Ojai was ‘torn apart and rebuilt’

This article first appeared in the August 26, 1970 edition of the Ojai Valley News. It is reprinted here with their permission. The author is Ed Wenig.

Ojai was ‘torn apart and rebuilt’

(Editor’s note: this is the second in a series of articles by historian Ed Wenig on Civic Center Park and the man responsible for its gift “to the people of the Ojai Valley” — Edward Libbey).

On September 1, 1916, THE OJAI printed an editorial from the Ventura Free Press, written by Editor D. J. Reese, who had attended the Men’s League Banquet in March at the Foothills Hotel:

“Some morning, not far distant, the village of Nordhoff is going to wake up and find itself famous. The work being done in that section just now would make the man who has known Nordhoff of old rub his eyes in astonishment if he was brought into the place suddenly. Great things are in store no doubt. The town has been torn apart and several sections have been removed hither and yon. There has been a general clearing up of everything, and everybody has an expectant look as though wondering what will happen next. The main street has been piled full of terra cotta brick, and no one seems to know what is doing. Old landmarks like the Clark stables and the Ojai Inn have vanished as before a Kansas cyclone. Only the beautiful oaks, and here and there a substantial house like the bank or the clubhouse or the Nordhoff fountain and splendid Ojai atmosphere seem to be left. Something is surely doing. Ask what it is and the Nordhoffite will throw up his hands and mention the name of Libbey. You hear about Libbey every time you ask a question. Everywhere you go you note that somebody is working hard at something or other in digging ditches or burying water pipe or clearing underbrush or building massive and magnificent cobble walls. Why, it is to be another Montecito, you are told . . . “The people there are to be congratulated that they have a Libbey who has taken an interest in their affairs. It is to be hoped they will give him free rein.”

Vast Land Holdings

At an Ojai Valley Men’s League banquet at the Foothills Hotel J. J. Burke, speaking of improvements, told of a well of Mr. Libbey’s which “will pump at least 65 inches, and if Mr. Libbey’s plans materialize he will spend $20,000 in getting the water to his ranch. . . . The old Ojai Inn and all but one of the Berry Villa buildings have been torn down or moved away, making room for more extensive improvements in the future. Through the generosity of Mr. Libbey, Signal Street was cut through and graded to the railroad.”

In the spring of 1916 Libbey was reported to be visiting his friend, H. T. Sinclair and discussing with Mr. Thacher, Colonel Wilson and W. W. Bristol “sundry matters of importance to the community.”

On June 9, 1916 it was announced that E. D. Libbey had bought 200 more acres to add to his previous 300-acre property. “Among the early improvements will be the laying of a water main from his well on the Gally tract to his large holdings. And that is not all, as the entire square upon which once stood the Ojai Inn, is to be improved in a manner that augurs well for the future of Nordhoff, which is good news to the entire community. Mr. H. T. Sinclair has been taken into Mr. Libbey’s confidence and will be the directing head during his absence. Let us be glad, as well as thankful for so generous a promoter as E. D. Libbey.”

On June 16, 1916, we are told that Mr. Libbey has bought the last parcel of privately owned land in what is now the Civic Park. In the local paper, “The plans Mr. Libbey is making to benefit both the town and the Valley has met with the highest approbation of the committee and the cooperation of the League in every way is assured.”

It was reported on June 30 that the Berry Villa, “an historical step-sister of the Ojai Inn, now a demolished antiquity,” had been torn down and the lumber hauled away.

By July 14, fifty men in one crew were working on the Libbey pay roll. Tom Clark destroyed his barn north of his livery stable and constructed a rock wall for a modern garage. This wall can still be seen as part of the Village Drug Store.

Early in November, Architect Requa, of the San Diego architectural firm of Mead and Requa, went to Toledo and got full approval of the plans for the renovation of the main street of Nordhoff. The local newspaper reported, “The post office tower, penetrating the lower heavens 65 feet is to be a reality. There are many features that we shall be delighted to prattle about when fully assured that the architect has removed the censorship.”

In March, 1917, representatives of the Men’s League met with Mr. Libbey. A corporation was formed under the name of THE OJAI CIVIC ASSOCIATION. The incorporators were E. D. Libbey, S. D. Thacher, J. J. Burke, Harrison Wilson, H. T. Sinclair, A. A. Garland, and H. R. Cole. Said the editor of the paper: “The initial purpose of the corporation is to assume title to the valuable property acquired by gift from Mr. Libbey . . . This beautiful park and the tennis courts, covering more than seven acres, is to become the property of the people of Nordhoff and the Ojai Valley.

