The following article was first published in the Winter 2018 (VOLUME 36 NUMBER 4) issue of the “Ojai Valley Guide” magazine that is published by the “Ojai Valley News”. With their permission, the article is reprinted here. It ran on pages 154 and 155 in the magazine.
LOOK BACK IN OJAI 1969 Beautification Month
Contributed on behalf
of the Ojai Valley Museum
In October 1969, the Ojai Chamber of Commerce spearheaded a “Beautification for Better Business Campaign.” I had graduated from Nordhoff High School only a few months before and must tell you, at the time, my business was chasing after beautiful women and cars. I could not have cared less about sprucing up things around the valley, except for a good wash and waxing of my 1961 Austin Healy “Bug Eye” Sprite to, hopefully, impress beautiful young ladies.
So, moving on, I was ignorant of this cleanup drive.
Mr. Libbey, of Libbey Glass Co. fame, was a proponent of the “City Beautiful Movement” featured at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. At the original Ojai Day, April 7, 1917, held in Civic Park (now Libbey Park), Libbey said in a speech: “There has been too little attention paid to things aesthetic in our communities and in our homes. The time has come when we should encourage in ourselves thoughts of things beautiful, and the higher ideals which the people fostering of the love of that which is beautiful and inspiring.”
Libbey’s speech includes the word “beautiful” twice. His words and actions emphasized improving Ojai’s aesthetic qualities. As a lifelong resident (67-plus years) of the Ojai Valley, I truly believe that Libbey’s ideals have been ingrained in our town, even inspiring the 1969 beautification campaign and valleywide cleanup drive decades after his speech.
On the evening of Oct. 30, City Building Inspector Ken Swift and Hal Mitrany of the Chamber of Commerce chaired a meeting at the Ojai Woman’s Club to organize the cleanup. Thirty-eight groups were invited and about 40 representatives attended. The PTA, American Legion, Chamber of Commerce, Boy and Girl Scouts, Retail Merchants Association, Jaycees, Woman’s Club, Garden Club, Retired Men’s Club, East Ojai Valley Associates and the Committee to Preserve the Ojai were among the groups participating.
Harrison’s Rubbish Service volunteered to place collection bins throughout the city and dates were set for free trash and junk removal.
City, county and state agencies were on board. The City Council proclaimed November Cleanup and Beautification Month. The county allowed a main trash-collecting station to be located behind Libbey Park and the state furnished a truck and driver to assist groups that picked up litter along the highways.
A city beautification conference was held at the Ojai Valley Inn, attended by about 80 planners and planning commissioners from all the cities in Ventura County. Featured speakers were Camarillo officials who touted their community’s beautification successes.
In November, the Ojai Architectural Board of Review decided to demolish the Pergola’s two large arches that had been bombed in October 1967 and December 1968. In addition to removing an eyesore, they wanted to open up the view of the park from Ojai Avenue. The Ojai Planning Commission, City Council and Ojai Civic Center Park trustees agreed.
The city also decided to work with business owners to help pay for sidewalk repairs as some sidewalks were not only unsightly, but dangerous. Sidewalk repairs and installation of planters were coordinated with the state repaving Ojai Avenue. In addition, the city repaved 12 residential streets in the western portion of town.
Despite the fanfare and ambitious goals, Inspector Swift reported at the end of November that the beautification and cleanup campaign had fallen short, as participating organizations failed to develop, propose or implement plans. Little had been accomplished beyond some improvement at private homes. He did, however, report two successful beautification projects:
+ The Civic Center Park Board of Directors voted to demolish the bombed arches at the front of the park.
+ The Chamber of Commerce purchased and planted a permanent Christmas tree at the “Y” intersection.
That very same Christmas tree has grown into a mighty fine tree that we all continue to enjoy during the holidays and all year round.
The following article first appeared in the Friday, November 24, 1916 edition of “THE OJAI” on the front page. The author is unknown. This was written before the town name changed from “Nordhoff” to “Ojai.” The photos were added by the Ojai Valley Museum.
ANOTHER BEAUTY SPOT ON MAIN STREET
Landscape gardener F. C. Fassel, on the annual payroll of Mr. E. D. Libbey, is now grading the vacant lot between the Ojai State Bank and the Boyd Club, which within a year will be styled the “Garden of Rose,” which in beauty will outrival Eden — perhaps — with the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve looking in instead of looking out.
The ground is to be artistically embellished for the reception of all the more popular and beautiful varieties of rose bushes. All of the fine specimens so carefully nurtured by custodian Achelpohl of the Club will be transplanted in the plot, without retarding their bloom. This beauty spot will serve to add to the power of the magnet that will surely attract outsiders to the Ojai valley, adding still greater charm to Nordhoff’s civic center.
It is to be regretted that the wheels of the vehicle of progress shattered and tore out the great trailing rose bush at the corner of Clark’s deposed livery barn. In full bloom, with the rich colorings gleaming from the lower and upper branches of a live oak that served as a trellis, it was the marvel of all the tourists and the pride of the valley. It, however, still survives to bloom perpetually in thousands of “snap shots” by the ladies and knights of the Camera.
But there is some recompense for its loss. A handsome garage, built of moss covered native rock and tile adornments, is nearing completion on the corner, which furnishes an attraction less dainty, but more useful.
The new post office building of hollow tile construction, with its massive tower, is now going up. The memorial fountain, after being torn down, is assuming its former shape in a position four feet further back from the street.
The park wall and pergola is lining up handsomely.
The big park is taking on more beauty daily, and the million gallon reservoir is nearly completed.
This article first appeared in the August 26, 1970 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission. The author is Ed Wenig.
Ojai was ‘torn apart and rebuilt’
(Editor’s note: this is the second in a series of articles by historian Ed Wenig on Civic Center Park and the man responsible for its gift “to the people of the Ojai Valley” — Edward Libbey).
On September 1, 1916, THE OJAI printed an editorial from the Ventura Free Press, written by Editor D. J. Reese, who had attended the Men’s League Banquet in March at the Foothills Hotel:
“Some morning, not far distant, the village of Nordhoff is going to wake up and find itself famous. The work being done in that section just now would make the man who has known Nordhoff of old rub his eyes in astonishment if he was brought into the place suddenly. Great things are in store no doubt. The town has been torn apart and several sections have been removed hither and yon. There has been a general clearing up of everything, and everybody has an expectant look as though wondering what will happen next. The main street has been piled full of terra cotta brick, and no one seems to know what is doing. Old landmarks like the Clark stables and the Ojai Inn have vanished as before a Kansas cyclone. Only the beautiful oaks, and here and there a substantial house like the bank or the clubhouse or the Nordhoff fountain and splendid Ojai atmosphere seem to be left. Something is surely doing. Ask what it is and the Nordhoffite will throw up his hands and mention the name of Libbey. You hear about Libbey every time you ask a question. Everywhere you go you note that somebody is working hard at something or other in digging ditches or burying water pipe or clearing underbrush or building massive and magnificent cobble walls. Why, it is to be another Montecito, you are told . . . “The people there are to be congratulated that they have a Libbey who has taken an interest in their affairs. It is to be hoped they will give him free rein.”
