Only the coldest and most acrimonious of hearts can resist reading a main staple of journalism: The Animal Story. And, we, The Signal, being a member of the heartstring-tugging emotionally manipulative media, cannot stop writing about animals.
Natural disasters, wars and economic fallouts have raged. Murders, epic court cases, sins and misdemeanors have blanketed our front pages. Through it all, The Signal has found both time and space to share a photo of a cute baby creature or a gee-whiz feature back when the Santa Clarita was primarily farm and ranchland. We’ve offered Animals Gone Wild fables fitting of Edgar Allen Poe.
All with a local angle, of course.
It’s no different, from 1919 to 2019. People can’t get enough of reading about those creatures who share our valley.
I remember being a boy in Newhall in the 1950s. Clyde Beatty’s circus used to make Newhall their winter resting ground. The big top would come in by train to the Saugus Train Depot to unload car after car of circus animals. Beatty leased land on the old Newhall Dairy on Highway 99. It was quite a sight, eight elephants walking down Pico Road (today, Lyons Avenue) to the lot. You could hear lions, tigers, bears and elephants making all sorts of exotic racket, especially at night. It was both peaceful and unnerving.
The sheepman cometh
I recall being a young man and being stuck in traffic jams of Old Testament proportions up Bouquet Canyon. The culprits? Sheep. Basque sheepmen would take their huge flocks, some numbering in the thousands, from one spring hill to another. Unfortunately, the bleating ruminants would cross Bouquet, sometimes blocking traffic for an hour. In the 1930s, The Signal noted how Domingo Rivera, a Spanish sheepherder with a boy’s face, used to drive his flocks all the way from San Diego, through the SCV and up to market in San Francisco, following the ancient herd trails from the 19th century. In the 1890s, there were an estimated 20,000 sheep grazing locally. Up until the 1970s, sheep grazed the hills where condos now dwell.
Back in 1919, a natural deterrent to sheep was our healthy population of black bears. A new state ordinance forbid citizens to shoot the bruins without proper licenses (and fees). In early 1920, The Signal reported several local wool men complaining about bears adding sheep to their cafeteria trays.
It’s rare, but sheep can mate with goats. Usually, the offspring are stillborn. The few who make it are a hybrid called either a “geep” or a “shoat.” Reportedly, we had one that lived for a while, born up Solemint Canyon.
Down the road, in 1921, we had a major ag business, The Cherry Canyon Goatery. The 1,000-acre farm raised various goat purebreds, plus, offered a lively side business. A sign on the fence advertised: “Goats DeHorned for $2.” Seems steep for 1921.
I almost hate to confess, but I’m not a big goat fan. A Signal saga of Joe Englebrecht does little to change my disposition. In July 1934, Joe Englebrecht was given a Billy goat. Joe didn’t want the Billy goat. But, Joe set the creature out in his weed-filled back yard to earn its keep. Joe had hung out both pairs of undies and his overalls to dry, then went inside for dinner. The goat had pulled down most of Joe’s wardrobe and devoured most of the good parts. Joe wrote off the episode to his own carelessness and went back in to finish dinner. That’s when he thought he heard a shotgun go off. Nope. The goat escaped and bit Joe’s Model T tire. That was about all the Christian forgiveness he possessed at the moment and he took the goat out and shot it. Signal Editor A.B. Thatcher wrote: “Joe performed an autopsy and tried to see if his underwear was still intact.”
Then there was Walter Allen. His doctors gave Walt a few weeks to live. Walt decided to live his last days in Lang, raise goats and farm honey. To his surprise, he lived for decades on a natural diet. A chiropractor, he promised to give a free goat to anyone who wanted to live a life of natural foods. Hate to write it, but the story has a sad ending. The Signal noted Walt died. Of course, that was in 1926.
Mind your own beeswax
It’s always fun digging up old stories in The Signal. Years ago, I came across a buried tidbit. In the 1890s, locals discovered a giant ancient series of beehives in Towsley Canyon caves. They held tons of honey that were harvested over a 20-year period — but not without cost. Beekeepers in heavy canvas protective gear had to be lowered into the hidden caves via a complicated rigging. Over the years, three fell to their deaths.
The Mighty Signal reported in February 1927 about how some heinous human honey heisters helped themselves to the hives of heroic harvesters. (OK. Sorry. No more alliteration.) Seriously though, the crooks made off with not just the honey, but the bees’ wax as well. Howard Lee and Mr. & Mrs. Turner of Acton were caught red-handed in — dare I say? — a sting operation of an apiary and no. That ain’t where they keep apes. The trio confessed. They made a pretty penny of their loot, too, selling the wax for nearly $300 and the honey and other items for another $700. That’s a lot of cash in 1927 money.
My saddlemaker from years ago, Margleen “Honey” Warmuth, and her family go back to the 1890s here in the SCV. The famed Honey House & Museum used to be a roadside attraction for decades. Today, it’s part of College of the Canyons’ Sierra Highway campus.