Concurrent with the changes in the appearance of the town of Nordhoff came a popular move to change the name of the village to Ojai. A petition was circulated under the auspices of Supervisor Tom Clark requesting the name change, and received so many signatures that it was five feet long by the time H. D. Morse, manager of the Foothills Hotel, sent it to Washington D. C. In March, 1917, Senator James D. Phelan sent the following telegram: “You may announce the change of name from Nordhoff to Ojai.”

Early School Days in Valley Recalled for Clara Smith’s Party

The following article first appeared on the front page of the Friday, May 24, 1935 edition of “The Ojai.” “The Ojai” is now the “Ojai Valley News.” It is reprinted here with their permission. The author is unknown.

Early School Days in Valley Recalled for Clara Smith’s Party

A committee of the grammar school Junior Red Cross attempted to compile a history of the schools of the Nordhoff district, for inclusion in the memory book to be presented to Miss Clara Smith a the banquet celebrating her 50 years of teaching Tuesday evening. But Mrs. Inez T. Sheldon, principal of the school, reports the task a difficult one because memories conflicted. However the following was put together as the best record that could be secured:

First School in Valley

In the extreme east at the foot of the grade on the left going toward Santa Paula H. J. Dennison taught perhaps a dozen children even earlier than 1869. A path up the grade led to the spring just beyond the present first sightseeing stop (Lookout Point) almost to the top of the grade. The big boys carried water if the barrel became empty before the appointed time to haul the next barrel full.

The district then comprised all of the present Matilija, Upper Ojai, and Lower Ojai valleys. The school was laughingly called “The Sagebrush Academy.” The last teacher there whose name no one seems willing to recall was at any rate a very loyal Democrat. He presided strictly—chastising the children of Democrats lightly with a pure white ruler, while little Republicans suffered under the strokes of a very black longer ruler.

In 1895 Mr. Van Curen circulated the petition to divide the district. Inez Blumberg (Mrs. J. B. Berry) and Miss Nina Soule remember Miss Skinner vividly. Earl Soule was too young but learned “his letters” in the second school, the one-room brick.

Brick School

On the present Alton L. Drown residence property, 244 Matilija Street, then an unoccupied tract, was erected the first Ojai School. The sagebrush academy was removed to the Dennison ranch, and later again to the present Upper Ojai where Mrs. E. P. Tobin is now teaching.

While the bricks were being made near the present tennis courts of the Civic Center, a small temporary shed was hastily put up on the same lot to house the school. Rough boards stood straight up and down. Horizontal boards for the roof kept out the sun. On planks facing the wall the children sat using planks against the wall for desks. But this was necessary only a short time. And the little brick school seemed verily a palace, laughingly recall the Soules, Piries, Bakers, John Larmar, and others. A. W. Blumberg made the bricks, and his daughter has an interesting souvenir—a brick on which a lion left his track. The hole from which the clay was taken may be seen to this day in the Civic Center near the railroad.

Noted Pupil

In the biography of David P. Barrows, former president of the University of California in Berkley, it is written that he learned his “ABC’s” with his little bare toes dangling over Mother Earth from rough wooden boxes in which nails had been surreptitiously placed as seats. At least this is found to be historic!

Steepleton Private School

On the present Y-T ranch, just off Grand Avenue, a mile and a half east of the village, in 1874, Mrs. Joseph Steepleton, who later taught in the new brick school, kept private school. Also in the same location as late as 1928, Frank Gerard established a private school. Both private schools were short lived. Mr. Barrows recalls many funny experiments in the old brick school. It is suggested that he be asked for his “wart yarn” when next he visits Ojai.

The Fruit Pickers

Mr. Buckman, the first county school superintendent of Ventura, was one of the first teachers in the brick building. He planted the first orange tree in this now famous valley. Also he grew strawberries to help maintain his financial independence. By getting permission from home, his pupils were permitted to go from school during school hours, to the Topa Topa ranch, (then his home), and pick his strawberries for him. Great was the jealousy of those whose parents would not permit them to stop studying their three R’s long enough to go up to the ranch to pick berries.

So few of the school registers are to be found of the old brick days that only an attempted list of the teachers there can be recorded. Miss Allen, Miss Haight, Mr. Goodman, Mr. Alvord, and Miss Hawks taught before Miss Agnes Howe, who was probably there the longest time of all. She was Miss Clara Smith’s first teacher in California.

