This article first appeared in the January 7, 1970 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission. The photo of the elderly Judge McKee was run with the article when it appeared in the 01/07/1970 edition of the Ojai Valley News.
Judge held court under an oak tree
It was in the eventful year of 1887 that James McKee, Civil War veteran, one-time school teacher, and Indiana judge, came to the Ojai Valley, expecting to regain his health in idyllic rural surroundings. The solid citizens of the community elected the frail, scholary man to be their Justice of the peace, a post which he continued to hold until his death in 1904.
It was no easy task to be a judge in pioneer days in the Ojai, when everyone knew everybody else.
One particularly knotty problem arose in the nineties when 13 exuberant men and a few boys got into trouble with the law by carrying out the old pioneer custom of surprising a newly-wed couple in the middle of the night with a “shivaree.” This consisted of surrounding the home and shooting blasts from a shotgun in the air, accompanied by unearthly yells and other noise-making. This traditional expression of good will was not appreciated by the newlyweds. In fact, they swore out complaints against all the thirteen, charging them with disturbing the peace and illegal entry.
It ended well
One by one each of the 13 went to Judge McKee and pled “Not Guilty.” It is said that one of the first to arrive was Bob Clark who later became a U. S. Marshal. John Thompson, at boy at the time, and one of the indicated, recalled being taken to Judge McKee by his father and waiting outside the Judge’s home in fear and trembling, while his father and Judge McKee had a long and friendly talk.
A Ventura lawyer, Judge Shepard, was engaged to defend all the accused. In the meantime, a large group of women in the valley planned a big dinner and social evening in anticipation of the celebration of the acquittal of all. But when the district attorney examined the evidence and circumstances, and refused to prosecute, the ladies cancelled their plans. It all ended happily for the defendants, each paying $1.75 apiece as his portion of the lawyer’s fees.
According to all who remember him, Judge McKee was a very devout and kindly man, always ready to help those who went to him for advice or for assistance in drawing up legal documents. The story is that he once risked his life to ride horseback through the swollen river to Matilija to draw up a will for a dying man.
Most of the time Judge McKee tried cases in his own home, but on warm summer days, he sometimes moved his court into his yard under a big oak tree.
Judge McKee’s daughter, Mrs. Emily Courtney, now lives in Ventura. His granddaughter, Mrs. Catherine Craig, formerly postmaster of Ojai, lives in the Ojai Valley.
This article first appeared in the Ojai Valley News, but the date of the edition of the paper in which it appeared is unknown. It was written by Ed Wenig. Wenig wrote for the newspaper in the late 1960’s into the 1970’s.
The “iron horse” came to the valley in ’98
Two “iron horses” pulled four carloads of exscursionists into Nordhoff, as the band blared a welcome on a balmy spring morning of March 12, 1898. Ojai Valley residents, who had driven from far and near, in wagon, buggy and surrey, looked on with pride as official guests from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and neighboring Ventura County towns arrived on the first train ever to enter the Ojai Valley. Here indeed was concrete evidence of “progress” in its most up-to-date form.
The most important visitors were driven to the homes of prominent residents of the valley for luncheon, after which they were taken for brief scenic drives through the valley. But most of the passengers were loaded into surreys and wagons and taken to a picnic under the oaks in what is now the Civic Park [Libbey Park]. Then, the speeches began. Among them, one by W. C. Patterson, president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, expressed thanks to the people of the Ojai Valley for having given “the outside world a chance to see and admire the beauty of the magnificent amphitheater of mountains which enclose this ideal spot.”
In the Midwinter Edition of the Los Angeles Times appeared this comment: “This railway will open tourists to one of the most charming valleys in the state . . . With the advent of the railway, Nordhoff will possess all the requirements of a pleasure and health resort.” Imagine the pride of the residents of the valley when they read in the Ventura County Directory, “The valley has been settled by a superior class of people, intelligent, refined, and very enterprising. Many of them have abundent means and have been men of standing and influence in other communities.”
