The following article first appeared in “THE OJAI” newspaper on THURSDAY, OCTOBER 27, 1955. “THE OJAI” is now the “Ojai Valley News”. The article is reprinted here with their permission. The author is unknown.
OJAI SHOPS SHOW NEW FALL STYLES AT FASHION SHOW
A “Sunday in the park” atmosphere combined with perfect weather and the attractive surroundings of Orchidtown to make the Junior Women’s Club fashion show a delightful occasion Sunday afternoon
A concert by the Ojai Valley Civic Orchestra with Alan Rains conducting was the first attraction on the program, playing a medley of musical comedy favorites.
Commentator for the fashion show was Mrs. Peg Wells of Hickey Brothers, who introduced the models and described their ensembles as the latest styles were paraded beside the Orchidtown swimming pool.
Clothes for all occasions — sports, shopping, evening and even night wear — from the Little Acorn, Hickey Brothers, Fitzgerald’s, and the soon-to-be opened Campus Shop — proved that the woman shopping for her wardrobe in Ojai can be very well turned out indeed.
The large audience applauded the models, as well as their frocks, as they demonstrated professional grace and charm, from the youngsters who modeled sub-teen outfits, to the Junior Women’s Club members, to Mrs. Elizabeth Taylor, who wore the latest designs in half-sizes.
Outstanding trend was the hip-length, boxy jacket, with definite lack of emphasis on the normal waistline in suit jackets. Heather tones and purple were much in evidence, as were iridescent fabrics. Short dance dresses were excitingly designed; from handwoven ones to a dramatic white fitted gown with net ruffle coming into being just at the knee line.
Men’s fashions, too, came in for their share of attention, with dark-on-dark tones causing a good deal of interest.
At the conclusion of the fashion show, refreshments were served at tables on the lawn.
This article first appeared in the Ojai Valley News in the October 22, 1969 edition. It is reprinted here with their permission. The author is Ed Wenig.
“Nordhoff vs. Ojai”
Legend has that Mrs. A.W. Blumberg, wife of the builder of the first hotel in the Ojai Valley in 1874, insisted on naming the proposed new town “NORDHOFF” because she said, Charles Nordhoff had called attention to the valley. Husband A.W. Blumberg and promoter R.G. Surdam graciously went along with the suggestion.
Nordhoff did write much about California in a book titled “CALIFORNIA For Health, Pleasure and Residence”, but Ojai Valley was not mentioned. He also wrote for newspapers and magazines and, it is said wrote about the valley. The claim is controversial and has not been substantiated, in the view of historians of recent times.
In April 1894, Charles Nordhoff did register at the Gally Cottages, and a few days later lectured at the Congregational Church in Nordhoff on “OLD TIMES IN CALIFORNIA.” The local newspaper reported in two columns everything Nordhoff remembered, but he apparently said nothing about visiting the valley before the town was named for him.
In 1894, the people of Ojai Valley were really stirred up about the name “Nordhoff,” for the only town in the valley. The editor of “The Ojai” suggested in an editorial that the matter had been fully discussed, and that every man, woman, and child in the two valleys, resident or visitor, should be polled. The result of such an election would determine whether the question should be forever dropped, or the proper steps be taken to have the name changed.
Feelings run high
Letters literally poured into the editor of “The Ojai” for and against changing the name of the town. Feelings ran high. In a later editorial the editor gave a mild admonition that letters on the subject should be “cleanly worded communications intended for the common good.”
Those who favored changing the name NORDHOFF to OJAI argued that postal clerks throughout the nation were mistaking Nordhoff for Norwalk; that people outside of the valley were confused as to what the post office address really was; that Ojai Valley was losing the effect of much advertising by having another name associated with Ojai; that the name Ojai was unique, the only name of its kind in the whole wide world! One petition was even circulated in east Ojai Valley for the establishment of a new town in the valley to be called “Ojai”.
Those who opposed the name change explained the “Nordhoff” was the name chosen by the people who founded the town 20 years before in honor of Charles Nordhoff, New York writer and traveler, who, they said, had mentioned the Ojai Valley in a newspaper article; that “Nordhoff” had too long been attached to the location to cast it aside unceremoniously.
Twenty-three years later, without much fanfare, “The Ojai”, on March 31, 1917, carried this notice under the Headline: “Now it’s Ojai”: “This telegram from Washington is self-explanatory. H.R. MORSE, FOOTHILLS HOTEL, YOU MAY ANNOUNCE CHANGE OF NAME FROM NORDHOFF TO OJAI. BEST WISHES. (SIGNED) JAMES D. PHELAN, U. S. SENATOR.”
Footnote: Those who have read “Mutiny on the Bounty” will be interested to know that its co-author, Charles Bernard Nordhoff, who was a student at Thacher School in 1898-1899, was the grandson of the Charles Nordhoff for whom the town was named.
