Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Placerita Canyon Nature Study Center

Grand Opening November 10, 1971

Photos by Kimm Marshall | The Signal

Watergate was just a hotel when Martha Mitchell, wife of U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell, was the featured guest at the grand opening of the Placerita Canyon Nature Study Center on Wednesday, November 10, 1971. She arrived late and didn't say much. Which was unusual. Known as "Martha the Mouth," she had a penchant for picking up the phone at night and calling reporters with the latest Washington gossip.

That's why we see 5th District L.A. County Supervisor and fellow Republican Warren Dorn present her with a gag oversized telephone handset with a plaque acknowledging her participation in the local festivities.

We also see Dorn present a certificate of merit to Jackie Storinsky, editor and publisher of the Clarion newspaper. It was a blatant jab at the rival Newhall Signal, whose owner Scott Newhall found easy grist for his fiery, over-the-masthead editorials whenever Dorn did things like threaten to chop down oak trees in Placerita Canyon at the same time he was planning to open a nature center there.

Less than a year previous, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order. "Ecology" was part of the school curriculum; participants in the Nature Center opening include school children who have brought their class projects to promote recycling and the elimination of industrial pollution that was fouling the air and waterways.

Under the auspices of the EPA, John Mitchell sued a steel company in Cleveland for releasing large amounts of cyanide into a river. This led to the establishment by Congress of the Clean Water Act — which Nixon vetoed, not because of its premise but because of its cost ($24 billion in 1972). Congress overrode the veto.

Meanwhile, about three months after our Placerita opening, John Mitchell participated in meetings in which he approved of the break-in and bugging of Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate hotel. Not a good idea when you're married to the "Mouth of the South." (She was from Arkansas.) When she eventually started to piece it together and her husband overheard her discussing it with a reporter on the phone, he had her kidnapped. Nixon aides passed her off as a crazy drunk, and most of her family disowned her.

Martha and John Mitchell separated in 1973. On January 1, 1975, the now-former attorney general was convicted for his role in the break-in and subsequent coverup. He went to prison June 22, 1977, and spent 19 months behind bars.

Martha didn't live to enjoy it. Broke and reportedly suicidal, she succumbed to cancer May 31, 1976. She was 57.

Click to enlarge.

Placerita Sanctuary

Ceremonies Climax Long History.

When Martha Mitchell speaks at the dedication of the Placerita Canyon Nature Center at 10 a.m. Wednesday, the new building will essentially be empty.

But the wilderness area surrounding the ceremonies and outspoken wife of U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell will be filled with wildlife and history. Called a "paradise of nature," Placerita Canyon is a natural preserve, one of the few in Southern California. The 400-acre regional park in which the nature center is located is to be a "living laboratory" where the undisturbed ecology can be inspected and studied.

The park land is still inhabited by deer, raccoons, lynx, fox and coyotes. Its landscape is dotted with oaks, sycamores, cottonwood. Wild blackberries abound in the park.

Through the canyon is a seasonal creek which flows through part of the park. On the south slope of the canyon above the creek, which faces the sun nearly all year, are drought-resistant plants; the north-facing slope, with less sunlight and more moisture, supports a thick, lush array of ferns and trees. The east end of the canyon broadens into a glade of oaks.


In the park is the site where gold was first discovered in California. In March 1842, six years before the strike at Sutter's Mill, rancher Francisco Lopez and a cowhand had lunch and slept under an oak tree. According to legend, Lopez dreamed of discovering gold. On awakening, Lopez remembered his wife told him to bring back some wild onions. He went to dig some up with a knife and noticed some yellow particles clinging to the roots. It was gold. And the oak under which he dreamed of discovering it was called the "Oak of the Golden Dream."

In the 19th Century, mission fathers and Indians are reported to have used a trail through the canyon regularly on hunting excursions. Tiburcio Vasquez, the famous California outlaw, is believed to have used this trail often while returning to his Vasquez Rocks hideaway after forays to the south.

In 1883, James G. Evans, a Los Angeles photographer, purchased the gold discovery site. His grandson, Frank Walker, who died earlier this year, sold the 48-acre parcel to the state and county for $25,000. Walker, who lived in the canyon since 1903, reported the original "Cisco Kid" (Leo Carrillo) and "Robin Hood" films were shot on location on the Walker ranch in the canyon. "Sherwood Forest" is now the picnic area.

