By Jo Ellen Rismanchi
Solemint Junction was a landmark for people who traveled from Los Angeles to Las Vegas between 1938 and 1972. Before 1963, the area that eventually came to be called “Canyon Country” was referred to as “Solemint,” representing the confluence of “Soledad” and “Mint” canyons. Solemint Junction was the center of the community, socially and economically. It was the heart and soul of the eastside and for many throughout the Santa Clarita Valley. The junction was the happening place to be.
At the southeast corner of Soledad Canyon Road and Sierra Highway stood the Solemint Store, opened in 1938 by Alfred Clark. A general store, it catered to the needs of local residents, particularly through the World War II years. Clark had connections that enabled him to provide black-market supplies such as black silk nylons, bubble gum, red meat and sugar. The store had a variety of dry goods, notions and collectibles — everything from canned foods and freshly butchered meat to nick-knacks.
According to Mary Warmuth Sathre, “Clark was a character. He would have pictures up of funny things, like a girl with a hoe. He was comical. He was a very nice guy.” Two men, named Harvey Hanson and “Ole” Olsen, bought out Clark around 1944. Sathre recalls that the store actually began on one side of the junction and switched sides. It is best remembered on the southeast corner.
Several movie stars are known to have stopped at this famous junction. Letty Dyer Foote, a 16-year-old store clerk at the time, remembers waiting on Noah Beery, Jr. Another well-remembered “movie star sighting” at the junction occurred when Clark Gable came through for lunch with 20 or so of his pals, all of them riding motorcycles and all of them sporting fashionable leather jackets. Mary and Madelyn Warmuth were working for Olive MacDougall at MacDougall’s, a restaurant that adjoined the original Solemint Store. Mary recalls, “I was just so busy and it was so much work I didn’t have time to look up. After they left, my sister Madelyn asked me if I recognized who I had just waited on. I said no. Who were they?” Mary said her sister asked her why she didn’t recognize Clark Gable. Gable and his group were on their way to weekend fun up at Tenopah.
Lifelong area resident George Starbuck recalls that the Solemint Store had a special cooler of ice delivered from the Union Ice Co. On hot summer days, Starbuck would hang out near the cooling tower, which provided some relief while he was sipping his Hires Root Beer Soda, poured from a spigot in the side of a large wooden barrel. Starbuck’s first professional job was as a dish washer in the store at age 12. “I think I lasted about a week doing that,” he said.
MacDougall’s restaurant was run by C.M. MacDougall and his wife, Olive. After C.M. MacDougall was appointed judge of the Newhall Municipal Court in the early 1950s, he turned over the restaurant to his nephew, Dick Cone, who with his wife Ruth renamed it the Solemint Café. It was a very popular place to hang out. Whenever the door opened, everyone at the counter turned around to see who was coming in. The hamburger and french-fry fare was always very good. There were also two or three tables to sit at. While customers were munching down their burgers, they could wash them down with a cold beer. People parked their horses outside in front of the establishment. Sathre recalls trying to wait on three bus loads of soldiers who all stopped in for burgers and fries.
The junction had no traffic signals — just a four-way stop. In fact, local residents clamored for a signal at the junction and it wasn’t until Mr. Vickers was killed that the signal was installed. Sathre estimates that the signal was installed in about 1934 or 1935. She and her sister had fond memories of Mr. Vickers and picking 100 pounds of cherries so he could make a special wine. “Boy, we worked hard picking those cherries,” said Sathre, laughing about the adventure. The Solemint Store had everything and people would even drive out from L.A. to buy something special at the store. Melba Fisher worked at the store for about a year earning $1 an hour. The junction was a large employer in the valley at that time. If the store didn’t have exactly what the customers wanted, it took special orders and would bring in the merchandise. Fisher lived close enough to the store to walk to work about the time that her son George Starbuck was 15.
On the expanding corner, Dan Bledsoe’s Texaco station and the Log Cabin Motel were added. After a fire ravaged the Texaco station, Standard Oil Co. leased the property and built a new service station, known from 1976 to 1982 as Chuck Morey’s Chevron (Standard Oil was renamed Chevron USA in 1977). Faced with declining retail gasoline sales, Chevron sold its lease rights and the purchasers turned the property into a retail complex.
