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Curious George : Nature Center Takes Title From Canyon's Enigmatic Namesake

May 31, 1996|TRACY JOHNSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One myth holds that George F was actually George Vickery, a San Pedro butcher who sliced and diced shortly after the turn of the century. Another says that he was really George Oden, a prominent Wilmington contractor.

Some believe George F was really George H. Bixby, the principal Palos Verdes Peninsula property owner in the early 1900s. When the name was transferred through history, a misspelling may have occurred. If that's the case, the mystery of George F is no mystery at all.

Then, there's the modern-day story that says the George F enigma is a real estate gimmick.

No one knows exactly who George F is or was, but map makers and hikers alike have called a 36-acre canyon in Rolling Hills Estates by his name since at least 1924. And it hasn't stopped the city on the Palos Verdes Peninsula from naming its new nature center, scheduled to open Saturday, after him.

George F is to Rolling Hills Estates what the Bermuda Triangle is to Bermuda: an unsolved mystery. Local historians and city officials tried for years to solve the puzzle, but not even the Sepulveda and Dominguez families, descended from some of the earliest South Bay settlers, could come up with the missing piece. The city has since concluded that George F is a lost piece of history.

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"The historical society doesn't know who he is, long-standing residents don't know who he is," said Doug Prichard, the Rolling Hills Estates city manager. "There's no . . . hope of finding who he is so we've given up guessing."

Ronald Gales, local historian and the author of a three-edition handbook on the history and geology of the peninsula, set out to find George F's identity in the early 1970s and has probably come the closest to finding the man behind the name.

Gales found a U.S. Geological Survey map of the peninsula from 1924 that labels the canyon "George F." Gales, a retired meteorologist, also discovered a 1916 picture of George H. Bixby standing in front of the canyon. Gales believes a typo probably occurred when someone transcribed the map and was never corrected.

Over the years, people have toyed with the canyon name and have gone so far as to call it Georgeff and Georgette. There is a Georgette Homeowners Assn. and a George F housing tract in Rolling Hills Estates, and a Georgeff Road in Rolling Hills, so Gales believes attempts to change the name were started by a real estate agent.

Others accept the name at face value. Carmen Marinella, a historian who works in the history room at the Malaga Cove Library, said people sometimes inquire about the identity of George F, but most have accepted the idea that there is no answer.

"It's odd that we don't know who he is," Marinella said. "I know I'd like to know who he is, but no one really knows."

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The man remains a mystery, but city officials have not forgotten the canyon that bears his name. Since being opened to the public in 1993, the canyon has become one of the most popular hiking spots on the peninsula. Once private property, it was sold to the city in 1982 by the Stein and Hale families.

Beginning on Palos Verdes Drive East, the canyon cuts through the sprawling hills of Rolling Hills Estates. The trail winds its way through coastal sagebrush, a habitat for the California gnatcatcher. Markers along the trail provide information about its indigenous plant life, including climbing penstemon, a bush that sprouts a vibrant red-orange flower, and sticky monkey, a low shrub with sticky yellow flowers.

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At the base of this canyon is the George F Canyon Nature Center, which looks like a schoolhouse and is painted white with green trim. The $140,000 facility was funded by community donations and funds from Proposition A, a 1992 voter-approved bond initiative for development of neighborhood parks and beaches.

For now, the nature center is scheduled to be open on weekends. Naturalist Aileen Bevan will present exhibits on peninsula plants and wildlife, guide private tours of the canyon and answer questions about the canyon. She can't, however, answer any questions about George F.

"I have no idea who he is," she said.

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