“Nordhoff vs. Ojai”

This article first appeared in the Ojai Valley News in the October 22, 1969 edition. It is reprinted here with their permission. The author is Ed Wenig.

“Nordhoff vs. Ojai
by
Ed Wenig

Legend has that Mrs. A.W. Blumberg, wife of the builder of the first hotel in the Ojai Valley in 1874, insisted on naming the proposed new town “NORDHOFF” because she said, Charles Nordhoff had called attention to the valley. Husband A.W. Blumberg and promoter R.G. Surdam graciously went along with the suggestion.

Nordhoff did write much about California in a book titled “CALIFORNIA For Health, Pleasure and Residence”, but Ojai Valley was not mentioned. He also wrote for newspapers and magazines and, it is said wrote about the valley. The claim is controversial and has not been substantiated, in the view of historians of recent times.

CHARLES NORDHOFF (1830-1901)

In April 1894, Charles Nordhoff did register at the Gally Cottages, and a few days later lectured at the Congregational Church in Nordhoff on “OLD TIMES IN CALIFORNIA.” The local newspaper reported in two columns everything Nordhoff remembered, but he apparently said nothing about visiting the valley before the town was named for him.

In 1894, the people of Ojai Valley were really stirred up about the name “Nordhoff,” for the only town in the valley. The editor of “The Ojai” suggested in an editorial that the matter had been fully discussed, and that every man, woman, and child in the two valleys, resident or visitor, should be polled. The result of such an election would determine whether the question should be forever dropped, or the proper steps be taken to have the name changed.

Feelings run high

Letters literally poured into the editor of “The Ojai” for and against changing the name of the town. Feelings ran high. In a later editorial the editor gave a mild admonition that letters on the subject should be “cleanly worded communications intended for the common good.”

Those who favored changing the name NORDHOFF to OJAI argued that postal clerks throughout the nation were mistaking Nordhoff for Norwalk; that people outside of the valley were confused as to what the post office address really was; that Ojai Valley was losing the effect of much advertising by having another name associated with Ojai; that the name Ojai was unique, the only name of its kind in the whole wide world! One petition was even circulated in east Ojai Valley for the establishment of a new town in the valley to be called “Ojai”.

Those who opposed the name change explained the “Nordhoff” was the name chosen by the people who founded the town 20 years before in honor of Charles Nordhoff, New York writer and traveler, who, they said, had mentioned the Ojai Valley in a newspaper article; that “Nordhoff” had too long been attached to the location to cast it aside unceremoniously.

Twenty-three years later, without much fanfare, “The Ojai”, on March 31, 1917, carried this notice under the Headline: “Now it’s Ojai”: “This telegram from Washington is self-explanatory. H.R. MORSE, FOOTHILLS HOTEL, YOU MAY ANNOUNCE CHANGE OF NAME FROM NORDHOFF TO OJAI. BEST WISHES. (SIGNED) JAMES D. PHELAN, U. S. SENATOR.”

Footnote: Those who have read “Mutiny on the Bounty” will be interested to know that its co-author, Charles Bernard Nordhoff, who was a student at Thacher School in 1898-1899, was the grandson of the Charles Nordhoff for whom the town was named.

Charles B. Nordhoff in 1918.

The Little Brick Schoolhouse

The Little Brick Schoolhouse by Patty Fry

In 1874, Andy Van Curen circulated a petition for another school that would be closer to the newly established village. As soon as school superintendent F.S.S. Buckman approved it, Abram Blumberg started making the bricks for the structure near where the main tennis courts are today in Libbey Park. A note in a July, 1874 issue of the Ventura Signal, states, “A brick kiln will be burned on the Ojai during the summer.”

One night a mountain lion sauntered through the drying area behind Blumberg’s Nordhoff Hotel and left a paw print in a brick. Blumberg gave this keepsake to his daughter, Inez.

While the bricks were being made, the townspeople immediately erected a temporary schoolhouse on Matilija Stree west of John Montgomery’s house. Soule and Pirie offspring reported in later years that after having lessons in this crude structure for a few months, the students considered the new brick schoolhouse a “palace.”

