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 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 tried to intimidate the brothers out of their home by burning their wheat fields and beating up their ranch hands. (Fight me on the subject of Leonis if you want, but Eugene Garnier's court testimony backs this up.) 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.