The following article first appeared in the Thursday, Sept. 4, 1958 (VOL. 1, NO. 34) issue of THE SENTINEL on the front page. THE SENTINEL was purchased by the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with the permission of the Ojai Valley News. The author is Percy G. Watkins.
HISTORY OF THE VALLEY
Chapter Two: THE VALLEY IN 1900
(Ed. Note: This is another in a series of articles about the valley. Mr. Watkins has been a resident of the Oak View area since 1901. THE SENTINEL is highly honored to print this exclusive series.)
by Percy G. Watkins
THE ROAD FROM VENTURA TO OJAI
From Rocky Flats (Casitas Springs) north, the Ojai road followed the course of 399 to where it starts to run parallel to the railroad now. Then it crossed the tracks to stay close to it on the west ford of the San Antonio Creek. About where 399 leaves the railroad on to go up the San Antonio Creek Valley. The old road then continued about parallel with the railroad on up the Ventura River Valley.
A short distance from the ford, it crossed a private road going from the Hollingsworth Ranch House passing by La Crosse Station (near Casitas Springs) to fording the San Antonio Creek. It reached dry ground near where drying equipment was used in the processing of apricots. The apricot orchard was then south of the Hollingsworth home.
A man named Meyers (I do not know if he spelled his name that way), rented the ranch form Jack Hollingsworth, father of James Hollingsworth who lives there now. The apricot orchard was later very nearly taken away by floods.
The private road went on over the hill as does the Sulphur Mountain road now. On the left further on, where the road starts up the grade over Sulphur Mountain, was a small house with pens and some farm buildings.
Here William (Bill) Foreman lived with his wife and small children. He had horses and wagons and hauled for others—-hay, wood, etc. The place was known as “The Sheep Camp”.
This private road was also used by a Mr. Jennings, who lived where the Rocky Mountain Drilling Co. has its yards. He owned the land from there to Ranch No. 1 (now the Willet Ranch) in the Arnaz area. Here lie the remains of oil well equipment at the first summit of Sulphur Mountain road. However, the road at that time went up the canyon instead of over the present grade.
About a half mile or less up the canyon, in 1900, a crew was drilling a well with cable tools. The man in charge of this venture was a man named Van Epps, who in later years became well know in oil well drilling circles. He was killed several years ago in an oil well explosion near Fillmore. The well, of course, did not produce.
Next Week: A continuation of the road to Nordhoff (Ojai) as it proceeded past the home of Tom Bard (later U. S. Senator) and the first oil well drilled in Calif.
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.
This article first appeared in the March 15, 1989 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission.
Wini’s Love Prompted Meat Loaf Generosity
Walking down Main Street in Ventura, whom should I run into but Joe Mellein, of the justly famous Mellein family of Ojai.
Now when we Ojailoonlans get beyond the Casitas Pass we tend to get a little nervous, being so far from home. What better way to overcome homesickness than to share a malted milk with a long-time friend. I invited Joe to join me at the Busy Bee Café.
“I’m a milk shake man myself,” Joe said and I told him that was no problem.
The Busy Bee Café in Ventura (much like the Soda Bar and Grill in Ojai) is just the place for milk shakes and malts and nostalgia, all in equally generous portions. With its juke box and its songs of the ’50s (Johnny Mathis was singing “Johnny Angel” as we walked in), and its mini-skirted girls in red, the Busy Bee is just the place for anyone who wishes the ’50s had never stopped.
“How’s the family, Joe?” I ask. “Which ones?” Joe asks and informs me that at the last get-together in Sarzotti Park there were some 90 Mellein family members having at beans and tortillas and steaks and pies, all made in the old-fashioned way. There were about 30 Mellein kids in the 10-year-old bracket which made for a fine frenzy of baseball and volleyball.
Joe and I, perhaps because of the music (now they were playing Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Good”) began to talk about what it was like growing up in Ojai in the ’50s. Joe, one of 15 brothers and sisters, did the whole bit: altar boy, Boy Scout (Troop 504 with camping at Lion’s Camp and Rose Valley) and education at St. Thomas and later on at Bonaventure High.
Once, during those days of growing up in the ’50s, Joe and his father and mother (“She’s a beautiful lady and we all love her a lot”) planted a potted liquidamber tree in front of the family home at 506 Fulton St. Now it towers three stories high in all of its glory.
“Hey, remember the Topa Topa Café on Ojai Avenue?” one of us asks.
Who among us could possibly forget the Topa Topa Café, that renowned eatery, now an equally renowned bootery, or its meat loaf, served on Thursday, or was it Friday? Or Wini, that somewhat elderly waitress, who either loved your or did not love you. If Wini loved you, your portions of meat loaf were generous and promptly served; if she didn’t love you, you waited and stood a chance of getting a skimpy plate slung in your general direction.