Vast Land Holdings
At an Ojai Valley Men’s League banquet at the Foothills Hotel J. J. Burke, speaking of improvements, told of a well of Mr. Libbey’s which “will pump at least 65 inches, and if Mr. Libbey’s plans materialize he will spend $20,000 in getting the water to his ranch. . . . The old Ojai Inn and all but one of the Berry Villa buildings have been torn down or moved away, making room for more extensive improvements in the future. Through the generosity of Mr. Libbey, Signal Street was cut through and graded to the railroad.”
In the spring of 1916 Libbey was reported to be visiting his friend, H. T. Sinclair and discussing with Mr. Thacher, Colonel Wilson and W. W. Bristol “sundry matters of importance to the community.”
On June 9, 1916 it was announced that E. D. Libbey had bought 200 more acres to add to his previous 300-acre property. “Among the early improvements will be the laying of a water main from his well on the Gally tract to his large holdings. And that is not all, as the entire square upon which once stood the Ojai Inn, is to be improved in a manner that augurs well for the future of Nordhoff, which is good news to the entire community. Mr. H. T. Sinclair has been taken into Mr. Libbey’s confidence and will be the directing head during his absence. Let us be glad, as well as thankful for so generous a promoter as E. D. Libbey.”
On June 16, 1916, we are told that Mr. Libbey has bought the last parcel of privately owned land in what is now the Civic Park. In the local paper, “The plans Mr. Libbey is making to benefit both the town and the Valley has met with the highest approbation of the committee and the cooperation of the League in every way is assured.”
It was reported on June 30 that the Berry Villa, “an historical step-sister of the Ojai Inn, now a demolished antiquity,” had been torn down and the lumber hauled away.
By July 14, fifty men in one crew were working on the Libbey pay roll. Tom Clark destroyed his barn north of his livery stable and constructed a rock wall for a modern garage. This wall can still be seen as part of the Village Drug Store.
Early in November, Architect Requa, of the San Diego architectural firm of Mead and Requa, went to Toledo and got full approval of the plans for the renovation of the main street of Nordhoff. The local newspaper reported, “The post office tower, penetrating the lower heavens 65 feet is to be a reality. There are many features that we shall be delighted to prattle about when fully assured that the architect has removed the censorship.”
In March, 1917, representatives of the Men’s League met with Mr. Libbey. A corporation was formed under the name of THE OJAI CIVIC ASSOCIATION. The incorporators were E. D. Libbey, S. D. Thacher, J. J. Burke, Harrison Wilson, H. T. Sinclair, A. A. Garland, and H. R. Cole. Said the editor of the paper: “The initial purpose of the corporation is to assume title to the valuable property acquired by gift from Mr. Libbey . . . This beautiful park and the tennis courts, covering more than seven acres, is to become the property of the people of Nordhoff and the Ojai Valley.
Concurrent with the changes in the appearance of the town of Nordhoff came a popular move to change the name of the village to Ojai. A petition was circulated under the auspices of Supervisor Tom Clark requesting the name change, and received so many signatures that it was five feet long by the time H. D. Morse, manager of the Foothills Hotel, sent it to Washington D. C. In March, 1917, Senator James D. Phelan sent the following telegram: “You may announce the change of name from Nordhoff to Ojai.”
The following article first appeared on Page A-2 in the November 11, 1992 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It’s reprinted here with their permission.
David Mason: Linking Past & Future
“In the middle of the Ojai Valley lies a little hamlet, which the people have been kind enough to name after the author of this book.”
—- Charles Nordhoff
“The Ojai Valley (pronounced Ohy) is reached by a drive of 38 miles by way of the Carpenteria and the Casitas Pass…The valley is famous even in California for the abundance and loveliness of its woods of evergreen oaks…the oaks dot the surface of the whole lower valley, and are scattered over it in single specimens and clumps…”
The description crafted by Charles Nordhoff in his 1882 edition of “California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence” is a vision shared in many ways by one special Ojai man.
Separated by a century, Charles Nordhoff and David Mason share a common bond – enthusiasm for the Ojai Valley, and the ability to communicate that to others. Nordhoff wrote eloquently one hundred years ago about the grandeur of the valley and of California. Mason, a lifelong resident of Ojai, currently gives witty, informative slide shows about the history of the valley.
“Charles Nordhoff died on July 14 in 1901. I was born 38 years later in Ojai, on July 14. That coincidence has become significant to me over time, as I have become more drawn to the early days of Ojai,” said Mason, 53. “I feel very close to Nordhoff’s era in many ways.”
Mason’s interest in the past was sparked in 1964, when a friend’s mother died. The friend asked to use Mason’s dumpster to throw out some old things. Those “old things” included hundreds of postcards and photographs of early Ojai, and other memorabilia, Mason rescued all he could from the trash bin, and he was hooked.
“I framed a lot of the postcards, and had copies of the photos made for the Ojai Valley Museum and the Ventura County Museum. Over the years I’ve collected much more, and I’ve saved things, like photos of Lake Casitas being built. I’m an incredible packrat,” he said with a chuckle.
Mason now serves as vice chairman, and is past chairman, of Ventura County’s Cultural Heritage Board. He was the first chairman of the City of Ojai’s Cultural Heritage Board, and was also Ojai’s Citizen of the Year in 1986. Mason works as a realtor, having retired after a 25 year career as a florist. He owned the award-winning Village Florist in the Arcade, and closed it three years ago.
Mason’s slide show, which he presents to groups around the county, begins with Charles Nordhoff’s birth in 1832 in what was then Prussia. He tracks Nordhoff’s life – his move to America at the age of 3 and, later, traveling around the world with the U.S. Navy. Eventually Nordhoff became editor of the New York Post, and wrote his famous book “California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence” in 1872. That 206 page volume brought so many settlers to the state that Nordhoff was the name originally chosen for Ojai.
“Between 1870 and 1900, the population of California doubled, growing from 560,000 to well over a million. In that same 30 year period, over three million copies of Nordhoff’s book were sold,” Mason commented.
According to Mason, Mrs. Catherine Blumberg suggested the town be named Nordhoff in the early 1870’s. Topa Topa was also being considered. Catherine and her husband, Abram Wheeler Blumberg, came out West because of Nordhoff’s book and built the Ojai Inn in what is now Libbey Park. Nordhoff remained the village’s name for over 40 years.
“The name was formally changed to Ojai in 1917, at the beginning of World War I. There was a lot of anti-German sentiment, which fueled the change,” Mason remarked.
With slides and commentary, Mason captures the growth of the little town from 1872, when about 50 people lived in the village, up into the 1920’s. By then, cut-glass heir Edward Drummond Libbey of Ohio had come to Ojai and put his very personal stamp on the town. Libbey bought the 360 acre Arbolada, to save the area from being cut down for wood, and began to sell lots for homes. He also built the Ojai Valley Inn, the Post Office tower, the arched entryway to Libbey Park (now gone), and transformed the front of the downtown stores into a Spanish Mission style Arcade. Libbey also made a generous donation to the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel, and had a hand in its construction.
