.

One man’s bad luck became another’s opportunity in our Shangri-la. Around 1870, William and Mary McKee, having recovered their health in the Upper Ojai, decided to build Oak Glen Cottages on the corner of Ojai Avenue and Gridley Road as a sanitarium for invalids. J. N. Jones took in up to ten boarders at his ranch house in the East end; neighbor John Carne converted part of his 27-room room Victorian house into the Bonito House Hotel.

By 1887, miracles were happening in the 104-degree waters of the Ojai Hot Springs, located about eight miles above the village: Abram Blumberg claimed his “village for the sick” could cure not only lung ailments, but rheumatism, catarrh, erysipelas, dyspepsia, chronic diarrhea, sore eyes, liver and kidney complaints, cancer, syphilis as well as other blood and skin disorders. The waters of sodium, potassium and magnesium carbonates and sulphates, silicates, carbonic anhydride and sulphureted hydrogen also had a reputation for whitening and softening the skin.

“Nordhoff,” stated Mrs. Storke, “contains some 300 inhabitants, many of whom are recuperated invalids from nearly every State in the Union.” Ten years later, the local newspaper would complain “The Ojai is becoming too well known as a health resort for the general good of the valley. There are times when consumptives are quite numerous on the streets, some of them barely able to walk two or three blocks at a time.”

For Mrs. Chase and daughter, Shangri-la would ever remain The Ojai as they found it in 1904: Creek Road with its meandering crossings of San Antonio Creek, lined by massive live oaks dripping wild grapes, the majestic Valley oaks lining or intercepting the dirt roadways of the valley; the soft balmy air; the myriad flowers on the trail up to the Spring on Sulphur Mountain; the Pink Moment on the face of the Topa Topas. The valley’s isolation was a large part of its attraction, “off the beaten path, the path littered with the perpetually anxious in the crowded cities of the Eastern seaboard” but that same isolation proved a problem for its year-round residents.

The solution: bridges across the roaring torrents of the Ventura River, San Antonio Creek and Coyote Creek, which had claimed the lives of more than one valley resident during the wintertime deluges. “No, No, No,” said Mrs. Chase the time the first bridge was proposed, remembering at a later date: “Bob will remember how we protested against BRIDGES!!” (10/25/16)

Edward Drummond Libbey’s enlightened proposal for the ramshackle village, the one-block-long hodge-podge of haphazard buildings with false fronts of uneven heights, was also met with dismay from the ladies of Lynn:

Your description of Nordhoff is very interesting & welcome. We had heard something of the changes through the Ojai but like to hear first-hand. So you and Bob really like the transformation? We are so conservative we hate to have the charming simplicity of the place changed. (10/25/1916)

As conservative as the ladies Chase, Margaret Clark Hunt, too, found many of the changes in The Ojai difficult to countenance “particularly the highway from Ojai into Matilija over Pine Mountain through the Cuyama and the Maricopa into the great San Joaquin Valley” as proposed by her brother, Supervisor Tom Clark. The route through her beloved back country, her haven from the congestion that infiltrated The Ojai with each increase in population, was also the favored destination of her winter clients and her pupils at The Thacher School.

The highway did indeed bring about change, beneficial for the inland farmers, but detrimental to the peace of the valley and disastrous for backcountry’s once-supreme isolation. (These days, locals mourn the passage of the increasing numbers of gravel trucks rumbling down that same highway).

Ironically, Tom’s 30-year-old son, Jack, was killed on Feb. 2, 1936 by a dynamite explosion while working on the highway his father was so instrumental in building. “He was blown to bits,” reported cousin Alfred Reimer. “All that was left of him were his testicles, hanging from the branch of an oak tree.”

In a desert, water is king and The Ojai was first classified as a highland desert, with humidity ranging from 20 percent to 40 percent. With the increase in population, water provided by an average of 15 to 17 inches of rain per year, snowfall in the surrounding mountains and artesian wells proved inadequate to the demand. Typhoid fever from contaminated water was killing 50 area residents a year, two victims being Alice and Bob Clark’s 4-year-old daughter, Alice, or “Sweetsie,” her mother’s shadow, and 18-month-old George Patrick. Shotgun-toting farmers stayed up all night guarding their personal reservoirs from water rustlers.

Something needed to be done. And the Bureau of Reclamation came up with a plan: to build two dams, one in the Matilija Canyon, the second across Coyote Creek.