Miss Smith had taught in Ohio but here more education for a teacher’s certificate was required so for a short period in 1884 she was a pupil in the old brick school. Thompsons, Clarks, Robinsons, Hunds, Ayers, Spencers, and others already mentioned remember those “old days.” After studying in Santa Barbara, Miss Smith returned and taught in the same brick building. Eva Bullard Myers, Bill Raddick, the Gally brothers, Sam Hudiburg, and others, were some of her pupils.

After teaching in the Ventura schools at the same time that Miss Blanche Tarr taught there, Miss Smith worked her way through the State University at Berkeley and returned to Ojai to teach three years in the new building at the corner of Montgomery and Ojai Avenue. Fred Linder, S. Beaman, and Clark Miller were pupils of hers at this period.

Brown Bungalow

When perhaps as many as 60 pupils were enrolled, it became necessary to add a little brown school, one room, on the same lot as “the new brick.” Miss Pellam taught the little people there until it was moved. George Black, Ventura County School Superintendent, and later the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, married her sister. In 1895 both schools on this site were purchased, the brick building vacated, and the little brown school moved to its present location, 570 North Montgomery, on the Snow property between Millard’s and Lafkas’.

It is interesting to note that the present Drown residence was built by J. E. Freeman in 1911, on the same brick foundation as the old school building. Captain Sheridan of the old Ojai Inn, grandfather of the Sheridan brothers, was responsible for the laying of these bricks.

The Wolf Family

The Wolf family had the first good pictures of this section. Mr. Wolf acted as a trustee of the district, and interested himself considerably in the work. Quite tragically one day his son fell from an oak on the school and was killed.

San Antonio School

Mrs. Lillian Bennett Carnes, Mrs. Margaret Hunt, the Mungers, and Ryersons, tell many fascinating stories of the first San Antonio school, located on Ojai Avenue on what is now the Edward L. Wiest property.

Thacher School

Sherman D. Thacher was refused a position there, being told to go on with his little orange grove. Thus in 1889 with only one pupil this now famous Thacher School was begun.

The Present Wood Building

The wooden grammar school building was first occupied in 1895. It was moved back on the northeast corner in 1927. The sum of $1,250 was paid for the lot. The bond issued failed by one vote at the first election, but was carried for $9,000 at the second one. Mr. Zimmerman was awarded the contract for $7,825. However the building of the assembly hall with the other incidental expenses brought the total cost to around $10,000. It was necessary to use the money obtained from the sale of the “brick school” and the “brown bungalow” plus the building fund, plus the school bonds, to meet this debt.

Miss Mabel Pendergriss was presumably the first teacher in the new school. Amy Hamlin, Eleanor Hammack, Anna Cordes, and others are recalled, but C. L. Edgerton is always remembered when anyone is asked regarding the history of the building. For ten years following the time Miss Smith taught there, Mr. Edgerton was principal.

First High School

The year 1909-10 was W. W. Bristol’s first year as the first principal of the first high school in Nordhoff. School was held with Miss Maybyn (Mrs. Howard Hall) assisting, in the upstairs of the grammar school building. Miss Ruth Forsyth assisted Mr. Bristol the second year. School was so crowded it was necessary to send some freshman to the lower floor under Mr. Edgerton’s supervision.

High School Building

May 17, 1909, there were 108 votes cast for establishing a high school, and six votes against. Of the 25 pupils that first year Edna Leslie (Mrs. Edna Grout) rated as “the best citizen”, and Grace Hobson (Mrs. Fed Smith) as “the best scholar.” The bond issue voted the following year was 151 to 8 for $20,000. Words fail to express the hot times over the proper location of what is now known as the Junior high school. The first trustees are all deceased: S. D. Thacher, F. H. Sheldon, Frank Barrows, Mr. Hobart, and Dr. Saeger. Irma Busch (Mrs. William T. Frederick), Abbie Cota Moreman, Carolyn and Thornton Wilson were in this pupil group.

Old Grammar School Building

When J. F. Linder was first trustee of the grammar school (1912-13) there were 82 children enrolled, and four teachers using all the rooms. Queen E. Kidd was principal, with Katherine Donahue, Olivia Doherty and Celia Parsons as teachers. The principal received $810, the teachers between $675 and $712.50. W. A. Goodman, Mrs. Canfield and E. L. Kreisher, up to 1919 earned $1,200. Miss Abbie Cota and Miss Edna Leslie were teaching during this period; also Mrs. Fred Burnell as Mrs. H. S. Van Tassel and as Mrs. Louise Thompson.