“Mr. Libbey had the desire to make things beautiful and the money to do it. He was influenced by castles in Spain and the rural Spanish towns, with their muted colors and soft, flowing lines.
“Mr. Libbey was also a smart developer. Here he had bought the Arbolada, but then had trouble selling the lots. People would come out to Ojai to buy a lot and they’d see how rustic things were downtown, with dirt streets and wooden slats along the front of the stores. It lacked charm. It looked like a Western frontier town and there wasn’t much to do,” Mason said. “So Libbey created a golf course and a nice downtown.”
Mason feels that if Libbey were to visit Ojai today, he would be quite pleased with the town.
“He would definitely approve of the look of Ojai. He would particularly like the Redevelopment Agency’s project of 1980, which remodeled the back of the Arcade to match the front. That completed Mr. Libbey’s vision for the town,” he said. “But he would miss those arches that were in front of the park!”
The arches were torn down in the late 1960’s. Originally they stood along the Ojai Avenue entrance to the park, and were designed to provide a balance to the heavy look of the Arcade. The park arches had an overhead trellis that was covered in wisteria. And directly in front of the arches, a lion’s head fountain served as a horse trough. The fountain was in place several years before Libbey commissioned the arches.
Mason believes that there might be a resurgence of interest in the old arches, and a move to replace them eventually. Mason would support such a move.
“I have a lot of respect for Mr. Libbey’s aesthetic vision for Ojai,” he said. “It’s our heritage. It’s what makes us unique.”
[Mason later headed up a committee to rebuild the Pergola. The recreated Pergola was dedicated on July 4, 1999.]
This article first appeared in the Ojai Valley News on April 9, 1999. It is reprinted here with their permission.
Library was the focus of the community 100 years ago
by David Mason
“Ventura house-mover John Brahey is busy moving the Nordhoff Library onto the library (owned) lot south of the present location.”
— Ventura Signal, October 1908
Between 1897 and 1917 philanthropist Andrew Carnegie endowed more than 1,400 public libraries.
He could very well have been inspired by the Ojai Valley’s Library, for by the time Carnegie’s lengthy series of endowments got underway, the town of Nordhoff, now Ojai, had been enjoying a public library for five years.
The library in Nordhoff may not have been a Carnegie library, and Carnegie probably never knew it existed, but the Ojai Valley’s residents were proud of what they had, for they had worked hard to establish this bit of culture in their community.
When the library committee first met in October 1892, it was to discuss plans to raise money to start a library in the town. The people of the valley were so excited about the idea of having a local library that they volunteered many hours to bring it to a reality.
By March 1893 Sherman D. Thacher, founder of The Thacher School, announced that the Thacher family and some friends were willing to donate $500 toward the purchase of books if the people of the little valley could come up with the money for the building and its maintenance. This kind and generous gesture would be the inspiration for an all-out campaign to raise the rest of the needed funds.
After many lawn parties, ice cream socials and teas, the money was raised in a very short time. Construction of the library started in July 1893 and was completed in August, nearly 30 days later.
In 1937 Zaidee Soule, longtime local librarian writing on the history of the library for the community’s newspaper, The Ojai, wrote, “The building was constructed 100 feet south of Ojai Avenue and just east of (Stewart) creek on the Barrow property.”
The building, a single room, was only 16 feet by 24 feet, with a porch running along the east side.
The library was named The George Thacher Memorial Free Library. The name came from one of the Thacher boys who had died at an early age and the people of the valley were proud to honor this boy who had touched the hearts of so many.
The first librarian was Mrs. J.K. Newton and the library was open from 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Sunday.
The library was a success from the first day as the people of the valley were anxious to gain new knowledge.
The success of the library became even more evident in 1904. Since the library did not own the land on which it sat, the library board of directors purchased the lot next door, further south on Montgomery Street, and had the building moved onto their own property and added another room.
In January 1916 the library officially became a branch of the Ventura County Library system, the first in the county. The operating expenses, maintenance and upkeep became the responsibility of the county.
After many years, it was apparent that the library was going to outgrow its building and changes would have to be considered. A number of buildings were being built on the south side of the main street, hiding the library from view, so the library board felt that the location would also have to be changed.
The town was growing rapidly, and with Ojai’s greatest benefactor Mr. E.D. Libbey changing the appearance of the downtown, it was only natural that a new library, designed with the same flair as the rest of the town, would be in keeping with the general plan.
The new library committee was headed by Sherman D. Thacher, who had also been instrumental in the founding of the original library in 1893, and it fell to the Ojai Civic Center Association in 1920 to find a buyer for the existing library property.
After some time, part of the library lot was sold to the Ventura County Fire Department for a new fire station, now [the Ojai Vineyard Tasting Room], and a new group in town called The Ojai Community Players, now the Ojai Art Center, took an option on the remaining portion of the land.
The city had come in possession of a lot on the corner of Aliso and Lion streets through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Smith. The city agreed to pay the Smiths $312.50 for the lot because the city had installed new sewers and widened the streets and had ruined the lot for building a house.
However, Mrs. Smith deemed it in the town’s best interest to accept only a $10 gold piece for the property, an amount she said would “make it legal.” The little old library building was then moved onto the small city-owned lot.
With the pending sale of the library property, the committee put the fundraising efforts into full force and the first person to donate was Mr. Libbey who donated $10,000 worth of stock to the fund. Many others joined Libbey with donations in various amounts. Finally, when enough money was raised, definite plans were started. By the time the committee had raised all the needed funds, Mr. Libbey had passed away and his estate owned the land that the library committee had decided upon for their new building. It was a beautiful corner lot at South Ventura Street and Ojai Avenue. The library committee contacted the Libbey estate to ask if the lot could be purchased for the new library. The answer came back from the trustees of the estate saying, “It had always been Mr. Libbey’s dream to have a library at that site, so they wished to present the lot, worth $10,000, as a free gift to the Ojai Community.”
The architect selected by the library committee was the famous Carleton Winslow. Winslow was 42 and well-respected in the state of California. He had first studied architecture at the Chicago Art Institute, and for more advanced training, he spent time at the Beaux Arts Academy of Paris.
Upon graduating, Winslow found employment with the architectural firm of Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson in New York City. The company became responsible for the construction of the buildings for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 and sent Winslow to supervise the job.
After the exposition, Winslow remained in California and opened an architectural office in Los Angeles and later in Santa Barbara. He was one of the most influential figures in the realization of the Spanish Colonial Revival and Mediterranean styles of architecture in the state of California.
It was only natural that the Ojai Library Committee would select such a man to design a building that would not only match the downtown architectural style, but would complement and add uniformity to the town center.
Samuel J. Hudiburg was the building contractor. Hudiburg was born in Santa Paula and received his schooling in Ojai. In 1906, he learned the carpenter’s trade from J.C. Leslie, a pioneer contractor in Ojai, and Hudiburg worked for Leslie until 1919, when he went into contracting for himself. During Hudiburg’s years as a contractor, he built many of the finest residences and commercial buildings in the valley.
