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

Our Town, Part 1 by Helen Baker Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Ojai Boom (1873)

Royce Gaylord Surdam

Royce Surdam and The First Ojai Boom
by John Montgomery

[John Montgomery came to the Ojai Valley in 1874 as part of the valley’s first real estate boom. The first Ojai boom was primarily the work of Royce Surdam, a local businessman who subdivided the town and sold its first lots. John Montgomery’s house was on Matilija Street. Montgomery Street is named for him.

California has experienced many real estate bubbles over the years. John Montgomery describes the first Ojai boom (and bust) in this wonderful portrait of Royce Surdam, the founder of our town–formerly known as Nordhoff. Those of us taken in by the recent real estate bubble can take some comfort in knowing we were not the first!]


Is there a boom bacillus? Most likely there is; how otherwise can we account for the resemblance of the disease to the measles with its incipiency, its outburst and decline? It is as contagious as the smallpox, as infectious as the cholera. Once let the boom microbe enter the system and the victim is as diseased as a hospital or asylum patient, his brain undermined; he peoples trackless deserts with mighty hosts, builds castles in the air and sees gold nuggets in common boulders; then finally wakes up, too often, alas, to a long a painful convalescence and the self-interrogation of “where was I at?”

One of these epidemics struck Southern California in the year 1873, the centers of infection being San Diego and Santa Barbara for Tom Scott has promised a railroad to the former and Charles Nordhoff had published in Harper’s a series of articles on Santa Barbara which caused a stream of one-lunged pilgrims to flow into that Mecca. Los Angeles and San Buenaventura were not thought of, but the hitherto secluded Ojai Valley posed as a boom-struck celebrity and was introduced into turbulent companionship by a very singular personage. Royce G. Surdam had fallen in love at first sight with this rustic beauty, and never was an ardent lover more entranced than he over his new-found enamorata. The expressive term “rattled” may be applied to his state of mind in relation to his discovery. He purchased 1,500 acres from T.R. Bard, the tract extending

Surdam’s plat for the new town of Nordhoff (1874).

from the creek at Nordhoff west to the present Meiners property. From this tract he selected a town site, named it Nordhoff and had A.W. Blumberg start a hotel, a free transfer of twenty acres being an inducement. In the spring of 1874 this solitary building was completed; and on a windy night in April a select but limited circle inaugurated the grand opening to the strains of a Ventura band, with choice selections from the repertoire of a coyote troop in the woods outside.

Surdam was so enthusiastic over his new acquisition that he could think, talk or dream of nothing else. In place of a portrait of his charmer he had a gorgeous map of her lineaments, with all the embellishments his fancy could bestow, namely: a grand public square with fountain and diverging avenues; a town hall; academy, location for a chapel; and vast possibilities. The writer will never forget his fruitless search for these attractions on his first visit to Nordhoff, and the bewildering confusion of mind resulting from their absence.

Surdam had his headquarters at the Santa Clara Hotel in Ventura; and there the unwary stranger, whether Jew or Gentile, was entrapped and like the youth in the Ancient Mariner was held spellbound to hear the story of the beauty and virtue of the new acquisition. A cure for all the ills that afflict humanity, from relapsing fever to impecuniosity, was guaranteed to the fortunate guest or investor in the charmed groves of Nordhoff.

Don Quixote sallied forth on the highway to challenge to mortal combat any man refusing to own his Dulcinea the peeress of every lady in the land; Surdam had neither lance nor sword, but not the less emphatically did he insist that all should acknowledge the marvelous superiority of his mountain enchantress. Let no one suppose the man was insincere; he believed every word he said; he was an honest enthusiast with the boom fever in his marrow.

There are many now in the valley who would champion its cause with all the ardor of its first boomer. Is she not the ever youthful bride he imagined her to be with perennial orange wreath adorning her lovely crest? Has she not the magic balm of health he promised to all her votaries? Are not the diverging avenues, the grand square, the academy and the public fountain among the probabilities, nay the certainties of the near future? Whether he exaggerated or not, the fact remains that to Surdam the valley owes its first boom: his persistent praise called attention to its beauty, its excellence; and many who would have passed to other points in search of health or homes were induced to cast anchor in the romantic haven so warmly recommended.

So successful, indeed, were Surdam’s efforts that lands east of the town advanced in a few months two hundred percent, jumping from ten to thirty dollars an acre. Additional accommodations were soon necessary to harbor the throng of home and health seekers who came into the valley, so that McKee’s canvas tent was transformed into an attractive building, under the appropriate title of Oak Glen Cottage.

While Surdam insured success to the valley, he himself in his personal speculation failed to meet the success he anticipated and that his energy deserved. People did not want narrow town lots when broad acres were to be had so cheap. Then he refused to subdivide his outside lands and held them at a high figure, and thus others profited by his efforts while he himself reaped little or no benefit. His expenses were heavy; livery teams, surveying and advertising were sapping his means; and the purchase money had to be forthcoming. He held on so long as he was able; but thee came a day when, with a heavy heart, he parted with his idol. In December 1874 the writer acquired his outside tract of 1,300 acres; and shortly after Colonel Wiggins purchased the townsite, also the Blumberg Hotel, improving the same by adding the west wing.

For nearly 12 years the boom virus lay dormant in Surdam’s system to break out afresh in the excitement of 1887 when he undertook to float the Bardsdale property. On this occasion he displayed some of his old spirit, but it never reached the acme of his first craze.

Poor Surdam, prince of boomers, to think that all should end in an overdose of morphine and a coroner’s inquest!

The promised railroad did not materialize in San Diego, but fine buildings and substantial improvements did; and Santa Barbara owes the Arlington, the Clock Building, Odd Fellows Hall, etc. to the boom of 1873. It died hardest in Santa Barbara, but in 1876 the fever was over, and the languid patient had scarcely strength left to raise a small mortgage.

The Ojai Valley, on the contrary, held its own. Whatever start it got in the excitement it retained. It had its wet years and its dry years; barley would lodge and wheat rust. Noisy croakers would wander off Jason-like in search of a golden fleece, lose their husky voices on the trip and return speechless as to the defects and drawbacks of the valley; but the majority of the substantial residents continued nestling in contentment and somnolent in the feeling that life’s aims were attained.