We used to wait for our meat loaf plate at the Topa Topa like betters at the racetrack waiting for the results of a race to be posted. Except we knew that when the results came they were sure to be good: What a notable melange of succulent entrée, garden green string beans, and mashed potatoes swimming in homemade gravy. A vision of delight and a culinary masterpiece at $1.25 per plate.
Topa Topa was a hiring hall as well as an eatery. Many young men, in for breakfast, left with a day’s work as a tree trimmer or gardener before them. Philosophical discussions of the sort that still proliferate in Ojai abounded during these morning hours.
“What’s the meaning of it all?” someone might ask over coffee.
“Damned if I know” someone else might reply.
Back at the Busy Bee Café Joe and I decide, since our moo-cow blood content was still at manageable levels, to have at it once again. “Let me get this round,” Joe states and we split one of those giant vanilla shakes between the two of us.
“Got to go,” Joe says after the final gulp. “I’m having supper at my sister Andrea’s.”
“Is she a good cook?” I ask.
What a question! The Mellein women are not only good cooks, but in many cases, have become mothers of fine boys and girls who in turn become accomplished men and women. Owners of companies, therapists, future Air Force pilots, artists and writers of checks that don’t bounce are all part of the Mellien family. And, of course, pretty girls who know what kissing is about. “The jukebox is now playing Mel Carter’s immortal classic, “Kiss Me and When You Do I Know You’ll Miss Me.”)
“See you later, alligator,” one of us shouts to the other as we head on out the door down the street. Joe to a fine dinner of roast beef at his sister’s, and I back home to the Ojai Valley.
The following article was written by Howard Bald and appeared in the May 2, 1973 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission. Bald used the same title for many of his articles, so the Ojai Valley Museum added “(No. 5)” to distinguish this particular article.
Reminiscences of Early Ojai (No. 5)
The back country men and their fall cattle drives were the most picturesque and exciting of all to me. Along in November the cattle for market would be rounded up, and those in the upper Cuyama valley would be driven via trail over Pine Mountain to the upper Sespe, where they would join with the Sespe cattle and those from the upper Santa Ynez.
There being no highways and trucks, the cattle were driven single file from the Sespe through Cherry Canyon over Ortega Hill into the north fork of the Matilija and down to Ortega Ranch – some six miles above the upper edge of Matilija lake. There they camped the second night.
From the Matilija Hot Springs on to Ventura it was easy going, for they had a road to travel. What is now Casitas Springs was known as Stony Flat, and was a large hay field. There the cattle were held overnight and the next day delivered to lima bean fields east of Ventura, where they became the property of the Hobson brothers, Will and Abe, the fathers respectively of Mrs. Edith Hoffman and Mrs. Grace Smith (all deceased).
The Matilija school children were alerted well in advance by the bawling cattle and shouting cowboys, as they forded the stream some 100 yards above the school. School would be dismissed until the last yip of the cowboys died away down the dusty road.
Among the cattlemen on these drives were, of course, various Reyes boy – Rudolpho, Anselmo, Peter and Rafael. Then there were the Wegis brothers, Frand and Gebhard. They were all from Cuyama.
From the Sespe and the upper Santa Ynez were the Eduardo Canet cowboys and various homesteaders, among them Ygnacio Ramos, the Warner brothers (Dave and Jack), Ramon Cota, Manuel Lopez. Perhaps the most colorful of them were the Ortega brothers, grandfather and great uncles of Milito Ortega, Ventura’s ex-postmaster.
There were many legends of their exploits in that rough country. Ramon Ortega in 1914 at the age of 82 went over a bluff, and both he and his horse were killed. He had always said he would die back there, and that he didn’t want to be packed out like a dead deer. Jacinto Reyes (he was always affectionately known as J.D.) packed uncle Ramon out sitting upright on a saddle horse as he had always wished to be brought out.
As I have mentioned, the Matilija school stood on the east bank of the river. Water was carried up in a galvanized bucket. All drank from the one tin cup. One small, battered tin basin served for washing our hands, and naturally there was a minimum of that.
There was a theory this creek water was soon purified in its flow over rocks and through sand and gravel. So there was no concern over contamination by sewage from the several resorts above.
My sister’s attendance at that school was of short duration for when mother discovered some foreign objects crawling in her hair there was something of a scene. There was one boy, Mike, that Margaret was quite fond of, but following this episode, she told him she didn’t wish to play with him anymore, that he was lousy. Mike replied: “No, Maggie, I ain’t had no louses for a month.”
Shortly after that Margaret returned to Nordhoff, while I continued attending Matilija regardless. Our home, Rancho Rinconada, was just midway between both schools. J.D. Reyes and I gave the ranch that name.
The following story was printed in the book “Portrait of a Community (Ojai – Yesterdays and Todays)” by Ellen Malino James in 1984. It is reprinted here with the permission of publisher Ojai Valley News.
