At 86, Irene McKibben is a cheerful woman who does not look her age. She drives her Camaro around Ventura, where she rents a little house and is active in the Native Daughters of the Golden West.
She has memories of a happy childhood in Newhall spent riding horses, milking cows and working as an extra for the movie companies who filmed their westerns in Newhall.
* * *
Irene's father, Martin Ruiz, was born in Santa Monica. He operated a meat market in Newhall and built a rock house. He died digging a well when Irene was 2.
Her mother, Maria Ynez Acevis, was born in Los Angeles and was orphaned at an early age. She and two brothers "kind of wandered around." Maria's father [Ygnacio Acevis/Aceves] is buried at Camulos. Maria did not talk much about her childhood or about Irene's father.
Irene graduated from the one-room schoolhouse in Newhall, completing the eighth grade. A family friend offered to send her to the high school in San Fernando and then to college in Long Beach, but her mother would not allow it. Neither would she allow Irene to act in a Hollywood movie. In those days, girls stayed close to home. Close to home, though, they could do as they pleased.
"The minute we got out of school, we jumped on our horses and away we went," Irene said.
* * *
But life was not all play.
"We all had something to do. We were organized in those days, not like they are today. We'd wash dishes certain days, and there was no battle, see? We just knew we had to do it, and we washed them. Today it's a battle to get them to take the garbage out. They don't want to do anything. Aren't they spoiled? Kids are spoiled rotten. I don't have any sympathy for them.
"My stepfather had 90 head of pigs, those great big red ones, and I herded them. At 4 o'clock in the morning I'd have to get on the horse and go up on the hill, because then they'd start snootin' around and go to the neighbors'.
"We had three cows and kept them in the pasture at Market and Newhall, where the Presbyterian church is now. We'd turn them loose in there in the morning and go after them at night. They'd be waiting there at the gate for us. I'd get on one and ride it home, and then I'd milk them.
"Even when we were kids, we would try to earn money. I had a lot of relatives in Piru, and I'd go up there for vacations. While we were there my cousin would say, 'Let's pick some apricots and make some money.' So we did that.
"My mother cooked. She had a restaurant for a while there in Newhall, and she cooked for Harry Carey and Claire McDowell, his leading lady. I'd come home from school and wait tables and take off and go back to school. Kids today say, 'I can't do that.' But that was fun, that was fun. Anything was fun.
"I saw all those actors. Tom Mix, oh, he was a good-lookin' fellah. Mary Pickford, they'd all come. Opal (her best friend) and I were in several pictures on horses. They'd give us $7 a day. One day Opal and I, we were just sittin' on our horses watchin' them film, and they said, 'Would you girls want to work in the picture?' And we said, 'Sure.' And they said, 'The stage is going to come from that direction, and it's going to pull up in front of old Campton's Hotel. You girls come galloping up the street and park your horses and come around and just gawk at the new schoolteacher comin' to town.'"
Once Irene played a victim in a train wreck, and Mary Pickford was there.
"She was a little thing. She came to my shoulder. They were taking the picture right there on Railroad Avenue. And she was so cute, I never will forget Mary Pickford. We saw a lot of them, but Mary Pickford has always stayed with me. She was so little and so nice."
Opal's dad was in the hay business, and Irene and Opal would help him stack the hay. "Anything they wanted we'd do. We had a lot of fun. Today the kids think that was work. They don't want to do it because it's work. But we were always doing things like that, trying to earn money, not wanting momma and poppa to give it all to us.
"That's what's wrong with the world today: Everybody's got too much, I mean the rich ones, and they give it to their kids and then the kids commit suicide. They have nothing to do, so they commit suicide. You know, they're bored. I'd find them something to do around here if they want something to do.
"In the old days, they didn't commit suicide; they'd hang ornery people. There used to be a tree right at the end of Railroad Avenue across from Campton's. My mother used to tell how you'd get up in the morning, and you'd never know when you'd see somebody hanging. They'd hang them in the night, you know.
"Kids, they can't make up their mind what they want to do. In my days, why, we knew what we were going to do: We were gonna get a job as soon as we got out of school. And that was it."
* * *
Wartime brought little change to Irene's world.
