At Home On The Smith Family's
'R-Own-Ranch' in 1980 Click on photo to enlarge - ©1980/2010 jim otterstromPhoto left to right; Thelma Smith, Edgar Smith (gramps), Karen Smith (Miller), Peggy Otterstrom, Jim Otterstrom, Ed Smith, Debra Smith, Clark Smith, with Boots & Chewbacca in front.
Just before Peggy and I moved to Big Bear this is where we lived, in that army surplus quonset hut, on the Smith family's 60 acre 'R-Own-Ranch', a secluded paradise two miles up a dirt road from Mulholland Drive in the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu Canyon Road.
We moved here shortly after we were married, and the ranch is also where we started our own family, Jimmy came into the world during our time here.
We were quite happy living alongside this down to earth Old Calabasas family who welcomed us into their lives as if we were born & raised right there with them.
Most of us worked for the Post Office, either in Calabasas, or Woodland Hills, which is how we became friends, and we held many unforgettable postal gatherings up at the ranch---far from the rat-race---where people could relax and let their hair down without bothering the neighbors, because there weren't any.
At these large pot-luck get-togethers there was often live music provided by musician friends---from young rockers, to aging big band era players---the majority of whom were working at the Post Office too. The family also---long before my days there---had rigged up a fenced (with chicken wire), night-lighted (with salvaged flourescent fixtures), volleyball court, Ma & Pa Kettle style, where, old & young alike, would often play into the wee hours of the morning.
On more normal quieter nights, the family always gathered in the living room of the original old home-built house where four generations of Smiths would gregariously indulge themselves in hours of playing Scrabble, Monopoly, or any number of board, dice, or card games, until way into the night, and there was also a game room with a pool table off the living room overlooking the vegetable garden.
I loved sitting in on those games and listening to family tales about things like hiking miles to the old Calabasas School on a trail which led from the ranch, over the mountains, and down to the quaint little town of Calabasas. But, I don't believe I ever once beat my ol' buddy, Ed Smith, or his sister, Karen, at a game of Scrabble. Those two were just too damned sharp, but then again, they played the game almost every night for much of their lives.
That's the kind of thing families used to do when they lived in remote rural areas, far from the nearest neighbor, before cable or satellite TV, or computers.
I was absolutely charmed by this unassuming family of self-reliant old-fashioned folks who still lived---even during the 1970s, '80s, & early '90s---much as they had throughout the 1940s & '50s. I felt like I had come home, and I still think of them as family, and their 'R-Own-Ranch' as the country home I always longed for.
During our few years there most of the activity centered around the main house, which apparently came into existence around 1927---long before there were enforced building codes in those unincorporated areas---with several rooms obviously added on, maybe as late as the early 1950s. Also, of course, was the war surplus quonset where Peggy & I lived---which had been erected in 1956---35 years before the city of Calabasas was incorporated. And there were a couple of small trailers there too, available to family members who sometimes came and went depending upon their situations at any given time.
Living at the ranch was always an adventure, and definitely not for the faint of heart. The day we moved in was during the midst of a wet winter, and the private road leading up to the ranch had just washed out about a 1/2 mile down from the house, so Peggy and I had to trudge back & forth up that last muddy 1/2 mile with all of our belongings. That would've been late 1979, the year I bought my first 4-wheel drive Toyota, for obvious reasons.
The Smiths owned a tiny, ancient, rickety Caterpillar bulldozer which could, periodically, be patched into some semblance of working order to assist with road repair during washouts, which came in handy because the 1.2 mile dirt section of the road was almost completely wiped out twice during our 3 year stay at the ranch. Those are rewarding and memorable experiences in my life, working side by side with the Smiths to rebuild their road, and this is also when Peggy learned how to use a chain saw and I got to know her rugged hard-working side.
Then there were the fires. A couple of years before we moved to Big Bear a fire broke out to the north of us in the middle of the night, near highway 101, and we were awakened by a call from the fire department warning us to be prepared because it was moving in our direction.
There was a fire hydrant on the property near the main house---the cost of which was surely added to the R-Own-Ranch tax assessment, but the fire department would no longer allow their equipment up the narrow road to protect just one old house. They did however offer to provide us with some fire hose, a nozzle, and a bit of safety instruction if we wished to defend the place ourselves, an offer we gladly accepted.
Over that tense ensuing day the fire moved slowly toward us and some of the Smiths decided to drive down and talk with the firefighters stationed by the big fancy houses at the lower paved section of the road near Mulholland Drive, to see if they might change their minds about sending a truck up. What happened instead, was that a sheriff wouldn't allow the guys back up the road, which left me and Peggy, along with Thelma Smith, probably in her late 50s then, and her son Clark, in his early to mid teens, to defend the place.
