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Tujunga's Pioneer Women Lived on the Rocks

Valley Life | SPOTLIGHT

April 09, 1999|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN

Not certain that life was worth living before antibiotics and the clothes dryer, I'm the kind of woman who thinks a new dishwasher is a more romantic gift than long-stemmed roses. That world view was reinforced recently when I drove to Tujunga to check out an exhibit at the Bolton Hall Museum on "A Woman's Life in Early Sunland-Tujunga."

There to greet me was Mary Lou Pozzo, librarian and former president of the Little Landers Historical Society. Normally, Pozzo runs the museum's tiny gift shop, but she was doing double duty as docent.

Pozzo, it turns out, is writing a book on the pioneer women of Tujunga, which came into existence in 1913 as one of Southern California's handful of Utopian communities.

As we talked, it soon became clear that life for Tujunga's early residents was tough indeed--and especially hard for its women. A museum case filled with carpet beaters, irons and other so-called labor-saving devices reminds you just how much labor there actually was. (The exhibit continues until Aug. 28.)

Increasingly aware of what Tujunga's pioneer women coped with, Pozzo wasn't surprised when one of the people she interviewed for her book remembered: "We never knew what was wrong with Grandmother, but sometimes she'd just go in back of the barn and scream."

As Pozzo explains, the town was sold to potential settlers as a place where $800 would buy an acre of land and a life of independence. The theory was that a person could raise chickens and enough vegetables to sustain one's family, even enough to sell in the cooperative store.

But the reality was grimmer. First of all, the only crop that thrived for the Little Landers was stone. Rocks are everywhere in the foothills to this day.

William Ellsworth Smythe, the smooth-talking promoter of the colony, tried to turn this into a virtue. The omnipresent rocks constituted the perfect building material, he claimed: "Bring a trowel and a bag of cement. We'll provide the stones."

No lie there.

When prospective colonists visited, Smythe urged them to look above the rocks. "Look at the mountains," he exhorted. "Look at the sky."

Not surprisingly, Sunland-Tujunga has more than 200 stone houses and other buildings, many of them in the Craftsman style. One of the most notable is Bolton Hall itself, named--hard as it is to believe--for a writer named Bolton Hall.

Many of these buildings will be featured in a home-and-garden tour April 18, starting at 10:30 a.m. (You can get tickets at that time at Bolton Hall itself and check it out).

Besides rocks, Tujunga had floods and rattlesnakes.

It was also notable for what it didn't have.

Mabel Hatch arrived from verdant Michigan and burst into tears when she saw her family's stony plot.

"I, for one," Hatch later recalled, "didn't know there was any place in the world where you did not have street lights, ice, gas to cook with and mail delivered to your door. But we learned! How we learned!"

In the course of her research, Pozzo discovered one couple who did manage to scratch a living out of their soul-testing acre.

Known universally as "the girls," Marie Frish and Anna Souto had met when they worked as domestics in houses across the street from each other in Santa Barbara.

The Little Landers colony in Tujunga offered them liberation, albeit at the cost of toil I don't even want to think about. They raised chickens and vegetables, and Anna built a stone wall that was the talk of the community.

If their life together was hard, it was also marked by community and the sweet solace of a boon companion.

"They were really soul mates," says Pozzo. And they were well thought of by their neighbors. People liked to sit on orange crates on their back porch and schmooze with the girls.

For fun, the women sometimes made the long trek to Santa Monica and the beach. And they danced together at the weekly dances at Bolton Hall. A local reporter from a more innocent time noted that they did this when there were no men available to dance with.

The Little Landers experiment soon sputtered and was over by the end of World War I. Subdividing your acre and selling it off proved more lucrative than chickens for most of the pioneers.

But the girls held on to their Little Landers lifestyle for decade after decade. Marie died first--at the age of 88--in June of 1969. Anna joined her six months later.

Pozzo doesn't know when the book will be finished, but she does know it won't be a tell-all. Her fellow Tujungans might be distressed by full disclosure of what she's discovered about some of their forebears.

"I'm up to eight murders," Pozzo says. "The minute I leave town I'm writing a second book."

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