All Kinds of Fun

The following article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the “Ojai Valley Visitors Guide” on pages 158 through 164. That magazine was published by the “Ojai Valley News”. The article is reprinted here with their permission.

All kinds of Fun

Pop Soper steps up to the bag at his training camp in the 1920s. (Photo courtesy of the Ojai Valley Museum)

Ojai’s past is full of unusual amusements that attracted everyone from gangsters to golfers
story by Perry Van Houten

It was long before the invention of the smartphone and the MP3 player and prior to the proliferation of video game consoles, but folks in the Ojai Valley still found plenty of ways to keep themselves amused and entertained.

Of course, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and tennis were already long-established pastimes for residents and visitors of the Ojai Valley, but as early as the 1930s, entrepreneurs were finding other clever (and, at times, profitable) amusements for the populace.

Pop Soper’s nickelodeons
Prior to World War II, Clarence “Pop” Soper ran a training camp for boxers at the mouth of Matilija Canyon. The most famous boxer to train there was heavyweight Jack Dempsey, in 1927. Another famous visitor was notorious gangster Al Capone.

The camp had a canvas-roofed boxing ring, with benches for spectators, along with entertainment for visitors, such as nickelodeons, including a player piano. Drop five cents into the slot and it would play.

A crowd watches a boxing match at Pop Soper’s Training Camp. (Photo courtesy of the Ojai Valley Museum)

“Around his boxing ring, inside the building, he had all these music players — a self-playing violin, self-playing drums and a big guitar that would play,” explained Dwayne Bower, whose family owned Ojai Van Lines.

“After he died, my dad and I went up there and brought all those to our warehouse in Meiners Oaks, and we stored them there. His brother, Lenny Soper, sold them off one at a time, probably when he needed a little money. I remember delivering one to Hollywood and elsewhere in Los Angeles. They’re very, very, very rare items.”

Bower, an avid car collector, restored Soper’s 1929 Packard, which he purchased in 1957 for $75.

Kiddie land
Tucked into the mountains north of Pop Soper’s was a resort that offered hot mineral springs, indoor and outdoor games and sports. Wheeler Hot Springs changed owners many times, the most notable being radio and TV star Art Linkletter, famous for his program, “Kids Say the Darndest Things.”

After Linkletter purchased the resort he added a new attraction called Kiddie Land, with rides and other features designed for children. But the idea never really took off and Linkletter reportedly lost a bundle.

Ojai movie theaters
J.J. Burke opened the Ojai Valley’s first movie theater in 1914. The first film screened at the Isis Theater was Jack London’s “Valley of the Moon.” Admission was 20 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. In addition to showing movies, the theater also hosted vaudeville acts, plays and dances.

The theater changed names and ownership numerous times, becoming the Ojai Theatre in 1926. It got some competition in 1964 when a theater at the “Y” opened its doors. Los Robles Theatre at 1207 Maricopa Highway screened movies until 1972 and advertised “acres of free parking.”

The Ojai Theater is depicted in this 1954 postcard. (Image courtesy of the Ojai Valley Museum)

The Ojai Theatre became the Glasgow Playhouse in 1966, then the Ojai Playhouse in the early ’80s when it was purchased by the Al-Awar family. Sadly, the theater was closed in July 2014 due to a water main break under Ojai Avenue in front of the building. A battle continues after more than two years between the owner, the water company and its insurer over who should pay for the repairs.

Years before the golf courses at Soule Park and the Ojai Valley Inn opened, golfers were teeing off on a course set up in 1893 by Mary Gally, proprietor of the Gally Cottages at Ojai Avenue and Gridley Road. Charles Nordhoff, for whom the town was originally named, stayed at the cottages each time he visited the valley.

The Cottage course featured putting greens made of sand and a fairway pocked with tree stumps and squirrel holes. Mary Gally’s son, Howard, remembered as a child being held by his ankles, upside-down, and lowered into a hole to retrieve a golf ball lost by a player. An entire day of golf at the six-hole course would set you back a whole 25 cents; a week’s play only a buck. The links were watered by artesian wells on the 40-acre property and the grass cut by a flock of sheep, according to Ojai historian David Mason.

