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January 24
1888 - Acton post office established; Richard E. Nickel, postmaster [story]
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Commentary by Sarah Brewer Thompson
| Thursday, Jun 19, 2014

sarahbrewerthompson_mugMy name is Sarah, and I am an addict.

I have realized over the past few years that I have a time-consuming and occasionally expensive obsession. I find myself losing sleep in order to do this thing that has become a gigantic part of my life. It plays a major role in how I see all of the places, things and people around me. I find myself drawn to others who share in the same habit, who also find that it is terribly addictive, and that the further in you get, the more you want it.

Life usually gets in the way of this habit, so you are often forced to take it up at random hours, nights and weekends, whenever you can get some time when you aren’t working or doing something else.

Luckily, as I imagine you have figured out, I am not talking about anything destructive.

I am talking about an overwhelming passion for researching history.

It sounds really weird, especially to those who think history is the most boring thing on the planet. I hear you, friends, and I can understand, because I find plenty of other disciplines just as boring or unattractive.

But it is really funny how we are all wired a little bit differently, and something that can cause others so much boredom can bring me (and others I have come to know) immense satisfaction and joy.

It became evident from a very young age that I loved history. My friends and sister weren’t such big fans. My dad was always a huge fan of history – anything from the world wars to the great histories of Egypt, to local histories that filled our nearby valleys. He gave me a lot of great opportunities to explore this field and figure out that it is what I really love.

When I was in first grade, I wrote that I wanted to be an “arkialagist,” and that is what I did.

After working for several years in the field and in labs as an archaeologist, I changed my focus to more recent histories, and I am happy to be midway through my master’s degree in history at CSUN. Although I miss the adventures from the field, I am having a blast working as a science instructor for elementary school kids – and man, do they keep you on your toes.

A major part of who I am, aside from my job, is a very small-town person. Growing up in Agua Dulce afforded me many other opportunities that have led me to where I am now in terms of my research interests.

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Corner of Agua Dulce Canyon and Escondido Canyon road in the heart of Agua Dulce in the early to mid-1930s. Click image for more.

While I love American history and the history of the West, I find my greatest love lies in the little histories that developed in our valley, in the small towns that now lie between the Sierra Pelona mountains and the mighty San Gabriels: Acton and Agua Dulce.

There is something about living in a place where you literally know everyone and they know you – and your family, and your pets, and your interests, and your love life. This is something I am grateful to have.

I heard a song the other day that joked that “everyone dies famous in a small town,” and that is right on. It might be a bad thing to some, but it offers me a sense of validation that I am a big part of where I come from.

I love visiting a big, old, beautiful city, but I can’t tell you how I never fail to get a laugh in knowing nearly every person who drives by when I sit in front of my mom’s hardware store with the old “grumpies” I have known since I was a kid. I could go on for days about the funny stories I have heard and all of the wonderful experiences I have had there, but I will have to write more about that later. This childhood of mine brings me to where my passion for history blossomed.

My dad had a long and amazing career in the film industry, working as one of the most incredible special effects men of the 20th Century on films such as “The Blues Brothers” and “Smokey and the Bandit” – which were full of awesome effects without the help of computer-generated graphics. Although he worked long hours whenever he was on a job, he spent much of his free time the same way I do now: learning as much as he could about whatever one would teach him. He loved to watch The History Channel, to read, and to talk to people. He loved exploring and hiking, and if you couldn’t reach it by foot, he took our ’43 Ford Jeep there. We spent many great days creating our own adventures – often giving my mom and sister heart attacks with the off-road driving, but I always thought it was a blast. He, too, was a crazy history addict, and I loved every minute of it.

He worked as a docent naturalist at Vasquez Rocks, with a strong passion for local history and especially the archaeology. After losing him in 2003 when I was barely 15, I went through a period where I was devastated that I didn’t get a chance to know or understand him well, and it has not been until the past few years that I have realized I understand him better than nearly anyone else.

I have found that the things he loved – everything from aviation history to Art Deco to the Civil War – are things I find fascinating. I have found incredible uses for his vast book collection, random scribbled notes, and lessons he taught me and the thousands who knew and loved him. Not only bigger lessons about love and life, but also about dedication and research.

Part of what he taught me is that the way we are taught to study history in school when we are children is really problematic, although I understand there is limited time, knowledge and resources to restructure it. The biggest shock as I progressed through my bachelor’s degree was that if you were researching a subject, it was no longer sufficient just to find a book on the topic; you also had to understand who wrote it, when, where, and perhaps most importantly, why.

As I am about halfway through my master’s in history, this idea is being pushed even further. I have spent a large part of my first semesters studying not only specific histories, but also the science of how history is written and who it is written by. While it is a hard adjustment constantly to be wary of what you are reading, it really does a disservice to anyone when they buy what they read without having any knowledge where it is coming from. (If you need examples, check out the writings of those who think aliens were behind Lincoln’s assassination. I am proud to live in a place where we have freedom of speech, but it gives you the idea that anyone can publish a book!)

