Canyon Folk: They like it Quiet

September 20, 1970
Steve Emmons, Los Angeles Times

Burt Jones leaves his machine shop at the end of each work day and faces a 45-minute drive home, not long by freeway standards.

But, Burt goes a different way. From Santa Ana, he drives his pickup truck down the San Diego Freeway to El Toro Road, out Trabuco Canyon past where the road becomes a creek bed, past the last remote Forest Service guard station to his house at the head of the canyon, just this side of Riverside County.

There, where he pays $75 a year to live on National Forest land, Burt is alone among the empty weekend and summer cabins.

His rustic house has two fire trucks in the front yard, the assets of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Dept. An old crank telephone hands on the wall, put there by Broken Back Phone Co., which serves only the canyon cabins and does not reach to the outside world.

Burt's water comes from a a well, his electricity from a generator, his refrigeration and warmth from a propane tank.

Private, Peaceful

In and around his house is disorder, but it is his private, peaceful, unadorned way of life: "Hell, I wouldn't live anywhere else," he says.

If Rodger Howell left his Santa Ana law office at about the same time, he'd likely follow Burt right up the canyon. At Trabuco Oaks near O'Neill Park, however, Rodger would turn off onto his private road to the top of his hill.

The large, new, luxurious adobe and Mexican tile house surrounded by an immense lawn is the secondary feature. It's that view, 380 degrees from the ocean to the Riverside County line, that first stuns visitors.

Howell and his family can afford to live anywhere, but chose this solitary and commanding spot.

"Some people don't like the drive way up here. I don't know of a nicer drive," Howell says.

Burt Jones and Rodger Howell represent the unusual -- the very remote and the expensively modern -- among the 1,500 people who have chosen to live in Orange County's canyons.

But regardless of their backgrounds, the canyon residents all want the uncluttered, simpler, relaxed life people find more difficult to live in cities and suburb tracts.

The canyon folk live together modestly, commuting into the urban half of Orange County to do their shopping and make their livings. But when they come home, they leave city life behind.

In the canyons, you drive with your high beams on at night or you can't see. That fireplace is not for decoration--it's for heat. If you are cooking with gas, it comes from a tank beside the house.

You keep your car nearby in case the volunteer fire department siren goes off.

In the city, people are increasingly known by numbers, but in the canyons even addresses are useless. Most mail goes to post office boxes. Your house bears your name, and even the volunteer fire department answering a call asks for the owner's name, not the address.

Telephone service, except in the remotest areas, is excellent, yet the rural life has gone back in some places to an electronic party line--citizens band (CB) radio.

Talking over CB in the canyons can be like talking over a public address system. People returning home from a jolly time in town have been known to broadcast their conditions. People driving out to work early in the morning call others to wake them up.

And, if you really want to spread the message, drive up the hill to where all the TV antennas are. A prime-time broadcast there can reach all, regardless of what network they are watching.

The pleasantness and the community spirit are only two reasons this life is becoming more and more attractive to people who have lived in cities all their lives.

Dick Shook concedes that he moved to Silverado canyon by accident. He had fled his native Los Angeles for the Apple Valley desert after "I felt the city closing in around me," but the better wages of the city drew him back. Living in Cypress, working at Autonetics in Anaheim, he began looking for a second house and saw one that was all right in Silverado.

Moved to Silverado

"We would start in the morning to look somewhere else, but in the afternoon we were always back in Silverado," he said. Finally, the family moved there.

For two years, Dick commuted to Anaheim. Then when a job opened in the small Santiago County Water District that serves Silverado and Modjeska canyons, Dick took it. He lost money but gained much more, he says. "Ask anyone here and they'll tell you the same things," he said, sipping coffee in the Alpine Inn. "In the city it's every man for himself. How many of your neighbors do you know or care about? This canyon is five miles long and almost everybody knows everybody else. I like to think I'm more compassionate toward my fellow man since I've lived here. Maybe it's just because I know them here."

Scotty, really Robert Scott but unknown by that name, is also sipping coffee. As superintendent of the water district, he has lived here six years in a mobile home at the water works.

"There's something about this place that just reminds everyone of something very pleasant in their lives. Maybe it was their hometown or camp when they were kids or something. But the people who like it, love it."

No Bother

"Here at the Alpine we're getting more and more off-duty marines and sailors who come from El Toro or Long Beach just to have a beer and play pool and not be bothered."

A county consensus taken in 1968 shows that the canyon population is mainly middle-aged working people and their families. A few retired people live there, too, but fewer than the county wide average. The gap in population has been in the 20s and early 30s, young singles and young families.

But the pressure there has begun. "I get 10 rental inquiries daily," said Margo Antrim a real estate agent who lives and works in Silverado. "If a house opens up I can rent it almost immediately. I can sell it with four phone calls and have the papers signed in a week."

Some Dangers

This is in spite of the well-known dangers of canyon living--no doctors, fire hazards, flood dangers. "It's the same thing in the city. What about earthquakes?" said Mrs Antrim. "Nothing may happen here ever again. Who knows?"