Miss Iris Evans graduated in the first eighth grade held in the old grammar school. In 1924 the 7th and 8th grade books were transferred to the Junior high. Her brother Jim in June, 1925, was in the first sixth grade graduating from the grammar into the Junior high school. Roscoe Ashcraft was principal both years. Miss Anna Gilbert (Mrs. Sexton) preceded him. Mrs. Hathaway and Miss Agnes Howe returned and both were principals during the time the old wooden building was in use.


By private subscrition in 1890, W. L. Rice, carpenter and liberal contributor, built the first little Matilija school near the river bed in a lovely oak tree setting. Anna Stewart was the first teacher. The three Soper children, three Rice girls, Blumbergs, and Lopez children were the first pupils.

There were 20 different teachers in the 24 years before February 20, 1914 when in the flood the building was completely washed down stream. A small building was immediately erected on this side of the river, high and dry. It was located on the Meiners’ property a half mile from the Rice residence at the corner. Miss Mary Freeman taught here, and Mr. Krull of the present Johnson place was the Matilija trustee until his death. Four years later the building was sold to the Matilija rancho and removed while the lot reverted to the Meiners’ estate. Miss Pope leaves a very complete record of this period.

In 1918 Matilija united with Nordhoff Union grammar school district. This district averages 10 to 15 children to educate and great was their rejoicing when the school bus in 1919 regularly transferred the children to Ojai.

Nordhoff Kindergarten

In 1920, ten pupils attended the first kindergarten established in the Valley with Miss Clara Newman as the teacher. The next year, in 1921, the name was changed to Ojai Kindergarten.

Miss Matilda Knowlton (Mrs. Joe Misbeek) taught in the Boyd room at the Woman’s Club for four years with an average daily attendance of 25. Then, in 1927, Miss Ruth M. Hart (Mrs. John Recker) moved across the street into the corner room of the present stucco building.

Following is a record of the teachers and the number of kindergarten pupils since that time:

Mary A. Wharton (1928-29) 26; Alice Connely (1929-30) 26; Mrs. Gladys Raymond (1930-31) 31; Elizabeth Pell (1931-32) 23; Elizabeth Pell Wellman (1932-33) 23; Mrs. Mildred Rodgers, present teacher.

Arnaz School District

Dr. Jose Arnaz of the large Arnaz land grant in 1877 gave to the County Superintendent Buckman (formerly of the Nordhoff brick school) the use of one room in his home for a school. His second wife was Adolph Camarillo’s sister, Pet Seymour, who later became Mrs. Drake, was the teacher. Mrs. Ventura Arnaz Wagner recalls how comfortably several years were spent until John Poplin arrived and agitated for a new school building. He hauled and donated lumber as well as contributed labor to the new plant. It was, and still is (what is left of it) a mile from the cider mill (Fergerson or Arnaz home) on the Creek road a few steps down off the present highway (Fergerson grade.) During heavy rains the footbridge washes out and of course it was impossible to hold school.

Young Dick Haydock was the first teacher in this new schoolhouse. He boarded with Poplin who became clerk of the board, until Mr. Healy moved in. Very soon he “ran the school” and the teachers boarded there. His children were the only American children in school at that period.

T. O. Toland’s wife taught this school in 1888 so it probably had been opened three years. Little of note occurred after Mr. Welsh’s resignation until the fall of 1926.

By the fall of 1926 the school had grown to such extent that it became necessary to expand into the coat room. Mrs. Hubbard was the teacher in the school room while Gretchen Close taught in the coat room. However very shortly, Miss Close’s room was moved to Laidler’s grocery store in Casitas Springs. This was the living room in which were housed for a time 37 school children.

Arnaz united with Nordhoff Union grammar school district in 1927. Mr. Nye was their representative on the union board of five members. This section is in the unique position of being part of the Nordhoff Union grammar school district and the Ventura high school district. At the present time, May 1935, Arnaz uses two school buildings, the Casitas Springs buildings, and the Oak View Gardens building.

Casitas Springs School

Mr. Nye in 1927 gave the present school lots to the district with the request that the building be known as the Casitas Springs school. A one-room school was built by Mr. Hitchcock at the contract price of $2,407. Miss Hattie Conner was the first teacher with 43 children in the three grades. All the children of grades four to six were transported by bus to the Nordhoff building.

Mr. Nye was succeeded as school trustee in 1928 by Charles G. Crose, who was succeeded by Victor McMains, and now I. V. Young is trustee for the district.

The teachers in the Casitas Springs school were Hattie Conner, Mrs. Paul Woodside, and the incumbent, Miss Ruth McMillian who has held the position since January, 1930.

