Signal 100 | The Signal and the Cowboy way

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, two of the biggest movie stars on Earth, visited Newhall’s Andy Jauregui for cowboy lessons. Courtesy photo
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No. 9 in a series of 52 commemorating 100-year anniversary of The Signal

Years ago, I used to help out at the local Cowboy Festival when it was properly held at Melody Ranch. There used to be a family of blacksmiths, a dad, son and son-in-law, and they’d set up shop on the main street of the movie studio’s historic Western town. You can imagine what kind of shape you’d have to be in to pound horseshoes and twist steel under the unforgiving Santa Clarita sun for 12 hours.

They made me a few items for the old Scared o’ Bears spread. One Saturday after the place was closing, I was manning the Historical Society’s saloon and “bought” them all a most deserving round of cold beers.

A cowboy’s toast

Dressed in filthy cowboy regalia, soot, sweat and dust, they regarded the cold brews as divine waters. It was the son-in-law, a playful sack of muscle, who raised his glass solemnly and proposed a toast. We all lifted our beer mugs. The cowboy said: “Here’s to rap music and sayin’ bad things about America.” We all took a second to reflect, let out cowboy yells and downed our beers.

And that is, in part, what it is to be a cowboy — mirth, hard-damn work for next to nothing, a code of honor and camaraderie and a raucous sense of mischief.

Up until a few years ago, the Cowboy Way was the very fabric of the Santa Clarita Valley. When I was a boy, this was mostly farm and ranchland. On hot August days, it was hellishly hot and people cried. Not because they were triggered, but because the bouquet of a million-plus onions was blowing into town and stinging our eyes. From 1919, when we started this newspaper, up until about the 1970s, we were cowboy country. The Signal donated uncountable yards of space about agricultural news, Western celebrities, rodeos, farm accidents, barn dances, feuds, livestock, quarantines, shooting accidents and rustling (from chickens to prize bulls and horses). Up until the mid-1970s, we had a full-time sheriff’s deputy assigned to the Valencia office just to investigate rustling. My dear pal, Signal Editor Tim Whyte and I, just had a small argument about whether there was an actual working ranch or farm left in the SCV.

Alas, the life agrarian here is dead.

The farm, the ranch and the people who worked them defined both this valley and the coverage of The Mighty Signal for most of the paper’s 100-year life.

Up until the 1950s, some subscribers paid for The Signal in barter. How distant a concept now, in a yuppie-dominated valley, that people would trade chickens, eggs, cuts of beef, fruits or vegetables for a newspaper subscription.

Our mythic hero

The cowboy period lasted such a short time in American history — only a couple decades. Yet, it still defines us as a country. Certainly, much of the world views America as a land of unflinching blacks and whites. “You cowboy Americans,” as the Russians like to say. One of the influential and unsung heroes in American history, William S. Hart, left his castle to us.

Back in the 1920s, when the silent screen legend Bill Hart was building his estate atop the Hill of the Winds, he helped map out the paved road that would lead to his home. Hart walked the hill himself, carrying a stack of Signals under his arm. Every few feet, he’d stop, tear off a Signal page, lay it on the ground and put a heavy rock atop. Surveyors followed his newspaper trail and that paved road hundreds of thousands have climbed to the museum was first marked by your community newspaper.

Few today have any idea of the epic importance of the man after whom they named a school district and the SCV’s first high school. You see, Hart created the modern cinema cowboy. Actors like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Gary Cooper, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and ELVIS HIMSELF, for crying out loud, all have credited Hart for creating the prototype of the American Western hero, authentic in dress, deed and code. Hart was trained as a stage Shakespearean actor and took the classic dramatic ethics to create what thousands of actors after have used. What is a hero? Doomed to failure, he tries anyway. He does the right thing, even if it means self-sacrifice.

We all fall short of living a hero’s life. But what the Western hero does is to remind us to do esteemable acts, in all our behavior. One could write encyclopedias on Hart. For a quarter century, he was this valley’s leading citizen. When he died in June 1946, the entire town shut down, as did much of Los Angeles. A rodeo was going on in L.A. When they announced Hart had passed, the entire grounds sobbed.

As did we.

A town of manly men

Can one imagine, living in the SCV today, and there’s only 500 souls in town? Add to that, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are your neighbors?

Bill Hart was one of the most recognizable faces on Earth. In the 1920s, right below the Hart mansion, lived the NEXT most famous cowboy on the planet, Tom Mix. His little office is still there on Main Street.

Neat story about Tom.

