We’ve an epic ride ahead, through floods, snow, and the flinging mud of rodeos. There’s local war spies among us, an entire passel of crooks, and the early and unscheduled serving of 5,000 Thanksgiving turkeys at the old MacMillan Ranch up Sand Canyon way. We’ll investigate The Great Signal Safe Caper and I’ll share a little known and heart-warming story about a long-ago local politician and rancher — Bill Bonelli II.
Swing up into those saddles, amigos, and into yesteryear we go…
WAY BACK WHEN & THEN SOME
YEE & HAH!! — The second annual Newhall Rodeo was launched. The first one was a last-minute spectacle started by “Cowboy” Bob Anderson and was held on the field that would later become Newhall Elementary. Bob (a local silent film producer, star, actor and stuntman) and his partners literally held their hats open at the gate, collecting change for the entries. Some of the events scheduled for the 1922 rodeo were the wild cow milking contest (where a cowboy had to extract a quart of milk into a glass bottle from an untamed lady moo cow) and the Cowboy Roman Race. That’s where you raced around the track, standing in your saddle.
IT’S COLD AND AMEN BOY HOWDY WE MEAN COLD — The winter of 1913-14 was one of the most punishing of the last 200 years. A late-winter freeze started up in Alaska and hugged the coast, wiping out crops with a giant frozen hoe. Here in Santa Clarita, the orange crop was literally frozen — solid. You could crack citrus with a hammer. Farmers invested heavily for the first time in widescale smoke pots to heat the orchards. Then, they were wiped out by epic floods in 1912-1914.
QUIT YOUR WININ’ — Logan Goodknight went into the wine business on this date, planting a vineyard of about 130 acres around the Sand Canyon/Soledad area. While Prohibition was in full flower, there still was a market for Catholic sacramental wine. Goodknight was also in the wholesale berry selling business, offering strawberry plants for $7.50 per 1,000.
FEBRUARY 26, 1922
CAR vs. HUMAN — A Signal editorial cautioned folks to be careful drivers — a theme unsuccessfully peddled over the decades. Statistics were that in the succeeding 18 months from February of 1932, about 54,000 people were killed in American car accidents. The odd thing was that 43% of that total who died were pedestrians struck by autos. Just got me to thinking. My paternal grandpapa, Stan, was killed in such a fashion, leaving my dad, Walt, fatherless at the age of 5. Also interesting? So here I do so much history, yet, I don’t have a single photo on either side of anyone past, mom or dad.
FEBRUARY 26, 1932
PACE YOURSELF. ONE MOVIE PER MONTH. — Today, we can choose literally millions of videos, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and media, media, media. Ninety years ago, much of the SCV was still flirting with the Life Primitive. Many homes didn’t have electricity or even an indoor toilet. The BIG news of the day was that the Newhall Elementary Auditorium, under the auspices of the PTA, showed a nine-reel movie — “with Sound!” Of course, the sound consisted of an orchestra soundtrack and narration. “Byrd at the South Pole” was the documentary of the 1928 voyage of Admiral Byrd. It was the first motion picture to win an Oscar for Best Documentary.
THAT RADIO JOKE? NOT SO FUNNY IF YOU’RE A HORSE. — One of the most famous people on the planet, silent film superstar William S. Hart, was in New York City performing on a radio show. While on air, he called his sister Mary in Newhall at the Hart Mansion. A cowboy brought Hart’s beloved pony, Pinto, up the hill by a window where Hart was on the air. Mr. “Two-Gun” started talking to his beloved horse and Pinto went giddy, bouncing up and down and trying to find where Hart was hiding.
AS THE TALKING HEADS USED TO SING: “WE’RE ON THE ROAD TO NOWHERE…” — And pretty much, Santa Clarita was. We were (and are) the navel of the universe, but many major highways were still somewhat primitive. A variety of federal projects began paving and widening existing roads. I’m guessing folks here in 1932 just wouldn’t recognize Santa Clarita today, with all its traffic signals, signs and stoplights.
FEBRUARY 26, 1942
SANTA CLARITA’S FIRST WW2 POWs — News of the first local prisoners of World War II came home. Cpl. Jack Riedel and Defense Department civilian Olin Skirvin were POWs in a Japanese camp.
NO RODEO FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 20-PLUS YEARS — The world-famous Newhall-Saugus rodeo was canceled. The Defense Department asked large public venues to call off their programs for fear of being attacked by Axis spies or by being bombed.