The Matilija Dam, completed in 1948, buried some of Ojai’s most magnificent sites: Twin Falls and the stately Hanging Rock, favored Kodak moment spot for tourists where Bob Clark proposed to the frail Alice Barnett in 1905. By 1952, just four short years after completion, Matilija Dam, now filled with silt and sediment, became obsolete.

Hanging Rock, favored Kodak spot for visitors to Matilija Hot Springs.

Ventura County had begun to buy land for the second dam as early as 1947; construction was begun in 1957; the dam was completed in 1959 “a triumph for water supply in The Ojai” as well as the City of Ventura and the Rincon beaches westward to the Santa Barbara county line.

For Katherine Hoffman Haley, great-granddaughter of W. D. Hobson, considered by many to be the father of Ventura County, Shangri-la began with her family’s move to the 8,000-acre Rancho Casitas. Casitas grew to be one of the largest thoroughbred breeding ranches west of the Mississippi “almost by accident”.

Kay Hoffman Haley, relegating Santa to the sidecar, while she drives the cycle–efficiently–but, as ever, her way.

Her father, brought from New Orleans by the Oxnard Sugar Beet Company, first raised Percheron horses on the ranch, then rescued a thoroughbred suffering from toothache. Hoffman cured the toothache and Crystal Pennant, in gratitude, won the $110,000 purse at Tijuana, the richest race in the world at that time. The sport of kings became the sport of Rancho Casitas, with every member of the family thriving in the exciting atmosphere and their nine-room, nine-bath Spanish-style home complete with barroom, music room and ballroom.

With the Casitas Dam project, the government claimed half of the estate, including the palatial Wallace Neff-designed home, which was razed to the ground. Kay’s new home, built on land she was able to retain, she named Rancho Mi Solar, home of my ancestors. Significantly, she made her statement with that home, built on a high point of land, of necessity adjacent to the lake, but positioned so that she need never again cast eyes on “that despised body of water.”

The Wallace Neff designed home at Rancho Casitas, home to the Walter and Edith Hobson Hoffman family.

Kay made the most of her life thereafter, tending her shorthorn cattle and quarter horses, amassing an amazing collection of Western art and an equally impressive collection of awards recognizing her involvement in and generosity to the community.

Lester Peirano’s 240-acre Rancho Valenada, (Spanish for worth nothing), just up the road from Casitas Ranch, had been entrusted to him by his father when his two brothers, Nick and Vic, were given provenance over the grocery story across from the Mission in downtown Ventura. Lester failed at raising cattle as he couldn’t bring himself to castrate young bulls, dehorning was a problem as well.

He did beautifully, however, at raising peaches, melons, apples, pears, and, best of all, 55 acres of old country grapes, all sold at Peirano’s Grocery. Lester constructed his own Shangri-la from his father’s legacy. During the week, he held court under the “Whispering Tree,” at the corner of the vineyard, supplied with folding chairs and Teagarden jelly glasses regularly filled from the dripping water faucet nearby. Dust was no problem as the dirt was hard as concrete from the near-constant streams of tobacco juice supplied by Lester and his guests. The high point of the week for the shy farmer was Sunday, when his ranch became the gathering place for the entire family and legions of friends. (His mother and sisters organized the day.) When the county claimed his ranch, it broke his heart.

“And then one day an agent of the county did appear
It was the middle of harvest time and ’48 the year
And the solemn words he spoke then struck that farmer dumb with fear
So he spoke again for he was sure that Lester did not hear.

“You see this country is a growin’ one and the county getting’ dry;
We must look toward the future now and that’s the reason why
A dam must be constructed where your fruit trees grow so high
We’ll see you get a fair price for the land that we must buy. “

The 11-stanza poem, unsigned, but recovered from the Peirano papers in 1994 when the last of the family died in Darby, Montana, continues:

“When they took his home Lester built a shack in the hills above the lake
On the land the county’d set aside to give him a new stake;
But the dream was gone and the days were long and at night he’d lie awake,
Thinking about his cherished land that he just could not forsake.”

The 40-acre piece of “land they’d set aside” was then claimed by the government for the Teague Memorial Watershed. Lester and Nick fought the government on this one and, after a two-year battle, did win a heftier sum of money — but only lifetime interest in the piece of land. It could no longer be considered a “family” ranch. The poem concludes with a flourish more heartfelt than accurate:

“It was on a cold and rainy day in the Fall of ’84,
That they found old Lester’s weathered coat and hat upon the shore,
And a simple note pinned to the brim shook the county to the core:
‘Forgive me, I just had to see and walk my land once more.'”