Les’s Crossroads Tavern stood at the southwest corner of the junction. Owned by Les Shank, the beer bar served families and entertained its guests with shuffleboard tournaments. Next to the bar was the Signal Oil Gas Station, owned by Bill Oren. Directly behind the station was a restaurant run by Mr. and Mrs. Dempiwolf. She cooked and the old man waited on the people. It is not completely clear but Tom Cox ran a service station on the same corner. It is possible that Mr. Cox was a predecessor owner to Bill Oren, but since some of the older records and community memories are incomplete or unclear, it has not been confirmed exactly which service station belonged to Mr. Cox.
According to Melba Fisher, cowboys used to ride their horses up and leave them in front of the bar. One particular cowboy Fisher recalls was named Baker (his last name). He worked for the Fisher family in the 1940s. He would ride his horse, “Sleepy,” up to the restaurant-bar. While Baker was inside taking advantage of the Village Inn’s hospitality, Sleepy would stand in front, untied at mute attention waiting to take Baker on the cowboy’s long ride home. Sathre couldn’t recall any horses at the front of the junction. She said they may have been tied on the side of buildings, but the junction itself was too busy for horses.
The northwest corner in February 1947 saw Azel and Daisy Watkins become the proud and hard-working owners of a restaurant following the retirement of its original owners (their names, and the business name, are unknown). The Watkins renamed their eatery the Mint Canyon Café. The couple ran the diner for only few years.
In the mid-1950s a new store, Dillenbeck Market, opened just north of the junction’s northwest corner. It soon became the community’s preferred provider of groceries and sundries. The old Solemint Store suffered, ultimately folding in the mid-1960s. In like fashion, Dillenbeck Market eventually started to decline when a competing shopping center opened at Whites Canyon and Soledad Canyon roads. Eastside residents now had a new Safeway Store in the mid- to late 1960s.
But in its early years, Dillenbeck Market was the only local grocery store on the east side of the Santa Clarita Valley to serve residents of the only housing tract on the east side — North Oaks, which started construction in 1961. Dillenbeck served the area until about 1970 when owner Charlie Dillenbeck sold the store and moved to Parker, Ariz. The Dillenbeck building was eventually abandoned and it fell into disrepair; neglect and fire were ultimately outdone in the mid-1990s by a wrecking ball.
The war years saw another restaurant at the northeast corner of the junction: Redwood Village, owned by Irene Ferris Ahlheim. She took over the restaurant in 1948 from Jack Lycett, who had leased the property and had run the Red Barn with his wife, who was in the film industry. The Redwood Village was a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week operation, where oil workers and their families were fed from 1948 until 1957. Full breakfasts and complete dinners were served. Staffing the restaurant was a difficult chore because, Ahlheim said, “You just couldn’t get help in those days.”
She paid her head waitress $1.50 an hour, a good wage for the time. The restaurant served beer only to patrons who ordered a meal. The restaurant made a profit of about $15 a shift or $45 a day, and more on weekends — a small but tidy sum. Ahlheim bought the home she lives in today, through her hard work in those diner days. By 1951 she had enough for her down payment. She still lives up the canyon some call “Mint.”
Ahlheim also recalls when Paramount Studios used her restaurant in the 1955 William Wyler thriller, “The Desperate Hours,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March. Not long ago, Ahleim caught the movie on television and she remembered the thrill of seeing her restaurant preserved on film. The camera showed that the restaurant was framed by a glass front and redwood-paneled walls on the sides and back.
Ahlheim’s daughter, Rita Ferris, stirred with excitement at age 16 or 17 when Liberace made a stop at the diner on his way to Las Vegas. Ferris was taking piano lessons at the time, and her encounter with Liberace was like meeting an god. Ferris was quick to collect Liberace’s autograph.
Next to the restaurant was the Ranch House Bar. According to Irene Ferris Ahlheim, in 1957 a blaze erupted behind her restaurant and burned down both structures. It is believed the fire was started deliberately by a disgruntled patron who had been refused service, but after investigation, the arsonist was never caught. Insurance covered the losses for the Redwood Village Restaurant and the Ranch House Bar.
Down from the Redwood Village Restaurant, where the Canyon Country Fire Station and a trailer park stand today, was a neighborhood park called “Cowboy Park.” Country-Western singer Cliffie Stone often performed there with other famous singers on weekends during special community events. While musicians like Stone were strumming and singing, local square dancers were kicking up their heels in checkered skirts and blue jeans. The junction was a happening place to be.