ost of the brick buildings of the block-long main street are boarded up now, ghostly reminders of a town whose day, if it ever really came, has gone.
Two train trestles silently guard the dusty riverbed as you enter Piru, a dozen or so miles west of Magic Mountain on State Route 126. Now home to only a few hundred families, mostly Latino, many of whom work the nearby citrus fields and staff the busy hotels of the thriving city to the east, Piru was to be a second Garden of Eden, a tranquil, verdant community secluded against a backdrop of rugged, majestic Santa Susana mountains where teetotalers and puritans could escape the moral depredations of the noisy and growing frontier pueblo of Los Angeles.
At least, that is what ran through the mind of David Caleb Cook, a devoutly religious publisher of Methodist Sunday School tracts in Elgin, Ill., who in 1887* came to California to escape the harsh winters and muggy Midwestern summers that offered no relief for his insufferable coughing spells.
Cook sent out scouts to find the most suitable climate and settled on Rancho Camulos, the last vestige of the great Del Valle family, which through a series of misfortunes had seen its vast Santa Clara River Valley holdings diminished to a mere fraction of what they once were.
Cook purchased 14,700 acres of the rancho and proceeded to establish his idyllic town. Originally pronounced "PEE-roo" but now called "PIE-roo," Cook had a plat map drawn up and built a church that still stands at the corner of Center and Park streets, complete with what may have been the oldest pipe organ in California, built in 1860 or 1862 in Westfield, Mass., and shipped around Cape Horn.
Near the church he planted a garden with fruits from the Garden of Eden as specified in the Bible, such as grapes, dates, figs, apricots and pomegranates, and he planted many thousands of acres of oranges, walnuts, peppers and olives.
At the top of Park Street he built his residence, a huge, three-story Queen Anne mansion modeled after the design of Joseph and Cather Newsom, with turrets and towers that look today much as they did when they were built.
"The Mansion," as it is known locally, burned to the ground in 1981 but was restored to its original appearance by then-owners Scott and Ruth Newhall, then-publishers of The Signal. What had cost Cook $75,000 would cost $1.5 million to replicate, not counting furniture.
Also still standing in Piru is a large, white Victorian hotel, now a private residence, built in the early 1870s in roughly the same style as the Acton Hotel of the same period.
Cook’s neighbors were few when he first arrived. A scattering of Tataviam Indian dwellings abutted the adobe structures at Camulos, and another adobe home, located in Piru Canyon beyond San Feliciano Dam, had been built in 1860 by Henry Lechler with the help of one Juan José Fustero, who claimed to be the "Last of the Piru Indians" and therefore the last living full-blooded Tataviam.
(Footnote to historians: Fustero’s claim has not been verified. Anecdotal evidence suggests Fustero may have been married to a full-blooded Tataviam woman who bore him children. Also, Ventura County records show that Fustero died on June 30, 1921. I and others have incorrectly reported for many years that Fustero died in 1916.)
Not known as a teetotaler, Fustero may have been among those in and around Piru whose lifestyle did not meet the expectations David Cook had for his townspeople. Cook forbade his workers from drinking, smoking, chewing tobacco, swearing or participating in other, more secular, activities. When he caught them at it, which he often did, he promptly dispatched them.
In the end, Cook’s righteousness was his undoing. In 1887 the Southern Pacific Railroad punched through from Saugus to the sea at Ventura, no doubt bringing with it many heathens from Los Angeles. Within two years Cook pulled up stakes, returning to Elgin where, despite earlier health problems, he held on until his death in 1926.
Piru became just another tiny flag stop along a now-deserted rail line, its subsequent history punctuated with little more than a 1925 robbery of a long-gone bank.
So ends the story of David Caleb Cook and our very own backyard Garden of Eden that might have been, but never really was.
For more information, visit the Lechler Museum at 3886 E. Market Street, Piru. By appointment only. Call (805) 521-1595. UPDATE: The Lechler Museum was closed and its contents were auctioned off August 27, 2000.
* When I wrote this in 1998, I said Cook came to California in 1866. I don’t know where I got that idea. I wish I had footnoted it. Now it’s 2012, and it has taken me this long to realize Cook was only 16 years old in 1866 and hadn’t even founded his company. A better date is 1887, as referenced [here
]. Also, it should be noted that while it’s true Cook did these things in Piru, he didn’t actually live there at least, not much of the time. And he promptly sold the ranch when he did come to live in California permanently at the turn of the 20th Century.
Leon Worden is The Signal’s special-sections editor. His commentary appears Wednesdays.