Nordhoff Stucco Building

The stucco building of Nordhoff grammar school was built by Johnson and Hanson of Santa Barbara. They were awarded the contract for $34,982. J. R. Brakey had the $1,600 contract for moving the old building back on the northeast corner. Heat, lights, plumbing, blackboards and furniture increased the cost to around $48,000. During Mrs. Inez T. Sheldon’s first year as principal it was found necessary to add a teacher (Mrs. Estes, the wife of the principal of the high school). The assembly hall held two classes and the next year Mrs. Murphy taught in the Boyd Club where the Little Theatre now is. Then in 1927 after the uniting of the Arnaz with Nordhoff, eight rooms of the present building were filled to overflowing. It was two years before the last three rooms were added.

The old building is entirely occupied now and there is a faculty of 18. From 150 pupils in Mr. Ashcraft’s last year, the school has grown to 589 in 1934-35.


This story is in Walter W. Bristol’s 1946 book, “THE STORY OF THE OJAI VALLEY.”  It is assumed that Bristol is the author.

By Walter W. Bristol

The Gridley

One of the first, if not the first, efforts to get gravity water for domestic purposes was started in 1912 when O. W. Robertson, C. M. Pratt, E. D. Libbey, William Ladd, F. H. Osgood, H. T. Sinclair and John Burke bought the Gridley ranch in order to secure its water rights.

The water source is a tunnel in a canyon about 1,000 feet higher than the ranch house. The water is piped from there about three miles and supplied the homes of all the original shareholders. Later, Mr. Libbey turned in his interest, which was bought by the remaining owners.

This old waterline ran three miles from the Gridley Ranch to several homes on Foothill Road. It was built and operated by the Gridley Mutal Water Company which was formed in 1931.
This old waterline ran three miles from the Gridley Ranch to several homes on Foothill Road. It was built and operated by the Gridley Mutal Water Company which was formed in 1931.

The company was incorporated in 1931 as the Gridley Mutual Water Company. The water is charged to the stockholders each year on an estimated budget for the coming year, according to the amount of water each stockholder has used the previous year.

Richard Phillips was the superintendent for many years. Howard Bald is acting in that capacity now. Helen Robertson is president and William Simonds is secretary-treasurer.

The company eventually sold the ranch house and a few acres to Dr. Ida Stambach, who came to the valley many years ago with her nephew and niece, Henry and Alice Nixon. Both of the Nixons have been, and are, prominent citizens of the valley. Henry is a director of the Ventura County Chamber of Commerce, trustee of the Presbyterian Church and member of the Lions Club.

The Thacher Project

In the 1920’s, due to increased pumping and short rainfalls the water table throughout the valley reached a level which was alarming. The average rainfall, William Bowie informs the writer, from 1920 to 1929, inclusive, was 17.88 inches. This means that in some of these years the rainfall was far below normal.

In April or May of 1925, S. D. Thacher called a meeting at the school of prominent citizens to discuss the subject of an increased water supply for the valley, both upper and lower. The subject before the meeting was primarily the way to do it and the means with which to get it done.

It was decided to raise money enough to engage the engineering firm of J. P. Lippincott to present a plan which provided for the damming of the Sespe river at Cold Springs and piping the overflow water through the mountain to the valley. This would cover a drainage area of 66 square miles and impound 50,000 acre feet of water, which would be enough to irrigate a minimum of 15,000 acres.

The estimated cost was $3,262,000. He estimated that the generation of electric power would bring to the district $105,000 annually. At this time he also made a survey of the Matilija for dam sites, but concluded that the cost per acre just for Ojai alone would be prohibitive.

The matter hung fire for some time. The depression of 1929 put a stop to the matter and it never came to a vote by the people.

About this time A. E. McAndrew, at his own considerable expense, had check dams built on the side of the mountain near the Senior Canyon area. A heavy storm a year or two later swept all these away.

Senior Canyon Mutual Water Company

In May, 1929 work was begun on the project of drilling a tunnel to develop water in the Senior Canyon. It met with surprising success.

The initial drilling of 1,550 feet brought out 50 inches of water. Since that time the tunnel has been lengthened to about 2650 feet. Owing to sedimentation, however, the output has considerably decreased.

This water is a godsend to water users, both domestic and commercial, in the district from San Antonio School to and including the Topa Topa ranch.

The first officers of the company were Philip Pierpont, president, Denham Lord, vice-president, Hal Gorham, secretary-treasurer, A. L. Dodge and J. Myrick, Jr.

There are about fifty stockholders. Water is distributed by meter control and amount of water is allocated in accordance with the amount of stock held.