Miniature Golf
In the 1960’s, the Townsend family opened the miniature golf course on East Ojai Avenue at the current location of Ventura County Fire Department Station 21. The course presented players with the usual challenges, such as the hole placed at the apex of a cylindrical cone. “I loved it except for the volcano,” said one golfer. “I hated that hole.”

A miniature golf course once stood at the current site of Fire Station 21 in Ojai’s East End. (The Susan Sawyer Roland Collection)

A woman who played the course told of a natural obstacle she encountered. “I remember seeing a snake on one of the holes. It scared me to death,” she said.

After the mini-golf course closed and was torn down, some locals turned it into a BMX track for a short time before they built the fire station.

The popularity of bowling exploded in the U.S. in the 1950s, and folks in Ojai soon caught the fever. The valley’s first bowling alley was a single lane affair on Ojai Avenue, across from the Arcade. A second bowling alley, Topa Lanes, opened in 1960 at Ojai and Golden West Avenues.

The 16-lane facility also featured arcade games, birthday bowling parties and organized league play. “We actually had our senior all-night party there, and that was a big, big deal,” recalled Bower. “The lanes were brand new, so we stayed there all night and partied.”

A girl who had her eighth birthday party at the lanes remembered a mishap involving a relative. “My grandma broke her shoulder ’cause she decided not to wear her bowling shoes and flew down the lane head-first,” she said.

Ojai resident Drew Mashburn bowled at the former bowling alley, played the pinball machines and ate at the restaurant there. “My buddies and I probably drove all the restaurant patrons crazy by playing ‘Loco-motion’ over and over again on the jukebox.”

John Sawyer of Ojai bowled a perfect 300 game at Topa Lanes in January 1963, the first ever at the facility. He was 21 at the time. He later appeared on a Los Angeles TV bowling show to talk about his game.

The lanes, last known as Ojai Valley Bowl, closed in the late 1990’s and the building sat vacant for many years. In 2016, a new owner of the property unveiled plans to build a craft brewery, pub and eventually a boutique hotel on the site.

The bowling lanes inside the Ojai Valley Bowl advertise that winter leagues were forming. (Photo courtesy of the Ojai Valley Museum)

A Downtown Carnival

Carnival workers drive stakes for a carnival tent in downtown Ojai.
Curious boys try to sneak a peek at a snake exhibit at one of the carnivals that frequented the Ojai Valley.

In the 1950s, when a carnival came to town, it would set up at the present location of the Westridge Midtown Market on Ojai Avenue. Mashburn remembers riding an attraction called “The Octopus” when he was 6.

“What in tarnation was I thinking?” Mashburn asked. “Each bucket of The Octopus was on the end of a long arm. The whole apparatus went in a circle and each arm went up and down. To make matters worse, each bucket rapidly spun in a circle. I felt like I was in a food blender. I got down on the floor on all fours and prayed for the monster machine to stop. Mom yelled at the operator to stop it each time it passed him. I think he must have thought Mom was yelling, ‘Speed it up!’ I’ve never been on one since.”

One year, Mashburn’s mother, Arlou, ran a booth where carnival-goers lobbed darts at balloons. “Mom was up near the balloons and bent down with her back to the dart-throwers. Yep, a dart hit her squarely in the butt! She said she thought the person did it on purpose.”

Ya think?


This story is from Walter W. Bristol’s 1946 book, “THE STORY OF THE OJAI VALLEY.” It is assumed Bristol authored this story.

Walter W. Bristol

The fist civic organization in the Ojai Valley so far, at least, as my research went, was known at the Committee of Fifteen. It was organized in October, 1903 as a response to a need for law and order. The Committee was headed by Sherman Thacher and included the well known names of that day. The work of the Committee was that of vigilantes in a mild way. No gallows was erected on which to hang miscreants, but they did have a struggle to stay the illegal sale of liquor in the community. In their rather infrequent meetings the Committee discussed a variety of matters connected with the welfare of the valley.