WHAT’S NEW DOWNTOWN [in 1984]?
By Ellen Malino James
When Edward Drummond Libbey started the Arcade in 1917, he agreed to share the cost of upgrading the front footage with Ojai merchants. Nobody considered the rear of the Arcade. While the street fronts of the Ojai Avenue stores were united by the Mission style of architects Mead and Requa’s original plan, the back doors stood for fifty years in a haphazard jumble of old wood shacks, some dating back to the original 1870’s town of Nordhoff. The front arches continued to grace the picture postcards, the Arcade having become a kind of façade, like a Hollywood set. Behind it, lay a deteriorating shambles of old Western clapboard buildings.
Architect Zelma Wilson and others foresaw that, with imagination and planning, the rear of the Arcade could become a “focal point of community life” – a village where residents and tourists alike could shop and socialize. The original plans of the Downtown Business Committee in 1971 called for plazas, fountains, covered walkways, and new shops and offices, all blending into a relaxed village atmosphere spanning the block from Signal to Montgomery Street behind the Arcade. Now, a decade later , the Arcade Plaza is a local project, paid for without state or federal money. An ingenious application of the state law allowed for increased tax revenues within the redevelopment area to go exclusively for the benefit of this project.
When John Johnston came to Ojai as city manager in 1971, he recalls, “my great concern at that time was to prevent Ojai from turning into another San Fernando Valley.” Johnston, then in his late twenties, had just completed a term as City Manager of Artesia and Cerritos, where uncontrolled growth had transformed dairy farms into what was then the world’s largest indoor shopping mall.
“In Ojai,” says Johnston, “I ran into a city council that stopped this sort of development on its heels.” With Councilman Hal Mitrany and others, Johnston met with Ojai’s downtown merchants to explore ways to redevelop a “shambles” of old structures. In the back alley behind the Arcade, buildings were collapsing, Johnston recalls, “but what could we do? The city was too poor to do it on their own.”
AS A FIRST step, Johnston urged the city to form a parking and improvement district. The merchants then went to Architect Zelma Wilson, A.I.A. to design an expanded Arcade. Johnston then, in early 1972, asked Robert Hill of the California Department of Housing and Community Development to visit Ojai and to outline for the city council how the state redevelopment law could be applied specifically to Ojai’s needs.
Plans were laid for upgrading the downtown core and putting in public improvements with money from tax increments. Each time a property owner increased the value of his land and buildings within the 135-acre boundary of the agency, local tax money flowed into the coffers of the new redevelopment agency.
“So the project came out as originally hoped for,” said Johnston. “It just took a lot longer.” Ten years, in fact, from the original conception in 1972 to the dedication in April, 1982.
OJAI REMAINS one of the few towns to apply the state law on redevelopment in this novel and constructive way to its downtown area. The amount of money available to the redevelopment agency proved to be more than originally hoped for, because property values increased during the past decade beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. Yet with Proposition 13 and the inevitable decline in real estate values, the redevelopment agency idea is not as desirable as a tool as it once was.
Crucial to the redevelopment plan was the timing and local leadership in Ojai. “It is unlikely that the project would have taken place,” says Johnston, “if the interest and support were not there.”
Johnston particularly recalls the role of Clifford Hey and James Loebl: “When things got tough, they didn’t back down.” But there were many others. “Hundreds of people from all walks of life made this happen.” Just one example: Alan Rains invested in sidewalks outside his store long before the plans for the surrounding area took shape. What the redevelopment agency did was to create confidence in the community.
Behind the Arcade: Before
Behind the Arcade: After
Merchant Alan Rains recalls: “Our concern was that we did not want to see Ojai follow the same route as the San Fernando Valley with shops starting at Woodland Hills and running fifteen miles to wherever. Ojai had not been growing in a healthy pattern for several years and it was felt something needed to be done to revitalize the original shopping area.”
No more false fronts, no more shambles at the rear.
This article was written for an appeared in the Ojai Valley News on June 11, 1999. It is reprinted here with their permission.
Orchid Town was an attraction in the ’40s and ’50s
by David Mason
“Gardening is one of the best things in the world to make you forget your troubles, so as you go along, take a little time out and relax in your garden amongst the flowers.” — Louis Boyle, Out West, 1952
The lavish two-story hotel with its sweeping veranda would have no overnight guests. The post office has not postmaster, the Orchid Café couldn’t serve a decent cup of coffee and there were no children learning their ABC’s at the Deer Little School.
The blacksmith shop was silent and no hymns were heard coming from the Community Church. The Last Chance Saloon never served liquor; the jail never held a prisoner; and the justice of the peace? Well, he never married a single couple.
This may sound like a very dull town, but on the contrary, it was probably one of the most exciting old beautiful towns in all of Southern California.
El Rancho Rinconada, Orchid Town, was the dream of a wealthy man.
