No. 19 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal
Love them. Hate them. People are enthralled by gods and kings. We have neither in America and certainly the Santa Clarita Valley. The closest to apex VIPs are presidents of the United States.
In the last century, presidents like Richard Nixon, Dwight David Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan have visited Santa Clarita. So far, no Donald Trump. Other chief execs have visited, along with some pretty fascinating almost-presidents. It’s not like the Secret Service was polite enough to call 259-1234 and share the commander-in-chief’s itinerary. Usually, we found out long afterward.
Little Ben to Theodore
Even before The Mighty Signal was born in February 1919, presidents have been swinging through our halcyon climes. On April 25, 1891, President Benjamin Harrison briefly stopped at the Saugus Train Station, back when it was across the street from the present-day Saugus Cafe. Actually, Harrison’s train stopped. Ben didn’t even get out to stretch. He was on a California campaign swing. Maybe Little Ben should have climbed out because he later lost the election.
“Little Ben” was his unasked-for nickname. At 5-foot-6, Harrison was the second-shortest president. James Madison was THE shortest, but Madison never stepped foot in our community. Harrison was also a president who lost the popular vote but won resoundingly in the electoral college, 233-168. (The other four to lose the popular but win the electoral were: John Quincy Adams (5 feet, 7 inches), Rutherford B. Hayes (5-foot-9); George W. Bush (6-foot-2) and Donald Trump (6-foot-3).
Another president who stopped in the SCV was Theodore Roosevelt. He hated the nickname of “Teddy.” Roosevelt earned the handle on a 1902 hunting trek, when he refused to shoot a small bear. The press picked up the anecdote and political cartoonists had a field day. That’s where the name, “Teddy bear,” comes from.
Roosevelt used to stay at the historic Acton Hotel, a posh resort in the late 1800s to early 20th century.
The Signal, via historian Jerry Reynolds and research from the old Acton Rooster newspaper, reported that Roosevelt used to wander the lonely Soledad to big-game hunt with close friend Norman M. Melrose. The tall, good-natured Kentuckian was famous in his own right. He was the man who shot Acton Mayor William Bloome in one of the West’s only on-Main-Street duels. Besides plugging the Acton mayor through the heart five times (the L.A. coroner had written in his autopsy, “good grouping”), according to The Rooster, Melrose later nominated Roosevelt for president at the Republican convention.
Hoover & Taft
The 31st president, Herbert Hoover, also used to stay at the Acton Hotel with his wife and former Actonite, Lou Henry Hoover.
Though eventually becoming a Quaker, Lou was a lifelong member of the Acton Community Church. Her single name was Henry and her father managed local gold mines. Lou was the first woman geology major graduate of Stanford. She also reportedly ran over a young student, backing over future actor Richard Boone. Boone would later star in the hit Western, “Have Gun, Will Travel.” She would be the founding force of a new organization, the Girl Scouts, and fight next to her husband in China’s Boxer Rebellion. She was a hunter, horsewoman and outdoorswoman. While in the White House, she and Herb would speak Mandarin to foil pesky eavesdroppers.
William Henry Taft was only one of two presidents to serve later on the Supreme Court. Taft never passed through the SCV. But, his son did. Almost. According to Signal archives, the president’s offspring was reportedly killed in a traffic accident in Castaic in the 1930s. Save for our own reporting, I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the claim. A genealogy check didn’t show any of Taft’s family dying in the 1930s. But, if it was in The Mighty Signal, it must have happened.
Ike & Nixon
My absolute favorite Signal story about a presidential sighting involves our 34th president, Dwight David Eisenhower, aka, “Ike.”
For years, The Signal had a stringer who wrote the local gossip and society column. She penned her prose under the byline of “Granny.” In 1962, Welcome May Taylor quietly passed away. She was 81.
While she wrote of children’s cute sayings and the happiness and sorrows of Happy Valley, few people knew of her friendship with the former president of the United States, Eisenhower.
Both had been born and raised in Abilene, and Dwight had been a frequent visitor to her 640-acre farm there.
Taylor’s children and neighbors told The Signal, after her passing, how Ike would stop in to visit her at her Happy Valley home over the years. President Eisenhower would secretly drive up in an unmarked car with two Secret Service men to have tea and conversation with his childhood friend. Outside her immediate family, “Granny” never told a soul — quite a secret to keep for the SCV’s society editor.
Like Bigfoot, there were several Richard M. Nixon sightings here in the 1970s. After he resigned, The Signal reported Nixon was spotted driving around the back canyons of the SCV with his Secret Service agent in a large black Cadillac. According to Signal reports, the 36th president was spotted walking along the roads, taking in the scenery.
This newspaper also ran a front-page story in 1975 about how two telephone company workers lent a hand to help pull Nixon’s Caddy off a soft shoulder on the outskirts of Santa Clarita. The workers were stunned when the smoky glass window rolled down and Nixon, in the backseat, offered thanks and a couple of his personally signed autobiographies. The president shared he had wanted to take a drive to see the area’s wildflowers.
Our Nixon/Signal connection gets even more interesting.
In March 1974, The Signal acquired the services of a “prominent local genealogist.” According to his findings, former Signal Publisher Scott Newhall and Nixon were related. The family tree searcher discovered they shared a common relative: Thomas Newhall, who arrived from England to the colonies in 1630. As gossip columnist Ruth Newhall (and Scotty’s wife) nicely put it: “The publisher’s comments are not printable.”