There were four passenger pickup stations on the railroad between Ventura and Nordhoff. Starting from Ventura they were Weldon, Las Cross, Tico, Grant, and finally the Nordhoff Station. In the first few weeks after the opening there were two trains daily, after which a schedule of one train per day was established. In response to repeated requests from J. J. Burke, the Southern Pacific re-established a schedule of two daily trains for the winter months only. Trains left Nordhoff at 7:20 a.m. and 4 p.m. for Ventura. Returning trains arrived in Nordhoff at 1 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. Passengers bound for Matilija Hot Springs disembarked at Grant Station located approximately at the present lumber yard at the “Y” [Rotary Park now]. From there they went by stagecoach, and, in later years, by Stanley Steamer to Matilija.
It took 10 years
The arrival of the first train was the culmination of ten years of hopes and planning. In 1891, under the headline “Railroad Coming” a writer for THE OJAI observed, “Soon the invalid or tourist can recline in his upholstered seat within the observation car and be whirled over hill and vale to his destination, instead of a tedious ride in a stagecoach.” At first a Ventura company had been formed to build a narrow gauge railroad. But Captain John Cross proposed to build a standard gauge road, and with the enthusiastic cooperation of the businessmen of the Ojai Valley was successful in bringing the dream to reality.
When automobiles came into more general use the importance of the railway passenger service declined, and in later days the line was used entirely for shipments of freight.
Since the flood of 1969, which washed out portions of the road bed, the railroad has been abandoned. [Today it is the Ojai Valley Trail.]
The following article was run in the January 28, 1970 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission. Photo of George W. Mallory courtesy of the Ojai Valley News. Photo of Mallory – Dennison Store added by the Ojai Valley Museum.
Controversy in 1893 over postmaster
As a rule, local politics in a village the size of Ojai are of interest to its residents only. But the year of 1893 proved to be the exception to the rule. In that year an election was held in the Ojai Valley which received national attention.
It came as the result of the election of Grover Cleveland, Democrat, to replace President Benjamin Harrison, Republican, in the White House. According to time-honored custom, this signified a nation-wide shifting of all local postmasterships from the incumbent Republicans to “deserving Democrats.” In Nordhoff it meant that B. F. Spencer, Republican postmaster, would normally expect to relinquish his position to a Democrat nominated by the local Democratic Committee.
But the attitude toward the “Spoils System” was undergoing a change throughout the nation, and, in tune with the times, some citizens of Nordhoff, including several Democrats, decided that this procedure was not in the best interest of the Ojai Valley. They resolved to take positive action to remedy the situation. Accordingly, the Ojai Club, which was made up of prominent citizens of the valley and which was very influential in the affairs of the community, received the following petition:
“TO THE OJAI CLUB: We, the undersigned residents of the Ojai Valley, believing in and desiring to initiate the principle of election of postmasters by the people, request of the Ojai Club—a non-partisan association—to take the proper steps for the holding of a PUBLIC ELECTION IN NORDHOFF; the returns of which would indicate the choice of its people for postmaster…”
James Braken, Democrat
Joseph Hobart, Republican
H. J. Dennison, Populist
W. L. Hall, Republican
John Murray, Jr., Democrat
J. R. Bennett, Independent
K. P. Grant, Republican
After due consideration the Ojai Club complied with the request and arranged for two election boards. One was instructed to handle the ballots for all the men over 18 years of age who were served by the local postoffice. Another was instructed to tally the women’s vote — this in spite of the fact that woman suffrage had not yet been granted. There were no public nominations, each voter merely writing the name of his choice on the ballot. Thus many received only one vote. However, the men generally voted for the incumbent, B. G. Spencer, and the women split their vote between Spencer and G. W. Mallory, the choice of the Democratic Committee.
This novel election aroused widespread interest in the communities throughout the nation. The MORNING BULLETIN of Norwich, Connecticut gave a detailed account of the election in an article entitled, “A NORDHOFFIAN METHOD.” Its concluding sentence was, “It has not been announced yet whether Headman Maxwell, within whose jurisdiction the Nordhoff post office is, favored the people or the machine.”
