history


Well, it is official. I’m a landowner. Last January when my Uncle Doug died I was informed that in his will he bequeathed to me property he owned in Walker County, Alabama. Nine months later, the legal process is complete and I am now sole titleholder to 15 reportedly well-timbered and entirely undeveloped acres, replete with a creek known as Sims Branch (named after my grandmother’s parents) running through it, pictured approximately as shown below via Google Maps.

mine

What makes the gift even more special than being deemed worthy of it by my uncle — who was pretty much one of a very few adult males who demonstrated any kind of regard or concern for me during my childhood — is the fact that this particular plot of land is where my grandmother lived and where I stayed with her when I’d visit as a child.

Her house is long gone now. It was sold years back and its buyers jacked it up off its foundation and moved it to an unknown location. Though I last was inside when I was 7 years old, I can easily recall its layout… and lots of memories.

It’s an interesting sensation to own land that’s been in my family for quite some time, even if its far away and smack dab in the middle of nowhere. I certainly hope to stand upon it sooner rather than later, but who knows. If this life-long experiment as a Los Angeles native ever craps out, odds are this is where you might be able to find me. Either in a log cabin, a double-wide, or a recreation of my grandma’s home constructed from memory.

 

When I discovered a book review last week about “The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend” by Glenn Frankel, I was already ordering it before I read whether the reviewer thought it was good or not.

My motivation wasn’t just my unconditional adoration of John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, starring John Wayne. It was also because I was hoping for an answer or at least insight into Ford’s decision as to why he filmed the climactic scene where Wayne’s Ethan Edwards finally catches up to Natalie Wood’s Debbie at Bronson Canyon here in Hollywood.

caveIn the film Debbie flees across the barren plains of Monument Valley with Ethan in hot pursuit on horseback. But instead of reuniting them there, Ford quick-cuts to Debbie running up to the mouth of the Bronson Canyon cave/tunnel. Wayne comes charging down the adjacent slope, dismounts and approaches his long-lost niece, undecided still as to whether he’s going to save her because she’s kin or let his hatred of Indians take over and kill her because she’s long assimilated into the native culture she was abducted into as a child.

As a local who’s haunted them thar Hollywood Hills since I was a kid, I’ve known about Bronson Canyon since I was in elementary school, and I can remember watching “The Searchers” for the umpteenth time about 10 years ago and finally recognizing it. And yes, during visits since, I’ve gone to the mouth of that cave entrance in full-on fanboy awe knowing that I was standing in the exact spots where The Duke and Ford themselves had stood. One time, while overhearing a trio of visitors talking about the place’s use in lesser vehicles such as “Batman” (the ’60s TV series), “Star Trek VI,” and “Army of Darkness.,” I shared what I knew with them. Sadly, my enthusiastic description of the scene (complete with where Ford set up the camera) was lost because none of the three had seen the classic (which I feel should be a crime against entertainment).

I hold the film dearer to my heart knowing part of it was filmed in what is basically the playground of my past and so readily accessible at present. But with so much of the film’s exteriors shot in and around the organic magnificence of Monument Valley (itself a star of the film), I’ve long wondered what happened to bring Ford and Wayne and Wood to film that pivotal scene back here in Hollywood at what is in essence so fake a location entirely incongruous to the established wide-open scope of the West’s great outdoors. As such, I couldn’t resist diving into the back of the book to see if it was there. Thanks to Frankel, I now have the answer and so much more.

From the book:

Four days later, Ford took John Wayne, Natalie Wood, and a camera crew to Bronson Canyon to shoot the film’s climactic scene in which Ethan finally hunts down Debbie. The canyon was one of Hollywood’s classic outdoor locations, a former quarry carved into the southwest corner of Griffith Park just a few miles east of the Culver City studio. Brown and barren, it readily stood in for the rocky terrain of the West. From “Riders of the Purple Sage” (1925) to “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932) to “Zorro Rides Again” (1937), anyone who needed a cheap natural location within a bus ride from a studio had resorted to Bronson Canyon over the years. Ford didn’t go there save money, however, but to solve a problem. As usual, he left no notes to explain. But it’s likely Ford and his crew had filmed the climactic scene in Monument Valley in July according to the [Frank] Nugent screenplay and that Ford had decided at the last minute to change it.

