A happy Memorial Day, dear saddlepals. Hope all’s well with you all and you’re having a relaxing Sunday.
We’ve a most interesting trail ride through the back trails of SCV history ahead.
There’s dreaded flower poachers, dwarfs, bootleggers and the original Canyon Theatre Guild.
Enough said? Shall we mosey?
WAY, WAY BACK WHEN
THINKING OF DAD — My dad, Walt Cieplik, passed away about a decade ago and every year around this time, he and I would saddle up and ride out to the wildflowers in Antelope Valley (and way beyond). I suggest all you saddlepals steal a few hours and mosey out to the poppies. You won’t be disappointed.
For the historical record, in 1872, there used to be two Elizabeth Lakes, one named East, the other West. The waterway was also called Rabbit Lake for a while. Lake Hughes was named after the sheep herder, Patrick Hughes. Munz Lake and Munz Ranch Road was named after John Munz, who arrived in 1898 and started a huge cattle ranch spanning thousands of acres. John’s wife was named Martha and they had nine kids. I’m guessing John and Martha liked each other very, very much.
A NATIVE AMERICAN BY ANY OTHER NAME — For those of you looking for that valuable extra credit on your report cards, jot down these names. They are the names of old Tataviam villages from the northern part of the valley. From the Piru area: Kouung, Hufant, Etsent, Akauaui, Kashtu, Pi’idhuku and Kamulus. From around the old pre-dam Castaic Lake: Sabau; Auuapya and Kashluk. From near Castaic: Kashtuk and Tsawayung.
THE SPINNING OF THE FATES — Funny. None of us know how our lives will play out. On May 30, 1886, Joe Gottardi was born in Italy. He’d marry, immigrate to America, have five kids, make his way to Santa Clarita, and start a farm in Saugus. He’d lose his entire family in the epic St. Francis Dam Disaster of 1928.
INDIAN TURNED COWBOY — Born on May 28, 1887, in Oklahoma Indian Territory, Wa-Tho-Huk (American translation, “Bright Path”) was one of the greatest athletes in American history and the first Indian to win a gold medal (two, actually) in the Olympics. He played professional football, baseball and basketball. He played for the legendary Pop Warner. Pretty much riding his coattails in their 11-1 season, Carlisle College won the national championship in 1912. In 1920, he became the first president of the American Professional Football Association, which, the next year, became the NFL. Bright Path was also a movie star, filming many movies and Westerns in Santa Clarita and hanging around Placerita Canyon. You saddlepals might know him by his other name — Jim Thorpe.
MAY 27, 1923
CALLING ALL FLOWER POLICE!! — It was called “kee-oh-tay” by the Indians and, later, Spanish Dagger by the settlers. County officials launched a huge manhunt on this date to bring to justice some Yucca plant poachers. The desert flower, which blossoms every 30 years, was being severely depleted by illegal flower pickers. Several dozen folks were arrested and fined for hijacking the wild California plant. The flower thieves were hauled into court. After all the big lectures about depleting a state treasure, 36 of the crooks received fines between $2.50 and $4, with 30-day suspended jail sentences.
REMEMBERING OUR VETS — On this very day, the Newhall Presbyterian Church held a special Memorial Day service, inviting all local veterans, no matter what their religion. It should be noted the invite went out not just to World War I vets, but to our fighting men who had served in the Spanish-American and Civil Wars.
THE SIGNAL EDITOR WHO FOUNDED LOCAL THEATER — Long — and I mean LONG — before there was a Santa Clarita Repertory Theater or the Canyon Theatre Guild, there was the Newhall Community Players. We can proudly trace our minstrel roots to this group, which formed on this date, 70 years back. Their first performance was the parlor comedy, “Trust Your Husband.” The first director of The NCP was Thornton Doelle, poet, forest ranger and future editor of The Mighty Signal and The Saugus Enterprise, a separate newspaper for a scant time…
DRAW, MARSHALL! — Actor James Arness, who filmed tons of shows out in Placerita Canyon, including “Gunsmoke” where he played lawman Matt Dillon, was born on May 26, 1923, in Minneapolis. “Gunsmoke” was one of the most iconic and famous of all the TV oaters, running 635 episodes over 20 years. Funny thing. Every one of those shows starts with Arness in a Main Street showdown with a gunfighter — Arvo Oswald Ojala, a local stuntman from Canyon Country. Arvo was also famous as a fast-draw expert who patented a special “quick draw” holster. He also taught many movie stars how to handle a gun. Still. Arvo’s most famous for the “Gunsmoke” opening. In every one of those 635 episodes, poor Arvo gets killed every darn time…
MAY 27, 1933
SKEETER & HOOT — On this date, “Skeeter” Bill Robbins bought the rodeo portion of the Hoot Gibson Stadium (today, the Saugus Speedway) from noted cowboy movie star, Hoot Gibson. Skeeter had worked for Hoot for years, managing the ranch and rodeo. Skeeter, a working cowboy, was also a leading actor in several “B” Westerns of the 1930s. He bought all the stock, saddles, tack, etc., while Gibson kept the ranch.
AND NOW, IT’S HARD TO FIND A SINGLE LOCAL COWBOY — We used to be resplendent with cowboys and rodeo stars. On this date, Dolores Steelman of Newhall took top honors in the women’s division of steer roping at the big Bakersfield Rodeo. Dolores also amazed the crowd by taking top honors in the women’s trick riding competition. (My good pal, Walt Fisher, used to run the huge Kern County Fair and Rodeo. Did a nice job of it, too.)