Back in 1981, TMS noted that there were nine commercial beekeepers in the SCV and about 1,000 hobbyists. The Warmuths themselves watched over about 2,500 colonies over Southern California, which produced between 3,000 and 6,000 pounds of honey per year. (Although bees have a heck of a work ethic, they can be picky. They won’t work in the cold or wet weather, and that sure can affect production during the February to August harvest.)
That’s big work for our little black and yellow friends, considering each worker bee produces about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its short five-week lifespan. To produce that 1/12th teaspoon, the bee is very busy, working non-stop during his life. It takes about 55,000 miles of flight time for one hive to produce just 1 pound of honey.
This bears repeating
The lure of honey also caused the permanent and final extinction of the grizzly bear in California.
Most stories hold that the last wild griz in California was spotted in the mid 1920s in Sequoia National Park. Allegedly, the last grizzly bear in the SCV was shot by Cornelius Johnson, way up Sand Canyon in 1916. It was a pitiful creature, almost a cub.
However. Johnson’s bear was not the last grizzly shot in the SCV.
There were three killed here in the early 1930s.
According to Signal Editor A.B. Thatcher, under President Roosevelt’s New Deal program, grizzlies were reintroduced into the California wilds — and that included Santa Clarita then.
THAT didn’t last long.
Apiarists and ranchers did not at all like the idea of 1,000-pound-plus predators using their livestock for lunch. Within about six months of being introduced here, all three “California” grizzlies “mysteriously disappeared.” The feds never did bring back the apex predator.
Black bears have been in this paper’s headlines for a century. William Chormicle, a patriarch in the infamous Castaic Range War, one of the biggest in American history (with an estimated 27-40 killed), managed to survive numerous assassinations. Bill was nearly killed by a bear. In the 1920s, Chormicle was alone in a cabin in the wilds of Castaic. An old man, he noticed huge tracks of a bear estimated between 600 and 800 pounds around his line shack. One night, the giant bruin tried to force its way through the front door. Chormicle leaned out a slit (there were no windows) with a Hawkins rifle and shot the beast dead.
It fell dead and blocked the front door. Chormicle took three days to chisel his way out of the log cabin with a big hunting knife. He hiked miles back to his home and when he came back with help, they had quite the big, stinking mess to clean up on the front porch.
Over this series chronicling the Century of The Mighty Signal, I’ve oft mentioned how dramatically we’ve changed. The extended valley has gone from a few thousand souls to a few hundred thousand in the blink of an eye. In 1947, Los Angeles was ranked No. 9 out of a top 10 of the top cattle counties in the entire United States. L.A. grazed 148,916 head, with the SCV contributing a big chunk of that. In 1955, surprise of surprises, we were the BIGGEST dairy cow county in America, with 120,000 milkers on 600 major dairies, several in the SCV. In dollars and cents, dairy was bigger than beef, agriculture, flowers and poultry — COMBINED. Today? I doubt if we’d crack the Top 1 Million counties, let alone the top 10.
There are enough farming stories The Signal has covered to fill an encyclopedia. One of my favorites was about the collision of not-so-civilized civilization and the farmer.
The Signal in May 1941 noted why Seth Bluhlich moved his herd from off Highway 99 (today, The Old Road). Seems motorists were stopping to hop the fence and steal cowbells from the moo cows.
Being a rancher wasn’t at all easy. Up until the 1990s, we still had problems with cattle rustlers. We had a full-time deputy sheriff whose only duty was tracking livestock thieves. Rustling was perhaps our most common crime. Old-timers will remember that cars were often behemoth in size and it was not rare for a cow thief to slaughter a steer and shove it in their trunk.
Remember car trunks?
The Signal reported an unusually brutal and stubborn cold snap setting up shop here in April 1944. The temperature dipped to single digits in some canyons — colder with the wind chill. Some ranchers were forced to shoot their herds.
Speaking of, remember the classic Mel Brooks comedy, “Blazing Saddles?” That giant Brahma bull that Alex Karras rode in the movie was named “Baloney.” He lived in Val Verde. In 1976, some idiot with a shotgun hit the poor creature while it was minding its own business in its Chiquita Canyon arena. It traumatized the bull, which was unsafe to work with after that.
Then, there was the threat of hoof-and-mouth disease. The threat of an epidemic visited the SCV for some 170 years. Legendary local lawman Jack Pilcher accompanied county ag inspectors to many of the cattle ranches of the SCV in 1924. An outbreak of the deadly hoof and mouth disease had been reported in many Northern California counties and was spreading southward. It was worried that a complete quarantine of SCV ag might have to be implemented — from crops to humans. Locals were even urged not to go outside the valley to go camping and the sunrise Easter services at the Greek Theater were canceled because of it. If you readers notice any of the following symptoms — drooping ears, lameness, slobbering or reduced milk supply — in your livestock or spouse, alert the nearest authorities.
Come back next Saturday. We’ll have even more animal stories The Mighty Signal has covered — including the most dangerous movie ever made, filmed right here in the SCV.
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 and has earned 119 major writing awards. Come back next Saturday for Part 2 of The Signal’s Animal Stories, installment No. 35 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.