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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

First Malibu Author’s Poetic Chronicle of ‘Happy Days’ Remains Relevant for Residents


It’s never been selected for the One Book, One City-Malibu reading list, and the suggestion that the remodeled Malibu Library be named after Malibu’s first literary resident was dismissed with derision by a previous city council, but “Happy Days in Southern California” still paints an evocative depiction of Malibu in the 19th century and provides a portrait of its romantic and deeply religious author, Frederick Hastings Rindge.
Rindge was the fourth owner of Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit. He and his wife May Knight Rindge purchased the 13,330-acre Spanish Land Grant in 1892. They later expanded the ranch to 17,000 acres.
Rindge’s book “Happy Days in Southern California,” published in 1898, provides the earliest in-depth account of life in Malibu, although finding facts amongst the flowery and sometimes archaic language and philosophical and historical digressions can be challenging.
The City of Malibu’s website calls the ranch “a working cattle and grain-raising ranch which through the many years of the Rindge dynasty was to become one of the most valuable large real estate holdings in the United States,” but Rindge only resided at the ranch for a few years before fire destroyed the ranch house in 1903. He died in 1905, at the age of 48, before a second house could be built. And even when he enjoyed being a gentleman farmer, the family's primary residence was in Los Angeles.
Rindge, who inherited an impressive family fortune from his father, moved to California in 1882. He Rindge invested in water, electrical utilities and oil, founded the Conservative Life Insurance Company, and served as vice-president of the Union Oil Company, and as a director of the Los Angeles Edison Electric Company.
According to an article by Daphne Abeel published in Harvard Magazine, Rindge contributed large portions of his fortune to Harvard, his alma mater, and the town of Cambridge, MA, where he was born.
“[Rindge was the] most important individual benefactor [of Cambridge] Abeel wrote. “Between 1888 and 1890 he funded the construction of (and sometimes also bought the sites for) the city hall, the public library, and the Manual Training School, a vocational school for boys (now part of Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School). Besides his exclusively civic gifts, he made a major contribution to the building of Harvard-Epworth Methodist Church, adjacent to Harvard Law School.”
A high school, two streets and a public housing project are named for him in Cambridge. He specifically requested, however, that his name not appear in the buildings he endowed during his life time.
“[Rindge] specified that his own name should not appear anywhere on the buildings, but he emblazoned the walls of the library with the Ten Commandments,” wrote Abeel. He also composed an inscription for the entrance to the city hall: “God has given Commandments unto Men. From these Commandments Men have framed Laws by which to be governed. It is honorable and praiseworthy to faithfully serve the people by helping to administer these Laws. If the Laws are not enforced, the People are not well governed.”
In California, Rindge invested in subdivisions and developments in Playa del Rey, Stockton, and in the West Adams District, where he commissioned an imposing French Chateau-style home for his family, completed in 1903. He was president of the Maclay Rancho and Water Company, which opened the door for development in the San Fernando Valley.
If Rindge had lived, Malibu may have ended up with a very different character. He envisioned the coast as an “American Riviera,” that would “rival France and Italy,” although he wrote that “ seems best to keep Zuma as a park, and to tell the axe and plough to keep off the sycamore and alfilaria, so you can come, kind reader, and see it as it is. Zuma! To be in your presence makes one happy; it makes one feel like singing “God grant that peace may ever be/In Zumaland beside the sea.”
“Happy Days in Southern California” is, at least in part, a California real estate advertisement aimed at New Englanders, but it is an advertisement written by a man with a deep love for the product he was promoting, and he didn't gloss over the negative aspects of life in Southern California.
Rindge describes historic droughts in 1863, 1877 and 1897. “I have heard men say with a sigh, ‘It was the dry year of ’77 that broke me. My sheep all died,’” wrote Rindge. “In November 1863, there was a regular downpour, and it did not rain again until November 1864; and in consequence, dead cattle covered the ground from Monterey to Southern California.”
In 1897, “Word came from Ventura today that a man up the valley shot all his range horses rather than see them die, for he could not sell them...they are taking horses to the soap-works and selling them for two dollars and a half. The hide is worth a dollar and a half, the tail 50 cents and the balance is valuable for soap and land dressing.”
“No one who has not lived through the long summer and autumn California months can understand how welcome the first rains are...One can almost see the thirsty soil look up to the sky with smiles of gratitude. The dust flies in anger because its reign has ended. Long live the rain!”
Rindge also provides a grim picture of wildfire. “...the flames do not stop. The death wind has three days to blow, and it does not dream of ceasing. To the farmers and the mountaineers the vibrating air is sounding the death knell of their hopes,” Rindge wrote. “Oh for the power to write a ‘Ramona’ book to arouse sentiment against our forest fires. What legislator will frame a prohibitory law against thus firing brush? How great the prison penalty to be!
Rindge describes his Serra Canyon residence, named “Laudamus Farm,” as “A farm near the ocean, under the lee of the mountains, with a trout brook, wild trees, a lake, good soil, and excellent climate, one not too hot in summer.”
There are descriptions of a handful of pioneers and mountain men, including Andrew Sublett, who “had his arm broken by a grizzly bear in Malibu Canyon” in 1854, and an old beekeeper and trapper, who made his own furniture out of foraged wood and the skins of wild badgers and lived off the land.
Rindge has a keen eye for the natural world. He describes “the snowy line” of dolphins “ploughing the water in foaming furrows….Sometimes they are visible right in the wall of a breaking wave,” he wrote, a sight that still delights beachgoers.
Rindge describes wildflowers, mountain vistas, springs and streams and hidden canyon waterfalls, including Solstice and Escondido falls. He also describes long rides across miles of empty Malibu shore, kelp pods “crackling and popping” under the wheels of the carriage, and the beauty of the pristine mountains.
A portion of the book is devoted to Rindge’s historical perspectives, including the assertion that Point Dume, which he called “Duma,” was a corruption of the Chumash word Zuma-abundance, In contrast to later writers who attributed the name to Father Francisco Dumetz.
The author occasionally digresses into philosophical discussions-at one point he diagrams heaven's relationship to the earth, but he also has a sense of humor.
“Of course the sea serpent visits,” he wrote. “When I saw him last he was a long, mast-like log with a cross-piece rising out of the water like a long neck and head. I was ready to be certain it was alive, until I found it was not. At another time the serpent consisted of a great mass of seaweed...which rose and fell on the rolling of the sea enough like a serpent to declare that you had seen one-almost.”
Rindge’s love for his ranch and appreciation for the natural world it encompassed is evident throughout the work.
“Happy is the man to whom nature has not lost its charm,” wrote Rindge. “Unhappy is he who, enslaved and engulfed by ambition, mammon, care, or pain, cannot listen to nature and enjoy the sounds of her songs.”
“Happy Days in California” is available as a facsimile reprint, complete with art nouveau cover, from the gift shop at the Adamson House Museum. A poorly scanned but mostly legible version is available from various sources online as an e-text.
LOCAL COLOR—Published in 1898, “Happy Days in Southern California” is part real estate advertisement and part hymn of praise for Southern California in general and Malibu in particular.

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