Rancho Chismahoo was another claimed by the lake, another gathering place for extended family and friends. The Bill Clark family departed for Northern California when a large portion of “the most beautiful ranch in the county” disappeared under the waters of Casitas.

Clark’s mother, Alice, one more pilgrim in search of health, came first to Los Angeles, then to The Ojai, where she met and married the previously mentioned stage driver Bob Clark in 1905, bore 10 children, and lived to the age of 73. She stipulated in her will that her two children, lost to typhoid fever in 1915, be re-interred with her.

From approximately 50 residents in 1873, the population of the village grew to 300 in 1891; to 8,046 in the village and a valley-wide population of 34,000 by 2005, the population inflated each year by entrepreneurs, health seekers, artisans and artists, followers of the great Krishnamurti, Meher Baba and other vendors of enlightenment. More pilgrims considered the East-West configuration of the valley conducive to occult and psychic forces and, eventually, as reported by Jack Brown in 1985, our population included “food faddists, occultists, the beard and sandal set writers, actors, yoga enthusiasts, radicals, conservatives, mystics, musicians, dancers, eccentrics, etc., etc.” “A mixture that at times strains the limits of civilized discourse” and Jack Brown never even heard of nude roller-skater/bicyclist Earth-Friend Gen, our most recent source of controversy in the Ojai.

The dry and invigorating breezes which drew early immigrants to The Ojai are no longer, with relative humidity now averaging a high of 95 percent thanks to the dams, irrigated orchards, vineyards, golf courses, lawns and other accoutrements of civilization. However, the citizens of our valley have successfully fought to keep the air clean through the years, blocking a university on Taylor Ranch at the mouth of the Ventura River corridor in the 1980s; and a dump proposed for the La Cañada side of Sulphur Mountain during the same period.

The grizzlies are long gone and the gentle black bear risks his life if he ventures close to town. We mourn our losses, large or small: the once-vigorous and highly prized population of ocean-going steelhead trout knocked in half first by the Matilija Dam and finished off by the Casitas Dam; the Evergreen Cattages, replaced by 2-story condominiums; and, most recently, The Ojai Frosty, a dilapidated but beloved gathering place.

Lerie Bjornstedt remembers with fondness buying decorations from Village Florist David Mason’s 50 Christmas trees; Maxine Tempske would like to see the return of Roth’s Sweet Shop and Soda Fountain, with its homemade candies of all kinds, and great ice cream sodas; Lavonne Theriault remembers when the “Y” was a cow pasture, just as I remember driving our cattle down the side of Sulphur Mountain, through Hall’s domain, across Creek Road to pasture on the McCormick place, now Saddle Mountain.

The most substantial change on the horizon today: the end of agriculture in The Ojai Valley, flourishing here since the 1870s, this change precipitated by Casitas Water District rate increases of 53 percent in 2007 and 19 percent in 2008. Pixie farmer Jim Churchill says his bill “to water 17 acres has soared 187 percent in two years.”

Farmers will have no option, says old-timer Tony Thacher, but to sink wells to replace Casitas Water. “This is the real danger to the Ojai Valley and our livelihood” a contentious and perhaps litigious situation that pits neighbor against neighbor as the water table sinks beneath our feet.”

Some would like to see a return to the Ojai of the highland desert, dryland farming, cattle raising and 20 percent to 40 percent humidity. Not likely. “If those trees die, and the land is left vacant, the days will come when the politics of development will overcome this valley, despite local laws to preserve farmland and open space. What we would have then,” continues actor/farmer Peter Strauss, “is not Shangri-la, but Sherman Oaks.”

Those who are best positioned to profit from this eventuality: the speculator, despised from earliest days of The Ojai. As stated in the Signal, January 1874, “We do not desire to see a wild spirit of speculation developed here,” [Speculation] is simply an underhand way of getting something for nothing.” And that something is what/where/why and how we live.

But, as philosophers and poets, scientists and sociologists from the time of Heraclitus tell us: “Change alone is unchanging.” The answer, says Mexican poet Octavio Paz, is simple, but not easy: “Wisdom lies neither in fixity nor in change, but in the dialectic between the two.” Even though we have no lamasery to guide us, if there is anyplace in the world where dialectic, or its near cousin, debate, flourishes, it is right here in The Ojai Valley, our own Shangri-la.

Yes, we are a contentious lot, each taken with his own vision of what The Ojai is or should be, and so it shall remain. Our debates are neither pointless nor are they inconsequential. To borrow from Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh:

Homer’s ghost comes whispering to my mind
He says: I made the Iliad from such local rows.

