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Horseback Outback : No-Frills Park Could Use a Few, Riders Say

January 22, 1990|PHIL SNEIDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The complex included a hotel-size kitchen, servant's quarters and a separate nine-car garage, where Stetson kept the plush Lincoln automobiles he favored. He entertained frequently.

"He loved to be outdoors barbecuing," Richardson said. "I remember once when they gave a party for the entire cast of Eddie Cantor's movie 'Whoopee.' "

Although he did not manage his father's company, Stetson remained on its board of directors. "He made a big thing out of giving Stetson hats to the people who worked on his ranch and to his friends," said Richardson, who still has a hat given to him by the rancher.

A highlight of the Stetson home was its swimming pool, 235 feet long and 100 feet wide. It held a million gallons of water and was connected to a stream and a series of smaller pools and waterfalls, Richardson recalled. The pool easily accommodated the Stetsons' rowboat.

Sybilla D. Stetson, who married Henry after he divorced Lucretia, said the pool once provided another type of recreation. "During the war, when we couldn't get the materials to keep the pool clean, we used to put fish in it," said Stetson, 86, of Woodland Hills. "Friends used to come over and fish."

The family kept tame deer on the ranch, which was devoted mainly to orange, lemon and lime groves, she said.

In 1959 Henry Stetson sold the ranch to the Mormon Church, which planned to build a college on the site. But Stetson retained the right to live on his estate for the rest of his life.

In February, 1963, the forces of nature stepped in. "There was a fire in the hills directly behind the house, followed by a rainstorm," Richardson said. "The water just came rushing down the canyon and right through the house and filled the whole thing with mud."

The mammoth pool was also filled to the brim with mud.

Sybilla Stetson said she and her husband were away when the disaster occurred, but she returned quickly to inspect the damage. "It was dreadful," she recalled.

The home could not be salvaged, and the Stetsons relocated to Woodland Hills. Henry Stetson died at that home in 1983 at age 95.

The 1971 Sylmar earthquake further devastated the estate and destroyed the water system that fed the ranch's citrus groves. A few years later the Mormon Church hired Bob Van Dulm to oversee a small herd of cattle brought to the ranch.

Von Dulm said most of the Stetson estate was demolished by the church after the earthquake. He lives in the chauffeur's house, which he said is the sole remaining structure built by Stetson. Van Dulm now is a maintenance worker for the adjacent mobile home park.

The church's plan for a community college fell through, and it began planning a mobile home park instead. In the late 1970s it sold the land to Fullerton-based Continental Mobile Housing, which built the 600-space Oakridge Mobile Home Park that now occupies most of the land.

The city required the developer to pay park fees or set aside land for a public recreation area, said Myron Reichert, a general partner in the firm. At the time, Sylmar-area horse owners were worried about the rapid loss of riding areas, so the developer donated Stetson Ranch Park for their use.

"I think everybody was really happy because it was a good trade-off," said equestrian activist Roman. "It was just raw land that had been used for growing oranges."

Dedication ceremonies were held on Aug. 26, 1978. Four years later another nearby developer put in the horse arenas, restroom building, water systems and some landscaping in place of paying a park fee.

Sybilla Stetson believes that preserving a portion of the ranch for an equestrian park was a fitting tribute to her late husband.

"It kept that land from being built up," she said. "I'm delighted."

The park has changed little since its opening. City officials say they don't plan to add picnic tables because that might turn it into a hangout for potential lawbreakers after dark.

Horse enthusiasts say they are glad to have a low-key, low-cost alternative to commercial equestrian centers. "If we didn't have Stetson Ranch Park, we wouldn't be able to have our horse shows," said Claire Shannon of Newhall Trail Riders. "We're a nonprofit group. We just want to make enough money to put on the next horse show and have a little Christmas party."

Judy Hersh moved to Sylmar in 1978, the year the park opened and has been using it ever since.

"When I started using it, nothing was up there, just a dirt road," she said. "I watched them put the arenas in a few years later."

Hersh, noting that the changes would be "pretty minimal," said she'd like to see the ruggedness of the park maintained.

"I think the people of Sylmar would like to keep it that way. I know I would," Hersh said. "We're horse people living in the city, but we like being where the terrain hasn't changed."

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