He was shooting a movie at Vasquez Rocks and some of his horses were stolen. Mix himself tracked them to a ranch and corralled the culprits — two teenage boys. Instead of having them arrested, he gave them a kind talking-to about choosing the right path. Then, he gave them jobs on the set.

Mix, by the by, helped The Signal in 1919, when our headquarters at the Swall Hotel burned down. On horseback, Mix lassoed the chimney and pulled it over to help with tearing down the charred Signal world corporate headquarters. We’d rebuild in a new brick building.

Across the valley was Harry Carey Sr. and his epic 8,000-acre Saugus ranch, Indian village and trading post. The Signal covered how one of Carey’s ranch hands saw one of his movies, got drunk, burst into the actor’s house and put a bullet (in the eye) in an oil painting of Carey. Carey wasn’t as kind as Mix. He grabbed the 17-year-old and dragged him to the poky.

Another movie legend, Hoot Gibson, owned what today is the Saugus Speedway, home of some of the biggest rodeos in the world. Around the same time, THE most famous child actor in the world, Billy Lamoreaux (stage name, Buzz Barton) went to Newhall Elementary. Buzz’s fame didn’t extend to the Newhall stage. In 1925, The Signal noted he was featured in the school play — as “shrubbery.”

Poor Buzz. His parents, and the Great Depression, ate up the fortune he made as an actor. After serving in World War II, he came back to Newhall and spent the rest of his days as a working cowboy at Corky Randall’s ranch in Railroad Canyon. He died a poor man.

Corky himself is a Western legend, making headlines locally and around the world. For years, he was THE top producer of livestock for the movie industry. He owned “The Black Stallion,” that great horse from the 1979 movie. I’m smiling as I write this. I used to ride that horse. Corky gave it to a local girl, Christy Parks. Christy used to keep the horse in her living room, when it rained. Corky’s animals appeared in hundreds of flicks, TV shows, videos and commercials, from “Ben Hur” to Herb Albert.

We used to have the biggest Fourth of July parade in the Western United States, with entries topping 2,000. In 1939, a local cowpoke wrote a polite letter to The Signal, complimenting the SCV on their festivities. “But I had to ride 20 miles one way to get to the parade. Then, there was a nice picnic. It sure would be nice if we had watering and some feed for the animals perhaps next year.” The cowboy? Former Saugus resident and future Academy Award winner, Ben Johnson (“The Last Picture Show”).

The Signal covered thousands of horse riders over the years. Today, the parade has a handful. It’s just too hard to get the animals through a concreted suburbia.

One could fill volumes on the Hollywood lore of the SCV’s cowboy heroes. Roy Rogers bought his wonder horse, Trigger, here. He paid what was then a year’s salary for the Placerita Canyon palomino. Tom Mix bought his wonder horse, Tony, also in Placerita. Famed actor Slim Pickens used to compete in the local rodeos. Billionaire/cowboy Gene Autry (co-pilot to future Arizona senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater) owned Melody Ranch in Placerita, where thousands of Westerns, TV shows and media have been shot. And these are a small token of the big names. The SCV has had hundreds of famous cowboys (and cowgirls) who took top national honors in roping, bull and bronc riding. Poor Newhall rodeo star Fay Adams died in Nogales, Arizona, in 1929 in a freak roping accident.

And then there was liandro

Like many SCV folks o’ cow, Andy Jauregui is enshrined in Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy Museum. The big, lanky drink of water with the infectious smile was a good friend and famous cowboy both on the rodeo and movie circuit. His friends called him Andy. He owned a bronc named Steamboat who made national fame. The pony had been ridden by the world’s top cowboys and not one lasted the full 8 seconds. One of my all-time favorites involves the Placerita rancher, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

In 1939, Gable was at Andy’s home, taking cowboy lessons for an upcoming movie. Gable and Lombard were two of the world’s leading actors at the time. There’s only a few thousand people in the entire extended SCV and word somehow got out that they were visiting. Soon, literally about 10 percent of the valley’s population sort of “showed up.” Grinning locals climbed out of cars and trucks, carrying baked goods, deviled eggs, lemonade, all pretending they didn’t know Andy had company. They lined the arena and watched Andy teach Gable to rope, ride and walk as Lombard sat atop a fence.

The Signal also managed to show up.

The dark side of cowboying

Since the days of Don Ignacio del Valle in the mid-1800s, rustling has been a local problem. Tom Vernon, the weaselly Saugus cowpoke, is famous for the 1929 Great Saugus Train Derailment Robbery in town. Earlier, he was sent to Folsom for a few years for rustling cattle from actor Harry Carey Sr.