When Louis Boyle purchased the 77-acre ranch in the Ojai Valley in March of 1939, it consisted of a small house, garage and barn. Within a year, the land would start to spring forth with an array of exotic plants, for Mr. Boyle’s dream was to develop his ranch into a paradise of flowers.
Mr. Boyle was not raised in the flower business. His father had come to California with his family in the 1890s and had obtained employment in the iron and steel business, which he did quite successfully. His company manufactured barrels, canteens, camp stoves, tin cans and garbage cans.
The elder Boyle eventually took over the Pacific Stove Company, which made heaters and stoves; one popular line of heaters sold for 90 cents each.
One employee was an ambitious man by the name of Parkie O’ Keefe, the plant superintendent and salesman, who would sell stoves, write up the orders, come back to the plant, change clothes and work to make the stoves.
In 1913, Bob Merritt came to work for the Pacific Stove Company. After a few years, Mr. Merritt, longing to go into business for himself, convinced Mr. O’ Keefe to join him. The elder Boyle sold the stove manufacturing end of his business to them and retained a financial interest in their business, which came to be known as O’ Keefe and Merritt.
The Boyle manufacturing company was sold to the United States Steel Company in 1939 and it was then that Louis Boyle came to the Ojai Valley and bought El Rancho Rinconada.
He was not the first man to see the possibilities in this secluded ranch in the little valley. The previous owner, Loring Farnum, had attended Thacher School from 1898 until 1900 and was so impressed with the Ojai Valley that in 1908 he purchased the ranch and named it El Ranch Rinconada. He built a white farm house, planted a prune orchard and raised horses.
The original Farnum house was one of the 60 buildings in the valley that was lost in the great 1917 fire. Mr. Farnum was on the Boyd Club Board of Trustees and he was the first person to introduce radio to the Ojai Valley citizens.
Louis Boyle was enthusiastic about creating a sprawling ranch of orchids and other unique plans. He had attended the 1938 Pasadena Flower Show, where a large display of cymbidium orchids had caught his eye.
The Orchid Ranch would have to be unique, the land encircled by the mountains was too magnificent to construct just ordinary rows of lath and greenhouses.
The idea of creating a western town as a front for the flower beds was decided upon as an attractive way to conceal the lath house structures. Mr. Boyle and his helpers spent months going through junk yards, picking up old doors, windows and lumber.
The first building was the hotel. The imposing structure would stand out from the rest of the town. The windows were actually shadow boxes that held a variety of treasures. Each window box told a different story of the history of the Old West. They included old guns, powder horns, lamps and spectacles. Some contained wooden tools, music boxes, branding irons and straight razors.
Upon entering the front door of the hotel, your first view was of hundreds of orchid plants growing in attractive gardens –- a spectacular sight.
The rear side of the false front was also a treasure trove. Hung on the walls were old western pictures and newspapers. Out front stood a wishing well.
Further down the street, other false fronts continued to be built on both sides, until the town had almost all of the conveniences one would expect in a small town.
There was the drug store, church, hardware and general store. Then they had the little school, assayer’s office, the town hall and bank, the opera house and Last Chance Saloon –- and the largest building, Kate’s House, was named for one of the ladies of early San Francisco.
There was also the Chinese Laundry, King’s Harness Shop, Wells Fargo, Pony Express and The Picture Gallery.
The Picture Gallery was extraordinary. The walls were covered with beautiful pictures of orchids, the handiwork of many artists, who years ago contributed in their greatest ways to symbolizing the beautiful flowers.
The gallery consisted of more than 1,000 prints of orchids, offset in their placement on the walls to make room for the collection of museum quality antiques that were also neatly arranged in the gallery.
An office building and library were built on a low rise at the base of the mountains, so as to afford a panoramic view of the ranch. The atmosphere of the office was more like a home instead of a place of business. The library contained a large collection of rare botanical books, collected from around the world.
Over the years, the Orchid Ranch would become one of the main sources of elaborate displays at flower shows, winning many awards.
The various displays that Mr. Boyle entered in the shows were replicas of his greenhouses that were showplaces within themselves, adorned with exquisite garden statuary that added charm to the meandering rock-lined walks that encircled the beautiful beds of graceful orchids.
The camellia plants would add another source of color and beauty to the ranch. Planted throughout the property were more than 7,000 camellia bushes, consisting of 150 different varieties. Many of them were rare and unusual.
The 1948 forest fire would take its toll on the Orchid Ranch, as well as the entire Ojai Valley. At El Rancho Rinconada, lath houses burned to the ground, destroying the precious plants and flowers that the lath had been protecting. The camellias that were planted along the outskirts of the ranch, closer to the surrounding hills, were lost when the fire swept into the little valley.
The ranch was repaired of all fire damage and, in short time, was back in full operation. As though to add insult to injury, the next year it snowed on the little town. To protect the orchids, which were only covered by lath, smudge pots had to be moved in.