On Dec. 1, 1927, the plans for the new library were approved and construction started. The building was to include a reading room, 23 feet by 62 feet, and additional small rooms for magazines, a work room, etc. An 8-foot porch was planned for the front of the building.
On April 15, 1928, the new library was officially opened. Many books being published that year undoubtedly helped to fill the shelves – among them were “West-Running Brook” by Robert Frost, “The Man Who Knew Coolidge” by Sinclair Lewis, “Good Morning America” by Carl Sandburg and “Boston” by Upton Sinclair.
By 1979 the need for an additional room to the library was brought to the attention of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors and J.K. “Ken” MacDonald, supervisor from Ojai, would spend the next few years working diligently to accomplish the goal of a new wing.
With the cooperation of John Van Dyke, who owned the vacant lot between his travel agency and the library, the land was secured at a reasonable price.
MacDonald was able to persuade the Board of Supervisors to finance a portion of the project and Friends of the Library, with assistance from librarian Ellen Harmon, were able to secure the needed funds for completion.
The addition was completed in May 1981 and, by a resolution from the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, the new wing was named the “J.K. ‘Ken’ MacDonald Annex.”
The original 1893 library building became the clubhouse for the Boy Scouts and they used it for their meetings until 1949, when it was deeded to the Girl Scouts for their use.
In 1989 the Girl Scouts were forced to abandon the building as it was found to be unsafe and would have required a lot of changes to bring it up to health and safety codes.
The majority of the building is still in its original condition, and today, more than 100 years later, the building is preserved and maintained in a fashion worthy of its dignity.
Downtown Ojai in 1920s. Courtesy Ojai Valley Museum
Ojai Day celebrates the 1917 transformation of Ojai from a dusty, ramshackle collection of old West shops into unified design of public architecture and parks, with converging perspectives of arches and towers. What inspired Edward Libbey to transform Ojai into an architectural jewel? Mark Lewis interviewed Craig Walker, who revived the Ojai Day celebration in 1991, for this in-depth look at the origins of Ojai Day. Craig traces the impetus to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, an epochal event that launched the City Beautiful Movement, made Libbey a vast fortune and introduced him to Mission Revival architecture.
The original plan was to call it Libbey Day, to honor the man who had transformed the dusty, dowdy, backwater burg of Nordhoff into the model Mission Revival village of Ojai. But Edward Drummond Libbey was having none of it. He was proud of his role as Ojai’s guardian angel, but he preferred to celebrate the town itself on the occasion of its rechristening, rather than focus on his role in the process. As usual, Libbey got his way. And so, on April 7, 1917, some 2,000 people crammed themselves into the town’s brand-new Civic Park to celebrate Ojai Day.
“We are celebrating here today the fulfillment of a conception,” Libbey told the crowd. On every side stood examples of his handiwork: The Arcade, the Pergola and the Post Office Tower, all immaculately sheathed in sparkling white stucco or plaster.
“There has been too little attention paid to things aesthetic in our communities and in our homes,” Libbey said. “The time has come when we should encourage in ourselves thoughts of things beautiful, and the higher ideals which art encourages and promotes must awaken in the people the fostering of the love of that which is beautiful and inspiring. We must today decry with contempt and aversion all that is cheap, vulgar and degrading.”
That night the new buildings were illuminated with white light, rendering them incandescent. The effect must have reminded some onlookers of similar illuminations they had witnessed at the Panama-California Exposition, a world’s fair of sorts that had just closed on January 1, after a successful two-year run in San Diego’s Balboa Park.
Looking back at these events across a distance of 95 years, it seems clear that Libbey’s Ojai project was heavily influenced by the San Diego fair. The Panama-California Exposition had popularized the new Spanish Colonial Revival style, a baroque offshoot of the Mission style and Ojai’s Post Office Tower would have looked right at home in Balboa Park. But one local history maven, Craig Walker, traces Libbey’s original inspiration further back, to an earlier world’s fair: Chicago’s legendary World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, better known as the White City.
The Chicago fair had an enormous impact, and still lingers in the national memory. It is the subject of Erik Larson’s hugely popular nonfiction book The Devil in the White City, first published in 2004 and still going strong on the paperback bestseller lists almost a decade later. The book focuses on a serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, the eponymous “Devil” of Larson’s title, who preyed upon fairgoers. But for most people who visited the White City, it looked more like heaven than hell.
It was there, on the shore of Lake Michigan, that Edward Libbey witnessed a testing of the hypothesis he would propagate in Ojai two decades later: that beautiful buildings inspire people to become better citizens. To judge by Chicago’s less-than-sterling reputation over the years as a bastion of civic virtue, the original experiment was rather a bust. Ojai would turn out to be a different story.
MAKE NO LITTLE PLANS
The World’s Columbian Exposition originally was scheduled to open in 1892, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the New World. But its organizers got carried away. Led by the architect Daniel Burnham, they turned the fair into an epic celebration of modern America and its apparently limitless potential. “Make no little plans,” Burnham famously said; “They have no magic to stir men’s blood, and probably themselves will not be realized.”
Big plans take time to develop. As a result, the fair did not open until May 1893. But it was worth the wait. Burnham & Co. had built an entire model city in Jackson Park. This was in effect a Hollywood set, made up of temporary buildings molded out of a kind of stucco and painted white to look like marble. Nevertheless, the effect was stunning especially at night, when they were bathed in electric light. Collectively they comprised the White City, and people looked upon them in wonder.
Some 27 million people visited the fair that year, the equivalent of a third of the country’s population. Among them was the future author L. Frank Baum, for whom the White City would serve as the model for the Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Another onlooker was Elias Disney, a carpenter who had helped to build the White City; his son Walt would one day build his own White City in Anaheim and call it Disneyland. Even the notoriously cynical historian Henry Adams was impressed with what Burnham had wrought.
“Chicago in 1893 asked for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving,” Adams later wrote. The answer was still unclear, but at least the question was framed intelligently. The White City, Adams wrote, “was the first expression of American thought as a unity; one must start there.”
All sorts of people beat a path to Chicago in 1893, including the theosophist Annie Besant, who was on her way from Britain to India. She stopped off in Chicago long enough to attend the fair’s Parliament of Religions, during which Swami Vivekananda introduced America (and the West in general) to Vedanta and yoga. Such epochal goings-on were routine at the Chicago World’s Fair, which also introduced America to the Ferris Wheel, Cracker Jack candy and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. But its most far-reaching legacy was the City Beautiful Movement, which the White City embodied.
“The industrial cities of the 1870s and ’80s had little planning “they evolved as crowded, ugly, haphazard affairs,” Craig Walker said. Burnham built the White City to show that there was a better way. “The belief was that cities built as a unified, planned development, with beautiful public buildings and parks, would inspire civic pride and moral virtues that would bring social reform,” Walker said. “The exposition was the blueprint for modern America; it had a major influence on art, architecture, city planning, business and industry.”