During the Depression, the Walker family lived off the gold they were able to pan in the canyon.

Several oil wells were drilled in 1898, but little oil was found. The Walker family, however, was supplied by the natural gas that was brought to the surface.

New Purpose.

In 1955, at the Placerita Festival held in observance of the gold find, 10,000 Southern Californians attended including the late County Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz (a descendant of Lopez), and actor Carrillo.

The land now comprising the 400-acre nature park was acquired by the county and state in several acquisitions, in 1949, 1956 and 1959.

Then, in 1960, the nature center began to be born. The San Fernando Branch of the American Association of University Women discussed the possibility of a junior museum to help children develop an interest in nature. The nature center concept grew from this and with the help of an Audubon Society adviser, Placerita Canyon was chosen as its site. The Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates, now comprising more than 80 families, was formed to make the idea a reality.

Wednesday's opening will be the first fruit of thousands of hours of dedicated imagination, persuasion, politicking, and just plain work by these volunteers.


In 1969, the county provided $250,000 for the nature center building and made provisions to staff the center with parks and recreation department personnel.

The building includes an entryway, exhibit room, classroom, laboratory, workshop, photographic darkroom, lounge and office-library. A large patio will house some exhibits and serve as a meeting point.

For several months past, two county naturalists and a director have been at work at the nature center as the building was being finished. They provided nature trail tours for thousands of school children from all over the county, most from disadvantaged areas.

After Wednesday's ceremonies, the facility is expected to be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. However, the exact nature of educational services available to the general public is not yet known.

Mrs. Richard Klein, of the Associates, said it is hoped the facility will be open weekends in two to three months with guided tours of the area available conducted by volunteers.

The center is the third such county facility, though this one is the largest and will be the only one to present with exhibits the story of the ecology of Southern California. This will include its flora and fauna, balance of nature, climate, topography, soil and man's place in the natural environment.

Ultimately, this will be depicted in 15 to 20 exhibits which, it is estimated, will cost $150,000. The associates, however, now have only $7,000. They must raise die balance in the community. Tax-deductible donations may be sent to the associates, 15657 Woodfield Place, Sherman Oaks 91403.

Speaking at Wednesday's dedication will be Supervisor Warren Dorn, Norman Johnson, head of the department of parks and recreation; and Mrs. Diane Kreyenhagen, a Saugus resident and president of the associates.

Click image to enlarge.

Martha Mitchell Mum at Nature Center.

Martha Mitchell came to Placerita Canyon Wednesday, but, oddly, she did not have much to say.

The outspoken wife of the Attorney General John Mitchell, in white harlequin sunglasses and blond hair drawn taut in a chignon, sat silently on the platform throughout ceremonies dedicating the opening of the Placerita Canyon Nature Study Center.

She alighted from a dark blue Cadillac limousine, followed by County Supervisor Warren M. Dorn, about 20 minutes late, the ceremonies having already begun. Her arrival quickly ended the speech of John Groom, president-elect of the Newhall-Saugus-Valencia Chamber of Commerce.

About 600 waited in the audience in the outdoors for her — and almost as many photographers and reporters. Most of the audience was composed of schoolchildren that had arrived earlier in school buses.

After photographers had taken one round of photos of Mrs. Mitchell, the ceremonies resumed. Local retired Judge C.M. MacDougall officiated. Prior to Mrs. Mitchell's arrival, the names of local dignitaries were listed by MacDougall and later Dorn's deputy Bobbie Meyers. "They're going to give the names of the kindergarten kids next," said one jaundiced reporter, as the list continued.

But now, Mrs. Mitchell sat stoically on the platform, smiling for cameras and signing autographs. MacDougall then celebrated Dorn and said that once Valencia Valley was the tail on the Fifth Supervisorial District dog, but now Dorn had turned this around. His birth here was cited and his "love of the area."

Dorn, in his talk, introduced his parents who reside in the north county. He called the area "the great hub of the Fifth District" and the nature center sits on "one of the most beautiful spots on this globe."

Dorn said on the controversial Placerita oaks that they would live "in perpetuity. The battle has been won and we're going to save those trees."

Dorn was then presented a cerograph design from the Placerita Canyon for his work on behalf of the oaks by the Placerita Canyon Nature Study Associates, the group instrumental in having the nature facility built.