The 1929 Project

On August 2, 1929 another project for the development of water was launched. The object of this endeavor was to develop a water supply mainly for irrigation purposes, although provision was made for city participation if desired. The territory included a wide area in the vicinity of Ojai and Ventura.

The immediate plan was to call an election in this area to form a district with power to levy a tax on the property involved for the purpose of an extensive survey. The election, set for January 14, 1930, failed to carry.

The prime mover of the project in this section was Gird Percy. Mr. Percy was a splendid type of citizen and very popular. He served a term as president of the Lions Club.

The 1938 Project

On the evening of November 22, 1938, a meeting of the citizens of Ojai was called under the auspices of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce. The meeting took place in the high school auditorium and was called to order by Dr. Charles T. Butler, president pro-tem of the Chamber of Commerce.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss feasibility of taking advantage of Federal aid under certain congressional enactments concerning the establishment of districts for the purpose of water conservation by check dams, spreading or otherwise, and also pertaining to drainage development. There was considerable discussion after John Dron explained the details of the act.

The following persons were selected to arrange the preliminaries: R. S. Dennison, H. W. Gerry, John Barnard, Charles T. Butler and Clarence Mattson. This committee elected Dr. Butler its chairman.

In the good old American way an opposition group developed, led by Alfred Reimer. All through the year 1939 the controversy pro and con went on, occupying a great deal of newspaper space and creating a certain amount of bitterness. In December of 1939 the matter was argued before the supervisors to determine whether or not they would approve the calling of an election to settle the case. The supervisors turned it down and that was that.

The 1945 Project

The latest effort for water development was made in the summer of 1945 when it was proposed to put to the vote of the people the formation of the Ventura County Flood Control District. Ventura and Ojai were put in Zone 1 of the district.

The plan was to build two dams in the Matilija Canyon to control the flood waters for the use of Ventura and Ojai. Meetings were held to explain the matter and on October 16, 1945, an election took place in Ventura and Ojai calling for a bond issue of $3,400,000. The vote was in the affirmative by the narrow margin of 85.

Murky Water

Note: This article was written by Emily Thacher Ayala and first appeared in Edible Ojai, No. 22, Fall 2007. It has been slightly modified and contains additional photographs.

Murky Water

Until the desert knows
That Water grows
His sand suffice
But let him once suspect
That Caspian fact
Sahara dies.

Emily Dickenson, No. 1291

Emily & George Thacher, 1975
Emily & George Thacher, 1975

We do live in a desert—ok, that’s a bit of exaggeration used by many writers about Southern California–but when my great-grandfathers arrived here, one from England and the other from New England, they found a far different place in the Ojai Valley than what they had left behind. The sage and sumac embedded in dry rocky ground, the oak woodlands with their grasses and burr clover that had literally saved the Hispanic bovine bacon for more than a century. There was no water from the sky for most of the year and all too briefly there could be too much. My great-grandfather, Sherman Thacher, in his first year upon arrival and working at his older brother’s fledgling orange orchard on the east end Grand Avenue wrote to his mother in New Haven, Connecticut that, “Edward planted and God refused to water.” Irrigation water had to be hauled by barrel to the thirsty trees before dams, ditches, flumes and furrows were constructed over the next few decades. Indeed, irrigation was by far the most time-consuming and constant portion of the early farmers’ labors. From the other side of my Ojai roots, my grandfather, Elmer Friend, always said about his spring, summer and fall efforts of constructing and maintaining the thirsty furrows that he had “moved every rock in the Ojai Valley at least twice,” a bit of hyperbole I never heard any of his contemporaries deny him. Look at those massive stone walls in the East End and you also may begin to believe. And, of course, thanks to their efforts our valley is now a far different place that they have left as a legacy to us to labor in and enjoy ourselves.

Elmer and Henry Friend hand digging well on Reeves Road ranch, ca. 1925.
Elmer and Henry Friend hand digging well on Reeves Road ranch, ca. 1925.

But the subject of water seems to be at the forefront again… or perhaps the lack thereof and the price we must pay for it. Growing up I was acutely aware of water. Sometimes there was too much, with mud and boulders growling in the river below our orchard, but most times too little to maintain our special swimming hole in the Ventura River. I remember having to share bathwater with my brother, even with my parents. It was rather murky water–the water coming from the spring above our house, gravity fed directly into the pipes with whatever fine plant life and dirt the spring and pipes contained, then into the tub to be mixed with the daily grime of two grubby farm kids. It’s no wonder I’m not squeamish about the cleanliness of my fingernails. I remember times when water would not reach the upstairs bathroom during the summer; there just wasn’t enough pressure in the pipes for it to get there, teasing me from my upstairs bedroom by hovering in its tubular home in the wall between me and the ground. During our last sustained drought there wasn’t much water in the spring which might trickle only at night when the willows and other canyon plants demands were at their diurnal low.