Ah yes, business and industry. The exposition was not entirely about art and moral uplift. Commerce also was highlighted, and many manufacturers built exhibits to showcase their wares. Among them was a certain glass manufacturer from Toledo, who saw the fair as his chance to hit the big time.
Edward Drummond Libbey was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1854. He followed his father into the glass business and by 1892 was the head of Libbey Glass. The firm had moved in 1888 from New England to Ohio, where it struggled for a few years before finding its footing. Now Libbey saw the World’s Columbian Exposition as opportunity to establish his firm as the premier national brand for high-quality cut glass tableware. But his board of directors balked at investing big bucks to build a first-class exhibit. So Libbey borrowed the money himself and built it anyway. It was a full-scale glass factory situated on the Midway Plaisance, west of the fairgrounds proper. Libbey’s gamble paid off: The Libbey Glass pavilion was a huge success with fairgoers.
Libbey spent a lot of the time at the fair, living above the store, so to speak, in an apartment built into the pavilion’s second floor. The building was located half a mile east of the Ferris Wheel and just short walk west from Stony Island Avenue. On the other side of the avenue lay the shimmering White City.
Most of the fair’s buildings showcased the neo-classical Beaux Arts style, which America’s leading architects had studied in Paris. Among the more notable exceptions was the California Building, which stood less than a quarter of a mile away from the Libbey Glass exhibit. Paris had never seen its like. Nor had Chicago, for that matter. The California Building introduced America, and Edward Libbey, to a new architectural style called Mission Revival.
California had not always celebrated its Mission Era heritage. After the gold rush petered out, the state’s boosters needed to give people from back East a different reason to migrate west, and California’s Spanish and Mexican heritage did not seem like a selling point for white Protestant Americans. On the contrary, the state’s boosters feared that all those Spanish-style churches and forts made California seem too foreign and too Catholic. “From the 1840s to the early 1880s, the American immigrants did everything they could to eradicate the state’s Old World Spanish architecture,” Craig Walker said. “The missions and presidios were abandoned and destroyed.”
Casting about for a viable marketing angle, California’s railroad barons brought in the travel writer Charles Nordhoff to publicize the state’s natural beauty and healthy climate. Nordhoff hit the mark with his book California for Health, Pleasure and Residence (1872), an enormous success that induced thousands of Americans to move west. Some of them ended up in the sparsely Ojai Valley, where a real estate promoter named Royce Surdam was promoting a new town site. The settlers decided to name this town Nordhoff, to honor the man whose book had lured so many of them to California.
Nordhoff’s founders took no cues from the few remaining adobe structures they encountered in the vicinity. Their new town was built out of wood, and looked like it had been plucked from Kansas or Iowa and replanted in the Ojai Valley. But not every visitor from the East was averse to adobe. When the author Helen Hunt Jackson passed through Ventura County in 1882, she ignored Nordhoff but made a point of lingering in Rancho Camulo, a Spanish-style ranch near the present-day town of Piru. Rancho Camulo served Jackson as a model setting for Ramona (1884), her melodramatic novel about a young Indian woman who lives on a California ranch during the early years of statehood.
Ramona changed everything. A runaway bestseller, it sparked a national fascination with California’s Mission Era. The state’s boosters reversed course and embraced the old missions as iconic symbols of a romantic (and mostly spurious) past. “They just rode this Ramona thing,” Walker said. In the end, Jackson’s book lured even more people to California than Charles Nordhoff’s had.
Meanwhile, California architects concocted the Mission Revival style to create new buildings that harked back to the period in which Ramona was set. Naturally, when it came time to design a California exhibit building for the World’s Columbian Exposition, state officials chose a Mission Revival motif. The California Building was hardly the first example of this new style, but it was the first one to win nationwide acclaim. It made a big splash at the fair.
“It really was the building that got America’s attention,” Walker said.
Did it get Edward Libbey’s attention? He could hardly have missed it, given its close proximity to the Libbey Glass pavilion. Was he impressed? There is no way of knowing. All one can say with confidence is that Ojai’s future benefactor first encountered the Mission Revival style in Chicago in 1893.
The World’s Columbian Exposition also put Libbey on the path to extraordinary wealth, due to the success of his glass-making exhibit. “His whole glass empire just took off,” Walker said. “It propelled him to the top of America’s glass manufacturers, and he became one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country.”
And, crucially, the fair exposed Libbey to the full effect of the City Beautiful Movement. Before long he began applying its precepts to Toledo, where in 1901 he co-founded the Toledo Museum of Art. But Toledo turned out to be too big a city for one man to beautify. Libbey continued to support the museum, but he spent more and more of his time in Southern California. In 1908 he discovered Nordhoff, and built himself a winter home high up on Foothill Road. He loved the valley’s climate and mountain scenery, but was less impressed by its tacky architecture. Eventually, it occurred to him that Nordhoff, too, could benefit from the Libbey touch.
THE VILLAGE BEAUTIFUL MOVEMENT
Nordhoff’s ramshackle business district did not amount to much: a forgettable stretch of uninspired wooden storefronts, indistinguishable from a thousand other hick towns languishing in the boondocks. In short, Nordhoff was homely. Libbey had a remedy. He had internalized the great lesson of Chicago, which was that art and human progress were inextricably linked. And among the arts, architecture was especially effective at creating a physical context for uplift. What had been true of Athens and Rome could become true of Nordhoff: Beautiful buildings would inspire civic virtue among the inhabitants, and make the town a better place in every sense. In April 1914, Libbey called a meeting of Nordoff’s leading citizens to offer a suggestion: They should essentially scrap the town they had, and build a new one.
“Make no little plans!” That was Daniel Burnham’s advice to the city planners of America, and it was Edward Libbey’s advice to the burghers of Nordhoff. His wildly ambitious proposal evidently stirred the blood of every man at that meeting, for they voted unanimously to embrace it. Why would they not, given that Libbey and his rich friends would provide most of the funds? And so the great experiment began.
There were still a few details to fill in. First and foremost, who would be Libbey’s architect, and what style would he employ? The choice ultimately fell upon Richard Requa of San Diego, whose firm, Mead and Requa, did some work for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. Libbey evidently visited the San Diego fair, was impressed by its Spanish Colonial Revival motif, and hired Requa to create something similar in Nordhoff.
But the sequence of events suggests that Libbey already had settled on the Mission style for Nordhoff, well before he ever set foot in Balboa Park. After all, he had been familiar with the style at least since 1893, when he first clapped eyes on the California Building at the Chicago World’s Fair. And he no doubt had admired the Thacher School’s administration building, a Mission-style structure built in 1911. Significantly, the first major new building erected in Nordhoff in the immediate aftermath of that April 1914 meeting was a Mission-style movie theater, the Isis. (It’s still there, almost a century later, only now it’s called the Ojai Playhouse.) Given the town’s enthusiastic embrace of Libbey’s plan, it seems most unlikely that someone would have built a major new building in the downtown district without first vetting the design with the man from Toledo.