THE INVISIBLE TOLL OF WAR — Mary Tysell was head of the local Red Cross and wife to rural postal driver, Bert. She had an emotional breakdown and had to be hospitalized. She had been working nearly around the clock for the war effort. Plus, she had relatives being killed in the Germans’ bombing of England.
HORSE? LET ME SEE YOUR PAPERS, PLEASE — There was a strange sight at the sheriff’s station on San Fernando Road and 6th. Several dozen cowboys were applying for passes to ride their horses up Bouquet Canyon. You had to have military permission, even as a resident, to travel up there because of the reservoir.
WAR DOESN’T STOP CROOKS — Burglars broke into the Placeritos Movie Ranch and made off with about $350 worth of loot, including an original Chippewa chieftain’s headdress, valued then at $50.
JR. FBI SYNDROME CONTINUES — Mrs. Irma Niedrich was peeking through her drapes at what she thought was suspicious behavior. She called the cops and they broke up a class of some artists sketching the beautiful Newhall countryside.
FEBRUARY 26, 1952
LABOR STRIKE AT MUNITIONS PLANT — Most of the employees of Bermite walked out in a planned strike. They wanted one of the country’s largest munitions factories here in Saugus (on Soledad, next to the Metrolink station today) to be unionized.
YUP. WE’RE BONA FIDE COWBOY COUNTRY — It’s amazing how many world-famous cowboys have called the SCV home. Sam Garrett, owner of the Circle G Ranch in Sand Canyon in the 1950s, was a seven-time world champion calf roper. Like many of our ’boys and ’girls, he’s enshrined, I do believe, in the Oklahoma City Cowboy Hall of Fame.
DOUBLING UP AS A STAPLES — Since the 1920s, up until the 1960s, your Mighty Signal, besides putting out a weekly newspaper, used to help ends meet by selling a small selection of office supplies. On this date, they expanded for a short time to a full-service office supply store, selling everything from carbon paper to typewriters. Today? I’m betting if you stop by the office and make Editor Tim Whyte an offer on his mechanical pencil, he’d listen…
FEBRUARY 26, 1962
ONE OF OUR WORST AG ACCIDENTS EVER — Before it was a tony enclave for millionaires, the MacMillan Ranch in Sand Canyon was just that — a ranch. Cattle, hogs, horses, chickens and turkeys were raised there. Years earlier, a huge fire killed thousands of hogs and literally exploded the newly built concrete feeding pens. On this date, a fire in the turkey barn cremated 5,300 week-old turkeys. Damages were: $5,000 for the barn; $3,000 for the heaters; $7,000 for a home trailer parked next to the barn and $7,000 for the turkeys.
NATURE: COLD, WET, ROARING AND UNSTOPPABLE — Epic rains had pelted the valley for several weeks and everyone was somehow affected. Roofs leaked. Doors, floors and windows were warped. Perhaps the biggest loser of the floods were Chaloner Thompson and his wife, who ran a mining operation up in Bear Canyon. They lost $110,000 worth of buildings and equipment and that was a ton of money in 1962. Adding insult to injury, by the way, the Thompsons two years earlier lost their custom-built home to the titanic 30,000-acre fire.
THE LOST WESTERN ART OF AERATING ONE’S FOOT — It was one of the most common accidents of the late 1950s and early 1960s here. Lloyd Norman, alleged Wild West pistol fighter, was at the Juniper Tree Rifle Range in Soledad. While trying to eject unspent cartridges from his Colt .45, what do you know, the gun went off. A bullet went through his cowboy boots and foot and there goes wearing sandals at the beach.
FEBRUARY 26, 1972
IMPLANTING HOLES IN ONE’S FOOT, PART II — Speaking of sandals, Lee Patrick of Agua Dulce was added to the list of self-perforating gunmen. The 13-year-old was reloading his already loaded .22 caliber rifle and of course, the barrel was dead-aimed toward his foot. Lee sent a small bullet right through his big toe.
DYING YOUNG — Dr. William G. Bonelli Jr. died 30 years ago this week. He was just 49. Bonelli was a noted community leader, sat on the COC board of trustees, and perhaps was most famous for living on the old Bonelli Ranch where his family owned the Saugus Speedway next door. Interestingly, Bonelli had been the target of a smear campaign by a rather large Los Angeles newspaper years earlier. While running for state Assembly, that rag of a daily printed a huge front-page story linking Bonelli to the Mafia. Two days after the election, the paper retracted the article, but, by then, Bonelli had lost the election. Bonelli’s father, Bill Sr., was a famed California politician, rancher, and author of the book, “Billion Dollar Blackjack,” a seething indictment of The Los Angeles Times and their involvement in crooked real estate and alcohol deals.
