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San Fernando Valley Pioneers : THE OWENSMOUTH BABY The Making of a San Fernando Valley Town by Catherine Mulholland (CSUN's Santa Susana Press: $40; 193 pp.)

January 10, 1988|John E. Baur | Baur is professor of history at Cal State Northridge

For more than a century the Los Angeles area has experienced the dramatic results of town promotions. This book by a granddaughter of William Mulholland, planner-builder of the Los Angeles Aqueduct from Owens Valley, and herself a lifelong valley resident, covers the founding and early years of Canoga Park, originally called Owensmouth because it was relatively near the outlet of that aqueduct. In 1931 it was renamed Canoga Park.

Founded in 1912, the "baby" town was carved from the wheat ranch of two Isaacs, Messrs. Lankershim and Van Nuys, who had dry-farmed the southern part of San Fernando Valley for 30 years. In 1909, five wealthy and prominent Angelenos, Harrison Gray Otis and his son-in-law, Harry Chandler of the Los Angeles Times; Moses H. Sherman, a pioneer in local transit; Otto F. Brant, and Hobart J. Whitley, developer of Hollywood and reputedly of 100 Great Plains towns, had purchased its 47,500 acres for $2.5 million. These experienced entrepreneurs already owned lands from Kings County to south of the Mexican border. As the Board of Control of their newly formed Los Angeles Suburban Homes Co., they would develop the biggest, most controversial land subdivision known in Los Angeles County.

An early settler of Owensmouth on her arrival thought the bare site looked like an empty pie shell with surrounding mountains forming the crust's edges. Dynamo of Owensmouth's initial development, H.J. Whitley occupies much of this book's space through his achievements, disappointments, quarrels with the board and final loss of interest in Owensmouth. There were also about 30 "Participators," heavy investors who were supposed to improve their lands but often remained mere speculators, much to the board's displeasure. Janss Realty Co. was chosen to sell the company's lands, but soon disappointed the board through badly written and sometimes misleading advertising. To ballyhoo sales they gave barbecues, sponsored auto and airplane races, and heralded new roads. Nevertheless, Canoga Park grew slowly.

Although buyers were told they could live in the "open air" before houses appeared, this was misleading when there were crop-killing freezes, severe winds, and devastating floods. Although the Pacific Electric's "Big Red Cars" arrived in 1912, there was no theater for a decade and no mortician. For years the trolley's "death car" carried the deceased to Los Angeles for undertaking.

Most buyers were Californians, several from nearby Calabasas who knew local soils and crops and climate and easily adjusted. After William Mulholland's aqueduct was completed in 1913, Owensmouth's voters decided to be annexed to Los Angeles in order to share its abundant water. Several groups who had sunk wells objected, but the town agreed to join by a vote of 35 to 4 in a community of only 202 people.

Life styles of "Owensmouthians" remained rough and simple well into the 1920s. Most could not afford substantial housing. The author describes the cheaply built forms of their "California bungalows," by no means similar to the contemporary and fashionable "Greene houses" of Pasadena. As late as 1940, of 508 dwellings in the original town site, 166 still lacked indoor plumbing.

By 1915 several disappointed buyers wanted their money back. Others felt the syndicate had increased prices far beyond real land values, and a few defaulted.

There is a chapter on minority groups which sounds unfortunately as one would expect. Contract Mexican labor made possible those farms that throve, but zoning regulations prevented Asians and blacks from buying, renting, or leasing "better" tracts, while poorer ones near the railroad tracks were ghettoized as "Cholo Town." Mexican residents held menial jobs with poor pay and lived in small, crowded adobe houses.

Though Owensmouth was legally a "dry" town, its share of pioneer drunks and bootleggers appeared well before the Eighteenth Amendment.

In a later chapter the author harvests her impressive interviewing of pioneers and their offspring, including much quoted anecdotal material. To non-Valley readers, this may seem provincial; but it illustrates with wisdom and humor what life was like in a small rural town in 20th Century California.

Owensmouth/Canoga Park remained rural for 40 years, until wealthier people, many from Hollywood, moved there to enjoy suburban life. Only with World War II did it become more metropolitan.

Catherine Mulholland answers long-lived charges that the Los Angeles Suburban Homes executives had been guilty of a "land grab" by observing: "Empire builders all, they were a blend of daring, greed, and idealism, and although one may find them unsympathetic and even morally reprehensible . . . still one must also acknowledge, however grudgingly, their practical vision, their extraordinary energy and drive, and, finally, their large measure of civic devotion and commitment to their adopted city." She concludes, "I remain skeptical of all conspiracy theories."

Although this work is hardly a hero-worshiping treatise on altruists, it lacks bitterness and cynicism. It is thoughtful, well-balanced and covers a subject that should satisfy Angelenos interested in their area's not very distant past, when Los Angeles in many ways was becoming the empire it is today.

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