Vasquez Rocks is a wondrous place to visit. Tour with me while we wind through the Rocks through some of its history with a few side trips up and down the state of California as we peruse the trail of history in the 900-acre park named for Californio bandit, Tiburcio Vasquez. These magnificent south-facing hogback ridges seem to reach out like a hand at a 45-degree northerly angle toward the sky, looking to shake hands.
Who would guess that the surreal Vasquez formation, cradled in the Soledad basin, was formed by violent earthquake about 25 million years ago? To the western edge of the park lies the San Gabriel mountain range, and to the north are the Sierra Pelonas. Caught in the squeeze between these two major mountain ranges, the magnificent Vasquez formation took shape.
Have you ever visited any of the burial sites from the 1930s out at the rocks? Henry Krieg homestead the rocks in 1910. According to Mary Wright, herself the daughter of local homesteaders Lula Chabbell Johnson and Ulysses Sumner Grant Johnson, who moved their entire family by wagon over Beale’s Cut from the city of Sawtelle to Aqua Dulce in 1914 "All of the neighbors poked fun at Mr. Krieg, about what he was going to do with ‘a pile of rocks.’ Or, ‘What’s Henry going to grow? Rocks?’"
For all of the teasing he received from locals, Mr. Krieg was quite enterprising. He built cabins that he rented to weekend visitors (although not all of his tenants were strictly weekend visitors). Krieg built a dam in the park that served as a water source for everyone who lived on his property.
Letty Dyer Foote remembers swimming in Krieg’s dam as a little girl during the depression. Krieg’s caretaker at the rocks, John Wagner, sat in a car near the entrance of the park. Sometimes accompanied by Letty Dyer, the two would collect an entry fee of 25 cents a car for visitors to see the rocks. During the depression, 25 cents represented about an hour’s worth of labor for the average worker.
Letty Dyer Foote’s grandparents, J.T. and Mary Dyer, lived in one of Mr. Krieg’s cabins. Today, the only remaining marker of their cabin is a short wall and a small S-curved Hot Wheels track, traced in cement that kept the Dyer grandchildren busy for hours. Foote’s grandmother, Mary Ritter Dyer, eventually died in her home at the Rocks in 1945. Her grandmother is not buried at the Rocks but at another historic cemetery in the local area, the Mitchell-Dyer family cemetery, next to her husband, "J.T." or James Thomas Dyer.
Another small visual reminder of life at the Rocks is a small, protruding pipe near the great pepper-tree picnic area. The pipe was part of an elaborate solar water heater and shower for Aqua Dulce School teacher Grace Heath. The pipe ran water into a metal barrel that was mounted on platform and exposed to the sun, to heat it.
Grace Heath taught at Aqua Dulce school exactly how long is not known, but an old photograph shows Ms. Heath and her class out at the rocks, taking a day off of school to watch a film production in 1934. Posed in the photo with Ms. Heath and her class are cowboy actors Richard Dix and Fred Kohler in front, real Indians and, in the background, John Mitchell and the cows he rented out for that Western movie.
Henry Krieg and his sister, Ida Faubert Krieg, and their brother and sister-in-law are all buried at the rocks. Sadly, because vandals or pothunters have stolen the bronze markers belonging to Krieg’s brother and sister-in-law, their names are unknown. From their pristine view, the remains of the Krieg family preside over the rocks and its visitors today.
Another woman, Mattie Fox, died and was buried at the rocks in the 1930s. Nothing is known about her; anyone with information is encouraged to contact the author
The Rocks was an artist colony of sorts, attracting several artists who lived, painted and sculpted there. Among those known and remembered is Mary McBride. She was a young artist who died at the rocks. Her age was estimated by Tom and Jeff Asher as about 16 at the time of her death in the 1930s. The plaque marking the spot of her remembrance has been stolen by vandals or pothunters.
Claude Ellis was an artist and a chemist for the Fuller Paint Co. A friend of Krieg, he and tested paint compositions and durability by painting on the rocks at the park. Eyeballs were a trademark of his work. He would see a rock and an animal in its shape. Then Mr. Ellis would paint an eyeball on the animal so others could see what he saw.
Next to Mr. Krieg’s section of the park was the Triple A Ranch (AAA Ranch). The three A’s stood for Jefferson Asher; his son Jefferson Jr.; and Thomas Asher.
Jefferson Asher (Sr.) built his vacation home out there in 1935. Much of the work on Mr. and Mrs. Asher’s property was done by Charles Hanawalt, a local craftsman and stonemason who would hand-select stones, put them in a bag and then drag the stones to shape them.
From Escondido Canyon Road, one can see the barbecue fireplace that Mr. Hanawalt built and the rock frame posts that still outline what was once the entrance to the AAA Ranch. Atop a plateau visible from the road are the remains of the family vacation home from May to September, toppled only by the February 1971 earthquake.
Hanawalt, a strong, gifted artisan, designed a heart-shaped rock insert into the family’s beautiful outdoor barbecue patio. Some local residents said it was because Hanawalt had developed a crush on Mrs. Asher. Truth is, the locals were so taken with Mr. Hanawalt’s extraordinary design that the AAA Ranch is not the only area site to be blessed with the heart-shaped rock in the hearth, according to lifetime resident Bernice Canutt.
Before marriage, Emily Asher was an actress who traveled with the Belasco theatre troop, performing in plays from New York City to the West Coast. One famous Western actor with whom Mrs. Asher (as Emily Pinter) once performed was Tom Mix.
