I was born at Shafter, Calif. in 1939. My mother and father divorced in 1945. My mother, Daisy L. Watkins, remarried to my stepfather, Azel Watkins, in 1946. My stepfather owned two semi-trucks that he used to haul fresh produce from Bakersfield via Palmdale and through Mint Canyon to Los Angeles.
In December 1946 he stopped at the Mint Canyon Café located at Solemint Junction, as was his habit. He had become good friends with the current owners of the café, and when he commented that he was tired of driving trucks for a living, they offered to sell the café to him so they could retire. My stepfather agreed to the purchase, sold both of his trucks, and in February 1947 he relocated my mother and myself to Mint Canyon.
To a 7-year-old who had been living in downtown Bakersfield, our arrival in Saugus by train and then our drive to Solemint Junction by car did not make a very good first impression. I recall thinking, oh well, at least the elementary school (Saugus) looked like it just might be OK as we drove past it. However, unknown to me at the time, I would not attend the Saugus school, as Sulphur Springs Elementary loomed in my future.
The former owners of the café were driving us to Solemint Junction, and as we prepared to turn right at the intersection of Bouquet Canyon and Soledad Canyon roads, we stopped at a local fruit stand owned by the Pancher family. There I met my first friend, Harriet Pancher, the owner's daughter.
At the time this intersection had one stop sign (the end of Soledad Canyon Road) and the only building in sight was the Panchers' fruit stand. We continued our drive toward Solemint Junction, and with the exception of the Bonelli ranch, there was nothing to see but farmland. In Honby there was a plane landing at the old airfield; finally we arrived at our new home a trailer house located behind the café.
(Editor's note: In the next two paragraphs, the directions — in italics — have been corrected from the original, which conflated east and west.)
As I got out of the car and gazed around me, I was depressed to see so little. On the northeast corner of the intersection of Mint Canyon and Soledad Canyon roads stood one small gas station and Les's Crossroads Tavern. The southeast corner consisted of a Texaco gas station and the Log Cabin Motel, both owned by the Simmons family, and the original Solemint Store and trading post, a small café and gas station, all owned by the Hanson and Olson families. The southwest corner had the Ranchouse Bar a new owner every week, it seemed and a truck stop-sized gas station. I cannot recall the owners' name, but their son married Joyce Malam, whose father was on the William S. Hart Union High School Board and who also owned Malam's Market in Forrest Park.
We were located on the northwest corner, by ourselves, at the site of what would become Dillenbeck's Market. Within a month we had met about 95 percent of the local population. Our café was a very popular establishment; we offered excellent food at reasonable prices, and we also had one of the very first A&W Root Beer franchises in the area. People would drive from Newhall just to purchase a root beer in a mug. We maintained the café until the start of the Korean War.
By 1951 the veterans' hospitals were overflowing with disabled personnel, and when an official of the Sawtelle Veterans Hospital stopped in one day he discovered that my mother was a registered nurse. He returned in about a week and made my mother an offer she could not refuse: He informed her that if she would purchase a large home in the area and accept all of the overflow patients she could, she would be paid $400 per month per patient, plus a $100 food allowance per person. My parents then sold the café, purchased a large, four-bedroom home in Forrest Park, added two more bedrooms and accepted the care of eight men.
My mother maintained a nursing home in Forrest Park until her death in 1993. My stepfather never really recovered from the accidental death of his son, James R. Watkins, in 1963 at the age of 20. When my mother passed away he sold the home, transferred the patients back to the hospital and relocated to Sun Valley. As for me, I entered the U.S. Army in 1957 and remained there until my retirement in 1979.
By returning to the canyon area fairly often while on leave or being stationed at Fort McArthur, Fort Ord and the Presidio in San Francisco, and just driving down on the weekends from these locations, I was able to observe many changes to the area first-hand over the years.
... The old 6-S airfield (at present-day Whites Canyon Road in Canyon Country) was better known as the Saugus drag strip. Long before the Lyons and other well known drag strips were in business, we raced cars at the old air strip. I raced my first car there in 1953 before I had a drivers license. We raced all day on Saturdays and Sundays. We paid the owners 50 cents per car, per day. If a plane wanted to land it called the owners' house by radio; the owner then drove out onto the landing strip and honked his horn. This was the signal for everyone to move their cars quickly to the side of the strip. The plane would land, we would be told if it was going to stay or depart soon, and our racing would react accordingly.
The large oak trees shown in the photograph of the airfield still exist. If you walk east on Whites Canyon Road from Soledad Canyon Road for one-half block and the face south, you will see two of the trees in front of you. Then turn and face north. The large oak tree in the parking lot is one of the original trees. To my knowledge there were only four oak trees in the area of the airfield. During the summer months, fistfights would break out over the use of the oak trees as shade.
Another tidbit: Grandmother Olson, whose husband founded the original Solemint junction store, was in her seventies when I first met her in 1947. She always claimed that she had named the junction by combining the words Soledad and Mint. She also claimed that she and her husband were the first locals to drive from San Fernando to the junction when Sierra Highway first opened in 1939.
©2000 Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures (SCVHistory.com)