Every story has multiple angles, and every historian writes from a different perspective with a different agenda. Just think of any argument you have ever had with a sibling where you both swore you were right.

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Rita Shaefer, Geneva Held and Clara Wright decided to get pregnant at the same time n 1926-27 so they’d have each other as a support system. Click image for more.

The fact is, for most of our histories, the ones writing about it weren’t there, and never will be. As time passes, our history grows larger, and events such as our nation’s birth and revolutions are pushed further back. We will never know the exact shade of Abraham Lincoln’s eyes, the sound of George Washington’s voice, or how it felt to strike gold in California, because we will never be able to experience those things ourselves. However, what we do have are accounts of those who did, and interpretations by dutiful historians who are engrossed in a specific topic.

For me, the history of our little area is just that: a beautiful, wonderful set of stories that occurred over thousands of years, seeing times of growth and hardship, love and creativity. From the opening of our first Agua Dulce School in 1914 to the beautiful stone tools made by the Tataviam and other native peoples who lived in the area in the millennia before me, I love it all. Nothing has made me happier than finding answers to little questions people have, like, “Why is the town here?” or “What is that little shack over there?”

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The Asher family settled at Vasquez Rocks in 1934. Tom: Jefferson Sr. and Emily; Bottom: Jefferson Jr. and Tom. Click image for more.

Doing historical research can be really, really frustrating. You often wish you could jump in a time machine, if only for a few minutes, or ask a single question of those who lived before. It is the little victories, however, that make it so much fun, so rewarding, and in return, so addicting.

One such moment came to me after I began doing more serious research and conducting interviews with some real Agua Dulce pioneers a few years ago. If you know where to to look, you will be amazed to find we still have several local residents who can recall life out here in the 1930s and 1940s. The opportunity to talk with these folks, who literally walked the same trails I did as a kid, is indescribable. To share experiences of climbing the same rocks, getting into the same trouble, and even seeing the same views, is a wonderful feeling.

I will never forget one of the greatest examples of a small victory, when I was talking to a sweet man in his late 80s named Dick Held. His father and uncles homesteaded in Agua Dulce in the early 1920s, on the properties that stretched on the eastern side of Agua Dulce Canyon Road from just by Vasquez Rocks all the way to Sierra Highway. Dick fondly recalled one of the local ladies, Rita Shaefer, who was always stunning and completely put together despite living “out in the sticks” and not having much money. Interestingly, Dick had a great connection with this woman in that she and his mother were dear friends. So close, in fact, that those two ladies, along with one more, were able to get pregnant within a few months of each other – because they wanted their babies to have friends their age and a support group for the new moms who would understand every moment the others were going through.

From left: Longtime Agua Dulce resident Vic Crowe, a surveyor in the area since 1970; Arizona resident Dick Held, whose family owned the land that was to become Agua Dulce Airport; Canyon Country resident Charles Wright, also a surveyor whose dad homesteaded in Mint Canyon in 1912; and San Diego resident Ray Hanawalt, whose father built AAA Ranch) — with childhood neighbor Jeff Asher. Photo by Lillian Smith/Agua Dulce-Acton Country Journal. Click for the story.

From left: Longtime Agua Dulce resident Vic Crowe, a surveyor in the area since 1970; Arizona resident Dick Held, whose family owned the land that was to become Agua Dulce Airport; Canyon Country resident Charles Wright, also a surveyor whose dad homesteaded in Mint Canyon in 1912; and San Diego resident Ray Hanawalt, whose father built AAA Ranch) — with childhood neighbor Jeff Asher. Photo by Lillian Smith/Agua Dulce-Acton Country Journal. Click for the story.

In 1926, the tiny town expanded by three, as three healthy baby boys entered the world within six months of each other. Two of them, Dick Held and Chuck Wright, are still with us today and are very sharp and happy to share their photos and memories. Both came out to hear their old friend from the 1930s, Jeff Asher, reminisce about Agua Dulce earlier this year at Vasquez Rocks.

In describing his mother’s friend Rita, Dick recalled her immaculate dresses and effortless style, even when she was shoveling manure. From her hair to her shoes, she always looked like she was in a movie: a breath of fresh air in the otherwise poor, dusty town, where many local folks looked like they rolled out of the Dust Bowl.

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Montie and Marilee Montana with the writer’s father, Art Brewer, in front of his Agua Dulce hardware store. Click image for more.