Nugent’s original script spells out exactly what is supposed to happen and why:

Ethan Dismounts with his gun drawn, pointing it at Debbie. “I’m sorry, girl,” he tells her. “Shut your eyes.”

The camera holds on Debbie’s face — the eyes gaze fearlessly, innocently into Ethan’. After a moment, he lowers his gun and puts it away. “You sure do favor your moth,” he tells her. Then he extends his hand, puts his arm protectively around her and a reconciled uncle and niece head for home.

013-Debbie-Cowering-In-Cave-The-Searchers-1956Somewhere between the original filming of the scene and August 12, Ford decided to reach for a different ending. He clearly wanted something more visual and ambiguous — something the audience could see and feel and not have explained to them. “I wonder, did they box themselves into a corner and find themselves having to shoot this at the very end?” asked Ford scholar James D’Arc. “Bronson Canyon’s the obvious quickie solution.”

As he did so many times, Ford threw away Nugent’s dialogue and improvised. The face that he would be jump-cutting from the flat parched floor of Monument Valley to the hilly rock-strewn path leading to Bronson Canyon did not seem to trouble him. In the filmed version, Ethan chases Debbie down, calling out her name — similar to the way he had called out Martha’s name earlier in the film when he searched for her among the flaming ruins of the ranch house. Desperate to escape him, Debbie reaches the mouth of the cave and then collapses. Ethan dismounts, stands over her, then lifts her over his head in one sweeping motion and takers her in his amrs. “Let’s go home, Debbie,” is all he says.

For Ford and his crew, it was a quick visit. They started shooting at Bronson Canyon at 11:00 that morning and finished up at 12:45. They broke a half hour for lunch and then headed back to the studio.

Damn. I’ve long been a searcher for that information. I can’t wait to start at the beginning of Frankel’s book and see what else he has to show me about one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

nikehill

The marker in the top left of the image (click it for the bigger picture) is the bottom of what’s referred to as Nike Hill in Whittier and the marker in the bottom right is the top. In between those two point, it’s 1.81 miles at an average grade of 9%. To put that grade percentage into context, it’s usually at the start of a 7% descent on a highway that signage will be found warning motorists to “Watch Downhill Speed.” In other words, while it ain’t anywhere close to the hellacious steepness of the 32%-33% grades found nearby to me on Echo Park’s Baxter and Fargo streets, Nike Hill’s incline is one worthy of respect, especially if you are tasked with running from the bottom to the top, which I had to do yesterday afternoon at the end of a long day of training.

If you want me to get technical, Nike Hill doesn’t really begin until the top of that distinct outward bend you see in the first segment of the route. From there it’s 1.5 miles at an overall 8.5% grade. But for me as a student at Rio Hondo College in its public safety training program, the runs we do up it start just outside the campus’ Administration of Justice Building, adding about a third of a mile and a couple hundred more feet of elevation gain.

Nike Hill is not so known because of some naming rights agreement entered into with the shoe company. It is called what it is because at that end point is what once was Nike Missile Site LA-14, in operation between 1956-1961, one of hundreds built across the country and 16 active in Los Angeles during the Cold War era.

The Fort MacArthur Museum website states:

Nike missiles were launched from a self-contained launch area. Each site was equipped with two or three launching platforms each with an underground storage magazine, an elevator and four missile erectors. The missiles were stored underground on rails and were brought to the surface by an elevator. Once on the surface, they were pushed on rails to an erector and with the proper electrical and hydraulic connections completed, raised to an angle of about 85 degrees for firing. The Nike missiles employed the “command guidance” system in which the major control equipment was ground-based and not part of the expendable missile. The missiles were guided from a control area located at least 1000 yards from the launch area. It contained the radar equipment for acquiring and tracking the target and missile. Separate radars simultaneously located and tracked both the target and the Nike missile. Data from these radars was fed to the electronic computer which sent “commands” to the missile in flight to guide it to the target.

The installations were designed in the 1950s to defend against the primary strategic attack threat of the time, large formations of long-range bombers. Initially, the missiles onhand were the Nike-Ajax, supersonic anti-aircraft variety.

From “The Missiles of Los Angeles,” via Los Angeles Almanac:

In 1958, the Army began upgrading its Nike missile sites in the Los Angeles area from the Nike-Ajax missile to the more powerful and longer-range Nike-Hercules missile. The new missile could also be armed with a nuclear warhead.