In this case, the “machine” turned out to be the winner, and Mallory, the choice of the Democratic Committee, was duly appointed postmaster. After the election, but before Mallory’s appointment, the local editor commented, “The irregular election last Saturday to ascertain the choice of the people of Ojai for postmaster of Nordhoff was deemed a success by those most interested. It is not, and was not expected that the result of the election will have any immediate influence in Washington. It is designed as a reform measure, to secure a postmaster desired by the people who support the business, and should have a voice in the management of their own affairs. As G. W. Mallory is the choice of the Democratic Committee, he will probably receive the appointment, and he will be generally acceptable to the people.”
Mr. Mallory served as postmaster throughout the four years of the Cleveland administration, and in accordance with custom, was replaced by a Republican postmaster upon the election of the Republican William McKinley to the Presidency. Mallory regained his position in 1914 when the Democrats returned to power with the election of Woodrow Wilson. Thus he served the citizens of Nordhoff well as postmaster for a total of twelve years.
Mallory had come to the valley in 1886, establishing himself in a men’s furnishings store. He immediately began to devote much of his time and talent to the benefit of the community. During his 53 years in the valley he served the Presbyterian Church as elder and superintendent of the Sunday School; the Masonic Lodge as treasurer for nine years; the City Council, both as member and mayor; the Jack Boyd Club as director; and the elementary school district as clerk. His business activities included acting as director of the local bank and of the Ojai Power Company. After his retirement he became deputy assessor for Ventura County.
Mr. Mallory’s widow lives in Ojai, and his son, Bill Mallory, is a businessman in Ojai.
This article first appeared in the Ojai Valley News on February 19, 1999. It is used here with their permission.
Evelyn Nordhoff is Returned
“The People of The Ojai can best show their appreciation of the generosity of the donors by keeping the fountain free from defacements, and by gradually developing around it village improvements of other kinds.” –The Ojai, Saturday, October 15, 1904
The journey to the town of Nordhoff, now Ojai, was long and tiring.
The dusty road was hardly passable in many places and the fact that the buggies had to ford rivers at least a dozen times didn’t help. The wild berries hanging down from the low tree limbs seemed to cover the trail.
There was a sign of relief when the buggies made it to the small camping area, now Camp Comfort, to take a rest. The stream was always running with cool water and the towering trees provided a shady nook.
When travelers finally reached the small western town of Nordhoff, the first stop was the conveniently placed watering trough and drinking fountain in the center of town.
The fountain was a beautiful addition to the small community which had earlier lacked any architectural charm – it’s design would eventually become known as “Mission Revival” and it was one of the earliest examples.
The Ventura Free Press called it “one of the finest fountains in the state,” and described it in detail.
“On the side facing the middle of main street, we see the drinking place for horses, consisting of a stone trough about twelve feet long, two feet deep and two feet wide, always full of running water supplied from a pipe running out of the lion’s mouth.
“A division, the centerpiece of the fountain, runs lengthwise directly back of the horse trough, and is made prettier by having the stone cut into mouldings at either end. This piece is about fourteen feet long and fully eight feet high in the middle, and is rounding at the top. At each end of this, only a few inches above the ground, the poor thirsty dogs find drinking places.
“The drinking place for humanity is found on the side next to the Ojai Inn, and consists of a large bowl hollowed out of a piece of stone, into which runs a tiny stream of water from a small lion’s mouth.
“The donor has not forgotten the tired traveler, but has built a broad resting place for him on a big slab of stone. The Ojai newspaper refers to as ‘an ornament we should be proud of.'”
The fountain, built in memory of Evelyn Hunter Nordhoff in 1904, was indeed an improvement to the downtown block. The community of Nordhoff, the principal settlement in the Ojai Valley, had been established in 1874 and was still in its early stages of development. Evelyn Nordhoff was the daughter of Charles Nordhoff, the well-known author for whom the town was named.