"During the first World War, we just had more fun. 'Course, we were just kids. The trains would go through carrying the soldiers. Opal's family had a jitney at that time ... we called it the jitney. It was a Ford sedan, and it had to be cranked. We'd hear a whistle and out I'd go, and mom would say, 'Oh, you crazy girls.' And we'd follow the train, we'd go waving, you know, right straight down to Saugus, and then we'd turn around and come back. Or we'd go the other way, we'd wave up as far as we could go, just up to the crossing and then the train went up into the tunnel.
"But we had a lot of fun, Opal and I, a lot of fun. That poor jitney, it just went up and down, and we waved and waved and waved, that first World War. All the boys left, see."
"We got along. It (the war) didn't seem to be a hardship, that I can remember. It meant doin' without. We had to do without a lot of things trying to do for the boys. But nobody was rich in those days.
"The only tragedy was when Ace Hunter came back from overseas. He committed suicide. I never did find out why.
"He was such a nice boy. We'd go horseback riding, and I says, 'Oh I'd love to ride your dad's horse.' (Ace's father was a cowboy for Tom Mix.) And he says, 'I'll ask him.' I says, 'Yeah, do.' And his father says, 'OK,' he says, 'you tell Irene, don't ever ask me to let anybody else ride my mare, they'll ruin her; but Irene knows how to ride.'
"So, I took a ride one day, and she was a beautiful mare.
"Those are the things that I remember. All of that happened before he went away to war."
* * *
Life in Newhall was not luxurious, but neither was it beggarly.
"We always had food, that's one thing. It doesn't seem right that there's so many starving people today. And all this food that's being wasted and everything. We never were without a meal.
"When I was widowed and came back to Newhall in 1957, I remember a lot of people being hungry. I told the minister about it. They were across the track. A lot of people don't know that there's people who are too proud to say, 'I need something to eat.'
"In '57, you were getting modernized and things were different. You didn't have a garden where you could grow food and what have you. We always used to have onions or carrots or something growing out in the yard. Cabbage. But then they got so people didn't want to do those things."
* * *
In the days when Irene was growing up, if anyone got sick, a doctor from San Fernando would be called, and he would take care of all the sick people at once.
"In those days they used to have all these old remedies. You can buy them in the drugstore today." She remembers her mother using "joint," which was supposed to have been good for the kidneys; swamproot; elderberry flower tea, to purify the blood; and watercress, for the liver.
Few modern amenities were available.
"In those days, we didn't have a bathtub. We all had to bathe in a galvanized tub, and we had to do our washing that way. So, every Saturday it was a hassle. There was three of us girls, and we all wanted to get our washing done first."
For hot water for washing and bathing, they built a fire outside and heated a kettle on rocks.
"We had a faucet outside with cold water. My stepfather's mother used to say, 'Go out there and use those faucets, that's good for your faces, tighten your skin.' We used to do that, and she was right. Nowadays they tell you to use ice."
At 86, Irene has very few wrinkles.
"Early days in Newhall were really something else, because we had no transportation over the hill until we got our car."
Since she knew nothing different, though, life did not seem inconvenient.
"You can't even squeeze an orange today. You have to have an electric machine to do it."
* * *
Entertainment was found in everyday activities.
The arrival of relatives was always a joyous occasion. "Everything was a big deal in those days.
"It didn't take much to entertain us. For Christmas we'd be all evening stringing popcorn and cranberries."
Irene and Opal rode up Pico Canyon to pick holly for Christmas decorations.
"Sundays, we'd usually have dinner early, about two o'clock. After we got the car (the first or second in Newhall, a Hudson '33), we'd all go for a ride to a canyon someplace, and then come back and have chocolate pudding, a Spanish dish. Maybe my mother had baked a cake. They were all plain cakes."
Irene remembers when Prohibition was enacted. She was working as a housekeeper in Santa Ana, and mock funeral ceremonies were held for the barleycorn. Men put whisky bottles in coffins and marched around singing.
* * *
Irene knew her husband Mack for six years before they married. For most of his life, Mack McKibben was an engineer for Southern Pacific Railroad. Early in their marriage, he was laid off and they borrowed money to open a gas station on what is now Figueroa in Los Angeles. They saved their money and bought a meat delivery route.
* * *
When the Depression came, it passed the McKibbens by.