The oblong brick schoolhouse consisted of one classroom and two anterooms. It had a sixteen-foot ceiling and four windows on each side allowed sunlight in. A drum in the center of the classroom provided necessary heat. The students sat in pairs at double desks and there was a bench in front of the teacher’s desk for reciting. Mrs. Joseph Steepleton, who had previously conducted a private school in her home, accepted the teaching position for the newly established Nordhoff School District.

The original wooden schoolhouse was moved to the top of the grade and became known as the Ojai School District. In about 1883, upper valley residents built a larger schoolhouse two miles east, reportedly on the boundary of Hobart’s and Robinson’s properties. This school operated independently until 1965.

Jerome Caldwell and F.S.S. Buckman were among those who taught at the little brick schoolhouse. Anna Seward taught there during 1884. She introduced calisthenics and music to the children. Agnes Howe was the teacher between 1885 and into the 1890s. Howe once claimed that the single room schoolhouse had more bats than children and she spearheaded an incentive program to rid the place of the bats.

In 1882, when enrollment reached sixty students, a brown bungalow was added to the brick schoolhouse.

Teachers were responsible for school maintenance. They asked the older students to sweep the floors and build fires for heat. Students carried water from nearby streams or cottages and everyone drank from a pail using a community dipper. The children liked to play stick ball, pum pum pull away and marbles for keeps. There was also great interest in baseball, riding and hiking in those days, recalled Miss Howe.

Clara Smith, a well known figure in county education, taught at the village school and served as its first principal until tragedy struck in 1892. Her fiance, Scottish-born Robert Fisher, a blacksmith by trade, died suddenly of typhoid fever on the day they were to be wed.

Clara, the daughter of community leader, Daniel Smith, first taught school in Nebraska at the age of 15. She was so devoted to education that she once walked from Nordhoff to Ventura to take a teacher’s exam. Her career progressed from teaching at most local schools, as well as some outside the county, to serving as County Director of Rural Education and Assistant Superintendent of Schools. Clara Smith retired from the school system in 1935.

Teachers weren’t in abundance during the early years, as was illustrated by an incident occurring in 1895. When Agnes Howe fell from a bicycle and sprained her ankle, the school closed for a week while she healed.

In 1889, 14-year-old Charlie Wolfe, son of Judge and Mrs. Irvin W. Wolfe, died at the school when he fell from a tree he was climbing. His twin sister had died at birth.

In 1893, Miss Beal’s primary grades had six more students than seats. It was obvious that the community had outgrown its little brick schoolhouse.

When parents initiated plans to build a bigger and better school, others reminisced about how well the brick building had served the community. Not only had it been the fountain of education for their children for twenty years, but also a church, a meeting place and a social hall.

Every new religious group used it as a place of worship while building its church. It was the very heart and soul of the village. Within those brick walls the townsfolk held their entertainment, made new friends and cemented relationships. That is where community leaders made their decisions, some of which affect our lives today.

But progress is progress and the fact was that the town had outgrown their school and a new one was built to accommodate the education of the valley children.

After the community abandoned the old schoolhouse, the brown bungalow was moved to 570 North Montgomery Street and Ezra Taylor, who ran a machine shop in town, moved his family into the brick building. It was home to the A.E. Freeman family around 1910. Mr. Freeman, a local grocer, reportedly added the second story and began the transformation that camouflaged the original brick outer walls. G.L. Chrisman bought the Freeman home in June of 1916 and the Alton Drowns lived there during the 1920s and 30s.

In 1946, Major Richard Cannon bought the former schoolhouse and opened the Cannon School there. One year later, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Cataldo converted the school into the Ojai Manor Hotel and began renting seven rooms. Although these owners had altered the little brick schoolhouse beyond recognition, until the 1980s, a keen eye could detect Blumberg’s misshapen, aged bricks as foundation beneath the time-honored facade at 210 Matilija Street. The old bricks are still visible on the inside kitchen wall.

The Lavender Inn

In the 1980s, Mary Nelson removed the old Old Manor Hotel and opened it as a bed and breakfast. In 1999, the old schoolhouse, once again beautifully remodeled, has resumed as a bed and breakfast under the name, The Moon’s Nest Inn [now The Lavender Inn].


The above is excerpted from Patty Fry’s book¬†The Ojai Valley: An Illustrated History.¬†In 2017 the book was updated by Elise DePudyt and Craig Walker. It is available in the museum’s store and through Amazon.com.