Jeff Asher describes old family photos while event organizer Sarah Brewer Thompson displays them on a screen for all to see.
Those living today may tend to forget that modern times did not suddenly appear as they are now. Over many years, people grow up and structures come and go, and the land changes in appearance and content. History if fluid. To appreciate what is here and now, it is important to appreciate how and why it came to be.
The wide open space that once was Agua Dulce was the home of the Asher family, and it was Jeff Asher, 89, who returned to the town on March 9th to share his memories and photographs of a life somewhat different from the here and now. He drew well over a hundred locals in a standing-room-only presentation at the Vasquez Rocks Interpretive Center, the program coordinated by Vasquez Rocks Nature Center Associates Docent-Liaison Sarah Brewer Thompson. Jeff Asher drew a picture for the audience of an idyllic lifestyle for himself and his older brother, Tom, growing up on a real ranch in the peaceful years before World War II, protected by well-off family despite the ravages of the Depression.
In the early 1930s, Jeff's father, Jefferson Asher Sr., was anxious to find a country home for his family. He was among the fortunate who had a good job during the Depression, and so was able to take his wife, Emily Pinter Asher, and their two boys, Jeff, 10, and Tom, 8, traveling about on weekends in search of a home site somewhere between Santa Barbara and San Diego. They lived in (what is now) West Hollywood at the time. From 1929 to 1941, Jefferson Asher was the general manager of Ocean Park Amusement Company, which later was sold several times, eventually becoming Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica; POP, as it was known, was torn down some years later.
Finally, in 1933, Jefferson found a property in Agua Dulce and bought it inexpensively. He had met a Mr. George Shaeffer, a Los Angeles County surveyor who assisted him in acquiring 40 acres in the western portion of what is now Vasquez Rocks Natural Area and additional adjoining acreage, as well. The property at the time was owned by an individual who had purchased it from the Borax Co., which mined in the Davenport area of Agua Dulce but had its headquarters near the Rocks.
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. Click to enlarge. (Lillian Smith.)
Jefferson hired Charles Hanawalt, an accomplished stone mason, to build the house. Charles' son, Ray — now a resident of San Diego — attended the VRNCA presentation, sharing that he was about 6 years old when his dad worked for the Ashers. They dragged the rocks to the site and Charles chiseled them to suit. The wood portion of the home was added later. Jefferson designed a huge outdoor fireplace-BBQ and had Charles Hanawalt build it; Charles left his trademark in the structure, the only structure left on the property. The patio in which it was built was the site of many parties.
Jeff noted that they had an outhouse still in use until 1941 though they had indoor plumbing, as well.
The Ashers also built a croquet court and played the game a lot, Jeff added. They also had a frog pond, but the frogs washed down to other properties. The frogs were supplied by other residents to local restaurants that served frog legs.
The Ashers also planted a 12-acre alfalfa field. The home was part of an operating ranch that raised a thousand leghorn chickens, a hundred turkeys, 40 to 50 head of cattle, pigs and, of course, horses and lots of dogs. They ran a thriving egg production business until disease swept through the flock. They lost their turkeys during a very cold period. Jeff recalled that the turkeys had shelter but would not go in out of the cold, and all of them died. The ranch had a large barn and six stables.
Jeff's mother was a stage actress prior to becoming a rancher. Jeff and Tom spent a lot of time hunting squirrels, riding their horses, doing ranch chores and getting educated in the city during the week. They would come to the ranch every weekend as well as spend their summers there. They often rode to the Held property, called Held's Acres, which later became Agua Dulce Airport. Dick Held, now an Arizona resident, also attended the presentation.
The new Vasquez Rocks Interpretive Center drew its biggest crowd to date.
There was no air conditioning in those days, and heating was accomplished with firewood that the family either purchased or gathered from local junipers that were plentiful.
Their water came from an underground stream only 15 to 20 feet deep. They had plenty of water at the time and had a reservoir on the west side of the alfalfa field. Water was pumped to a storage tank for household needs.
A caretaker's house also was built on the property. The ranch always had a caretaker, but many came and went over the years. One caretaker, Jeff recalled, was Charlie Redhorse, a Native American who taught him and brother Tom to ride.
In 1937, Jefferson built a swimming pool in the front yard of the house. The pool was not treated and thus supported lots of algae. Nor was the pool heated, but in summer the pool provided cooling entertainment.
Jefferson Asher hosted many friends and business associates at the ranch on weekends. Jeff's grandmother and grandfather lost all in the 1929 Depression and she lived with them. Jeff dearly loved his mom's mother Emma, and he was her pet.
Jefferson was very fond of smoking cigars; he was warned off of them but persisted in smoking despite having heart disease.
Brother Tom was a country boy, but Jeff became a city boy after leaving the ranch. Jeff was a senior in high school when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. He joined the service, as did Tom. Jeff served in the navy in the Pacific theater, eventually suffering a wound. He was discharged in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant. He married during the war. After World War II, he attended UCLA and then Harvard, earning a master's degree in business administration. Tom eventually attended Cambridge in England, earning a doctorate; he became a microbiologist. Tom passed away several years ago.
Jeff Asher with his son, Jeff III.
Jeff, always independent, spent many years in film and financial consulting, beginning with American Research and Develoment in venture capital investment. In 1950 he ran a shrimp boat company as general manager and CEO. He worked for Robert Heller and Associates and took part in reorganizing the State Department during the Eisenhower administration. In 1957, he returned to Los Angeles and consulted for Parker Aircraft. From 1959 to 1961, he worked for Kirk Douglas as his chief financial officer in the making of "Spartacus." He then worked for Boston Capital Corp. in venture capital, running the West Coast office from 1962 to 1969. He was also involved in starting Sea World.
At 45, in 1969 Jeff retired but overestimated his resources and returned to work until the 1980s. The last 17 years of his working life were spent in a variety of small projects with friends. He cared for his ailing wife, Mary, until she passed away in 1997. Jeff's children, grandchildren and six great-grandchildren are his legacy, along with the successful endeavors of his productive working life.
A family argument, Jeff recalled, led to the selling of the AAA Ranch property to Los Angeles County in 1969. The Sylmar Earthquake in 1970 caused cracks in the house, but further damage was done by vandals who stole the building rocks. The County bulldozed the house in order to end its liability. The giant fireplace remains, as do the original gate pylons still in place on Escondido Canyon Road though the gate itself has been replaced.
The land on which AAA Ranch stood is now federally protected as a Native American cultural site, and there is no public access to the property.
Jeff Asher's sharp memory and outgoing manner delighted the audience. A frequent remark heard from that audience was, "I wish I would have been living in Agua Dulce in the 1930s," when Jeff and Tom had all the open space they could want to ride unfettered among the Rocks, with nary a fence to impede their horses or their curiosity. They had the best of two works and were worthy of both.
©2014 Lillian Smith Enterprises | Used by permission. Additional photos by Leon Worden.