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These two were on the hills' side

Forty years ago, the beloved Cobb Estate, nestled in the mountains above Altadena, was saved from development by Bob Barnes and Maggie Stratton. He recently showed up at a community center to explain how they did it.

August 01, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Bob Barnes stands behind the gates leading to the Cobb Estate in Altadena. Forty years ago, as a teacher at John Muir High School, he helped lead a campaign to save the 107-acre property from developers. Hikers, bird watchers and day campers have enjoyed the area for decades.
Bob Barnes stands behind the gates leading to the Cobb Estate in Altadena.… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Back in the day, their names were splashed across newspapers. Their faces glowed on television sets. People knew that what they had done would go down in Altadena history. And it did.

Even now, 40 years later, people are still talking about Bob Barnes and Maggie Stratton.

Stratton had long since moved up north, but when word got out last week that Barnes, now 73, was going to speak at the local community center, nearly 150 people crowded in to listen. They wanted to know:

How in the world did Barnes, a high school teacher, and Stratton, a 12th-grader, rally the masses and save a piece of their beloved Altadena mountains — all in eight days?

"I'll try to tell you all about Maggie and the remarkable 58 hours that we shared," Barnes said, reading from a speech that took him five days to write.

It all started in 1971, he told the crowd, when he was a teacher at John Muir High School in Pasadena. He had taken over the student conservation club to help out a colleague, whose first task for Barnes was to take Stratton, the club president, to a Pasadena Audubon Society meeting.

At the gathering, everyone talked about saving the Cobb Estate. In eight days, the wildlife-rich 107-acre parcel nestled in the hills of Altadena was to be auctioned off to make way for tract homes.

The group needed money, tens of thousands of dollars.

Impossible, the shaggy-haired teacher thought. But Stratton's mind was made up.

"We will do this!" she told him.

In the next seven days, the duo hustled to spread the word. They passed out fliers and collected signatures.

A day before the Oct. 1 auction, they organized a five-mile march from Pasadena City College to the Cobb Estate at the top of North Lake Avenue. In bell-bottoms and tie-dyed shirts, more than 300 students cycled and hiked, carrying homemade signs.

Barnes wrote them a note: "YOU ARE THE LEADERS. Your cause is just … Be beautiful. PEACE AND LOVE."

Many had grown up hiking these hills, among the birds, coyotes and prickly foxtail grass. The Cobb Estate was part of their community's lore.

In the 1890s, miners prospected for gold here. Then, Charles Cobb, an Oregon lumber tycoon, built a family home surrounded by orchards. When he died in 1939, nuns took over the property. Then it was sold to legendary comedian Groucho Marx and his family.

When the Marx siblings bought the land in 1956, they intended to turn it into a cemetery. But they got nowhere, and in 1971 they put the land up for auction.

The night before the bidding, Barnes and Stratton thought they were doomed. They got media coverage and more than 4,000 signatures, but still had no money.

"And this is where I should be saying, 'That's all, folks,' '' Barnes told the audience at the community center.

But then, he said, something unbelievable happened.

Stratton's mother, a skilled fundraiser, had spent the evening at a dinner party mingling with Virginia Steele Scott, the daughter of a well-known industrialist. The wealthy art collector asked to meet the young lady and the teacher that same night.

When they arrived at her lavish Pasadena home, she seemed interested, Barnes said. But her mind was all over the place.

She talked about birds, trees and rocks. She took her guests on a grand tour of her home, filled with paintings by American masters. She then took them to see her cat apartment, a series of rooms with shabby furniture reserved exclusively for her felines.

By nearly 2 a.m., Barnes assumed Steele Scott had forgotten all about the Cobb Estate. But then, he said, she plopped down on an elegant couch and asked, "And what will you do with this land if you get it?"

When Barnes told her they would simply sign it over to the U.S. Forest Service, Steele Scott agreed to donate $150,000.

At the estate entrance the next morning, about 600 people crowded around the auctioneer, Milton Wershow. Steele Scott's real estate agent, Ann Davis, stood at the back of the crowd. Moments into the auction, she announced her bid: $150,000.

But the bid kept rising. No one knew that Davis was bidding for the people of Altadena.

Barnes, in a panic, interrupted the sale: He shouted: "The bid of $150,000 was the bid of the people!"

By then, the bidding was at $175,000.

"Amazingly," Barnes said, Wershow announced: "I'll give you five minutes to raise enough money to reach $175,000."

With help from the Audubon Society and residents' donations, they met their goal and the other bids were dropped.

As Barnes concluded his speech at the community center, the audience, many now wrinkled and gray like him, applauded. A few who had attended the auction stood up, including a woman with salt-and-pepper hair and rimless glasses.

"I am Maggie Stratton!" she said. Jaws dropped across the room, including Barnes'.

The two hugged briefly and posed for photos, smiling as if at a high school reunion.

Two days later, Barnes learned of some surprising connections. Stratton's stepfather was Steele Scott's physician, and Steele Scott's ex-husband had painted a portrait of Stratton's sister.

Barnes, now retired after a 46-year career and still living in Pasadena, said he doesn't think it's that big a deal.

Stratton, though, is certain her family connections did not influence Steele Scott's donation.

"She was simply in love with that land," said Stratton, who now goes by Maggie West and lives in Santa Barbara. "And that was her sole reason to save it."

Yet, until last week, neither Barnes nor Stratton had visited the Cobb Estate since rescuing it.

"Life gets busy," Barnes said. "You just move on."

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