Within the meandering boundaries of the City of Santa Clarita, only one business can claim to have been around longer than the Saugus Café — The Newhall Land and Farming Company.
The story of the restaurant began on September 1, 1887 with the dedication of the Saugus Train Station. Named for the birthplace of Henry M. Newhall in Massachusetts, the curious term is Narragansut Indian, meaning a sandy spit of land.
James Herbert Tolfree started the Saugus Eating House in the north end of the depot, also running a restaurant at Mojave Station. On April 25, 1891, President Benjamin Harrison, while on whistle stop re-election campaign, was served a meal as he waited for a delegation from Santa Barbara. There is no record of the president’s impression of the food.
Dining room of Tolfree’s Saugus Eating House inside the SPRR depot, 1890s. Click image to enlarge.
A Southern Pacific Railroad employee, Richard R. Wood, with mining interest near Sacramento, arrived at Saugus in 1898, taking an option on the eating house and a chunk of land (Tract 1801) west of the railroad tracks. On January 18, 1899, his brother, Martin, came up from Terminal Island, co-signed the deed from Tolfree, altering the name a bit to Saugus Café. Martin took active management, not joined by Richard (Dick) for another seven years.
The only building in Saugus at the time was the depot with the exception of a possible blacksmith shop up at the corner of present Magic Mountain and San Fernando Road. Helen Wood Cone later recalled local cowboys, bored with nothing to do, taking "pot shots" at the station and using north bound trains for target practice.
President Theodore Roosevelt stopped by in May of 1903, dinning on a special New York steak, which he declared was "splendid," according to local legend.
On September 5, 1904 the indomitable chief of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, William Mulholland and former Mayor Fred Eaton enjoyed a breakfast on their way to inspect the liquid assets of the Owens Valley. Driving a rickety buckboard, they had spent a hard night of drinking in a Newhall saloon before heading northward on a mission that would have far reaching consequences on the development of L.A. County.
Martin Wood became a full time resident of Saugus in 1905, moving the café out of the station across the tracks to, roughly, where it stands today. Richard Wood took a greater interest in the blacksmith shop which would become a garage and gas station. The brothers built residences for their families, a small rooming house and general store.
A year later Ore W. Bercaw became master of the depot and post office changing the name of Surrey. Bercaw developed the Surrey Inn, Ice House, Garage and Bercaw Store, south of the Wood’s holdings.
Martin Wood in front of his Saugus Cafe in 1914. Click image to enlarge.
During the Fall of 1907 William Mulholland returned setting up a construction camp for the Los Angeles-Owens Valley Aqueduct, pumping a lot of city money into the local economy.
The café was remodeled and enlarged in 1916 (correction: 1925) as the region was becoming a favored film making location. Here came fabled directors such as John Ford and D.W. Griffith for lunch or dinner. Doug Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin stopped by in 1919. Harry Carey, who had a 3,000 acre ranch in San Francisquito, Hoot Gibson, owner of a rodeo arena, now Saugus Speedway, and William S. Hart were frequent guests.
In 1926 Helen Wood married Bryon Cone, the couple running the eatery for the following decade. On March 12, 1928 the St. Francis Dam collapsed killing 450 people. With all utilities cut, the Cones drew hot water from a nearby locomotive providing much needed coffee for rescue workers. "Buffalo" Tom Vernon derailed and robbed a train November 10, 1929, escaping in a car he "borrowed" from Wood’s Garage.
During the 1930’s Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Tom Mix were served at the spacious booths. Marlene Dietrich filmed "Seven Sinners" behind the restaurant (1938).
Fielding S. Wood took over management from the Cones in 1936, hitting on the idea of a "fast food" annex attached to the café. The first customer in 1941 was an out of control trucker who demolished the place. Fielding’s home, by the way, was the Spanish style structure at Magic Mountain and San Fernando Road., that is now a small business.
Judge Clarence MacDougall held the distinction of being the last Justice of the Old Soledad Judicial District and fist Judge of the Newhall Municipal Court. His wife, Olive, was descended from the Woods, and they ran the café during the ’40s. "Judge Mac" actually courted the Comely Olive at the Saugus Café counter. The couple sold out to Bill Rolls in 1952, ending a 54 year tradition of the café being in the hands of the same family. The venerable establishment had been closed for some time, Rolls tearing it down to erect a new Saugus Café a few feet southward.
No less a personality than Frank Sinatra arrived in town in 1953 to make a feature film, "Suddenly" with Sterling Hayden. While not a memorable movie, it provides a near documentary look at Newhall and Saugus in the early ’50s.
A member of the Wood family returned in 1964 when Frank Cone took over the Rolls continuing the heritage of find food and service.
Aside from the comings and going of celebrities, the café has always been a gathering place for locals discussing the affairs of the day. Robert (Bobby) and Florence Chesebrough reviewing cattle prices with the Lombardis, Andy and Camille Jauregui planning rodeo events with Sam and Rudy Garrett. Country music was the big topic between Tex Ritter and Cliffie Stone.
Fred Kane took over in 1974, selling out to Steve Hwang a mere 5 years later. Hwang ran into financial problems, shutting the place down in November of 1983. For a brief period Hand Arklin and Coast Thrift and Loan hassled over ownership, the place finally winding up back in the hands of Fred Kane who liquidated the outstanding debts and put the Saugus Café back on fairly firm financial foundation.
On February 1, 1994 Karen and David Nardiello acquired the property, starting a renovation that modernizes the restaurant while, at the same time, preserves its colorful past. While hard riding cowpokes are no longer expected to shoot-up the eatery and train robbery seems to be a thing of the past, The Saugus Café will continue serving bountiful meals at reasonable prices in a "down home" atmosphere. As far as the stars are concerned, they still come. Whoopi Goldberg and Drew Barrymore shot part of a film in its halls on March 18, 1994. No where else in the valley can one dine with old friends, run across film legends, all within the walls fairly reeking with history.
1. In 2005, we were contacted by Beth Tolfree, wife of Charles H. Tolfree, who informed us that the "J.H." Tolfree who ran the eating house
was Charles’ great uncle, Joseph Herbert Tolfree. However, he was not the J.H. Tolfree who founded the diner; that was James Herbert, as shown in the news reports relating to the
death of J.H. Tolfree in 1897 and the correlation to his grave marker as seen here.
It is plausable that Joseph H. Tolfree ran the Tolfree diners after the death of James Herbert. Beth Tolfree also said Joseph Herbert had a brother, James Hamilton Tolfree,
and that he was not involved in the business.
2. He also ran an eating house at Bakersfield.
3. Founder James Herbert Tolfree had died two years earlier; thus, in his instance, "Tolfree" must refer to a successor within the family, quite possibly
with the same intials, as noted in Note 1 above.