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Summertime: A Guide to Entertainment, Activities And Excursions : Childhood's Long Summers : * A member of a noted San Fernando Valley family recalls life in the 1920s and 1930s on a 700-acre ranch.

June 20, 1991|CATHERINE MULHOLLAND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES, Catherine Mulholland, a resident of Chatsworth, is the author of two books on the Valley, "Calabasas Girls" and "The Owensmouth Baby: The Making of a San Fernando Valley Town." She is also writing a biography about her grandfather, William Mulholland, the chief engineer of the Department of Water and Power and the builder of the Owens Valley Aqueduct. She is the honorary mayor of Canoga Park

I would like to write a poem As long as California And as slow as a summer. -Jack Spicer

Long and slow. That was what a Valley summer promised to be, when on the last day of school in June it lay ahead like a loose scroll of endless lazy days that I would have all the time in the world to unroll.

In the beginning, simply to lounge at home was a treat, but soon I missed the companionship of my schoolmates as I came to grips with the hard realization that summer on our ranch meant solitude.

I grew up in the 1920s and '30s amid 700 acres of citrus and walnut orchards in Chatsworth and Northridge, where our closest neighbors were almost a mile away. My father was boss of the orchards and ranch yard. Workers lived in the bunkhouse, a cook in the cookhouse, livestock in the barn and corral. My mother was the presiding spirit of our home, which was hidden from view in an orange grove about a quarter of a mile north of the ranch yard. This kingdom of my childhood was centered along Corbin Avenue and Nordhoff Street, dirt roads rarely traveled by outsiders.

Dependent on our mother for transportation until we were old enough to drive, my brother, Richard, and I did not have casual social encounters with other children. Mother and other ranch wives arranged daytime recreations for us children, such as trips to the State Beach at the south end of Topanga Canyon, picnics in Browns Canyon at the north end of De Soto, outings to Pop's Willow Lake over near Sunland or boating at Glover's Twin Lakes in Chatsworth at the north end of Topanga Canyon Boulevard.

Sometimes on Saturday afternoons Mother would take us to the Madrid Theater on Sherman Way in Canoga Park. I remember seeing matinees of "Buck Jones" and "The Red Rider" serials. A really special treat was going to Graumann's Chinese or to the Egyptian to see films such as "The Champ," "Little Women," "King Kong" and Shirley Temple movies with my Auntie Rose Mulholland. We'd get to stay with Auntie Rose, who lived in the city with my grandfather Mulholland on St. Andrew's Place at Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard. She loved movies and I think having us stay was a good excuse for her for go to the movies. Those days were really special treats.

Mother would also take us for swimming lessons at the brand new Reseda Municipal Plunge, the first public swimming pool in the West Valley, opened in 1931.

From its beginning, Reseda Park was a lively social center for the West Valley. Every Saturday night, there were square dances. My father's head tractor driver, Roy McDonald, would call the dances, and people who worked and lived on the ranches all came.

Closer to home, my brother and I hiked and played in the dry bed of Lime Kiln Wash, which ran from the Porter Ranch down through our property. We would travel by bicycle or horse or on foot to places nearby. There was so much open space in the Valley that tracts of empty land were our parks in a sense. If we wanted to play baseball, we'd just ride our bikes to a nearby empty lot and start playing.

Summers made a literate person out of me. I would spend a lot of time reading books such as "The Good Earth," "Gone With the Wind" and the complete works of Dickens. I read everything in the house.

The Valley before World War II was predominantly agricultural. The succession of ripening crops gave a seasonal rhythm to the year, and summer was a crescendo of fruitfulness. Roadside produce stands sprouted as well. With the appearance of strawberries and apricots, housewives got out their canning equipment.

The Valley hummed with summer's labor. I had just graduated from the largest eighth-grade class that Winnetka Avenue Grammar School had ever had--17 pupils. A few weeks later I earned my first money pitting apricots in a shed at a neighbor's ranch, near where Northridge Fashion Center stands today. We were paid 50 cents for each drying tray that we filled, and after making $8 the first week, I felt in the chips. I was let off the following week because the crop played out.

Not everyone worked in agriculture. The Valley had long been popular for film locations, and Valley residents were accustomed to curious encounters with film folk. Earlier in the year, up on the Porter estate north of Devonshire, about where the gated community of Monteria stands today, MGM had built an entire Chinese village for the filming of Pearl Buck's "The Good Earth." I would ride my bicycle up there to watch the shooting or simply to imagine that I was in China, where the heroine, O-Lan (played by Luise Rainer), had lived her long-suffering life. The illusion in those tawny foothills was complete, even to ducks, chickens and little pigs wandering in the yards of the thatched huts. The property men paid schoolboys for grasshoppers to be filmed as part of the great locust invasion. Between catching grasshoppers and trapping gophers, for which farmers paid bounties, an enterprising West Valley lad could put nickels in his jeans.

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