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Holy Jim : Canyon's Dwellers Live Well Off the Beaten Path

January 19, 1986|BOB SIPCHEN

"Dog treed a mountain lion last night; coffee's over there," John Jones drawled, offering his first words to a couple of unfamiliar flatlanders up poking around in his neck of the woods one morning.

Back in a corner of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department's fire barn, a big pot of coffee simmered on a wood-burning stove. In the rafters overhead, two Holy Jim "fighting volunteers" (motto: "We haven't lost a foundation yet") hammered away at some new 4-by-6 beams, while Jones, the president and "Supreme Commander" of the Holy Jim Cabin Owners' Assn., supervised from below.

Five-and-a-half miles up a tire-eating dirt road, past a succession of signs with "No Trespassing" scrawled in a decidedly unfriendly hand, past a noisy guard dog that bounds through the brush on jack-rabbit legs, over 16 stream crossings and well beyond the point where telephone and water and power lines peter out, the Holy Jim recreational tract lies along the banks of Holy Jim and Trabuco creeks, a dusty anachronism in a region ablaze with sparkling new development. Folks who have cabins there brag that it is the most backward community in Orange County.

"Everyone else is progressing. We're regressing," Jones said, his voice laced with the twang of his rural Texas boyhood.

"Housewives, as a rule, don't do very well (living in Holy Jim); kids get bored stiff," said Jim Sleeper, Orange County's best-known historian and a part- or full-time resident of the canyon since 1948, when, on his 21st birthday, he handed over $800 for a cabin and a lease on the land it sits upon. "The people who do best are the ones that grew up on farms or ranches or in small towns and want to recapture a bit of that flavor."

As Sleeper explains it in his history, "A Boy's Book of Bear Stories (Not for Boys)," "Holy Jim" is an intentional misnomer. The first dwellings in the canyon were erected by a beekeeper back in the 1880s and passed on a few years later to another bee man, James T. Smith.

Smith, Sleeper writes, had "a vocabulary that would 'peel paint off a stove pipe,' " and he picked up an equally colorful collection of nicknames--"Cussin' Jim," "Greasy Jim" and "Lying Jim," among them. But when his friends really wanted to get his goat, they referred to him as "Salvation" Smith, and it was apparently in that spirit that map makers first attached the name "Holy Jim" to the fork of Trabuco Creek that Smith called home.

Sleeper, who may someday replace Smith as Holy Jim's most famous character, is the mother lode of information on the Santa Ana Mountains, and by talking to him and reading what he's written, it's easy to piece together a capsule history of the Holy Jim tract (which Sleeper says is technically two tracts, Holy Jim and Trabuco).

After World War I, Americans began hankering to get away to the great outdoors. With lots of black bear and mule deer prowling about under a thick canopy of Sycamore and California Live Oak and steelhead trout still wriggling up its creeks from the ocean, Trabuco Canyon was this area's answer to the Michigan that Hemingway was writing about. So, in 1920, Orange County and the U. S. Forest Service bulldozed a road up the creek bed and built "Orange County Campground" at the fork of Trabuco and Holy Jim canyons. About the same time, the Forest Service parceled out the first lease lots there for "recreational summer homes."

Transplanted Iowans who had settled in Long Beach were the first people to buy the leases and build there. In a way, that explains why many of the 51 cabins still standing--those that didn't wash away in the floods of 1927, '37, '38 or '69 or burn down in one of the fires that periodically rampage through the area--resemble the small surf-side bungalows popular in Long Beach in the 1920s.

Another reason for the individualistic styles of the cabins, with their waist-high creek rock walls and, in some cases, inelegant architecture, was the fact that they were built during the Depression.

"Labor was cheap and material hard to come by," Sleeper said. "My cabin was roofed originally with old license plates. And there wasn't a beam in the ceiling over four feet long."

Sleeper has since rebuilt his cabin three times, he said. And that reflects another requisite for enjoying canyon life.

'Burn Themselves Out'

"You need to be a putterer," he said. "About half of the people who buy a cabin in Holy Jim burn themselves out in the first six weeks trying to get everything done and then sit around with nothing to do. But the charm of a mountain cabin is working on it. I can say that because I've lived up there now since 1948, and mine's still not done."

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