Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Martha's Cafe, Oak Glen Auto Court

Needham Ranch | Newhall, California

Martha's Cafe and the Oak Glen Auto Court (cabins) and gas station in the late 1940s or early 1950s when they were operated by the Newcomb family. Located at the northeast corner of Sierra Highway and Remsen Street. Three 8x10 photographs.

VIEW 1: The view is to the south.
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VIEW 2: North and Newhall are to the left.
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VIEW 3: The cafe appears to open onto Remsen Street.
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When the highway commission realigned U.S. Highway 6 through the Needham Ranch in 1930 — essentially today's Sierra Highway south of Newhall Avenue — old Henry Clay Needham decided to capitalize on it. He built a cafe and gas station at the bottom of the grade below the Newhall Auto Tunnel, complete with cabins for weary wayfarers who'd just made the trek up and over the Newhall Pass from the San Fernando Valley.

The location was the east side of the highway at Remsen Street — specifically, the northeast corner of the Sierra-Remsen intersection, which is now the entry to the city of Santa Clarita's Elsmere Canyon Open Space. The little complex sat directly across the highway from the bizarre cacti gardens operated on the west side by John E. Olmstead, whose property, evidently purchased from Needham, was marked by a rock arch with the name "Live Oak Manor" embedded in it. Its alternate name was Oak Glen, as the general area was known. Oak Glen had been a name Needham used for his ranch in that section. (Note that this was not the Oak Glen ranch that provided produce locally at the time. That Oak Glen is in San Bernardino County.)

We don't know if Olmstead was the first operator of Needham's cafe, gas station and cabins. It's doubtful. We do know Russell W. and Dorothy Witzberger of Tujunga took over the "Oak Glen Lunch Room and Service Station" at 16826 San Fernando Road in the fall of 1936 — just a few months after H.C. Needham's death. (This stretch of Sierra Highway was called San Fernando Road, and since it was not in the town of Newhall, it had a "county" address instead of a shorter "Newhall" house number.)

Early indications were positive. The Signal praised the quality of the food served by Dorothy Witzberger and made it clear the cafe was "not a beer garden." "Cafe" had been a euphemism for a speakeasy during Prohibition. Needham, a leading prohibitionist, would roll over in his grave if someone did that on his property.

But it was not to last. The Witzbergers called it quits inside of a year and moved to 215 Race Street in Newhall. Russell went to work for Ridgeview Dairy.

Enter the Midwestern transplants Jesse and Martha Newcomb.

* * *

An oil truck driver and carpenter,* Jesse Eugene Newcomb was 61, and his wife, Martha Elizabeth (Kech), was 46 when they assumed active management of the Needham family's operation at Oak Glen in the fall of 1937.

It was a family affair. The Oak Glen Lunch Room became "Martha's Cafe." Jesse and Martha's son, Armond Daniel Newcomb (b. 1915), lived with them and ran the "Oak Glen Auto Court" and the gas station, which sold Newhall-brand gasoline from the adjacent Newhall Refinery (est. 1930) — where Charles "Blackie" Gilliland drove tanker trucks.* Charles married the Newcombs' daughter, Lavender Estelle (b. 1913).

Charles and Lavender Gilliland started their own family in 1939 with the birth of a daughter, Arline Frances. But the U.S. entry into World War II in late 1941 would separate the young couple for three and a half years. Charles immediately joined the Coast Guard and served for the duration, including 18 months overseas on a fast cutter and an LST — the type of landing ship used at Normandy. He was discharged in October 1945 and went back to his refinery job.

Meanwhile, Olmstead, the cacti gardener, had closed his tourist attraction in 1939, but he continued to live on the property — until his death at age 70 in September 1945.

Now, Charles and Lavender would move into Olmstead's old place on the west side of the highway behind the Live Oak Manor rock arch. A second daughter, Cathy Deen (aka Cathy Dean), came along in 1951.

Charles was one of the organizers of a local VFW post in 1945. Lavender joined the Women's Auxiliary — of the VFW, the Moose Lodge, and American Legion Post 507 — and became a vital thread in the social and philanthropic fabric of Newhall. In 1969, she was a founding board member of Pleasantview Industries, a nonprofit agency that provides employment opportunities and other support services to developmentally disabled individuals, particularly those at LARC Ranch in Saugus, where Lavender's daughter Cathy was a resident.

* * *

Records show the Newcombs' son Armond (Lavender's brother) running the gas station before and after the war. Armond, known as "Tip," had contracted polio at age 15 (about 1930) and lost the use of his right arm — rendering him ineligible for military service. Family history indicates he spent the war years painting ships at Long Beach.*

In the spring of 1952, a woman named Charlotte Rose Spaeth, seven years Armond's junior, emigrated from Metz, France, to the United States, destination Burbank, along with her infant son, Patrick Jean (b. 1950). Armond and Charlotte met and married three months later. (Armond had been previously married; he was divorced before 1940.)

From 1952-1954, Armond, Charlotte and young Patrick — who took his stepfather's surname — lived together with Armond's now-widowed mother, Martha Newcomb, in the back of her eponymous cafe.* Jesse Newcomb, Armond's father, had died at home in 1949 at age 73.

Now, the gas pumps advertised Sunset Gasoline and Nu-Blue by Sunoco.

The Newcombs closed out Oak Glen in 1954 and moved away. Armond moved his family to Sylmar. Martha moved in with her daughter (Lavender) and son-in-law at 21610 Cleardale Street in Placerita Canyon, where Martha died in 1960. She was 69.

Armond, Charlotte and son Patrick returned to Newhall in 1961.

 

Research assistance provided by Tricia Lemon Putnam.

Source of information with asterisk (*): Patrick Jean Newcomb, pers. comm. 2019.


ABOVE: Double-click pages to enlarge.


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HB1906: Download individual documents here. Photos courtesy of Patrick Newcomb. Online only.
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