Libbey did have other architectural choices. The most impressive-looking building in downtown Nordhoff in 1914 was the Ojai State Bank, a stately brick pile in the neoclassical mode, complete with Doric columns. Theoretically, Libbey could have put up a neoclassical village to match the bank. But that would have looked bizarre, given the region’s historical context. The closest points of reference were Ventura and Santa Barbara, each of which dated back to the Mission Era and boasted an authentic mission building. Mission Revival was the obvious choice for Nordhoff. It seems likely that Libbey had made that decision even before he called that meeting.
Libbey of course was no architect. He left the design details to Requa, who used a mixture of Mission style (e.g., the Arcade) and Spanish Colonial Revival style (the Post Office Tower) to bring Libbey’s vision to life. Meanwhile, in March 1917, the town completed its Ramona makeover by changing its name to Ojai. Now it had a Spanish-sounding name to complement its new look. (The name, like the architecture, is not actually Spanish; it’s derived from the name of one of the Chumash Indian villages that once dotted the valley.) Thus it was Ojai Day, rather than Nordhoff Day, that the town celebrated a few weeks later on April 7.
At the opening ceremony, Libbey handed the deed to Civic Park to Sherman Day Thacher, who accepted it on behalf of the newly formed Ojai Civic Association. A reporter for The Ojai newspaper recorded Libbey’s speech, an earnest paean to the power of art:
“Art is but visualized idealism, and is expressed in all surroundings and conditions of society,” he told the crowd. “From the earliest age to the present time, art has been to the races of men one of the greatest incentives toward progress, refinement and the aesthetic missionary to the peoples of the world.”
Did the townspeople take Libbey seriously, with all his high-falutin’ rhetoric about Greece and Rome and beauty and virtue? Relatively few people in the crowd knew him well. He was only a part-time resident, after all. But clearly he was sincere, and most of his listeners were grateful that he had taken Ojai under his wing. Heads nodded in agreement as he launched into his peroration:
“Thus we are today celebrating, in the expression of this little example of Spanish architecture in Ojai Park, a culmination of an idea and the response to that spark of idealism which demands from us a resolution to cultivate, encourage and promote those things which go to make the beautiful in life, and bring to all happiness and pleasure.”
The crowd gave Libbey a huge ovation. And then the party began.
“Last Saturday a new epoch in the social and industrial life of the rejuvenated and resuscitated ancient Nordhoff, under a new title and new conditions, was ushered in and welcomed with joyous acclaim and much felicitation,” The Ojai reported in its next issue. “It was the most memorable day in the history of the Valley. New life, new ambitions and greater accomplishments will date from April 7, 1917.”
THE LIBBEY LEGACY
Ojai Day was not celebrated in 1918, due to America’s participation in World War I. But it returned in 1919 and became an annual event, as Libbey’s influence provided the town with more new buildings to celebrate: The St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel (now the Ojai Valley Museum) in 1918, the El Roblar Hotel (now the Oaks at Ojai) in 1920, the Ojai Valley School in 1923, the original Ojai Valley Inn clubhouse in 1924. Then Libbey died in 1925. The town continued to celebrate Ojai Day until at least 1928, but at some point after that, the tradition was abandoned.
The buildings, of course, remained. But as the decades passed, some of them fell into disrepair. The original Pergola was demolished in 1971, the same year Civic Park was renamed Libbey Park. “And we almost lost the Arcade in 1989,” Walker said.
Walker is a retired Nordhoff High School history teacher and an expert on the valley’s architectural history. (He inherited some of that expertise from his late father, the noted architect and longtime Ojai resident Rodney Walker.) He was a member of the citizens group that saved the Arcade, by raising funds to refurbish it and bring it up to code. In the wake of that effort, Walker led a move to bring back Ojai Day. The event was revived in 1991, and now is celebrated each year on the third Saturday of October.
Walker also was among the people who brought back the Pergola in 1999. As a member of the Ojai Valley Museum board, he continues to lend his expertise to the museum’s projects. It was while researching a talk about Ojai architecture that Walker learned that Libbey had been an exhibitor at the World’s Columbian Exposition, where he would have been exposed to both the Mission Revival style and the City Beautiful Movement. Walker already was familiar with Libbey’s Ojai Day speech from 1917, but now he viewed those words in a new light.
“The words just echoed the real heart of what the City Beautiful Movement was all about,” Walker said. “On that day in 1917, the architectural and social ideals of the World’s Columbian Exposition were expressed in a beautiful new civic center that was created by a man who owed his own success in large part to that same Chicago exposition.”
Did Libbey achieve his dream for Ojai? Certainly his influence on the look of the town has been enormous. Walker points to all the beautiful Mission- or Spanish-style buildings that other people erected in the valley after Libbey worked his magic downtown. These include the Krotona Institute of Theosophy, Villanova Preparatory School, the Ojai Presbyterian Church, the Ojai Unified School District headquarters (formerly Ojai Elementary), the Chaparral Auditorium, and many, many others.
But an Ojai building need not be Mission style or Spanish style to reflect Libbey’s legacy; it need only be beautiful. Nor is his influence limited to architecture. Today the town is known as a mecca for artists, and Libbey, in a sense, was their prophet. He called for the community to pay more attention “to things aesthetic,” and his call has been heeded.
“It all goes to show, first of all, that one man can make a difference,” Walker said. “Libbey’s ideas must have infected the people of Ojai.”
In one way, Libbey outdid Daniel Burnham. The glorious White City burned down in 1894; only one of its buildings remains standing in Jackson Park. But Libbey’s buildings still stand along Ojai Avenue, and still perform their intended function. Burnham’s lost masterpiece was a blueprint for future cities that were never built, except, perhaps, by L. Frank Baum and Walt Disney. But the Emerald City is imaginary, and Disneyland is a theme park. Ojai is a real town, where people live. If today Ojai prides itself on its beauty and on its highly developed sense of civic virtue, then much of the credit must go to Edward Drummond Libbey, who set out to build a better town, and succeeded.
“I think it helped people realize that they live in someplace special,” Walker said. “This was Libbey’s stated intention “to inspire people to these higher ideals of civic involvement. One could say that his intention has been borne out.”
(Originally published in the Ojai Quarterly’s Fall 2012 issue. Republished with permission.)
“A greater Ojai shall arise sphinx-like from the ashes of homes and public buildings laid waste for the fire demon.” — The Ojai, June 29, 1917
The Foothills Hotel was to be no exception to the above quote. It would, indeed, rise again even more splendidly.
The Foothills Hotel was one of a number of hotels being built to accommodate the tourist business that was booming in the state of California, primarily in the southern half. The area had great potential as a place where people could go to escape the harsh eastern winters.
The Raymond Hotel in Pasadena (1886), Hotel del Coronado in San Diego (1887), Potter Hotel in Santa Barbara (1902) and the Foothills Hotel in Ojai (1903) were the legendary grand dames of the area. They were quickly becoming the talk of the western world.
Much of the grand hotels’ popularity was traced directly to the writings of Charles Nordhoff, a famous eastern author who had written glowing accounts of Southern California.
