This is one of my most favorite times of the calendar — no matter what year — the beginning of autumn. Big, huge, giant sigh of relief because Lord help me, I love the cooler weather.
In fact, I love cooler weather so much, the next time I get married, it’s going to be either to Taco Bell or Cooler Weather. Who knows. In these hepcat daddy climes, maybe I’ll marry them both.
That trenchant social commentary aside, we’ve a most interesting trek into yesterday, amigos and amigo-ettes.
There’s camels and conmen, dog tragedy and desperadoes. What say, dear Santa Clarita friends, neighbors and saddlepals. Shall we take a deep breath and ride our ponies into the Mystic, together?
WAY, WAY BACK WHEN
THE OLD, OLD, REALLY OLD DOWNTOWN NEWHALL — Few people realize that before there was a Newhall, the main community of the valley lived near the present-day intersection of Newhall Avenue and Sierra Highway. Eternal Valley wasn’t so eternal. Back in 1855, there was a boarding house, supply store, saloon and rest stop all rolled into one. On Sept. 24, Henry Clay Wiley sold his property to twin brothers Sanford and Cyrus Lyon. Sanford was the businessman half of the equation and Cyrus was a famed gunfighter and lawman.
WALK A MILE FOR A CAMEL? — One of the strangest sites to pass through the Santa Clarita Valley were the dromedary caravans of the late 1850s and early 1860s. The camels had been incorporated into the Army by a young officer, Edward Fitzgerald Beale. He had gotten the idea earlier while riding through pre-statehood California with his friend, Kit Carson.
The experiment had camels making a regular trek from downtown Los Angeles through Newhall and beyond to Fort Tejon. The camels could carry much heavier loads than a mule could bear, and, the camels’ gait was four times faster.
Beale once took his camels to the Tehachapi to rescue a stranded wagon train in the snow. The controversial Beale had even learned Syrian so he could converse easily with the camel trainers. It turns out the camel experiment didn’t pan out.
The 80 beasts were eventually sold to private individuals or circuses. Seems their soft feet were more conducive to the desert sands and not the stony hard ground of Southwest America.
CONFUSION HILL — This isn’t so way-way-back, but it’s interesting. When you drive northeast toward Palmdale along Sierra Highway and Placerita, there are several dozen oil wells and tanks to the west. That is called Confusion Hill.
It was started in 1935 by an ex-convict and confidence man, Milfred Yant. He bought 120 acres of scrub-oak-covered land in the canyon for just $50 an acre.
First, Yant built a corrugated tin “clubhouse” and lured senior citizens from Los Angeles with free bus rides and lunches. It was a lure to get them to invest.
There were already a few oil wells in the area and Yant convinced them to buy into what he described as an ocean of oil beneath the surface. Yant started selling parcels as small as 1/100th of an acre.
A front man for Yant, disguising himself as a representative of a major oil company, would then visit the investors and offer to buy their property. The investors would then rush back to Yant to buy more mini-parcels. Yant was selling the land he bought for $50 an acre at nearly $2,000 an acre — an unheard-of high price during the Great Depression.
Folks started getting suspicious. Charges were brought. Yant was arrested and served two years in San Quentin for sales fraud. He was released and then later arrested for defrauding an elderly widow of her life’s savings.
Yant went straight for a while and opened an appliance store in Hollister. But the lure of quick bucks was too much. Still owning the property in Placerita, in 1949, he conned a local rancher into investing $53,000 to develop oil.
Yant even went to the trouble to drill a couple of wells.
To his jaw-dropping surprise, Yant hit oil. Millions and millions of barrels of oil.
Two thousand barrels a day gushed from those first two wells. Yant and the rancher drilled four more wells. They, too, proved to be gushers. A Texas oilman, Tevis Morrow, bought up the rancher’s stock and rushed in a sophisticated operation. In 45 days, the rigs pumped out 240,000 barrels of crude and in its early heyday, there were over 60 wells on the 120 acres and 1,000 men worked on them.
The area handle, Confusion Hill, was because of the mass of men and machinery working in a small space. “It was like 60 straws in a Coke bottle,” one oil worker recalled.
We sure could have used that crude today. Eventually, over 150 wells were sunk and 18 million barrels pumped, temporarily glutting America’s oil market.
Newhall was temporarily a boom town, with absolutely no place to stay for the migrant oilmen. Some slept outside or in their cars. One cleared out a chicken coop and called it home.
The valley was invaded by speculators who offered wads of cash for oil rights. Even Arcadia Street — then the Beverly Hills of the SCV — was not immune. People were erecting huge oil derricks in their front lawns, sending a gooey black river down the street into neighbors’ yards. It caused acrimony for years after that.
By 1951, the boom busted. Only a trickle of oil was pumped from the Earth. As quickly as the oil men had invaded, they departed.
So did conman turned millionaire oil speculator, Milfred Yant. Oh. A little extra tidbit? Milfred was a grand dragon in the Ku Klux Klan.
SEPTEMBER 23, 1923
AND TODAY, NETFLIX — I truly loved the editorials of Blanche B. Brown. They had a timeless quality to them and her op/ed piece on this date was no exception. Blanche questioned how so many people could go needy and begging and we had money to burn on dog shows and prize fights.
MISSING PERSONS REPORT, FOR A WINDMILL? — On this date, the Board of Supervisors called for bids to build a water tower and windmill for Newhall Elementary.
