Pieces of Pico's Past
Images of Mentryville's 'ghosts' offer glimpse into lifestyle of SCV's oil pioneers.
By Leon Worden
Signal City Editor
Saturday, April 26, 2003
[READ PART 1][READ PART 2][YOUNG FAMILY HOMESTEAD PHOTO]
he quest to plug gaps in the historical record brings us back to Mentryville, the Pico Canyon ghost town where California's oil industry started in the 1870s, thrived, and moved in the early 1900s to greener blacker pastures.
Some of Pico's "ghosts" appeared in The Signal last week in a previously unknown 1905 photograph of the Walton Young homestead. The people and the buildings in the photo are long gone and details about former home sites in the canyon are sketchy, so Signal readers were enlisted to pinpoint the location by matching up the image to existing hillside configurations.
Readers came through with clues, and the exercise has been a reminder that the handful of vacant buildings that still remain at the end of Pico Canyon Road tell but a fraction of the story of this once vibrant community of men, women and children.
Reader Alan Bofenkamp is no stranger to Mentryville. Vice president of the SCV Historical Society, he hiked the canyon and discovered the home site in question.
"In Pico Canyon, about a half mile above Johnson Park, there is an oleander bush along the left side," he writes. "Here is a pile of rotted timbers that once comprised a bridge across the creek to the Young home. Another 50 feet or so up the road the creek crosses under the road. ... Now as you look to the south, left, off of the road into a low area, you are looking at the flat parcel that is the site shown in the photo."
It's curious to think of private homes that deep in the canyon, about a mile west of the existing Mentryville mansion and barn and schoolhouse, but indeed there were homes there.
Oil workers erected homes on land that they leased, which is why it is difficult to know where they all stood. There are no individual property ownership records to consult because most of canyon was owned by a succession of oil companies first California Star Oil Works in the 1870s, then Pacific Coast Oil, then Standard Oil Co. of California, and finally Chevron USA, which deeded the entire property in 1995 to the state of California as part of the transaction that created the Santa Clarita Woodlands Park.
Some early oil workers lived in tents, while others built semi-permanent homes (without foundations) from expensive redwood imported from the north. When workers were transferred to other oil fields they would either sell their houses or literally "pick up sticks," taking the lumber with them. Some of the lumber even wound up in homes in Newhall.
Thus the hand-written caption on the back of the 1905 Young homestead photo is probably imprecise. It's unlikely the onetime oil field superintendent would have filed a homestead claim in the company-owned section.
The home wasn't alone in the back of the canyon. At one point several houses were grouped in the vicinity of Johnson Park, near the buildings in the 1905 photo. A few years ago a family scattered the ashes of one of these early residents behind the park, unbeknownst to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy which will know it now.
Pico was in a constant state of flux as the oil production waxed and waned, demanding a greater or lesser number of workers. Buildings occasionally changed use, and reader Gladys Laney provided a clue that drives the point home.
Laney, who was born in Newhall in 1910 and remembers trekking out to Pico Canyon as a teenager, suggested that the Walton Young home in the photo looked like the old boarding house.
She's correct. Further examination shows that the same buildings, in a different photograph, were identified by the late historian Jerry Reynolds as the boarding house whose location is consistent with Bofenkamp's identification of the site.
It's not known whether Mrs. Young ran a boarding house at her family's so-called homestead. It's possible. Contemporarily in Newhall, the wife of Justice John F. Powell was running a boarding house at the original Powell home on Railroad Avenue.
In any event it's known that the following year, in 1906, the boarding house got some new inhabitants.
Standard Oil had just taken over. The company introduced rotary drilling in the canyon and built a refinery.
"That created an influx of workers who needed a place to eat," the late Mentryville resident Ruth Saunders Albright wrote in the 1970s. "Bunkhouses had been built for them."
In 1906, "Mr. (Walton) Young, the superintendent, and some of the executives from San Francisco asked my mother (Mrs. Saunders) if she would take over and run the boarding house," Albright wrote. "She was to be paid the magnificent sum of $1 per day per man for three meals, or 35 cents for single meals. She was hesitant at first, as I was only 3 years old, but finally agreed.
"We moved up to the boarding house, which was enlarged. It included a huge kitchen and dining room with long trestle tables and benches and four big bedrooms to accommodate the help."
A cave behind the house stored ice from Newhall, as well as beer. Mentryville, under Alex Mentry's aegis, had been a dry town, but he died in 1900. There was a storeroom for canned goods, flour, sugar and rice; a cooler was jury-rigged to keep butter, milk and lemonade fresh. Produce came from Newhall and staples were picked up on a monthly trip to Los Angeles.
"During one period when the canyon was the busiest, there were 75 boarders, two cooks, a meat cook and three waitresses," Albright wrote. "With all the help, Mother had to get up at 3 a.m. to put up 35 lunches. ... The lunches for the night shift were made while dinner was being prepared. Breakfast and dinner were both substantial meals, as breakfast time was dinnertime for the night crew. In fact, I was a teenager before I knew steak was for any meal but breakfast."
The canyon quieted down again and the Saunders had only two boarders when they left in 1915.
In that year the boarding house was sold to employee Josh Woolridge, who later moved his family down the canyon to a home that no longer stands directly across from the existing 13-room mansion. That home, previously occupied by longtime Pico employee John McDermott, connected to the main road by way of a footbridge across Pico Creek that can be seen in another newfound photograph.
This new photograph brings the story full circle.
It shows three children of oil worker Milford Cheney and his wife, Mary, who lived briefly in the boarding house upon their arrival in 1922. They moved into a redwood home on the north side of the leftward bend in the trail beyond the Felton School, and when Mr. Cheney was transferred in 1939 to the more lucrative oil fields at Taft, they took apart one of the Mentryville cabins and took the lumber with them.
The boarding house itself lasted until 1967, when it was torn down.
Another SCV History Mystery
We've had an inquiry from the current owner of the historic Ruether family home in the industrial area off of Soledad Canyon Road, but the archives are bereft of information. If you remember the old Honby community in general, and the Ruether family in particular, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find more photos and the full text of Ruth Saunders Albright's story on the Internet at scvhistory.com. Mentryville, a state park, is open daily at the end of Pico Canyon Road. Follow Stevenson Ranch Parkway to the end, turn right and follow the detour signs.
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