"As far as I knew, we didn't have a Depression. I said to Mack, 'We're not in any depression,' I said. We had our own home and we had plenty to eat during the Depression. The Depression didn't affect me a bit, didn't affect any of us that I can remember. It's just something that came and went, went over my head."
She remembers people from Oklahoma coming through town, though, carrying mattresses on the top of their automobiles. "Some had two or three mattresses on the top of their automobiles, and the automobiles could hardly go, and we'd say, 'If you've got more than one mattress on top, you're rich.' But we didn't go through that."
* * *
Like the Depression, the Second World War "sort of came and went."
"When it was over, we were all so glad."
When Mack's meat route was cut because of rationing, he could no longer make a profit. So, he went back to work for Southern Pacific, taking the Daylight, Starlight and Coast routes.
He was 57 when he died of heart trouble.
* * *
Irene came back to Newhall and worked in a doctor's office until her early 70s.
She moved from Newhall several years ago because of the smog and because she could no longer keep up her yard. "And nearly every gardener I got would die." One day, struggling to pull her garbage can to the front yard, she got "fed up" and started looking for a place in Ventura.
"Today I go to Newhall and I can't find my way around."
* * *
Irene, whose childhood nickname was Smiles, is still cheerful. She laughs often and does not seem to be old.
"So many of the women my age complain about their doctors," she said. "I've got one that likes old people. He makes you feel like you just aren't ready for the grave.
"One lady — I guess she's a complainer anyway — she said, 'You know what my doctor told me?' She said, 'I was complaining, and he said, 'Well, after all, look how old you are.' I says, 'What a doctor.' I says, 'Who you got? I don't want him.
"My doctor would never say anything like that. He doesn't have that attitude at all. He doesn't put you down. But some women, they don't know how to treat their doctor."
* * *
The technological wonders of the 20th Century impress Irene, up to a point. For example, she has ridden in airplanes many times. "But I'd rather go riding horseback."
The space shuttle made more of an impact:
"I thought that was wonderful. The first one, I got up at 4 in the morning and waited for it to come in and land. I keep up with all the new things. Those girls, I think they're wonderful. I give them so much credit for what they're doing. There's so many things up there, I don't understand how they keep them from running into one another. They say there's getting to be an awful lot of traffic up there. It's too deep for me to understand."
On women's lib: "I think we were liberated enough before. I didn't feel tied down. When you get to the point where a man wants to treat you like a man and not open the door for you ... I did like those little things. It didn't mean a lot, but I liked it.
"The only thing is, if a woman is doing the same work a man is, she should get the same pay. That I certainly agree on. Why should a man, just because he wears pants, get more than a woman? Women's lib, I could do very nicely without it. I guess I'm too old to change. I liked the little courtesies a man used to do. Now it seems to me that they don't respect you.
"And kids are being brought up the same way. I came out of Vons and there was three kids and they had these looked like knuckle things on, and they were sittin' there and they had a box of music on. You don't want to look or catch their eyes, you know, because you don't know who they are. But they're awful. And I just happened to glance, and one of them says, 'Where the beef?' I could have told them plenty where the beef was.
"They have no respect for anybody. I hate to see these ornery kids, and there's plenty of them. 'Where's the beef?!' I pretty near laughed in their face, because I always see the funny side of it. But I thought, 'No, there's three of them there.'
"I won't talk to strange kids. And that's bad."
Irene's advice to young people:
"Start at home and respect your people, your parents, your mother. Have respect for everybody and don't go out with a chip on your shoulder. Go out with a good feeling, that, gee, this is a great world God's given me, and I'm grateful. Don't go out with that idea that the world's against you. So many of you kids have the idea that the world's against you and it owes you a living and you're going to get it somehow, it doesn't matter how.
"And some of you are too lazy. You don't want to do this, you don't want to do that. Get that out of your mind, because nobody has gotten through life without having to work. Life isn't easy at its best, and you can make it awful hard. You can make it awful easy, but if you want to, you can make it awfully hard, you can make this a very hard place to live in.
"But on the other hand, life can be beautiful with your help."
This is the first biographical profile of The Signal's series of "Eyewitness To The 20th Century." The series continues Wednesday with Peg Harrison.