In early 1959, Standard Oil of California decided to reduce the number
of employees living in company-owned houses. My father, Alton "Al" Manzer,
worked for Standard Oil and knew that the company's "Big House" in Pico
Canyon, at the southwestern edge of the Santa Clarita Valley, was unoccupied and due to
The last couple to live there (until 1958) had retired and moved to Fillmore. The house sat
vacant for about six months, and Standard was afraid it could become a liability.
It seemed that nobody in the company but my parents wanted to live in a house that lacked
so many modern amenities. It still had gas lights in use, and you could watch television or
operate an electric appliance only when you took the time to start the small, natural gas-
My father was determined to live in Pico Canyon someday. I remember the months of
listening to his co-workers laugh at him for trying to change company policy and save the
His efforts paid off in late 1959 when the company agreed to let us rent the house for $50
per month as long as we leased the adjoining 856 acres for $75 per year. Try to rent a
5,000-square foot house in Newhall at that price today!
We started to get the house ready for our move from Castaic. Just a little
washing and fresh paint is all my folks thought it would take ... and then we started
washing the walls and ceilings.
Gas lights create a lot of smoke, no matter how one tries to adjust them. The natural gas
they used was not processed in any way but came straight from the wells up the canyon.
It was dirty, which made the gas lights smoke even more.
We soon discovered that over the years, various tenants had not really washed the walls and
ceilings but just painted over whatever was there. The ceilings in the kitchen, dining room
and living room were coated with more than an inch of gaslight soot. After chipping that
off, we had to use over 50 pounds of spackle to cover the cracks in the plaster.
It took months of cleaning and painting to restore the house enough to live in it.
The day came for us to move to Mentryville only we didn't know it was called
Mentryville then. It was just Pico Canyon to us and to most of the Standard Oil workers.
The year was 1960. My parents, my sister Alyce and I prepared for the move. Alyce was
a junior at Hart High School and no longer considered a "kid." Alyce had horses
to ride and somehow managed to avoid all the ranching chores. I was the "kid"
" just ten years old and about to begin the greatest adventure of my young life.
I've always been a history buff, and even at the tender age of ten, the
subject fascinated me. Now I lived in a place that had all the trappings of a real ghost
There was the old school house. There was the barn by the main gate. There was the ice
house behind the Big House, and canyons full of old equipment and engines. Some old
wells still had derricks atop them not modern derricks, but old ones of wood.
It was quite a place to explore, with miles of roads and trails to walk. I didn't know much
about its history, but I was going to find out about it as fast as I could.
When former Mentryville residents learned that the house had been saved from demolition,
they would drive to the gate and ask to see the old place. Some of them had attended
The oldest visitor I remember well. His job as a boy of seven or eight had been to water
the eucalyptus trees that stood in front of the Big House and near the school. He had seen
them planted. When I lived there, those trees were 100 feet tall or taller, and it took three
or four adults linking hands to reach around the trunks.
The ice house hadn't been used in years. I found about 20 years of newspapers stacked
inside it. Some went back to the 1930s. It was fascinating to see the papers of years past,
and I would sit in the ice house for hours reading the old comics and stories. Alas, we
threw them out when we cleaned up the building.
In the dining room of the Big House was a huge roll-top desk. It was company-owned
furniture, but it served our family well for several years. We found no hidden compartments
in it, but a back room in the house had an old-fashioned file cabinet that contained many
old records from the years that the California Star Oil Company (CSO) and Pacific Coast Oil
" Standard's predecessors operated in the canyon. Standard wanted the records, so they
were shipped to the company's San Francisco headquarters.
Our kitchen held a very large, round table that also had come with the house. There was
a dumbwaiter to the basement, but I broke it when I tried to ride on it, and my father never
Life in the canyon wasn't all fun and games. There were plenty of chores
We acquired some cattle and horses. Unfortunately (or so I thought at the time) we also
got some milk cows. To this day I remember the cold mornings and cold hands trying to
milk those beasts.
We kept hogs across the creek from the house, along with chickens and various dogs and
cats. We had fences to build and mend; cattle to milk, herd and feed; hay to buy and stack
in the barn; and horses to care for, too. Somehow I always found time to head up the
canyon for a little exploration between chores.
Many years later I learned that my friends envied my life in Pico Canyon. I thought I had
been exiled to the far reaches of the earth. Five miles to town!
Of course, Newhall wasn't much of a town then. We had one stoplight at the corner of
Lyons Avenue and San Fernando Road. Lyons was only two lanes, and crossing Highway
99 (now Interstate 5) was always an adventure.
Highway 99 was a 4-lane, divided thoroughfare, and as I was to learn in 1966, it was a very
dangerous crossing. I discovered that a motorcycle is no match for a full-sized car. With
both legs and my right foot broken, I ended up in a wheelchair.