Today the site hosts a set of radio relay towers, and one helluva view on a clear day. And it’s interesting to me that the control area mentioned above was located on the grounds of what eventually became Rio Hondo College, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. On a side note, being about 15 months away from my 50th anniversary, it’s some consolation that I’m not physically older than the institution I’m attending.

But speaking of physically older, I surprise myself by doing all right with this asskicker of a run. It wasn’t at all pretty or noble, but I managed to drag and trudge and flail my 48-year-old butt to the top in 19:57, finishing fourth among my fellow cadets. This with an ongoing aggravated sciatic nerve issue down my left leg and some sort of newly realized mobility limiter in my right ankle.

It’s a stretch, but perhaps my relative success with this run can be traced genetically back to a Scottish ancestry well-acclimated and conditioned to traversing up and down the Scottish highlands. More than likely, I’m simply driven by the knowledge that the sooner I get to the top, the sooner the agony stops.

 

I’m familiar enough with the history of this country to be aware of and repulsed by the prevalent use of racially restrictive covenants that prohibited property ownership and occupation — a completely legal practice that stood in place until it was overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1948.

A restrictive covenant is basically a legal obligation imposed in a deed by the seller upon the buyer of real estate to do or not to do something.

As an aside, it should be noted that it was a lawyer from right here South Los Angeles named Loren Miller — the son of a slave —  who was instrumental not only in winning many local cases against racial covenants, but also the most celebrated one: Shelley v. Kraemer (1948),  which he and partner Thurgood Marshall argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court. Miller would later go on to be named Justice of the California Supreme Court by Gov. Edmund G. Brown (our current governor’s father), serving until his death in 1967.

But back on topic. Cleaning out her files, Susan came across a copy of the original grant deed for our property made out by the parcel’s original owners George and Katherine Palmer, dated September 26, 1907. It starts off with some pretty standard normal conditions:

  • that it be used for residential purposes only;
  • that any out-buildings not be erected less than 75 feet from the front line of the lot;
  • that the value of the dwelling built must be greater than $2,500 (remember that’s 1907 dollars);
  • that anything built be not less than 1.5 stories in height;
  • that the home should be built no fewer than 35 feet from the front of the lot nor within four feet of the sides.

Then there’s a cool one, specified:

“That this property shall never be used for the sale of intoxicating liquors.”

Then it gets repulsively nasty, see for yourself:

rescov1

Click it for the bigger picture or read the transcribed abhorrence below:

“That the party of the second part, his heirs, administrators, executors or assigns shall never convey lease or rent these lots or any portion thereof to any negro or to any person of African or Asiatic descent.”

Despite too-regular reminders provided by our past, I am always ever-amazed and embarrassed at how those in this country so shamefully and selfishly managed to subvert and disregard the second line of its Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

I blew it. Missed the centennial anniversary of the oldest familial object in my possession. For several years, bestowed upon me by my mother who’s kept it I don’t know for how long,  I’ve had a remnant of my grandmother’s father’s life: a Gordon pipe clamshell case seen below (click it for the bigger picture):

pipecase

Also seen in that image above is a piece of paper that I found within the case when I opened it up. It’s a receipt for $2 spent made out to my great-grandfather W.D. Sims (William Devon), most likely for the pipe and case. I say “most likely” because the receipt is not specific, only identifying the purchases made as “50 cts incidentals — $1.50 supplementals.” But the fact that the folded piece of paper was kept for so long within the container seems to make a good case that one resulted from the other.

The reason I’m mentioning it is that the document, written in pencil by one A.S. Scott, is 100 years old, dated December 2, 1912. Of course, I’d been planning on mentioning it on the actual anniversary of its creation, but I’m three weeks and a day late because I’d gotten it into my head that the date was sometime at the end of the month, not the beginning.

And when I cracked open the case to doublecheck the date this morning you can imagine how disappointed I was that I’d missed it by such a margin. Of course the disappointment is quickly supplanted by the amazement at holding a century-old moment in time of one of my ancestors. Owing that I have absolutely zero knowledge of the branch of my family that extends back from my unknown father, it’s nice to be able to hold something in my hand from the side to which I do have a connection, however tenuous it may be.