Evelyn Nordhoff’s early life was spent at the family home on the New Jersey palisades, in an area which would eventually become known as “Millionaire’s Row.”
As a young woman, Evelyn enrolled at Smith College, located in west-central Massachusetts and founded in 1871 for the education of women. Her schooling was cut short after one year, with the reason given that “she was needed at home.”
Evelyn learned to etch copper and gained notice by producing decorative, printed calendars. She also created artistically-worked leather pieces.
According to researcher Richard Hoye, “An opportunity opened for Evelyn to visit England when her brother Walter was posted there as a newspaper correspondent.”
In 1888, the first Arts and Crafts exhibition was staged in London, and a co-founder of the exhibition society, Thomas Cobden-Sanderson, presented four lectures on bookbinding. Evelyn’s attendance at these lectures piqued her interest in that line of work.
When she eventually returned to America, the Nordhoff family made a touring visit to California. The Ventura County newspaper reported that the Nordhoffs passed through the seaside town and went directly to the Ojai Valley.
Returning to New York City, Evelyn obtained work with a bindery to pursue her interest in the art of bookbinding. There she learned to sew pages and to mend old books. This was the first level of the craft. Evelyn would learn the business from many teachers before she became proficient in the skill of bookbinding.
Evelyn opened her own workroom in Greenwich Village across from the New York University. Her artistry in the work of bookbinding began to gain attention for the young Evelyn as a woman and an artist. She possessed the Nordhoff sense of independence, and the initiative in pursing against the odds.
Training in a craft from which women had previously been excluded reflects a high degree of personal determination and she was a good example of a confident and talented woman, the first woman in the United States to take up the vocation of artistic bookbinding.
Evelyn Nordhoff spent her summer months in California with her parents, who, by this time, made their home in Coronado. In late summer of 1889, when Evelyn would again have departed from Coronado after a summer’s visit, her parents did not realize that this would be their last parting with their daughter, for in November they received word she had died.
She had suffered an attack of appendicitis, was operated on, and failed to recover.
The Nordhoff fountain was given to the community of Nordhoff by sisters Olivia and Caroline Stokes in Evelyn’s memory. The Stokes sisters had inherited wealth from banking, real estate and other interests in the New York City area. They were lifetime companions, never married, especially devout and well-known philanthropists. Their gifts were numerous and worldwide.
The Stokes sisters visited the Ojai Valley in 1903, staying at the Hughes home on Thacher Road, and were probably influenced by Sherman Thacher, founder of a nearby boys’ school, to build the fountain as a lasting memorial to this talented young lady.
Richard Hoye suggests that, “There may also have been a temperance motive. The banning of liquor was strongly supported in the community and by the Stokes sisters. A drinking fountain closely located to a horse trough would remove an excuse that stage drivers and their passengers might have had to resort to alcohol to slacken their thirst after a dusty trip from Ventura to the mountain town.”
In 1917, when Edward D. Libbey, Ojai’s greatest benefactor, began his transformation of the small town, he had the fountain moved back four feet to widen the roadway.
Libbey removed the Ojai Inn and built a beautiful, wisteria-covered, arched and walled pergola. With the fountain as the center focal point, an attractive entrance was created into the Civic Center Park, now Libbey Park.
In the 1960s, the whole structure began to shown signs of age and suffered major damage from vandalism. In the turmoil of this period, the entrance arch was damaged by explosives and by 1971 the pergola and fountain were removed.
The bronze plaque on the fountain that was inscribed, “In memory of Evelyn Hunter Nordhoff, this fountain is given to the people of Nordhoff, 1904” was returned to members of the Nordhoff family.
With the restoration of this landmark – the pergola and the Nordhoff fountain – the bronze plaque has been returned to the people of the Ojai Valley. The plaque will once again be placed on this beautiful fountain which will be rebuilt in memory of Evelyn’s aspirations and accomplishments – a spirit which has prevailed in the history of the Ojai Valley, in its schools and its artistic culture.
