Exiled To Mira Monte

The following article first appeared in the “Ojai Valley Guide” (VOLUME 37 NUMBER 2/SUMMER 2019) on pages 154 and 155. The “Ojai Valley Guide” was published by the “Ojai Valley News.” The article is reprinted here with their permission.

Exiled To Mira Monte
(LOOK BACK IN OJAI)

with
Drew Mashburn


My parents built their dream home in 1963 in Mira Monte on South Rice Road just at the crest of the steep hill. We moved into it that summer. I dug on having my own bedroom for the first time, but we were no longer in downtown Ojai where I had lived my entire life with all my neighborhood buddies. I had just turned 12 years old and was about to begin junior high school and would have to ride a school bus for the first time. I had always enjoyed the freedom of walking and riding my bicycle to school. Dang it! I had to figure out how to entertain myself now that I lived out in the sticks.

Long before any of the custom homes were built in this neighborhood, the area had been covered by really large commercial English walnut orchards. I mean acres and acres and acres of the trees with a big ol’ barn full of processing equipment. So, almost every home out there had English walnut trees. But, there were a lot of acres that had yet to have homes built on them. These undeveloped old orchards made for good fun. I hiked many miles through them. I got a bow with arrows and hunted in them. I got a mini-bike and rode many miles through them. They got even better when I made friends with a few neighborhood kids and we took them in together.

It must have rained fairly decently that year because Mirror Lake filled up. It was a natural pothole that ran sort of north to south next to the Southern Pacific Railroad bed and Highway 33. You’ll find it on old maps of the area. It was that spring or early summer I decided to build a raft. I hauled a bunch of wood, nails, and other raft materials down there and began construction. There was nobody there but me. As I was pounding away, I looked up and noticed two big guys pushing their bicycles on the path towards me. I was rather startled, hoped they were friendly but had a hammer to defend myself. They stopped and watched me for a bit. It was kinda like when dogs sniff each other out upon meeting for the first time. Finally, they asked me what I was doing. I told them. They dug the idea. Come to find out, these two soon-to-be fellow shipmates only lived about a block away from me. They were cousins that lived together with their grandparents, and their grandpa had just built a split-rail fence around the home into which they had very recently moved. Rick Askam and Doug Schmelz would become great friends of mine, especially after they offered up the leftover split-rail fencing of their grandpa’s for our use in raft building.

The three of us spent hours upon hours, poling (pushing the rafts with a long pole extended to the bottom of the pond) around Mirror Lake. Sometimes, the train would stop. It was usually just the engine with a couple of cars and sometimes a caboose. The engineer and his assistant would stand on one of the flatcars, fold back the waxed paper in which their sandwiches were wrapped, then chat with us while they took their lunch break. Man, those were good times!

The railroad is now the Ojai Valley Trail. Mirror Lake got cut in half with the extension of Woodland Avenue from South Rice Road to Highway 33. The larger portion of the lake got filled in and the Ojai Woodlands condominium complex and the Ojai Oaks Village mobile-home park were built on top of the fill.

But, let’s go back to one more story from back in the hood. Pretty much across the street from my parents’ home was the Ventura County Sheriff’s “Honor Farm.” That’s where Help of Ojai is located presently. But, when Doug, Rick, and I were young teenagers the farm for low-risk prisoners was in full operation and a barbed-wire fence ran alongside the farm property next to the road. From the fence down the hill to the agricultural fields in the farm, the hill was kept barren to make prisoner escapes about impossible. We figured out when the deputies were not looking toward that barren hillside, we’d clear that nasty barbed fence, then sprint down the hillside into the cornfield. We’d scatter amongst the tall corn stalks, then have hellacious corn fights.

We’d break off an ear and set it sailing towards one another. You could hear the ear crashing through the stalks as it torpedoed towards you. Let me tell you … when you get clobbered in the noggin by a heavy, green ear of corn, you’ve been clobbered! I got nailed several times. Explains a lot about me, I suppose.

I lived in that same Mira Monte home all the way through high school. I ended up loving the heck out of the neighborhood to which I had been exiled. I became friends, not only with Doug and Rick, but their entire family. All the neighborhood kids called their grandparents “Grandma” and “Grandpa.” Big Joe and Mary Silvestri lived next door to Grandma and Grandpa Schmelz. We played countless football games out front of their home. They treated all of us kids like we were their grandkids.