Dorn then read a poem by the late Walt Disney, called for a moment of silent prayer in his memory and recalled how he and Disney stopped a freeway from going through Placerita Canyon.

Dorn then commented that Mrs. Mitchell had done some "panning" in her time and was led to a trough in front of the platform filled with gravel and water for panning gold. The TV crews rushed up, started grinding. Newspaper photographers jockeyed for position blazing with their electronic flash units.

"I guess I'm the first woman to pan for gold," said Mrs. Mitchell in a futile effort to spot a glint of something in her pan. Dorn said he thought she was not and said that all women should be equal. Neither Mrs. Mitchell nor Dorn found any gold.

Then Dorn presented Mrs. Mitchell with a giant gold plastic telephone with spangles on it. She held one end to her ear and the other towards her mouth and smiled; the cameras whirred and the jockeying recommenced.

The audience sat and waited.

Then, as Dorn had announced earlier, Mrs. Mitchell repaired into the assembled throng so the school children could "shake her hand." The press was disappointed; Mrs. Mitchell was not going to speak.

Some did shake her hand and then the autograph requests came. Mrs. Mitchell obliged, using Dorn's right shoulder as a hard surface. On one pupil's program, she wrote "Happy Birthday" and a woman thanked her. Surrounded by the children, an aide guided her through the group up the main aisle.

"You all mail them to me in Washington," shouted Mrs. Mitchell to the children with their programs outstretched as she prepared to leave.

The only dissident note were those school children that wore ecology headgear. One girl wore a black factory reading "Factories — Helping or Hurting?"

Once through the pupils, Mrs. Mitchell posed for some photos. Dick Millar, local manager of Pacific Telephone, presented her with two phone bills. They were empty.

After this, Mrs. Mitchell was escorted back to the limousine. It was followed by an unmarked car that turned on its siren as she departed.

That evening, the ceremony was on television and Mrs. Mitchell and Dorn appeared on the front page of a metropolitan newspaper.

Martha Speaks Her Mind.

LOS ANGELES — Attorney General John N. Mitchell recently had two weeks of silence.

His wife, Martha, revealed Wednesday that she was so angry she didn't speak to him for two weeks when a woman wasn't nominated to the Supreme Court.

"We're just now back on good terms," Mrs. Mitchell said with a grin.

In a staccato news conference before appearing at lunch of the California Federation of Republican Women, Mrs. Mitchell was asked whether Pat Nixon shared her disappointment.

"Oh yes," she replied. "I told her I had finished packing my bags and I would come over and help her. We were both moving out."

Asked if her husband would resign his post to direct Nixon's 1972 presidential campaign, Mrs. Mitchell said:

"Mr. Nixon and I have not decided that yet."

Other exchanges:

Q. What did you think of the defeat of the amendment on school prayers?

A. "I thought it was terrible the amendment did not go through."

Q. What kind of prayers would you have said in school?

A. "The kind I said when I was a girl. We said the morning prayer and saluted the flag and were real Americans."

Q. Do you think Nixon is doing a good job?

A. "Yes, the crazy liberals are shutting up."

Q. What about the demonstrations last night at GOP fundraising dinners including the one in San Francisco she attended?

A. "I was in tears because they desecrated the Star Spangled Banner. They jazzed the music all up. Those kind of people should be run out of the country."

Q. What about Nixon's trips to Peking and Moscow?

A. "I think it's a great idea."

Q. But if you think demonstrators should be run out of the country, why should Mr. Nixon go to Peking to talk with the people who feel the same way they do?

A. "Young lady, do you have any idea what would have happened to those people if they had demonstrated in Peking?"

Q. Do you consider yourself a liberated woman?

A. "Yes. I do and say what I think within the bounds of the law."

Q. You are doing some politicking here. How would you rate the Democratic possibilities — Muskie, Humphrey, Kennedy, McGovern, Harris, Lindsay, Jackson, Yorty?

A. "Well, I've heard those names before. They haven't given me any trouble so I'm not going to give them any trouble."

Thank you, Mrs. Mitchell.

Download original images here. Signal Photo Archive, Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society collection. Digital preservation of the Signal Photo Archive is generously supported by the Henry Mayo Newhall Foundation.
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