Sherman Day Thacher
Sherman Day Thacher

The Committee of Fifteen, wishing to change its complexion and enlarge its scope so as to invite the world to share the wonders of the Ojai Valley, appointed a committee on November 21, 1906, to perfect arrangements for the organization of a Board of Trade, and “moved to insert a notice in ‘The Ojai’ calling a meeting of the citizens on November 28th to effect the said organization.” Forty members signed up after paying fifty cents initiation fee and one dollar in advance as dues for the year. The first board of directors was E. S. Thacher, H. Waldo Forster, C. E. Gibson, E. F. Baker, W. C. Hendrickson, Joseph Hobart, F. P. Barrow, Dr. B. L. Saeger, J. J. Burke. The first officers were E. S. Thacher, president, H. W. Forster, vice-president, J. J. Burke, secretary, and E. F. Baker, treasurer. Advertising and Transportation Committees were appointed. Booklets were prepared with which to contact the world and were paid for by the county.


At one of its first meetings the board asked the merchants to write letters to the Southern Pacific Co. asking for better freight and passenger service, and suggested that “the merchants have all their freight come by water, which might be used as a lever to bring the So. Pacific Co. to time.” I wonder how many nights’ sleep the S. P. Co. officials lost over that dire threat.

In 1907 the possibility of getting electricity in the valley was discussed. The artesian wells along Ojai Avenue were deemed a menace to health. Four kerosene street lamps were ordered placed from the railroad station to Ojai Ave. and $25 was voted for this improvement. In 1908 subscriptions were taken to build a bridge across the San Antonio river near the Gally cottages. On April 1st, 1910, the Board of Trade directors favored unanimously the bonding of the county for good roads to the extent of $1,000,000, providing the Ojai Supervisorial District got its share. T. S. Clark was then our supervisor. The subject of building a high school, the minutes read, brought out the statement from Principal W. W. Bristol that a building built in the bungalow style, exclusive of the grounds could be constructed for $15,000. He thought it would be ten years before the school would have 100 pupils. (There were about 70 in 1920; the great fire of 1917 played havoc with any increase in population.) The last minutes of the Board of Trade were on October 11th, 1911.

Howard Bristol
Howard Bristol

In the meantime the new high school was built and opened in the fall of 1911. The struggle over the site of the school was rather strenuous as between the east and the west side of town. When the people expressed their will at the polls the present site was chosen and like good Americans the fight was soon forgotten.


The "new" campus in 1910
The “new” campus in 1910.

One day in the fall of 1912 Mr. Frank Weir called upon the writer and proposed a new organization whose purpose was the welfare and growth of the community. He proposed to call it “The Ojai Valley Civic League” and asked me to undertake the secretaryship. Mr. Weir was a very sick man, but energetic and full of enthusiasm for the Ojai Valley. He had in mind the opening of an office in Los Angeles to contact tourists and direct them this way. We collected from both men and women about $400.00. The matter of the Los Angeles office was out of the question. The money was spent mainly for 12 electric lights and their upkeep so long as the money lasted. Mr. Weir and the organization perished with him.

While we are waiting for another civic organization to spring up I wish to give you a picture of the rather crude conditions of living in the valley in the first decade of the twentieth century.

We had a telephone system. It was very intimate service. Central was the clearing house of the whole community and the operators were most patient and gracious in giving information. The time of day, the location of a fire, the time of Jones’ funeral, the time the mail arrives, has Mrs. Scott had her operation? have you seen my dog on the street? and so on. Sometimes we had to wait a good while to get our number, but on the whole it was a good service. There was no electricity in the valley. Kerosene and acetylene gas were used. In 1913 a local electric plant was set up. There were frequent break downs and the service closed at 10 o’clock. All evening affairs were regulated by that arrangement. The water supply was so uncertain that the householders had to have settling tanks to insure a constant supply. Joe Berry, walking up Ojai Ave. to the pump followed by his dog, was a familiar sight. Transportation was by stage and train. The stage came form Ventura via Creek road with no bridges to span the many crossings. In winter the valley was often completely isolated—sometimes for days at a time. The train had a morning leaving time, but there was not certainty as to when it would get back. Main street in Ojai was a mud hole in winter and terribly dusty in summer. There were very few automobiles owned locally. The stores were all wooden and some of them mere shacks. The wooden sidewalks were on different levels.