By 1952 there were more than 50,000 cymbidium plants growing on the ranch. Mr. Boyle learned all he could about the flowers, mostly through trial and error. His passion for cymbidiums was a major contributor to the flower’s popularity.
During the years that the ranch was in operation, the cymbidium orchid became the most popular flower for stylish corsages. Florists from around the world were supplied with the blooms shipped from El Rancho Rinconada.
There was no lovelier orchid than the cymbidium and there was no finer selection in the United States than those grown at Orchid Town, El Rancho Rinconada. Many different varieties of cymbidiums were propagated there in the many specially designed greenhouses built for the young seedlings.
The names of the cymbidiums read like a list from “Who’s Who,” including: Anne Boleyn, Bach, Mozart, Beau Brummel, Cleopatra, Godiva, Goldilocks, Hiawatha, Pocahontas, Paul Revere, Joan of Arc and Marco Polo. The royal family was not forgotten; plants were named for Queen Elizatbeth I, Queen Mary, Princess Margaret, Prince Charles and Windsor Castle. President Lincoln and President Wilson were also included in the list.
Many other unusual flowers filled the ranch greenhouses, among them the waxy red Hawaiian anthuriums and the cypripedium orchids, also known as the Slipper Orchid.
The ranch would continue to delight people from around the world, whether it be those fortunate enough to have been invited to the many private parties and official affairs that were held there, down to the excitement felt by the smallest florists across the country who received their shipments of the exquisite flowers from the ranch.
When Mr. Boyle died in August of 1954 the glory of El Rancho Rinconada began to fade, but not to the memories. I’m sure the many hours I spent as a child, admiring the quaint place and the beautiful creations of God, had a lot to do with influencing my life.
The property was eventually sold to Camp Ramah and there aren’t many of the original structures left. The office and library, the main house and guest house remain. The western town is gone and the one sign of an earlier day is the wishing well.
Camp Ramah has maintained the land with spacious lawns, tree and flowers, and the serene atmosphere remains. Today, the former El Rancho Rinconada is used for the health and enrichment of young people’s lives, not unlike what it did for the flowers many years ago.
This article was published a few years ago in the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission.
Bill Baker’s Bakery Known Near and Far for ‘Made in Ojai’
by David Mason
“Do not buy in Ventura or elsewhere what you can buy at Nordhoff, especially when you can get equal value for equal price. You can get the best phonograph in the world and the best records to use with it right here in Nordhoff – The Ojai Bakery.” The Ojai – May 27, 1909
Wilhelm Koch had the normal childhood feeling of most boys being raised in Germany. He was born in Marburg on May 4, 1873, and, undoubtedly, grew up with the hopes of attending the university in his home town. The Phillips University in Marburg was founded in 1527 and was the first Protestant university in Europe.
With the mandatory military draft in Germany, young Wilhelm’s father felt it was in the boy’s best interest to have him leave the country. His father, inspired with the ideals of democracy, sent him to America.
As a child, Wilhelm had shown exceptional talent as a sculptor, so a life career as an artist was to be his destiny. His artistic ability in America was brought out in the catering departments of some of America’s finest hotels, including the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the Bellevue-Stratford in Philadelphia, the Arlington in Washington, the St. Charles in New Orleans and the Huntington in Pasadena.
With the United States entry into the first World War in 1917, the government offered a prize of $500 to the baker who produced the best wheatless bread. Wilhelm decided to enter this contest with high hopes of receiving the prize money for the sole purpose of changing his name. Not only did he win the competition, he won first and second prizes and the sweepstakes, and promptly change his name to William Cook Baker.
It was while working in Pasadena that William Baker would discover the charming seaside town of Ventura. His success was already becoming quite apparent by his being named assistant food administrator for Southern California under Herbert Hoover. So he decided to open his own bakery in Ventura and, being patriotic, it was only natural that he would name it The American Bakery.
Baker would operate the bakery for six years until the lure of the beautiful Ojai Valley attracted him. In 1923 Baker bought out the Ojai Bakery. Emile Gerstenmeyer had operated the Ojai Bakery for many years and he carried a large assortment of merchandise: candles, soft drinks, phonographs and records, books, magazines, picture postcards and, of course, fresh bread, cakes and table delicacies were on hand at all times.
Under the new ownership, the bakery changed its name to Bill Baker’s Ojai Bakery. The bakery was set to become world famous.
In 1927 Bill Baker hired the well-known Santa Paula architect Roy C. Wilson to design a new building for the bakery. Construction was to be of brick and stucco and the architecture was to be of the Spanish style, to compliment the newly built school across the street. The architect had earlier designed the San Antonio School and the Nordhoff Grammar School, along with some of the valley’s most spectacular homes.