The following article was written by Howard Bald and appeared in the April 25, 1973 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission. Photos have been added by the Ojai Valley Museum. Bald used the same title for his many articles. So the Ojai Valley Museum has added “(No. 3)” to this one.
Reminiscences of Early Ojai (No. 3)
Presumably El Toro Road in the Arbolada got its name from the slaughter house that once existed in that vicinity just off Foothills Road. When people began to build along Foothills Road, the offensive slaughter house was moved to Del Norte Road across from the cemetery. All meat for the valley was dressed at the slaughter house.
Three times a week the meat wagon, a covered wagon drawn by two horses, made the round of the east end of the valley, stopping at all the homes and ranches in that vicinity. Among them were W.C. Hendrickson, Fred Udhall, Pierpont Cottages, Dr. Hollingsworth, the Lords (parents of Denham Lord), A.L. Dodge, Thacher School, the McAndrews, E.S. Thacher and the Jim Chapmans.
On the alternate day the wagon went to the Upper Ojai, and among those served were the Dennisons, Clarks, Hobarts, Thompsons, Robinsons, MacGuires, Grays, Burnells, Pinkertons and Brackens. There were doubtless others.
Annie Pinkerton always had a nice piece of pie for the meat man. Houk had a very good butcher, but he couldn’t resist Jimmie Braken’s wine at the upper end of his route. Fred Houk tells me that his father used to send him along to drive the team home when he had imbibed too heavily.
What I remember in particular was the butcher letting the wagon tail gate down (it served as a cutting and packaging block) and in the summer the flies swarming in. When the customer was served, the butcher with his flour sack apron would swish the flies away, then hurriedly close the end gate.
All that I remember about the price of meat was that 15 cents worth of round steak was sufficient for a family of four, with a tidbit for the family dog.
As well as I can remember, there was no regular dairy with milk delivery until about 1915-18. But a great many people had a family cow, sometimes two or three, and they would sell to neighbors a quart or so now and then. When there was a surplus of milk, some would make butter and exchange it for groceries. Since the churning and working of the butter was by hand, that is, separating the milk from the butter and molding it, and there was no refrigeration, the product very quickly became rancid. And of course, the milk would sour very readily. Among those that I delivered to were the Pratts, Libbeys and Robertsons.
Certain townspeople were essentially the same as of today. Now as I drive over those confusing roads, my wife wonders how I know where I am going. I reply that considering the dark nights I combed the park for a stray cow, I should know my way about.
And what I remember about sanitation, or lack of sanitation, in the production and handling of milk and butter would fill quite a volume. I am sure much of the same would apply to meat. I was familiar with that business for several years before the Houks came to Nordhoff and installed refrigeration.
The grocer did not dispense eggs in nice, clean cartons as we know them. Generally, the eggs were a week or more in accumulating. And generally they were fertile. There was no candling, so not infrequently an egg on being opened would reveal an embryo — not very appetizing.
One of the town rowdies could crow like a rooster, and in the middle of the night would get the many, many neighborhood roosters started to crowing, thus setting off a general chorus. Naturally he was not popular with the neighbors.
This story came from W. W. Bristol’s book, “THE STORY OF THE OJAI VALLEY” which was published in 1946. It is assumed Bristol is the author of the story.
BY W. W. Bristol
Among the early settlers in the valley were many singular characters. Of these John Montgomery wrote very entertainingly.
There was a case in early days of a German nobleman stranded on the Lichtenberg ranch four miles from Nordhoff, who in desperation attempted to hatch eggs in the heat of the sun or by artificial heat long before incubators were invented.