Emily Asher also participated in the 1920s on the Hayes Censorship Board, representing a conglomeration of women’s clubs. Jeff and Tom Asher laugh when they reminisce how they couldn’t have selected a better representative for the board than their mother one of the most broad-minded people of the day. Somehow she managed to traverse the politics of the board, advocating less censoring rather than more.
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Tom Asher remembers a story when his brother Jeff went out to see Tom Mix filming at the Rocks.
"You know my mother," Asher told Mix.
"Well, who’s your mother?" Mix asked.
Asher gave his mother’s name, and Mix promised to come visit at the house in the early afternoon as soon as he finished work.
Indeed, when Mix finished his day’s work he went to the Asher home and visited for the afternoon and into the evening with his old friend, the two revisiting their days in the traveling theater troop.
Emily Asher’s husband Jefferson began his professional life as a lawyer. However, because of the Depression, Jefferson Asher never got his practice off the ground. People didn’t have money, and money for lawyers was beyond reach. Thus, Jefferson Asher became the manger of Pacific Ocean Park, an amusement park on a pier between Venice and Santa Monica. For a nickel, people could watch a movie or ride on the carousel during the dark days of the Depression.
Jefferson Asher spent his weekdays managing the amusement park, but in the summer on weekends, his shoes rested next to the door of his vacation home at Vasquez Rocks.
Asher loved the rocks, and he loved the land of Aqua Dulce. He acquired his property in small parcels, maybe 40 acres at a time. By the end of his life he acquired almost 400 acres. His ranch was a working concern; he raised cattle, chickens, and other animals.
One of his more entrepreneurial endeavors was the importation of Louisiana frogs. Jefferson Asher installed a special pond encased by metal, sort of like a large square in ground metal box. He had the frogs brought in from Louisiana and gave them a new home at the AAA Ranch. Contented, these special frogs were grown as a ranch product, to be sold for food.
Along came one of those pesky seasonal floods that raised the water level in the ground, and the frogs took flight. Up and down Sierra Highway, in the creek beds of Aqua Dulce and Canyon Country, the frogs found new ground, and Jefferson Asher had inadvertently spawned a new canyon cuisine. Restaurants along Sierra Highway in Mint Canyon and Aqua Dulce posted large billboards advertising frog legs for dinner, thanks to Jefferson Asher and the generosity of one pesky flood.
In August 1970, Tom and Jeff Asher deeded 40 acres of the beloved AAA Ranch to the County of Los Angeles, to incorporate it permanently as part of the Vasquez Rocks County Park. February 1971 came and damaged the ranch home where they had spent so many summers growing up. The park’s most recent acquisition came in October 2001, when the Bureau of Land Management deeded over 155 acres. Prior to the BLM addition the park totaled 750 acres; today it encompasses more than 900 acres. The dedication for this latest acquisition took place on horseback with County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, park officials and BLM representatives touring from Aqua Dulce Airport over the steep terrain.
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The area took on the name Vasquez Rocks with the advent of movie making. The earliest known film ever made at the rocks was a 1905 Rudolph Valentino flick. The Hollywood character Zorro is a take-off on the character of Tiburcio Vasquez. Before that time the area was simply known as "The Rocks." The 1930s saw movies being filmed at the rocks with Buck Jones, who did many "B" Western movies; "Return of the Bengal Lancers" and "China Nights" with Alan Ladd; "Arabian Nights" with Cornell Wilde and Phil Silvers.
After "Zorro," the rocks became the favorite film site for many Westerns such as "Bonanza," "Big Valley," "High Chaparral" and "The Lone Ranger." Cinematic blockbusters showed the Cheyenne with Clint Walker, Hondo, Laramie, Larado, and Broken Arrow with Michael Ansara. John Wayne, Buck Jones, Clark Gable, Fred Kohler, Tom Mix and many others have permanently captured the rocks on celluloid.
Who can forget the duo that arrived in the 1970s at the rocks to battle the bad guys in "Wild, Wild West," with Robert Conrad as Secret Service agent James West, and his crime-fighting partner with a million disguises, Ross Martin, aka Artemis Gordon? Later in the decade, TV themes at the rocks turned to sci-fi, and stars with shows like "The Six Million Dollar Man," "The Bionic Woman," "Battle Star Galactica" and "Buck Rogers in the 21st Century" all came out to fight the bad guys.
During the 1980s, television shows such as "McGyver" and "Hunter" chased criminals over the rocks. Taco Bell staged its "Run For the Border" commercials while cinema pictures "Short Circuit" and "Hell Town" with Robert Blake were made there.
Moviegoers will recall the rocks in 1990 films, "For the Boys" with Bette Midler; "The Flintstones;" "Jingle All The Way" with Tim Allen, "Very Bad Things" with Christian Slater, and "In the Army Now" with Pauly Shore. Michael Jackson made his video "Black and White" and the Budweiser Ants starred in commercial enterprise at the rocks.
Recent films include "Planet of the Apes," "Rat Race," "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," and "Bubble Boy." Television filming includes Discover Card and 7-Up commercials, the show "24," and "Roswell," where alien teen-agers come to find their roots in alien pods.
Vasquez Rocks has been home to many, including a civilization of Tataviam Indians whose occupation of the sacred grounds dates back more than 1,500 years; and their predecessors, who arrived as early as 7,000 to 9,000 years ago. Park rangers are circumspect when speaking of the treasures that are there to behold. They worry about pothunters and vandals who would destroy a place of which they have no understanding. They work seven days a week to protect a park that those of us lucky to live nearby can call our own.
We invite you to visit this place, and when you leave, go as you discovered it, so your children and their children will be able to enjoy the same wondrous inheritance.
©2001 Jo Ellen Rismanchi & SCVHistory.com