The new bakery was very modern, the structure was actually two buildings with a drive between them. One building was used as a salesroom and the other for equipment. George Noble was in charge of the construction and Frank Harrow did the concrete work. The beautiful new building added the needed architectural enjoyment for the tourist entering the town from the east. Through all the construction, the ovens of the bakery continued to turn out their regular quota of loaves of bread and pastries with little interference.
The first of Bill Baker’s many elaborate presidential cakes was sent to President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge in 1927. The large fruitcake was decorated with a small village in the snow and a detailed Santa and sleigh – the first of the many famous cakes produced by Bill Baker’s bakery.
On Feb. 2, 1928, Bill Baker was called to Santa Barbara for a meeting with Dr. W. D. Sansum of the Sansum Clinic. The doctor was interested in finding a baker who could produce a bread to meet his rigid qualifications. Baker had been experimenting with lima bean products successfully and the American Institute of Baking in Chicago had tested his product and proclaimed it to be the best. Dr. Sansum encouraged the use of this lima bean bread in an article written for the Chicago Tribune. The popularity of this new bread grew and it was shipped to many parts of the United States, even as far as Alaska and Hawaii.
By June of 1928, a formal wedding in Seattle, Wash. would have at the reception an elaborate wedding cake made by the bakery in Ojai. The Lions’ convention in the east would also receive one of Bill Baker’s 30-pound fruitcakes. The Lions’ Club cake was decorated with a replica of the Ojai Valley in sugar and surrounding a miniature of the Ojai Catholic Church (now the Ojai Valley Museum).
The 1930’s would see an extensive increase in development of the bakery. The lima bean products, including the lima bean bread, wafers and the new lima bean toast, were in demand from everywhere. Baker decided to advertise the bakery and the Ojai Valley by having a new label designed for his waxed paper wrappers. The labels were silver with “Made in Ojai, California” in blue. There were 550 loaves of bread being shipped each day, advertising the news that Ojai was the center of Bill Baker’s lima bean baking industry.
With the success of the lima bean products, Baker decided to try his hand at developing a soybean bread. Doctors had long suggested the use of soybean as a health food, using it in soups, muffins, etc., but for commercial baking. It wasn’t long before Bill Baker’s Bakery had created a popular and palatable product.
As if all the new bakery items weren’t enough to keep Bill Baker busy, he decided to enter the Elks’ charity event, the “American Horned Toad Derby” being held at the Ventura Bathhouse. His entry was called “Lima Bean”, and Baker put out a press release stating: “I am keeping my Horned Toad on a strict diet of lima bean bread and toast as it has been proven that this will keep down high blood pressure and prevent acidosis. I am betting heavily on ‘Lima Bean’ to win and advise my friends to keep an eye on this contender, for he is a sure winner.” Win or lose, it didn’t matter, it’s how he played the game that was the true sport.
By the end of the year 1930, Bill Baker’s Bakery had added another truck to their delivery system and the bakery was now up to 1,600 loaves of lima bean bread a day – quite an increase from the 500 loaves a day that he was producing at the beginning of the year
The President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover received a Bill Baker’s cake in 1931, a 50-pound fruitcake made entirely with California fruits and nuts. On the top was a scene of Ventura with a Christmas angel flying overhead.
In 1936, President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt received a Bill Baker masterpiece. The Christmas cake was a 200-pound affair, a fruitcake decorated with star-spangled pillars with red, white and blue bars. In each section was set a green Christmas wreath with a pink bell and bow. The edge of the top was encircled by 200 beautifully made red poinsettias. The top was covered with a green sugar lawn and sugar shrubs, trees and the sugary path that led to the center where the White House glistened, topped by “Old Glory.” On the lawn was written “Merry Christmas to President and Mrs. Roosevelt.”
With the anticipation of the people of California in 1939 toward the San Francisco World Exposition, it was only proper that Bill Baker would have to be part of this important event. What he spent a year in designing and building was a cake weighting 1,000 pounds, which measured 5 feet across the base, 3 feet high and 3 feet across the top layer.
The base of the cake was decorated with an arched colonnade with a red tile roof. Upon the bottom layer were replicas of all the California missions in exact detail with the mountain ranges behind them. On the side of the second layer were numerous towers, replicas of the beautiful tower that dominated the exposition. Between the towers were palm trees and pink roses connecting the towers to each other.
The top of the cake was a miniature San Francisco Bay, with the three famous bridges connecting the islands to the shore. Even the bay cities were shown in their harbor districts. The most exquisite piece of icing on the cake was a miniature of Treasure Island with numerous ships sailing across the top. The cake instantly became one of the great wonders of the exposition.
In 1942, Baker contacted poison oak in the back yard of his home in Lake Sherwood and was rushed to the hospital in Ventura. He did not make it through the ordeal and died. The story of Bill Baker comes to an end, but the famous bakery that carries his name was just starting a new chapter.