I couldn’t help but tell him it reminded me of a woman I knew and looked up to while I was growing up, by the name of Marilee Montana (the sweet wife of our beloved Montie). The old man said he regrettably didn’t know her, but that she sounded like a doll, and that it was funny I knew a woman so similar to Rita. Her embroidered cowgirl shirts were always perfectly starched; her bouffant never had a hair out of place. She wore white cowboy boots and was a perfect lady.

It was great sharing a memory like that with a man who lived where I did so many years before, but it was even more incredible when I later learned that Rita was none other than Marilee’s grandmother.

There have been many great moments in my life, and that moment will always be one of my favorites. The feeling of connectedness to the lives before you that could have occurred anywhere else in the universe, but instead happened where you live your life today, on the very ground you walk on, is a feeling I will never get sick of. It is one I hope I can provide for anyone willing to lend an ear.

My dad used to say there was immense satisfaction in teaching others. He was so right.

Friends, if you have stories to share or questions to ask, please reach out to me or some of the amazing other local historians I have become so fond of, through groups on Facebook or organizations like the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society or the newly developed Acton Historical Society.

A great beauty in what we do is knowing there are others who love these things as much as we do, and hope these stories will continue on. Little bits, no matter how small, bring a great joy to those willing to listen and understand. I recommend venturing a bit into your own local histories. You might be surprised at the wonderful things that you find.

Sarah Brewer Thompson was born and raised in Agua Dulce, where she learned to love and appreciate nature and history. She is a master’s student at California State University, Northridge, and a docent at Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park. Her areas of interest are local history, archaeology and animal studies.

 

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18 Comments

  1. Bob says:

    My name is Bob and i am an addict,thank you Sarah for sharing,we have much in common. X

  2. Frank says:

    Thank you for this touching and informative piece. It’s refreshing seeing youth interested in history. As an “addict” my self I must suggest you give Jordan Maxwell a listen. He has plenty of lectures and interviews on youtube which I think you will find incredible!

  3. Thank you Ms. Sarah, that was very informative.

  4. Is that Monte Montana..

  5. Evelyne Vandersande says:

    Thank you Sarah for this very interesting column. I have never lived in a small town and you opened my eyes to the value of knowing the history of your place and also the lives of all the people around you. You made me think about a topic new to me. Thank you again and good luck with the study.

  6. I loved your article. Met you at. The Acton Historical Society meeting. Loved that too. I came here in 1965, lived in the little red house with the big oak tree across the street from Cliff Weismeyer’s restaurant and fish pond (frogs, catfish, trout). Knew Wild Bill Graham, Cindy, Johnny Boston, and others. Interested in oral histories, making videos, photos, while these fragile places and memories are still here. The Governor Mine story is incomplete in the SCV history, understand politics interfere with the telling.

    Your enthusiasm and skill are contagious.

  7. Laura Ridnor says:

    Sarah, I too love history. I have a bachelor’s degreein history from CSUN(’83). My parents would take me on vacation every summer and my dad would stop at every historical landmark along the way. In museums, my dad would read every little plaque next to the items on display.
    I think my favorite part about studying history was doing the research. It was fun discovering documents or facts about a subject. You are correct in that studying history makes a person see all sides of a story. You are able to analyze facts andput them in some sort of perspective. I think this is why I went into law after I graduated from CSUN.
    My husband and I are transplants to the Santa Clarita Valley. We love learning about the local history. I have joined the SCV History site on Facebook. Luckily, our daughters have also learned tolove history as much as we do and I hope they will pass it on to their own someday.
    Good luck on your Master’s thesis.

  8. Loren Elmore Loren Elmore says:

    I remember him and his horse coming to Newhall Elementary and did a show for us on the base ball diamond, can’t remember what grade I was in, but do remember the show!

  9. Jayson Brewer look Daddy

  10. I remember that stole iof pants…lol

  11. Debbie Andrews says:

    Hi Sarah,

    What a wonderful account of your small town and mine. I remember you as a child, always running in the hills. I admired your amazing Dad greatly and loved to listen to his stories. Give my best to your family. I am so proud of the woman you have become.

    Remember Dance!!!

  12. Karla Posner Karla Posner says:

    That is Monte Montana and his wife! They used to come into Howard and Phil’s Western Wear where I worked and bought their cowboy clothes! He was so nice!

  13. Karla Posner Karla Posner says:

    That is Monte Montana and his wife! They used to come into Howard and Phil’s Western Wear where I worked and bought their cowboy clothes! He was so nice!

  14. Karla Posner Karla Posner says:

    That is Monte Montana and his wife! They used to come into Howard and Phil’s Western Wear where I worked and bought their cowboy clothes! He was so nice!

  15. Alan Pollack says:

    To a fellow kindred spirit History Buff. Thanks for an eloquent article which speaks for all of us history addicts out there. Keep up the great work Sarah!
    Alan Pollack
    President
    SCV Historical Society

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