Waiting for the train to arrive.
Waiting for the train to arrive.

About 1914 Edward Drummond Libbey came on the scene in a magnificent way, but that is another story.

On April 24, 1914, a great meeting of the men of the valley was held at the village hotel— the Ojai Inn. Eighty-seven men were present. Sherman D. Thacher presided, and speaking and music was the order of the evening plus the memorable dinner arranged by Manager Joe Linnell, E. S. Thacher, J. J. Burke, L. R. Orton, Judge Wilson, E. D. Libbey and E. L. Wiest took part. The purpose of the meeting was to formulate some kind of a civic organization in succession to the Board of Trade. Since the Ojai Valley Woman’s Club was very helpful along civic lines, it was thought best not to ask them for support, hence the name Ojai Valley Men’s League came into being. Seventeen directors were elected on that night. The directors in turn elected Sherman D. Thacher, president, and Walter W. Bristol, secretary-treasurer. The directorate changed more or less every year, but the above named executive officers remained the same until 1927 when Mr. Thacher resigned and the writer was elected in his stead. At that time also the name was changed to the O. V. Chamber of Commerce.

To discuss the work of the Men’s League in full would be out of place here. Aside from lighting and cleaning the streets it stood ready to take the lead in every worthy enterprise. I will cite the year 1917. On April 6th of that year the Men’s League planned a day of celebration in honor of Edward D. Libbey, who had done so much to put the Ojai Valley on the map. The plan was to make it an annual affair to be called “Libbey Day.” Mr. Libbey did not accept this suggestion and it was thereafter celebrated, but was designated “Ojai Day.” It took the form of a basket picnic and was held in the Civic Center.

This photo is of the first "Ojai Day". It was held in Civic Center Park (now, Libbey Park) on April 7, 1917.
This photo is of the first “Ojai Day”. It was held in Civic Center Park (now, Libbey Park) on April 7, 1917.

On this particular day in 1917 people came from all over the county. There was band music and community singing. A speaker’s stand was erected near the tennis courts. Mr. Libbey spoke and T. C. Stevens of Los Angeles, a warm friend of Mr. Libbey, was the principal speaker of the day. the climax of the celebration was a procession of about one hundred cars (quite a sight for that time) which, starting from the civic center, wound over the roads of Arbolada.

Edward Drummond Libbey
Edward Drummond Libbey

Just a few days before this celebration, March 30, 1917, the community met in the high school auditorium to honor Charles M. Pratt for the splendid gift to the community of manual training and domestic science buildings at the high school with complete equipment for each. The speakers were County Superintendent J. E. Reynolds, Felton Taylor, president of the student body, Principal Bristol and Sherman Thacher who presided.

The League under the able direction of its president, Sherman Thacher, did a good work in providing for the victims of the Spanish influenza. The Boyd Club was taken over for a hospital. Loring Farnum and Miss Sarah McMillian should be remembered for their services in this strenuous time.

In 1918 the League collected $374.00 for the purpose of a curb to curb pavement through town. About this time the directors of the League began agitation for the incorporation of the village. The boundaries were determined, the election called and incorporation was successfully carried in 1921.

It was the custom from the first for the League to have an annual dinner meeting. As I look back over the years these meetings stand out not only as one of the most important and enjoyable events of the year, but as a means of promoting a sense of unity and good feeling. The Chamber of Commerce still exists and should be a constantly greater agency for community betterment.

This sign is posted facing East Aliso Street even though the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce is located at 206 N. Signal St., #P in downtown Ojai, California. That's because it's in a complex that houses several business offices.
This sign is posted facing East Aliso Street even though the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce is located at 206 N. Signal St., #P in downtown Ojai, California. That’s because it’s in a complex that houses several business offices.

We today cherish the memory of the men and women who in days past established in the Ojai Valley a tradition of culture and local pride. This tradition must be carried on if this community is not to lose its distinctive qualities. Eternal vigilance is the price of such an achievement. “Where there is no vision the people perish.”