Monday, August 28, 2017

We're Still Here, Part 4: Ramona

There are two key areas of Southern California that actually treat their French roots with respect. The first, as I've mentioned, is the San Fernando Valley.

The second - and virtually no outsider knows this - is the tiny town of Ramona.

Situated in northeastern San Diego County, Ramona is an unincorporated town named after Helen Hunt Jackson's famous novel. (By the way, getting there can be a challenge. It's well off the beaten path, and some of the highway signage is confusing and/or missing. Do yourself a HUGE favor and take Highway 67 through Poway. The 78 SEEMS shorter and more direct, but trust me, it's not.)

The town was previously called Nuevo. But don't let the Spanish names fool you - Ramona's deepest roots are heavily French.

Like many other French families who came to Los Angeles, the Verlaque family moved farther afield in search of land. They raised sheep in San Diego, and by 1886 were making a good enough living to build themselves a little place out in the country.


This house - the Verlaque family's country retreat - was the first permanent building in the Ramona area. 

It's also the only known example of a French Colonial house built out of adobe.


The town of Ramona clearly respects its French pioneers.



When Henri Penelon painted the rebuilt Old Plaza Church, he was assisted by 21-year-old Bernard Etcheverry, who had just arrived from France. As you can see, Bernard and his family eventually settled in Ramona.

I should note that the Guy B. Woodward Museum, housed in the Verlaque adobe, does NOT allow photography. I was granted special permission to photograph two items in the museum because they are original to the Verlaque family.


This soup tureen belonged to Elizabeth Verlaque and was used in this house.


To the untrained eye, this might LOOK like any fireplace you'd find in an adobe house's kitchen...


Theophile Verlaque, however, had the roasting spit custom made (in Paris!) for the house. It has a built-in mechanical timer to ensure perfectly cooked meat. What can I say? Even way back in 1886...even in a humble country retreat...we like our food cooked perfectly (and I don't even eat meat).


The Verlaques, like most French families, buried their dead in the local Catholic cemetery. However, San Diego's Calvary Cemetery was turned into Mission Hills Park (previously called Pioneer Park) in the 1970s. They took out the tombstones, but not the bodies (I wonder if Pioneer Park might have been the inspiration for Poltergeist...incidentally, San Diego has quite a long history of flagrantly disrespecting its dead). In any case, two of the Verlaque family's tombstones were salvaged (most of the tombstones were simply thrown into a ditch on the edge of the "park") and can now be found outside the house.


The Etcheverry family home exists only in memories (if I had to take a guess as to why, I'd say it might have something to do with the fact that San Diego County's backcountry is prone to brush fires). But, a few miles south of the Verlaque house, Etcheverry Street still bears the family's name.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Excerpts from "Frenchtown! The Musical": Part 1

I am pleased - thrilled, really - to announce that I will be speaking at LAVA's monthly Sunday Salon on September 24. It's a free event, but space is limited. Get your tickets now!

There isn't really a musical about Frenchtown (unless I decide to write more...) - this just came to me.

(The curtain opens on a stage split between two different locations and two different years.

Stage Right, a marquee reads "Exposition Park, 1870". The scene is a bedroom in the Lachenais house. A Spanish guitar sits on the narrow single bed.

Stage Left, a marquee reads "Calabasas, 1880". The scene is the parlor in the grand Leonis adobe, complete with a piano. The window is wide open.

Serafina Lachenais enters, stage right. She sits on the bed and picks up the guitar.

Marcelina Leonis enters, stage left. She sits at the piano.

Both girls begin to play their instruments.)