The main pressure to move in now is from young people, and it is intense, she said. If you mention in the Pali Cafe that so-and-so may rent his house, be prepared to give the particulars to some stranger who overheard you.

"The feeling I get from all the city people who come up here is that they're so frustrated." said Mrs. Antrim. "Maybe city life is getting so bad that the people are moving out younger now."

Paul Lima is young and was purchasing agent for an urban renewal agency before coming to Silverado a few months ago. He was drawn there by his brother-in-law, Blaine Hannis. Hannis is gradually drawing his and Paul's families to live in Silverado, all on the growing plots of land the family is buying. In the making is a family corporation. Hannis' two sisters Candy and Carolyn, are studying to be real estate agents. Paul, who is "gainfully unemployed," is refurbishing houses the family has bought. Others will contribute their share to run the family company. Blaine and another brother, Dale have agreed to work to support the others until they are established.

In the meantime everyone is delighted with the new life. "This isn't anything new," said Paul. "It's just going back to the old way of living together."

Carolyn, 26, and her roommate Joan Nordin, 27, say their forfeit nothing to live in the canyon, and their cabin is one very favorable argument. Outside it is rustic, but inside it is spectacular. Its walls are richly paneled, floor carpeted, kitchen and bathrooms totally modern. Hundreds of feminine touches make the cabin the equal of a downtown apartment.

Silverado Canyon is the closest to the city both in distance and temperament. In nearby Modjeska, things are somewhat more withdrawn. Here the canyon is not so narrow and does not physically force houses to cluster, although many have. Here there are only homes and a volunteer fire department. A restaurant in Modjeska has gone out of business several times.

The people in Modjeska are more "horsey" than those in Silverado, say the Silverado folks. The Silverado folks are more city oriented, say those in Modjeska.

Clyde Keener of Modjeska and his wife, Helen, are both retired professors from UC Santa Barbara. They are kept bust simply appreciating their canyon's beauty, but much of Clyde's time is wrapped up in Pennywise Construction Co., a fiction he and his neighbor, Norman Fleming, have operated for years. The assets of this non-corporation are Clyde's phenomenal mechanical ability (he taught industrial arts for more than 20 years) and Fleming's remarkable equipment, which include a 1931 Ford Model A dump truck named Oscar and a 1914 gasoline-powered concrete mixer.

The community is a cooperative one, and talents are lent more than anything else. Clyde fixes the local bicycles and cards, and Pennywide Construction does much heavy work.

"Bill Sill went down and helped Willy Williams put plumbing in his house. Save him about $300," Clyde said.

The center of the community is the fire department, where both men and women are trained to run the machines and lay hose. The department has more than once put money into the hands of people who needed it.

Norman Fleming, who did much to bring a reliable water system to the canyons, recently suffered a stroke and is recovering. Eighteen canyon teenagers appeared at his house one day and cleared the weeds from the hillside behind his swimming pool. They arrived unannounced and left saying only that they should be told what else needs to be done.

Silverado and Modjeska are in the same school district--Orange Unified-- and their children attend the same schools. They are also in the same water district.

Trabuco Canyon stands alone in these respects. Its children attend the only one-room school left in Orange County-- Trabuco School-- with 50 or so students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

From Rodger Howell's hilltop home you can see Plano Trabuco, the huge bare mesa behind O'Neill Park. It is owned by the Mission Viejo Co.

Off to the south you can see Coto de Caza, the 5,000 acre branch canyon made into an exclusive equestrian, hunting and recreation club. Ultimately, it will be developed into residences through Robin Moore, general manager, says the developers hope 3,000 acres will remain "a real ranch atmosphere."

"Those of us who have spent more than $50,000 on our houses are in the minority here," said Howell, "but there are people who have come up and bought 2 to 4 acres and are making noises like they want to develop."

The area has attracted not only the financially successful but also the hippie type. The same things that made the canyons attractive to the old-timers -- lack of governmental attention, remoteness, privacy -- has made it ideal for the "longhairs," as the canyon folk call them.

Their different appearance and habits caused some tension, and the introduction of narcotics into the canyons brought on action. Regular sheriff's patrols resulted in a few narcotics arrests, and the narcotics types in large part have left the canyon areas.

"We still have a few longhairs around here," said Gary Bobo, minister of Trabuco Community Church.

"They are, on the whole, people who are here for the same reasons everyone else is. They are hard workers and no trouble, and, I think, the people have learned something by associating with them."

The canyon folk are jealous of what they have, and their reactions to the probability of development of the canyons varies. "It's going to come, we know it is." said Rodger Howell. "When we first moved into this canyon, you could look all the way down it and see only one light -- the one at O'Neill Park. Now there are a few lights coming over the hill. They're coming already."

The important thing to Howell is the hope that Orange County will plan the growth so that as much of canyon life as possible is saved.

Proof the cabin phone system was not a myth!

I know of at least one cabin that still has one of these phones inside! Not working, of course.

Burt Jones