Tuesday, October 13, 2020 — A small group gathered Tuesday morning in Romero Canyon to celebrate new street signs in front of Castaic High School honoring a family that homesteaded in the area a century ago.
"Winkler Homestead Road" runs the short distance from Sloan Canyon Road at the school entrance to the north end of the school property. L.A. County Public Works installed the signs over the last few weeks.
Tuesday was a homecoming of sorts for 87-year-old Marylynn Winkler Butters, who was raised on the land and became an overnight sensation at age 9 when she saved the lives of three U.S. Army aviators who fell out of the sky over Castaic during World War II.
Heroism for the Ages.
Army Air Force trainers were a fairly common sight over the Santa Clarita Valley during the war, so little Marylynn Winkler probably didn't think it particularly unusual to see a C-53 Skytrooper (a modified DC-3) towing a Waco glider. What she saw next was anything but usual. Heading toward Piru, the two aircraft hit turbulence. The glider's tow cable shook violently and tore off the transport ship's tail section.
The three aviators in the glider bailed out low to the ground and sustained only minor injuries. Three crew members in the forward section of the airplane went down with their ship. Three other aviators in the plane's fuselage were hurled into space and managed to open their parachutes.
The latter three men were badly injured when Marylynn and her father Norman C. Winkler hiked to their landing site 5½ miles from the Winkler homestead. Norman fashioned two of the parachutes into an "X" to mark the spot for passing aircraft, and he went for help.
It was late in the day on January 31, 1943. The cold weather presented the additional threat of exposure. Marylynn stayed with the men for five hours until the ambulance arrived, covering them with a blanket, foraging for firewood to keep them warm, and ultimately finding sapling poles for stretchers.
For her heroism, Marylynn received a commendation from Army Air Force Gen. Hap Arnold. She appeared on Gene Autry's radio show and had her story told in Time magazine and in a syndicated 10-panel Sunday comic strip.
In 2012, she was reunited at the crash site with one of the men she helped save. Pvt. Stewart L. Nengel of Florida stayed in the Army throughout the war and retired with the rank of sergeant.
Bringing the Story Forward.
Until Castaic High School was built, upper Romero Canyon looked about as rural as it did in 1920 when Norman Winkler filed for a homestead patent. Winkler, a World War I veteran who fought the Kaiser's army at Verdun, built a 900-square-foot cabin on the property in 1921, raised chickens there and planted more than 200 eucalyptus, cedar and pine trees.
The old homestead cabin where Marylynn grew up is gone — it burned down in 1978 — as are the family's 350 acres, which they sold off over the decades. A second cabin built in 1962 is gone, too; it stood on the last remaining 4 acres when it burned down in a 2001 brushfire.
Philip Scorza was at work at Canyon High School when he got word the brushfire was headed in his direction. The video production teacher had purchased the 4-acre property just four months earlier and lived in the cabin. He got home that night to find a smoldering ruin.
Undeterred, Scorza rebuilt, and the historian in him went into overdrive. A longtime board member of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, Scorza researched his property and connected the dots to Marylynn Winkler Butters, whom he befriended and interviewed in 2014 for his SCVTV history show, "Points of Interest."
Not long after that, as the shiny new school began to take shape on newly flattened hills, Scorza came up with the idea of preserving a link to the past by naming the road in front of it for the Winklers. Specifically, for the Winkler homestead. Noting it would be the only street name around here with "homestead" in it, he figured the students could learn what a homestead was.
Los Angeles County said "sure," as long as the William S. Hart Union High School District and everybody else in town was OK with it. In time, Scorza gathered the support of the school district, the Castaic Area Town Council, other local organizations and neighboring property owners in Romero Canyon.
"Neighboring" property owners is a bit of a misnomer. There's really only Scorza, immediately north of the school. Just past him, Placerita Canyon resident Dave Weston owns the land that his great-grandfather Alvino Romero, the canyon's namesake, homesteaded in 1912. Otherwise the school is rather secluded, at least until the economy bounces back and home construction starts anew.
When campus life returns and someone asks, "What's a homestead?" there'll be a guest lecturer with answers just up the road.
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