Song: "My Daddy is a Monster"

Serafina: They say my daddy is a monster

I know that they are right

When I was eight he killed a man

And ran off into the night

Marcelina: They say my daddy is a monster

I know it must be true

He's greedy and self-serving

And trigger-happy too

Serafina: Some say I was lucky to be adopted

But this is rotten luck

My mom is dead, my dad's a psycho

And I feel so stuck

Marcelina: He hates my big half-brother

Won't let him in the house

Scares everyone who works for him

And gets judge and jury soused

Serafina: Wicked

Marcelina: Brutal

Serafina: Evil

Marcelina: Cruel

Serafina: Scary

Marcelina: Vicious

Serafina: Rotten

Marcelina: Malicious

Serafina: Mom was scared of Dad

Their relationship was grim

Everybody thinks he killed her

And I wouldn't put it past him

Marcelina: Daddy only loves three things

Money, booze, and me

He treats my mother like the help

And only married her for money

Serafina: Murdered Mr. Deleval

Blinded someone with a gunshot

Beat that Tongva man to death

(Spoken) Unfortunately, Daddy's all I've got

Marcelina: Daddy rules the western Valley

Fear's the biggest reason

No matter what the calendar says

(Spoken) In Calabasas, murder is in season

Serafina: Life is tough

Marcelina: It's quite restricting

Serafina: I feel so torn

Marcelina: It's so conflicting

Serafina and Marcelina (together): When your daddy is a monster.

Voice (offstage): Serafina! Serafina, come quickly! Your father's been arrested!

Serafina: Again?! What's he done now?

Voice: He shot the man next door!

Serafina (crying softly, defeated): Daddy. No.

(Serafina exits, stage right. Juan Menendez appears, stage left, and is visible through the open parlor window.)

Juan (through window): Hey, little sister. Are you feeling any better?

Marcelina: Hey, big brother. This headache just won't go away. And now my back hurts.

Juan: You're sweating.

Marcelina: That's odd. I'm freezing.

(Miguel Leonis enters, stage left, behind Juan. He is visible through the parlor window.)

Miguel: How many times do I have to tell you to stay off the damn porch?! (Threatens Juan with a revolver.)

Marcelina: Daddy, no! (Jumps to her feet, gets woozy, and collapses.)

(Curtain falls.)

Monday, August 14, 2017

We're Still Here, Part 3C: The Le Mesnager Barn

On the northernmost edges of Glendale, just past the Crescenta Highlands neighborhood, intrepid explorers will find Deukmejian Wilderness Park.

This nature park preserves 702 acres of wilderness, including the Le Mesnager family's former vineyard. (I'm at a loss as to why it was named after an elected official instead of the family that owned and worked the land for the better part of a century, but I'll take what I can get.)

The Le Mesnager family owned and lived in this barn (converted to a farmhouse by Georges' oldest son Louis after fire/flood damage) until the late 1960s. It's conveniently located close to the park's entrance, right next to the parking lot.


What's that in front of the barn?


Grapes! Yes indeed, they're used to make wine.


The barn is right next to this little amphitheater.


Seen from the back.


It's tricky to get a good angle on the barn when you can't get too close.


Don't let the sign fool you - I snapped these pictures in May. The barn's conversion/remodel was still clearly underway.


When the barn is re-opened to the public (and when I have time to drive waaaaaaay out to the furthest edges of the Valley - seriously, getting here took forever), I will be back to take better pictures.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

We're Still Here, Part 3B: Rancho Los Encinos

Moving on to the next historic location in the Valley, we find a very special property that many Angelenos don't even know exists. 

Los Encinos State Historic Park is all that remains of Rancho Los Encinos (sometimes called Rancho El Encino). The original rancho was established by Francisco Reyes (first alcalde, or mayor, of Los Angeles), re-granted to three Tongva ranchers by Pio Pico (Reyes allegedly mistreated his Native American ranch hands), sold to the de la Osa family, and sold to a Yankee named Thompson...who sold it to Philippe and Eugene Garnier in 1869.

The Garnier brothers were the first of four French Basque families to own the property. 


Philippe Garnier, Gaston Oxarat, Simon Gless, and Domingo Amestoy.


Former residents. Note the prevalence of Basque surnames.


The original de la Osa adobe house. This is the second oldest structure in the Valley - and the only one that is pretty much unaltered.


Philippe Garnier's shaving stand.


Gaston Oxarat's saddle. This finely tooled piece was originally covered with tiny silver conchas (shells).


Juanita Amestoy wore this beautiful gown when she married Simon Gless.