There’s an amazing story about my great grandfather that I’ve taken various incomplete stabs at drafting into written form. It’s full of details I’m woefully inaccurate about, the anniversary of which is the least of my worries. What I do know is that it was post-Civil War when he was a much younger man and a sharecropper somewhere in Alabama, and it involved him killing a man in cold blood who had taken to harassing his mother over a debt… one substantially more than two dollars, and that he paid off in full the moment before gunning the man down where he stood cash in hand.

Whether my great-grandfather’s intent to zero out the debtee’s heart rate upon zeroing out the balance owed was pre-meditated, or whether the deceased brought about his own demise with some derogatory and/or condescending words that in a hundred years of hindsight would have been better to go unspoken so soon upon receipt of the money, is both an historical and plot point with which I continue to grapple.

 

 

A Facebook friend of mine, Eric Beteille, updated his status with an amazing search of the 1940 Census Archives to find who lived in his house then. Not previously knowing such a treasure trove of info was available online I, of course, did the same thing, and this is what I discovered (actual page cropped, click it for the bigger picture), explained below:

In 1940 the Woolsey family resided in our home, which they rented at a rate of $60 per month. William, Sr. (79 years old), was the head of the household. He was retired. His wife Katherine (62) was a chef at an unspecified hotel. She made $1,200 in 1939. William and Katherine had two sons, William, Jr. (35) and Robert (25). William, Jr., worked as an auditor at an unspecified aeronautics firm and made $3,600 the previous year. Robert, was an artist and he reported making no income in 1939. The Woolsey’s also had a lodger named Edith Swinton (35). Edith was a single female whose occupation is listed as bookkeeper in the service industry. She made $1,200 in 1939. William, Sr., Katherine, and Robert completed their high school educations, William, Jr., and Edith had college degrees. William, Sr., was born in Illinois. Katherine and William, Jr., were born in Minnesota. Robert and Edith were born in North Dakota. The Woolsey family was living at this same address since at least April 1, 1935. At that time Edith was living in Minneapolis.

I googled everyone’s names, but the only thing I found was for Robert (presuming of course it’s the same person), in the form of the following cursory information at askart.com, sourced through Edan Hughes’ “Artists in California,” 1786-1940.

“After studying at Otis Art Institute, Woolsey worked in Los Angeles for the Public Works of Art Project during the 1930s.”

So I googled “Robert Woolsey WPA” and got nothing; thenI searched for “Robert Woolsey Otis Art Institute,” and found this 2006 post on the the Cartoons, Model Sheets & Stuff Blog about the background artistry of Hanna Barbera painters Robert Gentle and Art Lozzi. In a 2009 response a commenter named Brad Woolsey writes:

Bob Gentle and my father (Robert Woolsey) were friends in art school in the ’30s. I found a charcoal portrait of my father done by Bob completed in ’38. Bob Gentle ended up doing backgrounds and my father had to drop out of art school even though he was on scholarship at Otis in LA due to finances — he eventually became a toy designer/engineer.

Sounds like it very well could be the same fellow. If so, sad that Robert had to leave art behind. Sad also that a search for “Robert Woolsey Toys” came up empty. How cool would it be if he helped design, Erector Sets, the Slinky or Silly Putty.

It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of historic vintage maps of Los Angeles. I love pouring over high-resolution versions of the documents and one I’ve spent some time with is a fantastically detailed bird’s-eye view of the city from back in 1909 that I found here on the incredible Big Map Blog about a year ago.

I hadn’t looked at it in awhile, but I opened up the file again yesterday for no particular reason. And while past explorations left me kind of certain that our neighborhood was further to the right side of this image, yesterday’s visit left no doubt that I’d been waaay off.

Here’s the section annotated below (numbered and arrowed by me; click it for the bigger picture):

1. The intersection of Bellevue and what was then Temple or Old Temple Road (now bisected by the 101 with London Street to the north of the freeway and Park View to the south). Our street was originally called Sugg (and then later Ensign) and it’s shown extending northward from that intersection into what was originally the Rowland Heights tract.

2. This was the key element that I hadn’t previously recognized. That bend in the road is now the present curve of LaFayette Park Place (one street east of ours) down to what’s now Benton Way.

3. Is essentially our house. Not really, but pretty dang close to where it was built in 1906. It was one of the first on the block, and its position there on the map is good in relation to the view we have of Sunset Boulevard, seen above angling up between what was then curiously known as Capitol Hill (what’s now Micheltorena Ridge) and Crestmont (site of the famed Canfield-Moreno Estate aka Paramour Mansion built in 1923).

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