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HIDING CLOSE BY : Tucked in a canyon amid the Santa Monica Mountains, Malibou Lake has managed to avoid the nearby urban sprawl.

February 19, 1993|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Edmond Jeffery arrived in Malibou Lake with 25 feet of scaffolding and a secret atomic process for making rain.

Two years of drought had kept the lake bone-dry. The people of this small town in the Santa Monica Mountains were tired of staring at dust, at boat docks standing naked as skeletons. Nature had robbed them of their watery jewel.They paid Jeffery $250, plus room and board, to make things right.

The bearded ex-pilot proclaimed: "It'll rain in seven days."

That was 1961.

These days, the lake runs high and no one thinks about Jeffery. He is a blip in the town's folklore. But the tale of this rainmaker, both quaint and eccentric, tells something of Malibou Lake. In many ways, nothing has changed since.

The same road, two lanes crumbling at the edges, winds into town. Not so much as a gas station or convenience store marks the way. Chaparral and live oak still dominate the hillsides, with houses clustered near the water.

That's the peculiarity of this place. No crime. No sidewalks. Seven miles from the Ventura Freeway, not far from Agoura's huddled tracts, Malibou Lake clings to the past.

This is a community of several hundred writers, actors, retired folks and business executives. Many of them work in the city and commute an hour or so home. Mountains encircle their small, rugged valley. No road signs mark the turnoff from the main road.

So, over the years, only tidbits of urban madness have found their way here. Odd happenings and strange visitors. People like Edmond Jeffery. His story--along with the story of this town--begins at the beginning.

Billions of years ago, soupy prehistoric seas nurtured organic compounds that, in turn, formed the first living cell. This mix eventually produced humans.

Malibou Lake evolved much the same way.

In 1923, state workers built a 44-foot-high dam across converging creeks, the Medea and the Triunfo. A body of water was born. In Southern California, a lake means one thing: lakefront property.

At first, construction was limited to vacation cabins. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard sought respite here in the '30s and '40s. W.C. Fields visited often. A private clubhouse was erected, offering such diversions as boating, fishing and target-shooting.

Malibou Lake continued as a celebrity resort for many years. But as postwar Los Angeles filled valleys and spilled over hills, covering more and more of the land, some people got the idea of staying year-round. Real estate prices had remained relatively cheap: $5,000 bought a hillside lot as late as 1960.

So houses replaced many of the cabins. A ranch-style here, a clapboard there. Such homes stood eaves-to-eaves, but the place never lost its country feel, the coveys of quail scurrying across hills, the eucalyptus trees that give afternoon shade.

And there was always the lake. People like to see it sparkling outside their living-room window. Its allure remains strong enough to outweigh natural hardships. Winter storms bring a threat of flood. Longtime residents have dug themselves out of the mud more than a few times. In summer, the hills turn dry as kindling. Sugarloaf, a proud butte overlooking town, has been known to toss boulders at the houses below.

Townfolk feign indifference. You can see it in a local man's smile as he recalls a 1955 brush fire that destroyed 250 surrounding acres. The people of Malibou Lake wear such calamities as a badge of their isolation, the gift the dam brought them.

But dams can be fickle. Some can last 50 years without tending. Others need continual repairs.

In 1959, state officials wanted to inspect Malibou Dam. They drained two-thirds of the lake, expecting winter's rain to refill those 20 million gallons. No rain came. Edmond Jeffery was summoned.

His arrival raised quite a hubbub. Every morning, he placed "radiation" chemicals atop his tower. At night, he burned another secret mixture in stoves on the ground.

Jeffery claimed that he had learned his craft from a man named Charles Mallory Hatfield, who according to a 1961 Times article "died in 1958, 42 years after he assertedly caused a San Diego cloudburst."

The people of Malibou Lake regarded Jeffery with mixed emotions.

"I remember a local youngster walked by and the fellow told him, 'See that little cloud up there? It took me two hours to make that one.' It was kind of funny," says Gordon Thomas, a longtime resident.

Others grumbled. "This makes us look like a bunch of nuts," one man said.

Not that Malibou Lake worries about maintaining its reputation. These people don't want any reputation at all. As the urban sprawl creeps closer with each condominium, each strip mall, they are feeling pressured.

"It's a private lake," a local man bristles. "There's no need for anyone to know about it."

Especially if that anyone is a reporter snooping around, asking questions.

"I don't trust you," Beatrice Read says. She arrived three decades ago. "If you write about us, people will come here."

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