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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Nothing Sleepy About This Past

A pair of amateur historians offer a tour of the Crescenta Valley's colorful history of `Hooch, Hitler and Homicide.'

May 14, 2006|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Humble Crescenta Valley's history includes nudism, moonshine, murder, a World War II detention camp and even Nazi rallies.

"Nuggets the Chamber of Commerce doesn't want you to know," said Mike Lawler, president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. He and another amateur historian, teacher Gary Keyes, have researched the area's dark secrets and organized a tour of sites criminal and colorful from the comfortable community's past.

The Crescenta Valley takes in the unincorporated territory of La Crescenta and Montrose. Lawler's and Keyes' snippets also include parts of Tujunga, Glendale and Sun Valley.

For starters, in the 1930s, Marjorie Main ("Ma Kettle"), Clark Gable and Carole Lombard liked the La Crescenta foothills so much that they built getaway cabins. Lawler said the cabins are still there -- "little and dinky, just as they started out."

Keyes, who has taught U.S. history and government at La Crescenta High School for 39 years, delights in telling students that he is a distant cousin of Asa "Ace" Keyes, who served as Los Angeles County district attorney from 1923 to 1928. Keyes (pronounced KI-zzz) sent plenty of people to prison before being convicted of bribery and joining them at San Quentin.

Gary Keyes did most of the research, said Lawler, 48, a technical artist for American Honda Motor Co. "He was my history teacher in high school. He made history come alive. When we were all tired of George Washington and the cherry tree stuff, he would tell us all the dirt."

Their devotion to the underbelly of history launched a tongue-in-cheek adventure that they call: "CV Confidential: Hooch, Hitler and Homicide." More than 100 people took the second annual tour Saturday.

First stop: Dunsmore Park in Glendale, a former tuberculosis sanitarium. A subsequent owner, Milton Hofert, was an avid rock and junk collector who built whimsical walls in the 1930s and '40s that still stand. He cemented odds and ends, including scissors, silverware, a wrench, stove-top burners and even a gun into the mortar.

Another stop: the intersection of La Tuna Canyon Road and Tujunga Canyon Boulevard in Tujunga. Lawler and Keyes say the Immigration and Naturalization Service ran a detention center here for civilians of Japanese, Italian and German descent, beginning a week after Pearl Harbor and lasting until May 1942.

What had been a Civilian Conservation Corps camp became Tuna Camp, the gateway to internment for judo and kendo instructors, bankers, Buddhist priests and community leaders whom the U.S. government considered dangerous enemy aliens. Surrounded by a 12-foot-high barbed-wire fence, it housed 300 prisoners on their way to other camps.

In the 1960s, it became Verdugo Hills Golf Course.

Then there's the former Hindenburg Park in La Crescenta, site of Nazi rallies in the 1930s and '40s. The largest took place April 30, 1939, when a brigade of 2,000 German American Bund members came to hear West Coast Bund leader Herman Max Schwinn and "American Fuehrer" Fritz Kuhn.

Clad in a gray-and-black storm trooper uniform and flanked by a dozen uniformed guards, Kuhn spoke from a stage draped in red swastika banners. The crowd cheered Kuhn, The Times reported, and booed as a low-flying plane bombarded the park with thousands of anti-Hitler leaflets.

At the time, the park featured a 5-foot bust of Paul von Hindenburg, president of the Weimar Republic during Hitler's rise to power. Hindenburg's visage was repeatedly vandalized during World War II. It was removed in 1956 when Los Angeles County purchased the 15-acre site for $91,000, incorporating the land into Crescenta Valley Park. No one knows what became of the sculpture.

Farther along the tour: Whiting Woods, on the edge of Glendale. The exclusive neighborhood has its roots in prostitution, moonshine, opium and murder, Lawler and Keyes say.

The development began in the early 20th century as a 44-acre chicken ranch called the Pasadena Gun Club or Pasadena Mountain Club. Keyes said it actually was a "gentlemen's clubhouse," offering romps in cabins with prostitutes. Police shut it down in 1915.

Later that year, Perry Whiting bought the property and reopened it as a roadhouse or speakeasy. A Chinese farmer on adjoining property grew opium, Keyes said, and bootleggers cooked up moonshine on Whiting's property, although it's unclear whether Whiting knew of it.

In 1922, Whiting's bouncer, John Allen, shot and killed Henry J. Ronsee, a local water company engineer and part-time bootlegger. Ronsee had accused Allen of leading federal Prohibition agents to his moonshine operation. Allen shot him five times, The Times reported.

A mob gathered to kidnap and lynch Allen on his way to the inquest, but extra sheriff's deputies thwarted the plan. Allen, who claimed he acted in self-defense, was convicted of manslaughter and, Keyes says, was sent to San Quentin.

The roadhouse was soon closed. Some time later, the property became known as Whiting Woods Park. It became a housing development in the 1950s.

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