THE CHARACTER OF BILL II — I’ve always felt history runs far deeper than war dates and which idiot was elected to office. Hardly a soul knows this story. I share this because we only truly die when the last mention of our name is uttered. William Bonelli II used to live with his family in a hacienda next to today’s Saugus Speedway. For many years, William Bonelli II employed a local woman as cook and housekeeper. When she slowed down and became too old to work, the maid nervously approached Bonelli to give her notice. It was an emotional farewell after so many years. Bonelli calmly asked that on her last day she drop by his office to hand over all her keys. When she walked in, he solemnly took her key ring and exchanged it with a new set of keys — to a brand-new full-size Chrysler. He also gave her an envelope with severance pay, a thank you note and a second little memo. Bonelli said he would be paying the woman her regular weekly salary in her retirement — for the rest of her life.
TREE KILLER — Some jerk killed both an oak tree and a 1942 Dodge. The bozo hotwired a bulldozer parked at College of the Canyons, then rammed it into a large oak tree until it fell over onto the classic Dodge on the other side. For me sometimes, the death penalty just is too darn narrow in scope…
FEBRUARY 26, 1982
SOMETIMES YOU WONDER IF THE WRONG PEOPLE DIE —Ronald Bryant, a 30-year-old Bakersfield man with a history of mental illness and depression, stood on an Interstate 5 freeway overpass, contemplating suicide for nearly three hours. Sheriff’s deputies, California Highway Patrol officers and a clinical psychologist tried to talk him down before he finally leaped to his death. A crowd of about 50 bystanders, several drinking beers, laughing and cheering, yelled at Bryant to jump. One chanted, “Jump, jump, jump you coward!” What small humans. Sad thing, history repeats. Years later, another man would likewise jump to his death at the same spot, with a new generation of people cheering.
YAY! MORE FELONS! — On this date, the Board of Supervisors OK’d an expansion of Wayside from a minimum-security honor farm to a maximum-security pen. Another 1,100 beds were to be added, at a building cost that worked out to $66,081 per bed.
NOT EXACTLY WHAT WE MEAN WHEN WE SAY PROSPECTING — A railroad construction worker brought in an epic oil gusher. He didn’t say, “Eureka!” He probably didn’t say, “Whoops!” either. The man had accidentally rammed his bulldozer into an oil field pipe in Railroad Canyon off Pine Street. A 100-foot gusher of oil sprayed into the air, dumping about 40,000 gallons on everything from oak trees to horses to parked cars. The river of goo rolled down to San Fernando Road where several motorists hit it and spun out of control. No one was seriously injured.
THE GREAT SIGNAL SAFE CAPER — Somebody mighty strong was displaying his or her thieving ways. The 1,000-pound safe from The Mighty Signal was stolen on this date, along with about $10,000 in rare coins and other valuables. The thieves apparently wheeled the safe onto a waiting van or truck because you sure couldn’t hoist it on your shoulders and jog any great distance. This was the second time Scott Newhall’s coins had been stolen from the newspaper. The safe was later found, buried in a field off Sierra Highway. The door had been ripped off the century-old antique and the loot was missing. Four people, including a former Signal employee (NOT Judy Kendall), were arrested for the theft, after the employee turned herself in. Actually, the four would have probably been captured anyway. A surveyor watched the group hammer away at the safe in the field and got a description of them and the getaway vehicle.
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, TONY & REENA!! — One suspect was eliminated from the theft. Signal then-publisher Tony Newhall had an alibi. Forty years back, plus, Tony was wed to the most hubba-hubba — and near-sighted — Reena Gladbach. Happy anniversary, pals!
Well. From that eerie, pulsating hole a few yards ahead, it looks like we’re smack dab ready to re-enter the here and now. Sure appreciate the company these weekends. Meet you right back here next week under the warming glow of The Mighty Signal, your hometown newspaper for 103 years. And change. As always, saddlepals — vayan con Dios, amigos!
Check out John Boston’s new, funny AND scary SCV history book — Ghosts, Ghouls, Myths & Monsters — The Most Haunted Town in America at johnbostonbooks.com.