Our spring-fed house would also do without water when a flood or fire came along damaging the system. Sometimes the pipes simply came apart from wildlife or our dogs mucking about in the spring. Someone (usually my dad) would go up the canyon amid the willows and poison oak and fix the pipe and clean the screen filter. Then in the 90’s we had a well drilled, and a tank put in, which has solved lots of our domestic water issues. When the pump is on, the tank is filled, and even if the spring runs low we have enough water to take showers; most of the time. Like any power outage, being our own ‘water company’ is a good reminder to be thankful for the utilities that others work long and hard to provide us with.

Attached to our water system for the house is the water system for the orchard. This system starts with a whole slew of larger pipes; one from the spring, from the well, the water tank and from the river. The orchard is divided into blocks each with a main valve connected to the various sources of water. Blocks are further divided into rows with a line of hose and their own riser and valve from the pipe below. Irrigating the orchard is tricky, determining which source of water to be used in each block, balancing the water to flow where it needs to go, ensuring that the sprinklers have enough pressure on the sloping ground. You turn on the water for a block and make sure the pressure gauge stays between 25 and 35 psi. If the pressure isn’t high enough, then turn off rows of sprinklers until the pressure is sufficient. When water is plentiful it takes 3 days to irrigate the whole 20 acres, 2 blocks each day. On a dry year when the spring is trickling and the well not pumping at full capacity it takes 5 days or more, and during some of those days you won’t take a shower upstairs. It’s tricky business, one must take into account the slope of the land—make sure the top of the slope is getting sufficient water. You don’t want to shortchange the trees at the end of the line. And of course make sure some water still flows to the house; don’t leave Mom with soap in her hair. And remember not to close too many valves or you may blow up a pipe—.

We all made mistakes—I’ve blown up a few water lines in my ignorance of where the pipes lie underground and what valve to open or close and in what order. I’ve also turned the well on to fill the tank and forgotten to close the valve after filling the tank; sending water gushing out onto the ground. We do have a one-way valve installed coming from the spring, so you can’t pump water back into the spring, which would certainly surprise the other critters using the spring. Yet this back flow of water might loosen the murk in the pipeline!

Joni (Florence), Anne, Elmer and Aleta Friend with the test pumping new well during the drought, 1951.
Joni (Florence), Anne, Elmer and Aleta Friend with the test pumping new well during the drought, 1951.

This may seem like a convoluted system for providing water to a mere 20 acres and one home, but I can assure you it isn’t much different on other local farms that balance water storage and use from various sources. Nor is it different from the larger daunting task that our local water companies undertake daily. Our Ojai Valley water comes from wells, Lake Casitas (CMWD), springs and then flows to storage tanks, balancing reservoirs, and directly to users. Getting that water around to each home and orchard involves an enormous number of valves, pumps, pressure gauges, miles of pipeline and lots of human vigilance! The water companies have a lot of people to answer to if the water stops or the pressure isn’t sufficient to reach someone’s upstairs. Water companies can’t get away with only allowing us to have water several days a week while they repair something or scratch their collective heads about a problem as we can with our orchard. Just to add to the task, water companies must have their water squeaky clean–minimal murk is not allowed under state drinking water standards. Add to the tasks for our water companies that much of the infrastructure they are using was put in place many years ago and virtually all of it is underground. It’s not surprising that they need to raise their rates to maintain the systems and have budgetary concerns during wet years and times of drought conservation. Farms may use more water, and we are willing to pay the cost of the water delivered, but the infrastructure and administrative costs should be shared equally among all customers who are able to access the system. This should include meters that only use water when their other sources become unavailable. This seems only reasonable to us.

Well drilling in 1990 on the same ranch on Reeves Road shown above.
Well drilling in 1990 on the same ranch on Reeves Road shown above.

Farmers are much more in tune with our water history, the delivery systems, and how they function, than the average residential customer. We are not opposed to paying for water as it sustains our industry. We are opposed to unfair and drastic rate changes that could potentially put us out of business. I suspect that with this recent rate change some folks that have small farms (5 to 10 acres around their home) may simply shut off the water and call it quits after they receive their water bills this fall and make the comparison to their income from growing oranges. As orchards go dry and are removed the feel of our valley will change. If you are curious to know what a fallow orchard looks like, check out the corner on Fordyce road where an orchard was removed several years ago. Or the empty field on the north side of Grand avenue between Carne and Fordyce. I live on Fordyce and can attest to the fact that the only benefit of these fallow lands is an influx of ground squirrels, some lizards, a few birds and lots of dust. If the valley reverts to sagebrush and the dust increases, our Ojai will become a less desirable place to live. Water keeps our valley green and pretty, provides jobs and food, and a buffer from wildfires. We should keep the orchards green for those reasons alone.