Cowboys are often known for their unusual, oft simple and boy howdy names. The Mighty Signal published so many handles. A lot of SCV cowpokes were named Red, Browny, Blondie, Blacky and one Blue. There’s Boone. Butch. Cooder. Slickel. Rifle. Maverick. Cody. Zane. Angus. Smith (first name). Buster. Ranger. Early. McCoy (first name). Buck. Deacon. Fox. We covered the exploits of one of my favorite Western names: Gobino Gobena. The cattle rustler from 1939 slit the throat of a bull calf. Gobena threw the still living creature into the back of his 1929 sedan and was making his getaway over Market Street. Señor Go-Go was speeding, lost control of his Model A, hit a pole and nearly split his Ford in half. Sheriff’s deputies found a lot of damning evidence in that vehicle, including the blood-stained knife used to lacerate the calf. And, of course, there was the branded calf. Oddly enough, that same story was repeated over the years. In the 1970s, lawmen found TWO healthy colts in the back of a late-model Oldsmobile. Talk about trunk space.

The self-perforating man of the West

The absolute No. 1 repeating story in this paper, from 1958 to 1961, was the self-inflicted gunshot wound. Blame TV.

Westerns were king and one year, eight of the top 10 television shows were oaters. Nearly all Westerns carried something that never happened in The Real Old West — the showdown. Ignoring reality, writers penned scripts that had hero and villain facing one another at the end of an episode, usually on main street. This created an instant phenomenon all across America — fast draw competitions.

Back then, we were freeway close to everywhere and a favorite spot for men to practice their quick draw. Worse, they sometimes tweaked their firearms, filing down firing pins for hair trigger quickness. The result?

Shootists would frequently get the order-of-instructions wrong. Instead of Draw, Aim, Fire, they’d Draw, Fire And Go Whoops. For about two years, the top continuing story in The Mighty Signal was the self-inflicted gunshot wound. It was also the No. 1 cause of entry at the little Newhall Community Hospital.

I think my favorite story was this Los Angeles chap who motored up here with two Buntline Specials, the guns made famous in the hit TV show, “Wyatt Earp.” The revolvers had huge barrels the size of irrigation pipe and were impossible to quickly remove from a holster. The poor fellow slapped leather then blew two matching holes through both knees and feet.

Needless to say, the out-of-towner whistled when he went to the beach on a windy afternoon.

A life extinct

I used to lead tourists around Melody Ranch, on special tours. We’d take a bus and drive past strip malls and condos without number, to explore the Wild West. It’s hard to fathom, that actual, living people once roamed this valley and in their day, lived a hard-scrabble life. William Chormicle died in 1919, shortly after he shot a 600-pound bear on his Castaic porch. The bruin corpse blocked the doorway and old man Chormicle had to chisel his way through the log cabin to get out. Chromicle was one of the patriarchs of America’s bloodiest range wars, right here in the SCV. He fought W.W. Jenkins for 40 years. Jenkins’ daughter, Ruby Kellogg, died in 1979. As a girl, Ruby was almost lynched in that conflict. Chromicle’s son was. For a while, Bouquet was called Hangman’s Canyon because of the execution.

A contingent of hundreds of locals, all in Western period costume, caravanned down to Hollywood in 1939 for a movie premier. They had been extras in Errol Flynn’s classic, “Dodge City.” Old-timer Charles Kingsburry pointed out that there weren’t any white-faced cattle in Kansas in the 1870s.

The Signal covered droughts and horses running into one another head first — and dying. They snapped pictures of little cowgirls and buckaroos, most of whom are now long dead. We covered barn dances and frontier beard contests, and once how everyone in town was recruited to harvest potatoes after a migrant farmer mis-schedule. When I was growing up, it was not uncommon to see people riding horses on main thoroughfares. The Signal printed ads for feed stores and horseshoeing, well-digging and rabbit cages. Columnists offered not political tips, but pointers on weed abatement and squirrel poison. In 1959, we wrote of Randolph Abbott dying a cowboy’s death. The world champion rodeo star simply bent over in his saddle in a Castaic arena, dead of a heart attack.

A good way to go, I say.

I suppose what I miss about those days were the quieter times, moonlight horse rides, campfires, that simple sense of humor. The Signal reported on the day after Christmas, 1949, when the thermometer plummeted to 13 degrees. The old Castaic Rodeo was cancelled. Trucks carrying broncs and bulls couldn’t cross the Ridge Route. Troughs had 5-inch thick ice on them. Cowboy Joe Sellars noted “it was so cold, you had to blow out the candles with a hammer.”

John Boston is the most prolific journalist in The Mighty Signal’s century.

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