I suggested to Peggy that she should leave and told her I was going to stay and fight the fire. She said, "I'm not going anywhere without you"! So, Peg and I followed the fire department advice, wrapping our heads & faces in wet towels as the fire advanced over the hill and moved in upon us. We kept the house and everything around it soaking wet, and when the smoke got too thick we'd adjust the nozzle to a fine spray over our heads and breathe, through the wet towels, the oxygen that was emanating from the misting spray of water falling around us. A few times I had to leave Peggy in charge of the hefty fire nozzle so I could run back to the quonset and use the garden hose to extinguish small fires that had ignited in knot-holes of the leafless deciduous 'Trees of Heaven' growing along the side of the metal building, which was otherwise rather impervious to fire. That's when I discovered how strong and courageous Peggy is.
The fire burned around us for a couple of hours but eventually moved on and the Smith homestead was spared for the time being. Then, in March of 1983, just a few days before Peggy & I moved away, another fire headed toward the ranch, and we were prepared to man the hoses again, but the previous fire had cleared most of the underbrush so this one just burned on past us.
Sadly, in 1996, a third fire finally burned the original family home to the ground while the Smiths stood by helplessly at the bottom of the road where the police, once again, wouldn't allow them up to defend their uninsurable property.
The quonset hut and trailers survived though, and members of the family, including Thelma's now 70 year-old brother, Lloyd Smith, and his son Gary, continued living on what was left of their scrappy beloved ranch, until, completely unannounced and unexpected, "on July 8th, 2010, the Calabasas Community Development Department, its building officials, code enforcement officers, other employees, personnel and agents, Los Angeles County Animal Control, and armed Sheriff’s deputies — a total of 14 people, eight of whom still remain unidentified despite requests for the City to identify them — descended en masse on one of Cold Creek’s founding families in the heart of undeveloped upper Stokes Canyon, 1.2 miles off the beaten track"*.
*Excerpted from the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation August, 2010 newsletter. Read the whole creepy story about the raid here.
In more decent times and places, in an America once striving toward democracy, these human beings---long-time historic pioneering residents of their community---would've been treated with a modicum of courtesy and respect, instead of like common criminals. Their old non code-compliant homestead would've been considered grandfathered, and partially exempt from today's strict regulations, and they would've been officially notified as to whatever health & safety issues required immediate attention and given some time to come into compliance.
But no, 11 days after the raid the Smith family's electricity was cut off, and 7 days after that the water too, leaving 70 year-old Lloyd, and his son Gary, homeless. The bastards even came and capped off the fire hydrant!!!
Because, as you can plainly see, the Calabasas of today is a miracle of modern Capitalism, where destructive profiteering defines progress, and appallingly ugly subdivisions of enormous disgusting "mansions" are smeared all over the once lovely hillsides that the Smith kids wandered on their way to school.
There's no room in Calabasas any more for down home folks like the Smith family, or in the rest of the Santa Monica Mountains for that matter, it's all gone to shit now! And the robber barons who run the world these days don't even have the decency to come in and make the family a fair offer for their land. They just send in a bunch of lackey bureaucrats to do a little dirty work, raiding, condemning, and evicting elderly life-long residents, probably figuring they'll be able to get what they want for almost nothing, while these people are suffering under duress. And I sorely suspect they may well succeed, because ordinary folks just don't have the resources it takes to fight powerful monied interests.
Interestingly, this raid was conducted around the same time an out-of-state owner of 300 acres somewhere in the vicinity of the Smith property, was inquiring about having his land incorporated into the city of Calabasas for development purposes, and would it surprise anybody if the Smith acreage just happens to lie between his land and the rest of what is already contiguous to Calabasas?
Whether this turns out to be the case or not, you can bet your ass that somebody's got an eye on making big bucks off the corpse of R-Own-Ranch, where generations of Smiths, through their labors of love, toiled away for 60 some years on their remote little plot of paradise, enlarging their home, one room at a time, planting gardens, building ponds, repairing roads, paying taxes, and raising their kids, all by themselves, without the need for pre-schools, playdates, or ritalin.
As for the people who live in all those sterile new giant Calabastard enclaves---those anti-coyote, anti-clothesline, anti-cesspool civilized newcomers whose filth & excrement flows through a nasty maze of pipes to some oft malfunctioning sewage treatment plant before being dumped into the Santa Monica Bay; whose countless Hummers, Escalades, and Navigators foul the air above the sacred mountains I once called home---I feel sorry for you and can't even imagine living in one of those oversized crapboxes and calling it a home.