To the same ranch came in 1874 two families who appeared as much out of place as the German baron, and so were objects of curiosity and criticism to the sparse country population. They were fresh from New York City and had pronounced city ways, and seemed wholly ignorant of everything pertaining to country life. As these people fill a place in history of the valley we will describe them. Col. Wiggins was a tall spare man of fifty years with a diminutive wife of twenty. His companion, Wiseman, was a stout hearty man of thirty with a refined, delicate, city wife and several children. He was the son of a rich druggist, and had lived, it was said, with both hands in the old man’s bags. After living sometime on the Lichtenberg ranch the two families separated, Wiggins going to Nordhoff while Wiseman squatted with his little family in the wild brush east of the Bennett place. A more unsuitable place for such people could not be found, and they had a hard time in their little clearing surrounded by dense brush, the home of wild animals and rattlesnakes, and a bear trap sunk in the earth not far from their little shanty. And there Wiseman sweat and bungled and blistered, hauling water from a distance, running in debt and waiting for paternal drafts the never came—’til one day his pistol went off, accidentally, when his wagon turned over into a barranca and poor Wiseman’s squat was once more open to homestead entry. He was the pioneer of that lower section now covered by orange groves and for this he finds a place in this sketch.
Col. Wiggins had in the meantime settled in Nordhoff. He purchased from Surdam the Nordhoff townsite and from Blumberg the hotel. He passed for a millionaire and had for a partner a member of the Louisiana legislature, a cotton merchant of New Orleans. Col. Wiggins was a man of much dignity of character as suited the man of military antecedents and had his own ideas of running a hotel. He treated his guests as if they owed him an apology, and the offense could not be condoned by their silent submission to a heavy board bill, consequently he soon had the house all to himself. In 1878 he joined his friend Wiseman in the shadowy land, and his disconsolate little widow shared her sorrows with a second husband in San Francisco. Thus passed away another of the Valley’s pioneers, and eccentric, but honest man.
Shortly after Wiggins’ demise the writer as owner of the hotel, received a visit from a strange lady who made the startling proposition to open an academy for young ladies in the building. She was a veteran in the business and highly recommended, and the establishment was to be first class. In a few weeks glowing circulars were scattered over California announcing the grand opening and detailing the various branches and strict rules of decorum, guaranteed moral safety and payment in advance. Four professors from San Francisco, loaded with accomplishments and burning to impart their knowledge, took charge of their departments. The doors were thrown open and only the presence of the sweet lady graduate was necessary to make everybody happy; but, alas, she came not, and a financial stringency in the local market brought things to a crisis and howls of despair. The rupture of a solitary greenback and its distribution among the professors assuaged their ruffled tempers, and under the leadership of the Professor of Oriental Literature they departed to luxuriate in a deck passage to San Francisco.
It has been said that Wiseman was the pioneer of the lower orange district of the valley, but S. S. Buckman had settled previously on the present Thacher place. This Buckman was a Vermonter who came to the county in 1872, and through his good looks and qualities secured the position of County Superintendent of Schools. Rambling in the wilds he discovered water in the canyon and concluded it could be utilized on the open land below. This would cost a heavy outlay; but he had an immense capital of pluck and courage. By hook and crook he constructed his long and costly flume and attacked the dense brush forest, fighting for every foot of clearing and planting the first citrus trees in the valley. He taught school in Nordhoff, worked at home Saturdays and planted on Sundays. Never a word of encouragement did he get from his neighbors, he was a crank in their estimation—a young Vermonter with a hobby.
It was a strange sight to see him as black as a chimney sweeper from the burning brush, ragged and soiled from hard work, and then glance at his framed diploma hanging from the bare wall bearing in Latin from far off “Monte Verdis” a guaranty of his classical attainments, such incongruity is seldom seen outside of California.
His efforts were crowned with a splendid competence which he did not long enjoy, for the deadly bullet of an assassin laid him low at San Francisco—another tragic ending of a valley pioneer.
The following story is from Walter Bristol’s 1946 book, “THE STORY OF THE OJAI VALLEY.” It is assumed that Walter Bristol is the author.