The Ojai Mountain Lion

The Ojai Storytelling Festival featured Bil Lepp in 2004. Bil Lepp started writing and telling tales in 1990 when he first took part in the West Virginia Liars Contest. Since that time he has won five “Biggest Liar” titles. A national authority on Appalachian humor, Bil, his wife Paula, son Jonah, and dog, Buck, reside in West Virginia.. “With Lepp, the sorry, low-down lie becomes a grand and glorious creation, a verbal sculpture in which a hundred small fibs, stretchers, falsehoods and prevarications are piled together, shaped and molded into one stunning, awe-inspiring cathedral of flapdoodle and bull.” -Duke Divinity Magazine- Bob Wells. At the 2004 festival, Bil Lepp premiered a story that was crafted in Ojai. Here’s how the story came to be:

“The ‘Ojai Lion’ comes directly from my experiences at the Ojai Storytelling Festival in 2004. I was staying with Trent & Olga Jones. They are lovely people and I enjoyed their hospitality greatly. Anyway, I really did go for a hike, and I really did see the warning signs for mountain lions. In order to be better prepared for an encounter I picked up a sharp rock, thinking, ‘I’ll just bash in the head of any cat that attacks.’ But then I got to thinking that that wasn’t very nice, so I started exploring non-violent ways to resolve any potential lion encounters. This story is the result and by the way, I still have not seen a lion in the wild.” – Bil Lep

The Ojai Mountain Lion

I was out in California for the Ojai Village of Tales Storytelling Festival a few years ago, and I was staying in a little cabin which was right down the road from a bunch of public land. The land had been turned into a park, complete with hiking trails. I got up one morning and decided to take a hike down to the Ventura river, which bordered the park.

In the parking area there was that ubiquitous park information board, replete with notices and warnings. In the middle of the of the board was an 8×10 printout with a color photo of a very ferocious mountain lion on it. Above the photo, in large letters, were the words, “WARNING: MOUNTAIN LIONS HAVE BEEN SPOTTED IN THIS AREA.” The notice went on to describe what you should do if you encountered a mountain lion. The sign said:

1) Try to look as big as possible.
2) Back away as quietly as possible
3) If the mountain lion attacks, (and I thought this part was particularly prudent) fight back.

We don’t have mountain lions in West Virginia. I had never seen a mountain lion in the wild. I thought the idea of encountering a mountain lion was more a precursor to an adventure, than a warning. So, I started hiking. Before long, I came around a curve in the path and there, standing in the middle of the path, its fangs glistening, its claws bared, was the biggest, meanest, ugliest chipmunk I had ever seen. But, standing in front of the chipmunk, its fangs glistening, its claws bared, was the biggest, meanest, ugliest mountain lion I had ever seen. They both shifted to get a better look at me, and, to be honest, I think they were both happy to see me. The chipmunk was happy because he was no longer on the breakfast menu, and the mountain lion was happy because he was about to get a lot more breakfast than he had anticipated. The chipmunk shot off into the underbrush, and suddenly there was nothing but sunlight and hunger between me and that mountain lion. He crouched down and got ready to spring at me.

I had read the sign the about what to do if you encounter a mountain lion not a quarter of an hour ago, but I could not, for the life of me, remember what I was supposed to do. And then it came to me, 1) Try to look as big as possible.

I stand about six-foot one, but I only weigh a little more than a Christmas goose. There is not that much “big” about me.

Furthermore, looking big seemed counterproductive in this situation. I wanted to look scrawny, gristly, and otherwise unhearty. To that end, I turned sideways and lifted my t-shirt. I sucked in my gut to show off my ribs. I wanted that lion to think of me as the breakfast equivalent of a Poptart. I was standing there in the desert sun, trying to look like a stale, pre-wrapped pastry. As it turns out, that lion was interested in just such a meal. He crouched lower and got ready to lunge.

It was too late to, 2) Back away as quietly as possible. It was too late to runaway as loudly as possible. I was going to have to 3) fight back. I was wracking my brain trying to figure out how to fight a mountain lion. I had never fought a mountain lion before. I had never even thought about fighting a mountain lion before. The only experience I had ever had fighting lions was reading about Tarzan in Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. Tarzan, when faced with a lion, crouches down, puts his arms out, and, when the lion springs, Tarzan gets under the lions front legs, turns the cat around, puts it in a full nelson, and renders the beast unconscious. It wasn’t much, but it was all I had. I crouched down.