In my eyes R-Own-Ranch is a victim of the same corporate driven oppression which has subverted democracy all across America by buying off the government, rewriting the rules to benefit the rich, and redistributing the wealth of a once thriving middle class---who were the backbone of the country---to a small percentage of the population, which is why the gap between the rich & poor is wider today than ever before, and growing by the hour. Pure raw evidence of the class wars the entire world is in the midst of.
And, for the record, these are my own opinions, and neither my thoughts nor my memories were verified, approved, or authorized by any member of the Smith family.
My anger and indignation over human beings subjected to this kind of treatment is my own, and I'll speak my mind about it anytime I damned well please, especially when it hits this close to home.
Finally, to all the members of the Smith family; to Ed & Cindy, Karen & Dan, and all your kids; to Thelma, Lloyd, & Gary, and all the rest of you. Peggy and I hope you will find a way to get 'R-Own-Ranch' untangled from this nightmare. We will always feel like a part of your family and this is very painful for us too.
Edgar Smith in 1980Click to enlarge - © 1980/2010 jim otterstrom
The late, Edgar Smith, patriarch of R-Own-Ranch who bought the place in the 1940s.
'Smitty' in 1980Click to enlarge - © 1980/2010 jim otterstrom
The, late, 'Smitty', son-in-law of Edgar, husband to Thelma, was the sole rural letter carrier for Calabasas, delivering the mail to every residence for several decades.
Peggy in October of 1981 Click to enlarge - © 1981/2010 jim otterstrom
A very pregnant Peggy, with our goat, in front of the R-Own-Ranch vegetable garden in October of '81.
Peggy on Friday, November 13th, 1981 Click to enlarge - © 1981/2010 jim otterstrom
Peggy, in front of the quonset with Smith family dog, Chewbacca, about 16 hours before our son Jimmy was born, and check out the cat on the tin roof above the door.
Quonset Bathroom - 1981Click to enlarge - © 1981/2010 jim otterstrom
The quonset bathroom during a facelift I was doing on the place while we lived there.
Remodeling Our Bedroom - 1981
Click on photo to enlarge - © 1981/2010 jim otterstrom
Ed Smith, grandson of Edgar, son of Smitty & Thelma, helps me (in the middle) with the drywall in our bedroom while, Debra Smith, looks on from the doorway to the bathroom.
Peggy - 1981 Click to enlarge - © 1981/2010 jim otterstrom
Peggy, just days away from motherhood, poses for me in our newly remodeled bedroom in the quonset hut at R-Own-Ranch.
If you think this post simply describes an unfortunate isolated incident please follow this link to see a short audio slideshow about ex-Marine & Viet Nam vet, Joseph Diliberti, a stunningly creative human being who may lose his 4 acre property in San Diego County, as well as his magnificent hand-crafted ceramic home, under somewhat similar circumstances.
This kind of stuff happens every day, to good people all around the world, who are victimized by the thievery of empire builders who are now beginning to run out of resources to steal; and by classism, elitism, racism, and sexism.
If you lived along the Yangtze River in China, they came and took millions of your ancestral homes for a huge dam to power the industrialists factories, an engineering monstrosity which, at best, will silt over in a dozen decades or so. If you live in Tennessee, they may soon come for the coal under your feet---if they haven't already done so---removing the mountian tops around your home, destroying the landscape and displacing the wildlife who live there, while ruining the watershed and poisoning your water and your air. If you live in Sumatra, and survive a tsunami, they will come and confiscate your land, replacing your fishing villages with luxury resorts. If you live in Central America, they will come and confiscate your homeland for banana or coffee plantations and put you to work in sweatshops making designer shoes or T-shirts for a few bucks a week. If you were a Native American, they might have brought you gifts, like blankets intentionally infected with smallpox, to kill off your people and take over your land with much less resistance. If you live in Iraq, they will come and destroy your country to procure the oil you're sitting on.
And the list of victimization goes on forever, from East Timor, to the Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast of America; from the brutality of the British, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, & American empires, to the murderous history of religious fanaticism; from the Crusades, to witch burning in America, and the horrific radical muslim fundamentalism of the Taliban.
I believe, as Dan Quinn wrote in his best-selling novel, Ishmael, that some humans are takers, and some are leavers, and for the past 10,000 years or so, the takers have been winning big, but I think they are running out of time. The planet can't afford them anymore...
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