In 1909 a Union High School District was formed. The first trustees were Sherman D. Thacher, Joseph Hobart, Dr. B. L. Saeger, F. H. Sheldon and F. P. Barrows. W. W. Bristol was engaged by Mr. Thacher at their meeting in Berkley to be the first principal. He was assisted the first year by Mabyn Chapman, a teacher of great versatility, and the second year by Ruth Forsyth, in the subjects of science and mathematics.
The first two years of the school was conducted in the upper story of the old wooden grammar school. Twenty-four pupils enrolled the first year.
In 1910 the principal told the trustees that a new building must be planned for as soon as possible since there was not room enough to carry on. Bonds were voted for $20,000. Since one member of the board, F. P. Barrows, did not agree with the majority as to the site for the new building, it became necessary under the law to call an election to decide on a site. A hot election ensued—one faction wanting it east of town, the other west of town. Fortunately, the western advocates won.
In the fall of 1911 the new building was ready and formally dedicated on November 1st. The first class to graduate was made up of Grace Hobson, Valeditorian, Carolyn Wilson, Salutatorian, Nina Freeman, Ethel Freeman, Edna Leslie, Abbie Cota and Levi Bray.
The first annual named “Topa Topa” appeared at the close of 1912-1913 session.
In 1916 the new manual training and Domestic Science buildings were completed and dedicated. In 1919 Principal Bristol resigned. The principals to date were W. D. Gayman, Albert L. Estus, R. M. Wilson, Jack Polski and in 1933 Rudolph H. Drewes.
The new high school was completed in 1929 during the administration of Jack Polski. A large gymnasium was completed in November, 1940.
Mr. Drewes has established a useful place in the community. He has been district head of the Boy Scouts, director of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce and is now Chairman of the Playground committee and President of the Board of Trustees of the Presbyterian Church.
The following story was taken from W. W. Bristol’s 1946 book titled, “The Story of THE OJAI VALLEY – An Intimate Account.” It was printed by The Ojai Publishing Co., Ojai, California. There’s a section in the book called, “THE SCHOOLS” under which this story was included.
by W. W. Bristol
One of the first institutions in any American community is the public school. The earliest public school in the Ojai Valley was opened in 1869 at the foot of the grade about where [Boccali’s] is now.
It was taught by H. J. Dennison—a rancher in the neighborhood. The school facetiously dubbed “The Sagebrush Academy.”
Along about 1875 the first school in the village began its career. It was located on what is now Matilija Street between Montgomery and Signal. To house the school a one-room brick building was constructed—the bricks being made at the south end of what is now the Civic Center.
It was at this school that Dr. David P. Barrows learned his A.B.C.’s—a man who became president of the University of California.
The brick school eventually became inadequate and in 1895 a contract was let to build a two-story frame building on Ojai Avenue. Clara H. Smith was the principal of this school from 1900 to 1902. C. L. Edgerton presided over the school from 1902 to 1912. Roscoe Ashcraft and W. A. Goodman were two principals who served the community before the coming of Mrs. Inez Tarr Sheldon in 1925.
The need for more room to accommodate the growing population became imperative. Consequently, in 1927 the old two-story frame building was moved to the back of the lot and a new school building was started with at first eight classrooms. In 1929 three more classrooms were added and in 1937 three more. In 1938 a large, handsome auditorium with cafeteria facilities was built.
Lloyd Emmert in 1939 succeeded Mrs. Sheldon as superintendent of the elementary school district,–Oak View Gardens and Casitas Springs having been added to the Nordhoff district. In 1941 Albert A. Herman was appointed superintendent. He is a good man in the right place.
Mrs. Sheldon should be remembered for her splendid work in instilling in the minds of her pupils and in the community also…the idea of world fellowship in the promotion of peace. Her pupils exchanged letters and pictures with other pupils in all parts of the world and 32 portfolios embodying this educational effort make an interesting display.
“Good Will Day” was celebrated each year on May 18—the little girl of eight said to her teacher, “Good Will Day is a day to learn how to get along with people.”
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.)