I’m not sure where we are headed with costly water rates. As the price rises we use less, the water companies sell less and then need to increase rates to make up for the lost income. We need to start acting as if we have a finite amount of water from all the sources available and price it out to all users in an equitable manner. Conserve, conserve—turn off the water when brushing your teeth, only flush for when necessary, don’t over water your yards, etc. Heck, you can even share bath water with someone— let’s ensure there’s enough to go around. Lastly, please do rain dances or say a special prayer in hopes that the heavens open to give us ample rainfall this winter!

When the well’s dry
We know the worth of water.

Benjamin Franklin,
Poor Richard’s Almanac




Early Stories of Ojai, Part VI (More on the Ojai Train)

Early Ojai Stories, Part VI (More on Ojai Train) by Howard Bald
Howard Bald describes life in turn-of-the-century Ojai in these articles from 1972.

The Ojai-Ventura Train.

There were other incidents in connection with the “Ojai Flier” or”The Cannon Ball” that might be worth mentioning. One of the train crew lived with his family on Signal Street, the old two-story house now occupied by a masseur [Inn Harmony]. His daughters in the evening would hitch the old white mare to the buggy and park them near the side door. When they heard the train whistle in the distance, one or all three daughters would jump in the buggy and dash off to meet their daddy.

One evening a daughter went out, and finding no horse and buggy waiting, decided that one of the other sisters had gone alone and thought nothing of it. When father checked out from his “run”, he found the horse and buggy in the customary place. After looking around and finding no daughters, he drove home alone. Later it was revealed that the old white mare was seen jogging down Signal, up Main Street to Fox, and down to the depot on her own.

A few years later my young sister decided to make Peggy, our two year old colt, acquainted with the train. Margaret was riding bareback with only a hackamore. Peggy took a pretty dim view of the hissing monster, putting on quite a scene, and at one time was in the middle of someone’s buggy. But through it all, Margaret stayed astride her.

A horse and buggy in downtown Nordhoff.

One time I was sent from the livery stable with a horse and buggy to meet a domestic of the Edward Thachers on Topa Topa Ranch coming in on the train. It was winter and, of course, dark when the train came in. We soon had the old gal and her belongings loaded and were off up Ojai Avenue. By the time we turned off onto Reeves Road (it wasn’t much more than a narrow, winding, rocky trail then and I don’t believe it had a name) the poor old Scandinavian was having some misgivings as to the reliability of her escort. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t drive faster.

I did my best to reassure her, pointing out that the road was rocky and narrow. When we turned up McAndrew road and the horse travelled even slower, she was really convinced that I was lost. There was nothing, though, that she could do, for it was pitch dark and I don’t suppose she even ha a pair of reins in her hands. It probably wasn’t eight o’clock when we drove into Topa Topa yard, and Mr. and Mrs. Thacher appeared with coal oil lanterns. But that lady, I guess, considered it a harrowing experience.

It was wintertime when once my mother, my sister and I were going someplace by train. As we groped our way on foot from Signal to Fox Street in the dim dawn, we heard the locomotive give some sharp whistles, but we sauntered along until we discovered the train was at the Fox Street crossing. Mr. Spence, the engineer, knew we were no aboard and was waiting there for us.

Another time most of Nordhoff went to Santa Barbara to a circus. We arrived via train in Ventura at 7 a.m. and had quite a wait there for another train, but were in Santa Barbara in time for the parade, saw the afternoon performance, then took a southbound train back to Ventura, arriving in time to catch the Ojai Flier home. I am not sure but what it had to wait for us in Ventura.

Mr. Spence, the engineer, was a kindly old gentleman, and once he took me with him on the locomotive, a cod burner, to Los Angeles and back, a two-day trip with 24 hours of travel. It was one of the events of my young life (I was probably 10 then), but alas it was somewhat marred by my introduction to indoor plumbing. I had never seen or heard of anything of the kind, and the whole thing was too embarrassing for words. No one knew how I suffered. Mr. Spence doubtless thought me a very unresponsive and unappreciative youngster. It was my first experience with electric lights, too. In the center of each room a cord hung from the fixture in the ceiling.

Well, so much for railroading. We will next dwell on the village of Nordhoff.