I know you are thinking, “Tarzan is a lot bigger than you!” but, I figured Africa lions are a lot bigger than California lions, so I was hoping the ratio would work out.

The mountain lion sprang at me. I ducked his claws, got under his legs, turned him around, and put him in the full nelson. I think it is safe to say that that mountain lion was pretty angry, but he was a lot more embarrassed than he was angry. I mean, imagine walking into you kitchen one morning and a Poptart jumps up out of the toaster, puts you in a full nelson, and pile drives you into the linoleum. It did not help matters that there was a chipmunk standing beside the trail shaking his paw and saying, “Na, na, na, na, na, na.”

I was exerting as much force as I could muster, but I simply was not powerful enough to knock that cat out. The lion was growing steadily less and less embarrassed, and more and more angry. I had to think of something quick.

I was just about start praying when I remembered that I had served as a pastor for four years. I decided that the best thing to do in this situation was to preach to that mountain lion. I knew from roughly 200 Sundays in the pulpit that if I preached to that lion, one of two things was bound to happen. I would either save him, or put him to sleep. Both options appealed to me. I started with Goliath, moved to Daniel, and was just getting around to Nero when the lion nodded off. Even asleep, the lion still posed certain problems. I was afraid that if I simply put him down, he would wake up, still mad and still hungry. Furthermore, I was concerned for the lion’s soul. He had, after all, only had about five minutes of the Word. He was in a very fragile theological condition. I was worried that if I just lay him down, well, I was in California. Who knew who the next person down the path was going to be? It could have been a Unitarian or something. I just couldn’t have that on my conscience.

I decided that I was going to have to baptize that mountain lion.

Aside from the theological benefits of baptizing the lion, there were certain tactical advantages as well. I knew from my pastoral experiences that when you baptize someone, you almost never see them again, except maybe at Easter and Christmas, but I didn’t plan on being in California for Easter or Christmas.

The Ventura river was only about a hundred yards behind me so I started to cautiously back toward the river. I was happy to find that, though often dry, the Ventura river had just enough water for a baptizing. I stood on the bank and pondered for a moment. Just what is the best way to baptize a mountain lion? We hadn’t covered that in divinity school. I’m a Methodist, and thus our means of baptism is to sprinkle water on the supplicants head. But, I wasn’t sure the mountain lion was a Methodist. I figured that anybody who got converted as fast as that mountain lion did almost had to be a Baptist. I was going to have to go for the full-bull dunking. Of course, if he was a Baptist I was in trouble because that meant that after the service, he was going to be ready to eat.

I slipped into the water, said the words you say, and them, BAM, I dunked him. When we came up out of the water, that mountain lion was angrier than he had been all day. He didn’t seem at all like someone who had just experienced the Peace of Christ in his life. And then I remembered that the mountain lion was a cat. Cats have nine lives, which likely means they have nine souls, which meant I was going to have to baptize that cat eight more times!

We came out of the water after the seventh dunking and I noticed a figure standing on the shore. It was an angelic figure, with flowing hair, and sunlight dappling through the hair, creating sort of a halo above the figure’s head. And then, I heard a most evangelic voice which said, “Unhand that mountain lion!”

The figure turned and I could see that it was a woman. And I could see that she was wearing the uniform of a member of the California Department of Natural Wildlife Protection. The officer pulled a wallet from her pocket and flipped it open. The wallet contained a badge, and about sixteen little plastic card holders hung from the case. The holders contained various membership cards for organizations to which this officer belonged. The cards included her People for the Non-Proliferation of Human Religions Among Animals card, her Vegans Anonymous card, her Herbal Tea Drinkers of America card, her Down With Manifest Destiny card, her National Storytelling Network card and, way at the bottom, in the last slot, were some ashes which, I’m pretty sure, were from the bra she burned in 1968.

She said, “Don’t you know that it is illegal in California to push your religion on a wild animal?!” I said, “Officer, I don’t think you fully grasp the circumstances under which this cat and I became engaged.” “I want you,”she continued, “to release that mountain lion into my protective custody at this moment!” The lion stiffened. He slowly turned his head toward me and said, “Good Lord! Don’t let her protect me!” The lion and I worked a quick deal I let him go and he ran one way while I ran the other.

There really isn’t an end to this story, except to say that if you are out in California, and you do meet a mountain lion, if all else fails, you may just want to ask him if he is a Christian.


The “Ojai Lion” has been told at the National Storytelling Festival and at other festivals around the country.