Don Vicente de la Osa had previously turned the adobe into a stagecoach stop and roadside inn. The Garnier brothers, being from France, kicked the hospitality up a notch.


The Garniers had one of the adobe's rooms painted with beautifully detailed faux marbre panels.


Can you believe some idiot PLASTERED OVER these stunning walls? For over a century, no one knew this fine paint job was even there.


Try, if you can, to let your imagination fill in the blanks. It's a beautiful room now - it must have looked even better then.


I do hope someone else takes the time to notice that the plastic food on the table is French in theme. (Why is there a red candle? Did red paraffin even exist in the 1870s?)


The Northridge earthquake of 1994 severely damaged the adobe (one outer wall caved in, requiring extensive repairs). However, there was one silver lining: the earthquake may have damaged the house, but it shook much of the offending plaster right off the salon's walls. As you can see, some of the faux marbre is still covered by plaster. There is a good reason for this: the adobe is very old and very delicate. Some things are best left alone, even if they're not perfect.


What's that next to the adobe?


It's a French farmhouse!

No joke: the Garnier brothers built this two-story limestone house, said to be a copy of the family home in France, to house their employees. They also built a brick-lined pond shaped like a Spanish guitar to collect water from the natural spring on the property.

The Garniers hit tough times: they overextended themselves financially, the wool market collapsed, and Miguel Leonis, the worst neighbor any Valleyite ever had, tried to intimidate the brothers out of their home by burning their wheat fields and beating their ranch hands. They lost the rancho to foreclosure in 1878, and it passed to Gaston Oxarat.

Gaston Oxarat, in turn, left the rancho to his nephew, Simon Gless. Legend has it that one day, Gless bought a large block of ice downtown and, upon returning to the rancho, found that it had already melted away. This was too much for Gless (I can't blame him one bit, since I know how hot it gets in the Valley - and this was long before air conditioning or swimming pools). He decided to sell the property and move to Boyle Heights (the Gless farmhouse in Boyle Heights is, incredibly, also still standing).

Simon Gless was married to Juanita Amestoy, and her father Dominique already had significant land holdings elsewhere in Los Angeles County. Dominique, commonly called "Don Domingo", smartly snapped up Rancho Los Encinos. Other members of the Amestoy family lived on the property until 1945. 

The Amestoys began to sell off bits of the rancho in the early 20th century, but it wasn't until after World War II that the bulk of it was subdivided into modern-day Encino and Sherman Oaks (my neighborhood).

Supposedly, the adobe was used as a sales office for the new housing tracts and (what else...) subsequently slated for demolition. Concerned neighbors fought hard to have the buildings preserved (thank God).

The last remaining scrap of Rancho Los Encinos has been a California state historic park since 1949 and can be visited Wednesday through Sunday, 10am to 5pm (excluding holidays). There is a pedestrian entrance on Ventura Boulevard, but virtually no one seems to notice it is even there.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

We're Still Here, Part 3A: The Leonis Adobe Museum

In the old part of Calabasas, there is a surviving remnant of LA's Wild West past.

I don't mean all the cutesy, faux-Western storefronts. I mean the Leonis Adobe Museum.

When he took control of Rancho El Escorpion, Miguel Leonis found a dilapidated, long-abandoned adobe house on the grounds. He and his wife Espiritu restored and expanded the house, making it their home.

In 1962, the house - abandoned and left to rot all over again - was slated to be torn down. Why? To build a parking lot for a proposed supermarket. (Gee, can you tell paving paradise to put up ANOTHER $#@%^&* PARKING LOT is a pet peeve of mine?)

Thankfully, the Cultural Heritage Board made sure it didn't happen. The Leonis Adobe Museum is Los Angeles' Historic-Cultural Monument #1.


Photos of the house before it was restored (for the second time) in the 1960s.



Miguel dreamed of his own empire. To modern Angelenos, this may seem like a humble starter home for such an ambitious man, but it was a much simpler time.


The furnishings in the house, while period-appropriate, aren't original. But since Marcelina Leonis played the piano (and may well have played one like this), I'm including it here.