The population of the entire state of California in 1870 was 560,000, but by 1900 it had increased to 1,485,000; and during the same period, more than three million copies of Nordhoff’s books on California had been sold.
The Foothills Hotel had charm and elegance and was so in demand that potential guests would have to write in advance, send current financial statements and wait to be notified if reservations would be coming their way or not. Many waited, but few were chosen.
The hotel built cottages on the grounds for even more guests, and during its prosperous years that would still not accommodate the many requests for reservations.
Built entirely of wood in a fire-danger area, the two-and-a-half story hotel made an impressive sight. High enough on the ridge to have a commanding view, across the manicured acres of the golf course, of the valley below, and with the majestic mountains as a backdrop, it was a place where travelers could gather to relax, play golf, or even ponder an investment in the young community.
The summer of 1917 was really not much different from most Ojai summers. It was hot, and the fire season had once again arrived, a time that most valley residents dread even to this day. And as luck would have it, a fire broke out in Matilija Canyon, because of carelessness by a camper, and quickly swept the hills and headed to the valley.
Many believed that Ojai was doomed, and the flight to safety began early in the evening. Of the 60 or more structures lost, the Foothills Hotel was one of them.
The fire was so consuming and the high winds were blowing so relentlessly that during the day feather mattresses were flying out of the windows of the hotel and helping the spread the fire to the valley below.
That fire, like so many before and since, ended with thoughts of the people being, “We must unite and begin to rebuild.”
E.D. Libbey, Ojai’s greatest benefactor, sent a telegram conveying his sympathy for the loss and said, “From such devastation and ruin will spring renewed energy and courage.”
Within days, the architects Mead and Requa, who had earlier designed the arcade and post office tower, were preparing plans for an even greater Foothills Hotel. The town newspaper proclaimed that there would be â€œno unnecessary delay in the building and furnishing of the handsome hostelry to be.
Built on the same foundation, the new hotel was a two-story, white stucco building, a model of completeness and easily surpassed anything of its size on the coast in modern appointments and equipment. A large and commodious lobby with a huge fireplace occupied the center of the lower floor of the main building. Large, easy armchairs, sofas and settees were invitingly arranged around the room.
To the left of the fireplace was the manager’s office, so situated that a clear observation could be had of all parts of the lower floor. To the back of this was a very cozy private breakfast or luncheon room, where special and private dinners could be served.
To the east of the lobby was the ladies parlor—large, roomy and comfortable, with a magnificent view of the valley below. Adjoining this was a parlor for maids and attendants across the hall, leading in from the east entrance, were the lavatories.
In the west wing of the lower floor was the large and spacious dining room, partitioned from the lobby with a glass panel arrangement, which could be folded back, converting these two rooms into a large ballroom.
To the north of the dining room was the kitchen, with its large range, modern steam dish-washing machine, and, with all the other modern appliances, it was one of the finest kitchens on the coast. Adjoining the main kitchen was the bakery and pastry kitchen.
To the east of the kitchen was a very inviting dining room for the help, maids and chauffeurs. The upper floor was given over entirely to 18 guest apartments with their individual baths.
Four cottages were located near the hotel that consisted of two and three bedrooms and baths, living rooms and sleeping porches. Just in front of the hotel were the tennis courts and golf course.
It was open only during the winter months, and because of the remoteness and lack of some services, many visitors simply wanted to make the hotel a temporary destination for resting from the rigors of life in the big cities, and for escaping from colder climates.
Much of Ojai’s social life centered around the hotel. Many delightful nights of entertainment were held and were open to the public in the spacious lobby. The most prominent was the first Frost-Coolidge Music Festival, which started in 1926. Many consider the event to be the inspiration for the present Ojai Music Festival.
The festival was announced to the valley through the local newspaper, The Ojai, in August of 1925 and was held in April of 1926. It was front-page news. “One of the greatest musical events that has ever taken place in America came to a close on Sunday evening with the final concert of the Ojai Musical Festival.”
It surpassed all expectations, great as they were; and the five concerts stood out as unquestionably the most wonderful thing that had ever happened in Ojai.
The Ojai newspaper continued to rave, “To have entertained at one time a group of world-famous musicians, any one of whom is able to command the attention of the music world, wherever he or she may be, to have heard during a period of three days three such famous aggregations as the London String Quartet, the San Francisco Quartet and the Little Symphony of New York under Georges Barrere, are experiences almost unknown in musical history.”
The lobby of the Foothills Hotel provided an auditorium so perfect that both audiences and artists confessed surprise.Â From the rearmost seat inside and the furthermost seat outdoors, every note was clear and distinct.
More than 500 people attended each concert, the greater number from the Ojai Valley itself, and about one-third coming from outside the valley.
One of the striking things about the festival was the arrangement of the programs. Only experts, such as Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and Mr. Franklin Jefferson Frost, could have planned five such complete and self-contained concerts.
Each was a gem; each brought out a special phase of music; each gave scope for a particular branch of instrumentality; and each gave the audience an opportunity to hear a different artist or group of artists. It was felt that the Ojai Music Festival would become a yearly event.
The hotel would continue to attract high society until the Depression of 1929, when the hotel’s popularity began to decline. It would continue to operate, but the years had taken their toll; and the Foothills Hotel was no longer the well-polished resort it had once been. The visits of eastern and Hollywood elite had all but ceased. Countless tales exist, some true, some legendary, and some nearly forgotten—of the notables who experienced the Foothills Hotel.
By 1942, the hotel was sold to the California Preparatory School, started in Pasadena as a military academy and then moved to Ojai. The hotel and cottages were remodeled for the use of the school, that would accommodate 100 students.
The property was sold again in 1955 for the establishment of Camp Ramah and enlarged to accommodate 200 students of the Jewish faith. Camp Ramah, needing more space, purchased El Rancho Rinconada and disposed of the beautiful Foothills Hotel.
The historic Foothills Hotel became but a memory in 1976 with the help of a demolition crew, and once more an Ojai treasure was gone.
By David Mason, Foothills hotel was a legendary grand dame of the area, Ojai Valley News, June 4, 1999
“The writer, at 3 o’clock Saturday afternoon, counted (including Fords) 157 automobiles – the greatest number of machines in the valley at one time, within the memory of man.”
—The Ojai (during Tennis Tournament week) April 21, 1916
The automobile would make front-page headlines in The Ojai newspaper as well as across the United States. Stories involving the automobile were constantly being reported as the latest news.
As early as 1904, the papers reported, “A number of automobiles have been plying between Ventura and Nordhoff (now Ojai) the past weeks. Thus far no casualty from frightened horses worth mentioning.” Also automobile trips made the news, “A party of automobilists ventured from Hotel Foothills to Wheeler’s Hot Springs. When they returned from their trip without being dashed over the Matilija grade (now Maricopa Highway), they experienced a pleasant sensation of relief, something similar to what we experience when we have passed the horse-scaring auto everywhere on the roads, in safety.”
Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. motored into the Ojai Valley from Carpinteria in 1910 and expressed themselves as “delighted with what they saw.” By 1910, North America had 80 automobile manufacturers, but cars weren’t being mass produced until Henry Ford introduced his new technique for commercial production in 1913.