SEPTEMBER 23, 1933
YOU COULD BUY THE WHOLE GROCERY STORE FOR A BAG OF GROCERIES TODAY — Money was tighter and prices were lower during the Great Depression. At the Continental Store on Spruce Street, Gold Medal Flour was just 99 cents. That was for 25 pounds. Tomatoes were four pounds for a dime, as were seedless grapes. Maxwell House coffee was a quarter a pound and you could get six cans of Bozo dogfood for 25 cents.
NOT BILL’S TIME JUST YET — Bill Hart came home from three surgeries. He said he had never been closer to meeting his maker. Normally not a religious man, Hart commented: “I was practically in the grave three times, and God and a great surgeon brought me out. I was never so near to God in all my life and feel that this I have said is the truth.” Hart would meet his Maker — 13 years later.
SEPTEMBER 23, 1943
GEEZ. WHAT COULD GO WRONG? — We were blessed with the byproduct of another prison experiment. Inmates all the way from San Quentin were clearing brush up Bouquet Canyon when one of the cons escaped. John Logan Peterson stole a few cars and made a dash-&-dine run to several coffee shops where he ate hamburgers. He ended up kidnapping Jack Ziegler and robbed him of $20. It was sort of a working holiday for Ziegler. He was one of the publishers of the San Fernando Sun newspaper and was able to come up with a humdinger of a story about his ordeal.
LIVED THROUGH WWII BUT NOT THE RIDGE ROUTE — While they survived the battles of World War II, they weren’t so lucky living through the Ridge Route. Seven people — four of them veterans — were killed in a huge traffic accident above Castaic.
SEPTEMBER 23, 1953
ESCAPING A FIERY DEATH — It was 106 and the brush was thick. An arsonist fired tracer bullets into the dense underbrush off of Highway 99. It started a fire that quickly burned 800 acres and nearly killed a fireman who slipped down an embankment right into the fire. He was pulled out by battalion chief Clark.
POPULATION TRIVIA — For better or worse, we continued to grow. Enrollment at the area’s school districts grew by 12%. Here’s the figures. The first is 1952 enrollment, the second is 1953 numbers: Hart Senior High — 367/400; Hart Junior High — 240/273; Newhall District — 482/517; Saugus District 179/218; Sulphur Springs — 161/210; and Castaic — 106/118. Saving you a trip to the calculator, enrollment for all local schools in 1952 was 1,535 and for 1953 was 1,736.
SEPTEMBER 23, 1963
MORE AMAZING STATS — OK. Remember how Hart had 673 students in both high school and junior high in 1953? A decade later, the ranks swelled. My good saddlepal, George Harris, reported 60 years back that there were 1,065 students at Hart (the only high school in the valley) and 796 at Placerita (the only junior high in the valley). I’ll save you a sprint toward your toes and fingers. That meant there were 1,861 junior and senior high students here — nearly tripled from a decade earlier. It was an 8% increase for junior high kids from the previous year and an 18% increase for Hart. Ouch.
GOOD INVESTMENT — A 1-acre, four-bedroom horse ranchette in Placerita Canyon listed for $39,000 some 60 years back. Today, that set-up would run you a little more than $1 million.
SEPTEMBER 23, 1973
OILS WELL — While we had a gas shortage nationwide, local oil wells continued to dutifully pump. The SCV churned out about 3 million barrels of oil a year. The valley’s two largest producers were owned by The Newhall Land & Farming Co. They were the Potrero Field in Pico Canyon, which pumped about 670,000 barrels a year, and, a site in Castaic, west of the junction. That field produced around the same amount.
THE WOMAN GOT OFF EASY — A large, husky-like dog met a horrific death. A woman from Pacific Palisades, who appeared at the Valencia courthouse on speeding charges, was sentenced to two days in jail. She told the judge she had the dog in her car and the judge said he would make arrangements for the canine to be held safely at the pound. The woman said she would have a friend take care of the creature. The woman was booked at 10:30 a.m. By noon, the dog, locked in a small car with the windows rolled up, was dead. He had completely torn the upholstery apart and the car was like a sauna when the window was finally broken.
SEPTEMBER 23, 1983
THE MEN GOT OFF EASY — Two men, one from Newhall, were given life in prison without the possibility of parole. Michael Dominick was the Santa Clarita young man who, with his partner, Steve Romero of Sylmar, kidnapped a young couple in 1981, raped the Valencia girl and murdered her boyfriend near Sand Canyon because he was a witness. A third suspect would start his trial in 1983.
THE MANZANAR/SCV CONNECTION — Film crews from Japan were in the SCV to film a TV epic for their country. “Two Motherlands” was about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Several Japanese farmers and families had their property confiscated and were shipped to POW camps in Central California.
LOOKS LIKE THEY NEEDED SOME SERIOUS FOUNDATION GLUE — Three mobile homes slid off their foundations on a Canyon Country hillside. Seems on the other side of the mountain, bulldozers were eating away to make room for more condos. The mountain caved in, creating a deep gorge. On the other side, driveways and lawns buckled and mobile homes just shifted sideways. County geologists blamed the developers, who knew that a major landslide would be a possibility.
THE DROZENATOR — My old pal Jim Droz became the first Realtor in the SCV to sell $10 million worth of real estate in 1983. He sold 85 homes by September. By today’s median figure, that would break down to about $34 million. Jim went from being a Hart High teacher to one of the most successful real estate salesmen in U.S. history. He’d frequently sell two houses — per day. The guy could also bench press like a million tons …
• • •
Thanks for the good company, dear friends, neighbors and saddlepals. See you back here next week at The Mighty Signal hitching post with another exciting Time Ranger adventure. Until then, say it with me — ¡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 autumn reads. Leave a kindly review …