I could tell you about English walnut wars; running across Henderson Airfield as planes were about to take off; cows grazing where Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Circle K are located now; riding our skateboards and anything else with wheels down the steep South Rice Road hill; playing baseball at Grandma and Grandpa Schmelz’s and knocking the balls over the fence into grumpy Mr. Johnson’s yard (Grandma gave him a piece of her mind a few times); asking my first girlfriend to got steady with me while walking down Woodland Avenue; playing and exploring the Ventura River bed; chasing pigs at the Honor Farm; riding my 1961 Yamaha 80 motorcycle at “Devil’s Gulch”; placing pennies, nickels, and nails on the railroad rails to flatten them; watching Russell Glenn’s 4H Club sheep while he was on vacation and walking it on a leash; rototilling for countless hours at Mr. Peacock’s to make a few bucks, but feeling like I was still shaking for about two days after I was done. I think you get the idea.

Mirror Lake seems so long ago. Yet, in some ways, it was only yesterday. The smell of the warm still water permeating the air, the sound of the rustling cattails as the warm summer breeze gently blew through them, the melodic call of the red-winged blackbirds, the constant clicking of the American coots, the occasional croak of a big ol’ bullfrog, ducks rapidly rising from the water while quacking their hearts away, the train rumbling along the tracks and its occasional whistle blasting — it all lingers sweetly on my mind. I was never really exiled.

Reminiscences of Early Ojai (No. 6)

The following article was written by Howard Bald and appeared in the March 14, 1973 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission. The photo was added by the Ojai Valley Museum. Bald titled his many articles with the same title. So, this article has “(No. 6)” added by the Ojai Valley Museum.

Reminiscences of Early Ojai (No. 6)
by
Howard Bald

Clark, Thompson and Bracken were the Upper Ojai winery people. All were Irish immigrants. Nick Walnut was an Italian immigrant who cleared the land and planted his vineyard near what is now east Reeves road. Nick dug his own grave in his dooryard and was buried there at about the turn of the century. Now I am amused at rumors that a fortune was buried with him. He had left a family in the old country, but he willed the property to Will Thompson, then a boy of about ten years.

The wine mostly was hauled to the depot, either to Santa Paula or Nordhoff, in fifty gallon barrels with team and wagon and shipped to Los Angeles.

The last of the product was shipped to L.A. as vinegar and brought 15 cents a gallon. People used to quip that it was so strong it would burn a hole in the table cloth if a drop fell on it. We had linen table cloths in those days.

I mentioned the Italians who came to the winery to purchase wine. They mostly were wood choppers from off of Sulphur Mountain, for at that time cutting and shipping firewood to Los Angeles and Santa Barbara was quite an industry, and several fortunes, to my knowledge, were made. One of them was Huero Obioles, an old Spanish family. There are still descendants in Ventura county.

For a short period about that time Tom Clark and John Hobson, uncle of Mr. Fred Smith, had a wood camp where Perls Nursery stood and Clapp’s now is. Their operation extended from Villanova school to beyond the present Gourmet restaurant and over through Mira Monte to Rice road. [The Gourmet restaurant was located at 11432 Ventura. Boarded up now, it’s located between McDonald’s and Subway.] Fortunately, Meiners Oaks was never touched and neither was the arbolada, though Austin Pierpont recently told me that certain interests were negotiating for the wood rights to the Arbolada. He said that J.J. Burke, uncle of Bill Burke, learned of it and persuaded Foster and Hubby to buy the property. They were among builders of the Foothills hotel. They later sold it to Mr. Libbey. I believe they donated the land for Nordhoff high school that was built in 1911.

This piece of property was where "Perl's Nursery", then "Clapp's Nursery" used to be located many years ago. The property is located on the east side of Highway 33 in the commercial area of Mira Monte.
This piece of property was where “Perl’s Nursery”, then “Clapp’s Nursery” used to be located many years ago. The property is located on the east side of Highway 33 in the commercial area of Mira Monte.

Practically all of the oaks in the area from Villanova to the Gourmet restaurant is second growth, as well as all of the north side of Sulphur mountain.

The heavy wagons that transported wood from Sulphur mountain to Nordhoff for shipment to L.A. and the loads of grain played havoc with the grade from the upper to the lower valleys. It was a shorter and steeper grade than the present Dennison grade.

As a great deal of braking was necessary, the brake shoe quickly wore thin and became ineffective. So the teamsters would run one rear wagon wheel onto an iron shoe that was attached to the bed of the wagon. The wheel was rendered immobile as the shoe slid on the rocky dirt road. It, of course, was a very effective brake, but it gouged a deep rut in the dirt road, and the dust was almost intolerable.

In addition to that, the heat generated by the friction could cause sparks to start a fire should one land in the dry grass. Naturally those teamsters were not popular with the ordinary horse and buggy people.

I have in recent years hunted unsuccessfully through the scrap heaps of Upper Ojai farms in quest of one of those “brake shoes.” It would make a real addition to our historical museum. I doubt that there are many today who have ever seen one. The last one that I saw was at the Knott’s Berry Farm Historical Museum.