In 1916: “E. D. Libbey Motors into Town…arrived here yesterday in one of the family Packards, driven by chauffeur Johns.” Mr. Libbey’s arrival in the valley was a highly anticipated event for Mr. Libbey had been the Ojai Valley’s greatest benefactor.
During Ojai Day 1917, front-page news was “The auto parade through Mr. Libbey’s park was a delight, hundreds of cars and five times as many people participating.”
The automobile also would bring another type of crime to the valley, such as the headlines: “Ford Car Stolen From Wheeler’s.” The article told how “early last Sunday morning, car thieves were busy and appropriated Webb Wilcox’s Ford car and up to this writing not the slightest trace of the present where-abouts of the car has been obtained by the sheriff’s office.”
And 1917 daily life news items: “…family horse ran away with Mrs. Holsten the only occupant of the rig. Facing the danger bravely, Mrs. Holsten kept a stiff rein and cool head, and succeeded in stopping the frightened steed. Mrs. Holsten was no more excited than if she had dropped a stitch in knitting. But Mr. Holsten has more faith in a motor car than a kicking mare and the following day brought home a dainty little Briscoe car, the horse was displaced and disgraced.”
Naturally, with more cars in the valley, the need for service facilities increased. Auto garages opened up, mostly with gas pumps to keep the machines running. The Ojai Garage was built on the southwest corner of Ojai Avenue and Fox Street, now Go-Fish restaurant, the first Ford dealership opened for business in the Ojai Garage in 1926, the Clark’s Auto Livery was on the northeast corner of Ojai Avenue and Signal Street , now the Ojai Village Pharmacy, the City Garage opened on the southwest corner of Ojai Avenue and South Montgomery Street, now the Ojai Cleaners, and the Hunt’s Auto Livery was at 110 No. Signal Street, now Gem Quests. The Ojai Valley was indeed ready for the “Motoring Era.”
In the early days there was of course, some friction between auto drivers and horsemen. Generally, the automobile people were quite understanding and would often pull to the side of the road and shut off the motor until the horse had passed.
One memorable incident involving a horse and automobile collision would become part of the valley’s history.
Howard Bald, a member of one of the valley’s pioneer families, bought a rather attractive colt for a very few dollars because of her questionable character. After several months of training and a little expense, she became quite a docile animal. Mr. Bald was known in the valley for having a special way with animals and was in the process of trying to sell this horse.
He found an interested buyer who offered him quite a substantial sum of money for the animal, but before the deal was closed, Mr. Bald was riding the animal up the grade road, now Dennison Grade, and an auto was coming down the grade. The auto crowded Mr. Bald and the horse into a bank and rammed the horse. As a result, the animal developed an everlasting fear of the chugging monsters and, of course, the pending sale was off.
Howard Bald decided to sue the driver of the automobile. The trial was held in the Nordhoff Court, which was in the back of the Ojai Realty building. Mr. Bald obtained the services of Earl Stanley Gardner, a prominent Ventura attorney. Gardner had not become famous for his “Perry Mason” novels at that time so he was quite happy to take on this “major suit.”
The trial that followed was one of the funniest events ever staged in the Nordhoff Court. Judge Wilson was on the bench but at times, he was practically on the floor from laughter.
The defense had gone to a great deal of expense and time, procuring evidence and witnesses to prove that the animal was a confirmed outlaw and that Mr. Bald was reputed to be the best rider in the country and that at one time even Mr. Bald was unable to ride this outlaw horse. Also, the defense claimed that Mr. Bald had paid only $37 for her. Many witnesses were called, and the trial lasted for hours.
In the end, the horse and rider won the suit: however the county newspaper gave Howard Bald quite a lecture in their editorial about his “hogging” the road.
Over the years, the automobile would continue to make front-page news. In 1920, state speed cops from the Automobile Club of California came to the valley on a regular basis to explain and to enforce traffic laws.
At the same time, elaborate brochures advertising that to reach the Ojai Valley from Los Angeles, there were choices of “three concrete highways.” Our whole world seemed to be centered around the automobile, which in earlier years had been thought of as only a fad.
Editor and Mrs. William Randolph Hearst formed a motoring party to the Ojai Valley in 1924 and drove around the valley, they were “delighted with its picturesquesness.” Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, widow of the nations greatest benefactor in public gifts, drove over to view the town of Ojai from Santa Barbara and enjoyed her day as a guest of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Libbey. The automobile was certainly bringing important visitors to the valley.
Street signs and Boulevard stop signs became a necessity by 1926. The original street signs were 5 1/2 inches high by 2 1/2 feet long, they had the name of the street in dark blue on an orange background and were placed on each corner of the town. The signs cost the city $40 per hundred and an additional $25 per hundred to have the names printed on them. The Boulevard stop signs were placed on poles at the corner of each street leading into Ojai Avenue. The usual custom of painting stop signs on the roads could not be used as the streets leading into the main street were not paved. A new law to provide penalties for violations of the new stop sign ordinance was enacted.
The stately oaks and sycamore trees that stood along the main street in front of the Arcade became victims of the automobile in 1926. The city decided to remove the trees, that Mr. Libbey had protected so dearly when building the arcade, because they were a menace to traffic and that the city would possibly be liable for damages to cars should they collide with them.
In 1927, notice was served on the California driving public that the new law setting the maximum speed limit on public highways at 40 miles an hour, was to be rigidly enforced. “Forty miles means 40 and not 45,” was the terse order given to traffic officers. There was to be no tolerance permitted. The speed limit had been 35 miles an hour for many years, but “thousands of motorists have for years technically violated the law by driving up to 40. It will now be possible for them to enjoy this extra five miles and still drive within the limit.” The state believed that this increase would give the drivers a greater respect for the law.
A service station and fruit stand, now Boccali’s, was constructed at the foot of the Santa Paula grade on Ojai Avenue in 1927. The station provided the services needed for the ranches in the east-end. It also had a large picnic area under the trees. The next year Reeves Road was built to give better access to the ranchers living in that part of the valley. Everything was changing to accommodate the automobile and its driver.
Along with the increase of automobiles came the billboards along the highways. The problem was so out of hand that by 1930 the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce had to step in, “Advertising billboards erected in large numbers along and adjacent to the highways unnecessarily mar the appearance of the countryside and detract from the pleasures of motoring.” They also felt that the billboards were a positive menace to the safety of operators and users of motor vehicles, by distracting the attention of drivers and contributing to the amounts of accidents.
During the World War II, speed limits were reduced and high penalties were given to the offenders, their names appeared in newspapers and they were turned over to the County Civilian Defense coordinator as traffic violators. Three violations and they were turned in to the war rationing board so they could “bear in mind that these persons had violated laws and hindered the rubber conservation program.” Should the violators have appeared before the rationing board for rations, their cases would receive little if any help because of their violations.
Today, the automobile is certainly a major part of our society. Without it, most of us would be lost. However, over the years, many of our historical buildings have been lost because of a need to create still one more parking lot.