GEEZ, AL. YOU’RE SWALL. (SORRY!) — One of Newhall’s early movers and shakers was Albert Swall, who developed much of the downtown area. On this date, Mr. Swall’s wife, Mabel, passed to her reward. Poor Mabel. She was just 53.
DON’T DRINK AND FLY — Five men, reported to be high-level bootleggers from San Francisco, made a forced landing at Newhall International Airport (near where Granary Square is today). Actually, the men didn’t land. They were beyond drunk. Their pilot landed the chartered plane and refused to get back in with the disorderly men. Apparently, they had tried to “help” the pilot fly the craft and nearly smacked it into a mountain peak. The gangsters hired a local man, John Seltzer, to drive them into L.A.
FIND THEM. HANG THEM. GIVE THEM A FAIR TRIAL. (IN THAT ORDER) — Mrs. Jennings was rather miffed. Sneaking up on being elderly, she spent the spring busting up firewood for her Mint Canyon cabin. Some thief broke into the woodshed and swiped it all. (I had a neighbor/ best pal have that happen to her a few years back; someone somehow managed to sneak into her spread and steal three cords of firewood. Not a deep enough spot in Hades for them that does that…)
MAY 27, 1943
HARRY UP IN HEALDSBURG — One of my favorite little Northern California towns is Healdsburg. On this date, our own film legend of San Francisquito Canyon, Harry Carey, was up there filming his latest pix, “Happy Land.”
COWBOY HATS? NOW THAT’S A GRADUATION! — A small catastrophe was averted at Castaic School. The place is bulldozed now, but, 80 years back, the graduating class consisted of five boys and five girls. The boys announced they would attend eighth grade graduation in Levis, boots and cowboy hats. This horrified the girls, who were making special formals for the ceremony. The genders reached a compromise for the graduation march. The boys would carry their hats and wear gloves. White ones. Not work ones.
BUMMING A RIDE? NOTHING NEW. — On this date, the local Kiwanis, eager to help the war effort, launched their “Share The Ride” plan. Today, we call it carpooling.
MAY 27, 1953
RUNNING AWAY FROM HOME… THE HARD WAY —Two teenage boys bicycled all the way from Watts and were headed toward San Francisco. They stopped off at the old Troncale Grocery Store in Castaic where they stole a pound of bologna, a loaf of bread and a box of cookies at knifepoint from Mrs. Troncale. They were arrested a few miles up the road, enjoying their ill-gotten but tasty meal.
MAY 27, 1963
THE FORGOTTEN CITY OF NEWHALL — On this date, final maps and papers were filed with the Los Angeles Boundary Commission. That was the august body 40 years ago that dealt with forming new cities. The Newhall Incorporation Committee filed the documents to create a city approximately 7 square miles, incorporating 12,000 residents.
MAY 27, 1973
THE FORGOTTEN COUNTY OF CANYON — A decade later, we were still working on independence. My pal, Dan Hon, local attorney and Signal columnist, appeared before the state Assembly to propose that Santa Clarita become its own city/county. Hon pointed out how the valley had quadrupled from 15,000 in 1950 to 60,000 in 1970 and had the highest property taxes in the state — yet, it had little say in its governing. Hon also pointed out that there were 23 counties in California that had fewer people than the SCV yet had more representation.
CITY OF KIDS — About 100 students from Soledad Elementary were in the middle of an ambitious project — building a city. The fifth and sixth graders’ assignment was to build a complete model city, with plans for schools, sewer, water, housing, etc. Soledad was given an NEA grant and an architect-in-residence to guide them. They were the only elementary school in America given the opportunity. The model city was even divided into five political districts, with a supervisor for each. Funny. A half-century later, those kids are all grown up and we have a city — with five separate districts.
A BIG PYRAMID SCHEME — On this date, the Pyramid Reservoir, covering 2 square miles with 22 miles of shoreline, was officially declared complete. While it would be used for boating and fishing enthusiasts, the primary use as part of the State Water Project was to take water from the Feather River and convert it into electricity via seven super giant turbines.
MAY 27, 1983
SHORT TERM MEMORY? — We’ve given a lot of publicity to those local actors who rode tall in the saddle. One Santa Clarita thespian was, well. Short in the forest. Phil Fondacaro starred as one of the “Ewok” creatures in the George Lucas epic, “Return of the Jedi.” The Ewoks were those little Teddy-bear-like creatures in the science fiction flick. Phil, a dwarf, stood 43 inches high and fit perfectly into the costume.
MAY 24, 2003
ONE LAST TRAIL TIDBIT — My dear childhood pals, Bob Becker and Gayle Johnson, graduated from Hart High School, class of 1969. On this date, the two autumn lovers were married in a lovely Wildwood Canyon wedding at the Tom & Colleen Lee Mansion with all of old Newhall in attendance. Cripes. My daughter Indiana was there. Indy was 4 months old. Happy anniversary, you two dear pals!
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That just about brings us full circle, saddlepals. I look forward to your company next weekend with another exciting Time Ranger history adventure. Until then — ¡vayan con Dios, amigos!
If you enjoy the Time Ranger, you’re going to love his local history volumes. Visit johnbostonbooks.com. Order John Boston’s terribly exciting Volumes I & II on “SCV Monsters, Ghouls, Ghosts, Bigfoot” & all our local paranormal stories. Great summer reads. Leave a kindly review…