Proof that the Leonises were on speaking terms at one point. (Yes, the posing looks a bit forced. But it's impossible to say whether this is due to the nature of photography in the Victorian era or due to Miguel being a horrible person and a worse husband.)


There are mannequins throughout the house in period attire. These two, seen in the kitchen, strongly resemble Miguel and Espiritu.


If you're not looking at a huge (fake) side of beef, are you even in a historic ranch house pantry?


The house's staircase was originally outside, Miguel expanded the house to enclose it (but it's not hard to tell this was once an exterior feature). The picture above the table is of Espiritu in her later years.





I'm sorely tempted to call this style "cowboy Victorian".


Espiritu's red velvet canopy bed was re-created from contemporary accounts. The trunk seen here is the only original item in the house (it was one of a set of three owned by Espiritu).


Miguel added the second-story veranda.


I'm pretty sure every French Basque in the Valley raised sheep at one point. Yes, there are live farm animals at the museum! (Why the heck not...it's Calabasas.)


Rear of the house, snapped from the chicken coops.


This angle on the house shows the expansions better.


The Plummer House, moved here from Hollywood, serves as the museum's visitor center. Fittingly, Espiritu was good friends with Maria Cecilia Plummer.

This is just a taste...I took over 80 pictures of the house and grounds! Whenever you're in Calabasas, check it out for yourself.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Monster of Calabasas: Michel "Don Miguel" Leonis


Michel "Don Miguel" Leonis, date unknown

I’m not going to mince words. Michel Leonis, a six-foot-four-inch, 220-pound French Basque dubbed “Don Miguel” out of fear rather than respect, was a human stain.

No one can say for sure why Leonis left France's Basque region for California. Some sources say that he was a smuggler wanted by both the French AND Spanish authorities. Others say that his penchant for illegal activity back in France shamed his powerful family so much that his father demanded he leave. We may never know the truth, but either way, he was not one of the good guys.

When he arrived in 1854, Leonis worked as a foreman on Rancho El Escorpion in the western San Fernando Valley. Some say that he was illiterate and only spoke Basque; others say he could manage limited amounts of Spanish and English. (His friendships with George Le Mesnager and Joseph Mascarel suggest that he could, at bare minimum, converse in French.) 

Interestingly, Woodland Hills' continuation school was formerly called Miguel Leonis High School (it closed in 2015). But regardless of how educated Don Miguel might have been, within a few years he’d bought out his employer’s half of the rancho.

The other half of the rancho belonged to a Chumash widow named Espiritu Chijulla Menendez. 

You know where this is going, right?


EspĂ­ritu Chijulla Leonis

Leonis married Espiritu in a traditional Chumash ceremony in 1859, took over her half of the rancho, raised sheep on it…and added to his land holdings many times over through threats, violence, and nuisance lawsuits. He was dubbed the “King of Calabasas”, but he owned or controlled most of the western San Fernando Valley and part of Ventura County. He also had a house and orchard downtown (he may have kept a mistress there) - the Aliso Village apartments now stand on the site. He confided in the few people he was close to that he wanted to build his own empire that could last forever. 



This is the Leonis adobe. Humble home for a man who dreamed of an empire.

The house was old and abandoned when Leonis stumbled upon it one day. He fixed it up, enclosed the back staircase, added the veranda...and never, EVER allowed Juan Menendez, Espiritu's son from her first marriage, inside the house. Instead, Leonis relegated young Juan to the barn.

Leonis had more than 100 employees, including Chumash and Mexican vaqueros whose sole responsibility was to scare off homesteaders who got too close to his property. One dispute resulted in a two-week standoff and culminated in a murder. His own employees were terrified of him. 


At one point, Leonis even tried to force the Garnier brothers, who owned Rancho Los Encinos (modern-day Encino/Sherman Oaks), off of their property. Eugene Garnier testified in court that Leonis' vaqueros had burned their newly planted wheat fields and beaten their employees. He also stated that he was testifying against Leonis only because he was forced to do so. It's not a coincidence that Eugene moved back to France (but we'll get to that when I get to the Garnier brothers).