Ford & Reagan
Interesting that Nixon liked to drive around the valley.
His successor, Vice President Gerald Ford, was supposed to speak at CalArts on the morning of Aug. 12, 1974. Exhaustive preparations had been in the works for more than a year to handle a crowd exceeding 10,000. Secret Service agents, with bomb-sniffing dogs and snipers, cased the CalArts canvas.
A last-minute problem arose.
The Signal noted on our front page that Richard Nixon had resigned. Not only that, but Gerald Ford had to skip the CalArts speech. He was in Washington, D.C., that morning, taking the oath of office as the 38th president of the United States, replacing Nixon.
Not that it was on purpose, but The Signal had a history of ignoring Ronald Reagan.
Long before he was president or California governor, the movie star-turned-40th president worked for General Electric as a motivational and information speaker.
He lectured at Hart High TWICE in the 1950s.
Both times, The Signal took pictures. Both times the events didn’t make the front page.
In 1974, as governor, Reagan was on hand for the dedication of the Bonelli Center at College of the Canyons. Local security forces foiled a plot against the governor’s dignity.
The world and the SCV were in the middle of the streaker craze. That’s where people ran nude across large public events. Extra security was added for the governor’s speech. A grounds crew thwarted a nude man who had climbed out of a van and was fiddling with a locked gate.
Security made no move to arrest the streaker, and he and his friends (clothed) drove off.
Funny thing? The Signal noted Reagan was rather disappointed. He had prepared a couple of snappy one-liners in case his speech was “streaked.”
The one time Reagan DID make The Signal’s front page was as governor. A Signal photographer captured a picture of him flipping off protesters in Berkeley. It made the national wires.
George H.W. Bush and the Criminals
The nation’s 41st president was the guest of honor in March 1990, when the former Wayside Honor Rancho dedicated its first actual maximum-security jail, the North County Correctional Facility. George H.W. Bush gave a speech and joined then-Sheriff Sherman Block to cut the ribbon before they stocked the place with bad guys. Current Signal Editor Tim Whyte — then just a lowly cub reporter — covered the story. No word on whether Block and Bush smashed a champagne bottle over the head of an inmate to christen the place.
Our not-quite, not-really-close SCV candidate
In the teens and 1920s, Newhall was home to a bona fide presidential contender, Henry Clay Needham.
Over a 20-year-period, The Signal noted the Prohibitionist ran for president three times, governor once and U.S. senator twice. Though well-liked and respected in his hometown of Newhall, Needham never carried his own valley once.
In the 1920 presidential race, The Signal reported that Needham garnered just 10 SCV votes. Herbert Hoover ran against him, not doing that much better with 24. Needham did manage, however, to get voted in as a Los Angeles County Supervisor in his early days.
Needham was a passionate anti-liquor man. He was anti-slavery before it was popular. His great-grandfather fought next to George Washington at Valley Forge. Moving to Newhall in 1879 to get into the lumber business, Needham managed the 10,000-acre St. John tract here, hoping to build a “dry” community of settlers. No one, not even hardened Prohibitionists, was eager to settle here. The fine print on the real estate contracts noted that if ANYONE were caught imbibing on your property, your home and land could be forfeited back to the seller.
It’s interesting, how hands connect the living to history. A friend of mine, Gladys Laney, passed away a few years back. She was 103. She recalled Needham, noting he had his own devil — sugar. The Prohibitionist had a lethal sweet tooth. He was also seemingly under a curse of bad luck and terribly accident prone.
Imagine being a serious third-party candidate for president. Needham got food poisoning the night before he was supposed to accept his party’s presidential nomination. Someone had to step in for him.
He was butted so hard by a goat once, he spent six months in bed. He was thrown from a horse and hospitalized. He had an operation to loosen the muscles in his legs. He fell off a ladder and was seriously injured. He had a clotted artery removed.
Needham was so politically conservative, he vigorously fought the construction of a pool hall here in the 1920s, noting: “I have managed to live through almost my threescore and 10 years and to extort at least some degree of both pleasure and success out of life and have never yet shoved either a cue on the table or rolled a ball in an alley.” Needham urged everyone to vote no on allowing a pool hall in town. The pool hall, and many others, would eventually be built.
Henry Clay had a good heart, though. A vehement anti-liquor force his entire life, during Prohibition, he would frequently pay the fines of moonshiners on the promise they would mend their evil ways.
The Signal noted: “The good Presbyterian went to his Maker on Feb. 20, 1936. He lived to be 84.”
His Needham Ranch entrance can still be seen just south of Eternal Valley on Sierra Highway. It’s where that big stone archway is right on the road. Behind it today, they’re building a gateway industrial park.
The pretend presidential assassination
Frank Sinatra never ran for president. But he tried to shoot one once.
In the movies.
Sinatra starred as the villain in a 1954 B movie “Suddenly.” If you want to know what the SCV looked like 60-plus years ago, check out this film noir on either Amazon Prime or YouTube. It was filmed entirely here.
Sinatra is a sick hood bent on assassinating the president of the United States, at the Saugus Train Station.
We won’t spoil the ending.
Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 20 in our history of The Mighty Signal.