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A heightened profile for one of L.A.'s black pioneers

Early settlers in the Agoura area named Negrohead Mountain after John Ballard, a former slave who moved there in the 1880s. Now L.A. County wants to put Ballard's actual name on the 2,031-foot peak.

February 24, 2009|Bob Pool

Negrohead Mountain is an unlikely memorial to a former slave who made a name for himself at the western end of Los Angeles County.

More than 120 years ago, pioneers in the Santa Monica Mountains named the peak for John Ballard, the first black man to settle in the hills above Malibu.

Today, authorities will take the first step toward what they consider a more fitting tribute by renaming the 2,031-foot volcanic peak Ballard Mountain.

The name now used by the U.S. Geological Survey is a refinement of the slur then used by pioneers when referring to Ballard -- a well-known blacksmith and teamster who put down roots on 320 acres near what is now the community of Seminole Hot Springs.

Ballard was a former Kentucky slave who had won his freedom and come to Los Angeles in 1859. In the sleepy, emerging city, he had a successful delivery service and quickly became a landowner. Soon he was active in civic affairs: He was a founder of the city's first African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The arrival of the railroad triggered a land boom in Los Angeles in the 1880s, boosting property values and bringing the city its first sense of class structure and the beginnings of segregation.

Ballard packed up his family and moved about 50 miles west to the snug valley in the middle of the Santa Monica range. He settled first on 160 acres -- space that eventually doubled in size when one of his seven children, daughter Alice, claimed an adjoining plot.

Besides raising livestock and a few crops, Ballard collected firewood in the nearby mountains and sold it in Los Angeles.

He also worked at blacksmithing and other chores on the Russell Ranch, a sprawling cattle spread at what is now Westlake Village. He would travel by mule or buggy several miles through Triunfo Canyon to get there.

J.H. Russell, who had grown up on his family's ranch and as a boy rode his horse to Ballard's rickety cabin to mooch biscuits smothered with wild grapes preserved in honey by Ballard's wife, remembered the scene well in his 1963 book, "Heads and Tails . . . and Odds and Ends."

"The Ballard house was something to behold. It was built of willow poles, rocks, mud and Babcock Buggy signs ("Best on Earth"), Maier & Zobelein Lager Beer signs and any other kind of sign the old man picked up. Hardly a Sunday passed where there were not several buggies, spring wagons and loads of people going down the canyon to see the place," he wrote.

Ballard was powerfully built -- he could hoist 100-pound bags of barley with one hand -- and traveled in a wagon pulled by five mules and "sometimes a cow or horse hitched up with the five," Russell recounted.

Wealthy Malibu landowner Frederick Rindge also admired Ballard.

In his own book, "Happy Days in Southern California," published in 1898, Rindge recalled a conversation with Andrew Sublett, who told how would-be thieves tried to chase Ballard out.

"He brought to mind how his old colored neighbor across the range had been maltreated by the settlers on account of his color; how they set fire to his cabin, hoping thus to terrorize him and drive him from the country; how some thought that the real purpose was that some men with white faces and black hearts wanted to jump his claim after they got rid of him," Rindge wrote.

"But this was not the material the good old gentleman was constructed of, and as a shame to his tormentors, he put up a sign over the ruins of his cabin which read: 'This was the work of the devil.' "

Ballard died in 1905 at about age 75. His daughter Alice married and moved to Vernon in about 1910. But memories of the man and his family that gave the mountain its name have survived in Agoura.

Today, Kanan Road, a busy route between Malibu and the Agoura-Westlake Village area, bisects the mountain, with its northernmost tunnel actually crossing through part of it.

The effort to rename the peak was launched by two contemporary residents who live on either side of the peak's base.

Nick Noxon, a 72-year-old retired National Geographic TV producer, first learned of Ballard when he found a copy of Russell's book in the Agoura Public Library. He and his friend Paul Culberg, 66, a retired video executive, would eventually lobby county officials to initiate a formal name change.

Culberg recalled how longtime residents had mentioned Negrohead Mountain when he and his wife, Leah, moved to the area 34 years ago. Except back then, the old-timers were still using the slur instead of "negro." The slur appears on early government topographic maps of the Santa Monica Mountains.

When Noxon met Moorpark College history instructor Patty Colman at a National Park Service event and she revealed more of Ballard's L.A. history to him, he recruited her to the "Ballard Mountain" campaign.

"People of color found opportunity in early Los Angeles," said Colman, of Santa Clarita.

Others in Agoura said it's about time Ballard be honored in a more appropriate way.

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