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Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Historians Piece Together Record of Homesteaders’ Way of Life

• First in a Series on the Pioneering Families Who Settled Malibu’s Rugged Backcountry


The re-publication of a long out-of-print article on the conflict between the Rindge family and the Yerba Buena-area homesteaders in the early 20th century provided an opportunity for residents—past and present—of the remote western corner of the Santa Monica Mountains to come together to share stories and memories and to learn more about the area’s history.
Journalist and historian Jo Hindman published “The Big Ranch Fight” in 1955. The original 12-page article provides an intriguing look at life in the western portion of the Santa Monica Mountains during the early 20th century and how conflict between homesteaders and the Rindge family over easements eventually contributed to the creation of Pacific Coast Highway. At the core of the original article is a series of interviews conducted by Hindman with Lauretta and John Spurgeon Houston, some of the last of the original Yerba Buena Road homesteaders to still live in the mountains.
The article, rediscovered after the author’s death in 1995, has been republished in its entirety in the current issue of 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.
Johnson discussed the rediscovery of “The Big Ranch Fight” and introduced what he described as the “village” of people who “helped him bring their story to a new generation of readers,” at a special presentation at the Museum of Ventura County on March 1.
“They had to pull it out of my hands [to get it to the printer on time],” Johnson said at the presentation in Ventura. “I care deeply about this issue. [The article was] originally 12 pages, now it’s 48 pages. I think there were hundreds of thousands of research hours.”
He was joined by National Park Service Ranger Linda Valois, who has lived and worked in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area for over a decade.
The SMMNRA is currently conducting a study of cultural and historical resources within the boundaries of the SMMNRA. One of the main questions Valois is investigating is “how did people adapt, or not adapt, to the natural environment.”
“We’re still in the process,” she said. “It will take, I think, another three years. The whole mountains were open for homesteading.”
Valois presented a comprehensive map of homesteaders and later landowners in the Yerba Buena District. “Homesteaders had to improve the land, put up structures, clear at least five-acres,” she explained. “Sections were set aside in each district for schools.”
Valois said that her interest in the homesteaders began while she was volunteering at Circle X Ranch, a former Boy Scout Camp that is now an integral part of the SMMNRA. “It’s hard to find anything out. I slowly began to identify people through interviews.”
“There are so many people here who have such strong ties and memories of Yerba Buena,” Johnson said.
More than 30 former and current Yerba Buena residents attended the talk, including 91-year-old Millie Meek Decker, whose father managed the Circle X Ranch when it still belonged to Leroy and Olive Lane—the original homesteaders—in the 1920s.
The first homesteaders arrived in 1901. According to Valois, the first to arrive snapped up the most promising land for farming. Early homesteaders were able to access the area along the coast from Camarillo. Later arrivals were not so fortunate.
Around 1903, the Rindges, who owned the entire Topanga Malibu Sequit Rancho from Las Flores Canyon to Arroyo Sequit at what is now the terminus of Mullholland Highway at Pacific Coast Highway, began buying out homesteaders at the western end of the ranch to facilitate construction of a railroad. By building their own railroad, the Rindges hoped to keep Union Pacific out of Malibu.
The Rindges extended the Malibu Rancho to the western side of Little Sycamore Canyon, placing the entrance to Yerba Buena Road within the boundary of the Malibu Rancho and off limits to homesteaders who depended on the coastal access to reach the outside world.
The title of the 1955 article refers to the battle that ensued.
Yerba Buena residents had to wait for low tide at what is now Thornhill Broome Beach to bring their wagons and horses past Rindge land.
Homesteaders usually made a twice-annual trip to town to buy dry goods and staples like flour and sugar.
A one-room school house provided education for young residents.
Valois shared video from a 2003 reunion between four students who went to the Yerba Buena School: Millie Meek Decker, Larry Houston, Louis Sanchez, Pepe Sanchez and Ernie Serrano.
“[My parents would] drive their wagon into Broome Ranch and then sled up to our place because the road was so steep that if the horses stopped the wagon would roll back,” Houston said in the interview. “They even brought mom’s piano in that way, and we would haul it to the school so she could play for the dances.”
“We moved here in 1928,” Decker said in the interview. “There was nothing on the property [the Lane Ranch, now Circle X] when we moved here. We usually came up Carlisle Canyon. Daddy hauled everything up on horseback.”
“No experience of Yerba Buena would be complete without discussion of Neptune’s Net,” Johnson said. “Eastman Nixon Jacobs, founder of Panorama Pacific in the 1950s, at the age of 42 came out to the coast [and started the restaurant].”
Johnson produced a slide of the original receipt, dated 1955, for delivery of the restaurant’s commercial Wolf stove. Photos in the journal show Jacobs posing in front of the tiny outpost’s brand new gas station in the 1950s.
According to Johnson’s research, the current restaurant was built beside a small gatehouse erected in 1929 on May Rindge’s orders, to keep traffic on the newly opened Pacific Coast Highway from straying off the road and onto ranch lands. The gatehouse, painted green and occupied by a pair of elderly caretakers, was allegedly peppered with bullet holes, although the hard feelings between homesteaders and the Rindges never appear to have escalated into serious violence.
Next week, The News will take a closer look at the “Big Ranch Fight,” and the lives of the Yerba Buena settlers.
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. FI: or 805-653-0323.

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