When intimidation didn’t work, Leonis used the court system. He was a plaintiff in at least thirty property disputes. Just to put that into perspective, fewer than 4,000 people lived in all of LA County - which still included Orange County - in 1860. Leonis managed to sue at least thirty of them. And he wasn’t above bribing judges and juries with food and alcohol.


Marcelina Leonis, date unknown

Leonis did have one Achilles' heel - his daughter Marcelina, born in 1860 and named after Espiritu's aunt. Curiously, in spite of marrying her mother out of convenience, Leonis doted on his daughter and always gave her the best of everything. Marcelina received a better education than either of her parents did, and loved to play the piano. The few available resources on Marcelina state that unlike her father, she adored her mother and her older half-brother. But Marcelina’s life was cut short by smallpox when she was only twenty. For three days after Marcelina’s death, Leonis drank heavily - well, more heavily than usual.

One story states that after losing Marcelina, Leonis attempted to hang himself from a tree behind the adobe, using his horse as a hanging platform. But the horse stubbornly refused to budge. Only when Leonis dismounted did the horse bolt. Leonis was so angry that he allegedly cut off the tree branch from which he'd tried to hang himself.

You’d think that suddenly losing his only child might have prompted Leonis to rethink some of his life choices. But it didn’t.

In September of 1889, Leonis won his first court case since Marcelina’s death. He celebrated his victory in the saloons downtown before heading back to Calabasas. And got himself into what must be the earliest drunk-driving accident in Southern California history.

Somewhere in the Cahuenga Pass, Leonis fell out of his wagon, and its heavy wheels ran right over his face and chest. He was taken to a (coincidentally French-owned) roadhouse on the Valley side of the pass. After three days of agony, the man who had terrorized the western Valley was dead. He was buried at Calvary Cemetery next to Marcelina.

The very next day, Juan finally moved into his mother's house.

You’d think that would be the end of it. But several years earlier, Leonis had hidden the nastiest trick of all up his sleeve.

Leonis married Espiritu for her family’s land, then proceeded to treat her like the help instead of his wife for the next thirty years. He was the third richest person in California when he died. Yet, he left Espiritu a pittance of $5,000, willing the rest of his money and land to his siblings. Adding insult to injury, he referred to Espiritu as his housekeeper, denied that they had ever been married, and left the money with the caveat that she would only get it if she didn’t contest the remainder of the will. 

Espiritu wasn’t well educated, but she wasn’t stupid. And she had suffered enough. She hired the best attorneys in town - Horace Bell and Stephen Mallory White, who had previously represented Miguel in some of his lawsuits.

For five weeks, the case dragged out in court. Witness after witness swore to the court that Leonis and Espiritu either were or weren't married. Espiritu's name was dragged through the mud again and again. One witness even claimed that she had never been married to her first husband and had lived with two other men (an extremely scandalous accusation for the time). Poor Marcelina's headstone was even submitted as evidence. The jury deliberated for less than a day before legally awarding Espiritu the widow’s share of her husband’s estate. 

In spite of her toxic marriage to Miguel, Espiritu did marry for a third time - at the age of 65, to an 18-year-old man. The Los Angeles Times, which had gleefully covered Espiritu's court case in all of its ugly detail, reported on her remarriage with some extremely salty commentary I won't repeat here.

Espiritu had to fight for her house in court again and again for the next 15 years (early LA had plenty of shady characters more than willing to swindle a two-time widow out of her own house), but she won her final case in 1906, and died a few months later. Juan and his family inherited the house (take THAT, Miguel). Espiritu is buried at Mission San Fernando (where she was born and educated). Should you wish to pay your respects, do note that she is interred under her first married name, Menendez.

Mere months before he died, Leonis wrote to his nephew, Jean Baptiste Leonis, asking him to come to California and eventually take over his estate. It didn’t quite work out that way, but by the time J.B. died, he’d established an empire of his own - in addition to one of California’s strangest cities. More on that in a future entry.