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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Early Mountain Homesteaders Helped to Shape Malibu’s History

• Second in a Series of Articles on the Pioneering Families Who Settled the Area’s Rugged Backcountry


The republication of a long out of print article on the conflict between the Rindge family-owners of the entire Topanga Malibu Sequit Rancho and homesteaders in the western part of the Santa Monica Mountains in the early 20th century opens a window on an almost forgotten chapter of Malibu history.
Jo Hindman published “The Big Ranch Fight” in 1955. The original 12-page article provides an intriguing look at life in the Yerba Buena District of the Santa Monica Mountains during the era and how conflict between homesteaders and the Rindge family over easements eventually contributed to the creation of Pacific Coast Highway.
The article, “rediscovered” after the author's death in 1995, has been republished in its entirety in the Journal of Ventura County History and is now accompanied by a preface, epilogue, maps, photographs, and a wealth of fascinating footnotes contributed by Ventura County Museum Library librarian Charles Johnson and a small army of researchers and volunteers.
According to the article, for most of the 19th century the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains was remote, isolated and almost entirely uninhabited.
The U.S. government's Land Act of 1862 opened surveyed public lands that had previously been occupied by Native Americans to any homesteader willing to file a claim, build a house-however small and rustic—and “improve” at least a portion of the land with cultivation.
The same year, vast tracts of land were set aside in the west for the Union Pacific Railroad Company and the Central Pacific Railroad Company.
While most of what is now Malibu belonged to Frederick Hastings Rindge, who purchased the entire Topanga Malibu Sequit Rancho in 1892 , the western portion was reserved for the railroads.
That didn't stop a small number of settlers from “squatting” in the mountains and eking out a living off the land as early as the 1870s. However, a devastating drought in the late 19th century severely limited expansion into the Santa Monica Mountains.
In 1895, Congress passed a new act, making smaller sections of land available for $1.25 an acre. According to Johnston's research, “In 1889 the Land Office in Los Angeles began to adjudicate titles to land held by claimants,” opening up the last “free” lands on the West Coast, including the Yerba Buena District, in what is now western Malibu.
Johnson’s research indicates that a man named Frank Diehl was the first “official” homesteader in the Yerba Buena District. His land patent was recorded in May 1901. By the 1920s every available acre of land was claimed in the Santa Monica Mountains, which “did not keep unscrupulous lawyers from offering their services to those hopeful of acquiring property,” according to Johnson. Articles in the L.A. Times chronicle the battle between Malibu Rancho owner May Rindge, Frederick Hastings Rindge’s widow, and the homesteaders who filed claims-prompted by “professional land locators” for property that belonged to the Rancho.
Homesteaders and squatters had a challenging life. They were dependent on natural springs for water; supplies had to be carted in by wagon over steep and dangerous terrain; necessities, medical aid and all of the other “modern conveniences” were a full day’s ride from home.
Initially there were four routes to the Yerba Buena District: over the Broome Ranch to Oxnard; over Boney Ridge into the Johnson Ranch near Triunfo on El Camino Real; over the Lewis Ranch to Camarillo; and along the coast via the Rindge Ranch Road.
However, the Rindges began buying up property adjacent to the Malibu Rancho in 1906. By 1917, they had acquired the entire coast route all the way to Little Sycamore Canyon and closed it to all travelers, eliminating the safest and quickest access route to the mountain and enforcing even greater isolation on the residents.
Hindman, in her 1955 article, paints a portrait of a self-sufficient and neighborly community of pioneers, who learned to live off the land, cope with emergencies that ranged from wildfire to snakebite, and still found time to gather at the one-room Yerba Buena school on Saturday nights for square dances that were the highlight of the week.
Much of the original article is derived from the author’s interviews with Lauretta Houston, who arrived in the Yerba Buena District in 1917 with her husband John Spurgeon and their two-month-old daughter, Geneva Martha.
The Houstons purchased 40 acres from a homesteader named Albert Lee Kidd who, in Hindman’s words, “could not endure the rough mountain life.”
They moved into the 10-foot by 12-foot cabin built by Kidd. They had water, piped from a spring down to the homestead—most of the neighbors had to carry their water in buckets-but no indoor plumbing or any of the other conveniences they left behind in Alhambra.
“It seemed as though we were being tried,” Houston recounted to Hindman. “It didn’t rain until February, and water and crops were absolute necessities that figured in our plans. We lost nearly everything. All but two of our calves died. Later, people told us that they had given the Houstons ‘just three months,’ but we were determined to stick it out and we did.
“Absolute self reliance was an essential, yet when circumstances caused anyone bad luck, the rest of us were there with immediate help,” Houston said.
Houston led the campaign to bring a school bus to the mountain, so Yerba Buena children could attend high school in Oxnard. The little Yerba Buena school only went through the eighth grade. She also volunteered regularly to take the monthly trip to Triunfo for the mail.
“It was made on horseback, one day out, one day back,” wrote Hindman. Houston would return with the mail but also “medicine, candy for the children, needles, thread, yeast cakes, tobacco and small articles that would fit into the saddlebags.”
“The yearly trip to Camarillo and Oxnard for the ‘big buy’ was made through the Jack Broome Ranch in the Point Mugu area,” wrote Hindman, adding that the coffee, flour, sugar and other staples were augmented with wild game and the “pink beans” that were one of the main crops grown by the homesteaders.
Anyone who wished to travel east to Santa Monica was at the mercy of the tides. The Rindges controlled the coast road but could not prevent travelers from taking their wagons along the beach. Houston recounts occasions when homesteaders would be forced to camp overnight, waiting for the tide to turn. Barbed wire and armed range riders enforced the Malibu Rancho’s no trespassing decree.
May Rindge cited “constant danger of brush fires, a menace heightened by the presence of campers,” in a statement to the Los Angeles Times in 1916, during litigation filed to force her to open the coast route. “One such fire in 1903 caused $100,000 [damage],” Rindge stated.
Rindge attempted to circumvent demands from the State Railroad Commission for railroad right-of-way through the ranch by constructing her own railroad.
“Of exceptional ability, May K. Ridge at one time was the only California woman president of a railroad, and one of three women listed so nationally in 1916,” Hindman wrote.
Rindge spent much of her fortune keeping out the railroads but she failed in the end to prevent construction of Pacific Coast Highway, originally Roosevelt Highway, which opened to the public in 1929.
For the residents of Yerba Buena District, the coastal route brought paved roads, butane and electricity and an end to the residents' pioneer lifestyle.
Lauretta Houston provides a vivid portrait of Rindge, describing her as “On the heavy side, sensibly dressed in serviceable clothes when she rode her ranges in automobiles.
“Heavy khaki skirts (sometimes the divided culotte type), khaki shirt and a bolero with leather or buckskin fringe was her typical range outfit. Her long hair was combed up under a soft, floppy felt hat.
“Her eyes were brown and steady and there was ‘no backing down when she made up her mind.’ She wore a brace of revolvers in a holster and although brusque in manner at times, [she] was often pleasant and friendly.”
According to Johnson, the Houstons moved to Oxnard after the devastating 1956 wildfire that ravaged much of western Malibu. Lauretta died in 1994. She was 96.
In a curious twist of fate, she was a member of the Ventura County Historical Society at the time of her death, never knowing what an important part she played in preserving a vital record of local history.
A limited number of copies of the current Journal of Ventura County History are available at the Museum of Ventura County and can be ordered by phone or purchased in the museum gift shop. FI: or 805-653-0323.

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