Longtime faithful employees of the bakery, Harmon and Helen Vaughn, continued to keep the plant running. They saw to it that everything was operated as Bill Baker had desired — top quality and fair practice.
The Vaughns had arrived in Ojai on March 31, 1936 from Arkansas. They liked what they saw and decided to make a life for themselves in the small valley. They were hired by Bill Baker to work for his bakery on their second day in town.
In 1946, the Vaughns bought the bakery from Bill Baker’s widow and continued the service, retaining the Bill Baker’s Ojai Bakery name. The Vaughns ran a most successful operation, keeping up the high standard that had been set many years before and finally retired in February 1974.
The famous bakery, one of the oldest continually running businesses in Ojai, is still a success today. The building has been modified somewhat, but still retains the beauty and charm from 70 years ago.
The famous bakery was located at 457 E. Ojai Avenue. Today the building houses AZU Restaurant.
This article was printed in the Ojai Valley News on March 23, 2001. It is reprinted here with their permission.
Take a Walk Through the Wooded Land of Libbey Park by Earl Bates
Walking through Libbey Park on a recent sunny day, infused with the feeling of springtime, we began taking a closer look at the trees. “Could be maybe seven kinds,” said one of the walkers. “Think there are maybe 10 species just here in Libbey Park.” said another. “Well, there are two kinds of oaks, pines, sycamores, eucalyptus. That’s five. And there’s a palm tree, that’s six.”
We were wondering who could tell us about the trees of Libbey Park, and a few days later, we met arborist and Ojai resident Paul Rogers. We asked him if he could give us a little tour and identify the different trees in the park.
We started our tree tour with Rogers in front of the post office, walked east on the sidewalk, under the canopy of a young live oak and into the pergola. At the center of the pergola we turned right into the main front entrance of Libbey Park. This entrance is guarded by two young valley oak trees, one on each side. Surrounding these two small native oaks is a group of evergreen pear trees, their bright green leathery leaves sparkling in the sun. This lovely species of pear tree is a long way from its original home, it is a native of Taiwan.
Non-native plants may look as natural as natives, but when whole plant communities are considered, natives are generally a more positive factor in ecosystem stability. Some people think more consideration should be given to the native plants that have lived and evolved the Ojai region for many thousands of years. “We are trying to define what trees are going to be here,” said Rogers.
Looking toward the post office we can see a little grove of mock orange shrub and two large live oaks. The medium-sized tree with the long skinny beans hanging from its branches is a catalpa, or Indian bean tree, native to the southeastern United States.
Looking back toward the fountain, at the Kittie Pierpont memorial, is a pistache tree. And past the fountain, in the northeast corner of the park, are a half-dozen of California sycamores.
Walking across the pavement to the south side of the fountain, we entered the heart of Libbey Park, pausing for a moment at the Austin Pierpont Rose Garden. Then we read the plaque at the base of the flagpole. “In grateful acknowledgement of the gift in the year 1917 by Edward Drummond Libbey of this wooded land…”
As we faced south, looking over the dedication plaque and past the flagpole, we saw a beautiful big pine tree. “Monterey pine, native of California,” said Rogers. “It likes the coastal environment. It’s not necessarily a good choice for inland areas, but this one is doing well here.” We walked about 25 yards along the paved path to the first intersection, then turned right down the park’s central walkway.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Rogers. “It’s like a continuous canopy through the park.” Large old live oak branches reach way up over the path, their ends mingling in an ethereal feeling with the blue sky.
“We have a lot of big trees in here,” said Rogers. “See that one over there, that’s another valley oak, it’s about 250 years old. We have some in town that are over 500 years.”
We continued walking along the central path through the park. “Deodar cedars, sometimes called California Christmas tree,” said Rogers. We walked past three large specimens of deodar, then under the wooden trellis structure, and followed the path to the right of the tennis court bleachers.
“This is another Monterey pine,” said Rogers. “They were donated to the city, probably from people’s Christmas trees.” The smaller one is about 10 years old and the larger one perhaps 15. “They are fast growers,” he said.
“These are red iron bark eucalyptus, beautiful pink flowers as you can see.” We looked at a couple of them just past the Monterey pines. Then as we looked up high, “Those skyline trees are red gum eucalyptus, they are the ones having an insect problem,” he said.
Several more young California sycamores are establishing themselves in the lawn area of Libbey Bowl. We walked to the seating area of the bowl and paused, looking at the unusually shaped sycamore tree at the west side of the seating area. “There is a lot of lore about it, saying it was bent over by Indians to mark a spot. Whether that is true or not I don’t know.” Rogers explained that this old sycamore is not in a happy environment, because of so much paving around it. “We need to aerate this asphalt, we need to create a better environment,” he said.
“That’s (an example of) the conflict between development and the environment,” he said. “It would be terrible if these tree were not here.”