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Around the Valley

The librarian introduced the author as the original Valley Girl.

October 21, 1987|DOUG SMITH

An unusual crowd consisting of the San Fernando Valley literati and a few descendants of the grand old names of Valley history got together Friday night to tip a few glasses of champagne to someone who stands tall in both their worlds.

Catherine Mulholland is the granddaughter of William Mulholland, the engineer who changed Los Angeles history by building the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens Valley. She was born in the Valley and has lived here most of her 64 years. She is also fervent and uncommonly articulate in her dedication to the Valley as a land of historical merit as well as easy living.

Mulholland recently finished her second historical book on the Valley. The first, "Calabasas Girls," recounted the tough life of homestead families on the Western fringes.

Her new work, "Owensmouth Baby," tells the story of Canoga Park, then known as Owensmouth, one of the original three towns established by the downtown partnerships that subdivided the Valley in the second decade of the century.

Besides some chatty recollection of early Valley settlers who were neighbors of the 700-acre Mulholland Ranch where she grew up, the book contains some original research. Mulholland has searched through the personal papers of Hobart Johnstone Whitley, one of the five men who bought the southern half of the Valley in 1909 and carved it into town sites.

Those papers, donated by Whitley's family in 1952 to the Department of Special Collections at UCLA, provided an inside look at the greed, ambition and personal sense of destiny of the men who developed the Valley.

"Whitley built towns," the author wrote. "He once claimed he'd built a hundred of them in Dakota and Oklahoma territories. . . . For Whitley, towns happened all the time in America. . . . It was called Progress, and Americans believed in it, wanted it."

Progress has now brought Whitley's new community a publisher worthy of his story and, fittingly, just down the street from the old Mulholland Ranch where the Cal State Northridge libraries produce fine books through their Santa Susana Press.

And so it was something of a homecoming Friday night when the library director, Norman Tanis, threw a party for Mulholland in CSUN's Oviatt Library.

About 100 people came. Many were old friends of Mulholland and descendants of families whose names are found on Valley streets and in her book.

Gentle jazz improvisations were played on a piano and saxophone by two men in tuxedos.

Copies of the green-bound book sold for $40. Some of the guests drank wine, talked and waited in line for autographs, while others found quiet spots and began to read.

Eventually, Tanis called the group to order and introduced the author as the original Valley Girl.

Mulholland, tall, elegantly mannered and engaging, began her talk with acknowledgements, the most personal for the pianist.

"Bruce MacDonald I've known ever since I was a little kid," she said. "He was the West Valley's first hipster. He went on to be Harry James' favorite piano player."

Her primary problem in writing about the Valley, she said, was simple:

"Was it interesting? Could it work? Was it of any importance?"

"I found that there were people here in the Valley, interesting characters, interesting activities that seemed to define the American grain," she said. "Both the good and the bad, not always good."

Besides Whitley, her leading characters included Harrison Gray Otis, owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Times; his son-in-law and future publisher, Harry Chandler; Gen. Moses Hazeltine Sherman, a member of the city water board; and Otto F. Brant, head of the Title Insurance & Trust Co.

All men of power and position, they have also been tied in the public imagination to Mulholland's grandfather, the man who brought water to Los Angeles.

In her speech as well as her book, Mulholland struck directly at the common belief that her grandfather was part of a conspiracy to enrich the already powerful.

"Because the desire to know history leads to the desire to know truth, I've always been troubled by the stories," she said. "I've done a lot of searching and a lot of digging, because I felt my family honor was somewhat impugned by the accusation. I really would like to remove the blot."

With the caution of a seeker of truth, she didn't claim to have done it. But she said she found no evidence to support the theory.

The party went on for an hour.

An even more self-effacing Mulholland, Catherine's brother, Richard, then told his version of the Valley's story, and the Mulhollands'.

"It's interesting how the genes work," he said. "They come down, you know, and then all the brains go to her, and little brother ends up on the back 40."

He is a San Joaquin Valley farmer. He said he left the Mulholland Ranch for good in 1955.

"I swapped 15 acres in Northridge for 226 in Orange Grove," he said.

It was the water, he said. When it came, he knew that farming was over in the Valley.

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