My father built a ramp to get me into the house. I found that I could get down the ramp and
then, if the gate had been left open, roll up to the errant horse that had wandered into the
yard, mount the horse, and go for a short ride.
I had a large cast on my left leg. I'll never forget removing the cast and taking a full bath
in one of the huge, cast-iron, footed tubs upstairs. Some swimming pools in town seemed
smaller than the tubs in that house.
Hot summer afternoons provided some good times. We would hike up
the canyon to the top of CSO hill and swim in the water tank to cool off.
Behind the Felton School is Mustard Hill. It was always a good destination near the house,
where I could still hear my mother calling.
Just past the school, as the road curves left and then right and the canyon narrows, is a
small off-shoot called Minnie-Lotta Canyon. It was named for two girls who lived in
Mentryville at one time Minnie and Lotta and the name stuck.
In wet weather there are waterfalls at the head of the canyon. Even in the heat of summer,
the springs in the creek usually allow a small "falls" to trickle down and make the
canyon seem cooler. It was one of my favorite spots to go and enjoy the peace and quiet
The canyon's deer trails led to Sandy Peak, where I sat atop the sandstone formation that
erosion had carved into a chair. There I could survey the whole Santa Clarita Valley to the
east and north. We got very little smog from the San Fernando Valley then!
A number of significant events took place in 1962.
Winter brought 18 inches of snow, and we just had to use Mustard Hill as a
toboggan course. The limbs of the eucalyptus trees broke as the snow fell. It was a wet
and heavy snow, and the breaking of the limbs sounded like a cannon firing. School was
closed, and I was snowbound in a great winter wonderland.
True to California extremes, summer followed with a major brush fire. The fire didn't reach
the upper canyon but stayed east of the picnic grounds. We loaded the pickup truck with
valuables and important papers, and my mother and I fled to Newhall.
Newhall was ringed with fire. Roaring flames in Placerita Canyon consumed Gene Autry's
Melody Ranch movie studio and burned clear through to Pasadena. The Pico fire had
started just south of Castaic and jumped Highway 126, continuing down into the San
My father and brother-in-law, Dan Tibbitts, stayed and saved the house, the main barn, the
chicken house and the garage.
Flames came within 50 feet of the house. Standard Oil workers helped save the Felton
School and kept the pumps running so that the fire main would stay on line.
It was an all-night effort but a successful one. Dan even received a letter of thanks from
Standard Oil for his help in saving the building and protecting company property. Once the
fires burned out, Dan's work for the telephone company began, as he had to restore all the
long-distance trunk lines into Los Angeles.
That same fall we battled the flooding that always follows a California brush fire. We almost
lost the barn to the creek, but the water receded just in time.
In 1964, we in Mentryville joined the outside world.
Standard electrified the oil field, and all generators were shut down. We wired the house,
again with Dan's help. For the first time, we could enjoy quiet evenings in the canyon
without the noise of generators. We could watch TV any time of day or night. We could
iron and watch television at the same time!
We even got rid of the gas-powered refrigerator and electrified the milk separator. We had
arrived from the 1890s smack into the 1960s!
The Big House was a great place for parties with lots of teen-agers. Noise was never a
problem. The nearest neighbor was about two miles out of "noise range."
The dining table sat 22, and there were two or three rooms downstairs to dance and cavort.
My parents always kept a watchful eye for couples who wanted to "explore" the
rooms upstairs and for those who thought a stroll up the road to the schoolhouse would be
Parking wasn't a problem. Visitors had to be met at the gate, but they usually arrived with
many kids in each car. That five-mile drive from Newhall used gas, and gas was about 19
cents per gallon! Even with part-time jobs, we still had to pool our money to go
"cruising" in the valley.
As the oil fields around Newhall dried up, Standard began moving
workers nearer to the new sources of oil. My father took a transfer to Carpinteria and the
oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel.
We moved from Pico Canyon in the summer of 1966. I was still wheelchair-bound. Sadly,
my father was killed in November of that year in a helicopter crash at sea after working a
midnight-to-7 a.m. shift.
My mother and I moved to Saugus to be near my oldest sister, Karen Tibbitts, who lives in
Newhall today with her husband Dan. My mother never overcame the death of my father.
She had been operated on for cancer in 1962, and before my father's death she was in
complete remission. Now the cancer came back stronger than ever, and nine months after
my father died, she joined him.
My parents are buried at Eternal Valley Cemetery, not far from the "pioneer"
section. They had saved the Big House and other buildings from demolition in 1959. They
had weathered flood, snow, fire and storm in the canyon and saved all the buildings then,
too. They helped pass on a bit of California history that we wouldn't have today if not for
Above all, they gave me a priceless gift. They gave me the ability to pursue my visions and
dreams, to persevere against the prevailing grain of thought and company mind-set, and to
achieve a goal that is lasting and good for many... now and in the future.
They gave me six wonderful years in Pico Canyon six years as the "only kid in
Mentryville." For that I am forever grateful.