Sandberg’s Lodge on the Old Ridge Route

When we visited in 1992, all that was left was a sturdy stone wall and a few cracked rectangles of concrete. But in the 1920s, Sandberg’s Lodge was a bustling wayside stop for travelers on the old Ridge Route between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

Some say Old Man Sandberg was a heck of a guy. Others say he was so mean-spirited he charged shivering travelers 40 cents an hour to warm themselves by his big, stone fireplace. A native of Oslo, Norway, Sandberg had emigrated to the United States in 1880 at the tender of age 12. He’d settled near Lebec as early as 1889, eventually developing an apple ranch “down below.” There his wife, Marian, bred her own tasty green-and-red “Sandberg” apple variety.

When the contract was let for construction of the new Ridge Route in June, 1914, Sandberg smelled opportunity. He determined to open a new lodge to serve travelers along the new route. Although the new Ridge Route was opened to traffic in 1914, it actually wasn’t finished until the grading and oiling were completed in November, 1915. (It would later be resurfaced with concrete in 1919.) Sandberg built his hotel at a site south of Quail Lake, formerly an old stage stop. As many as 300 laborers were said to have camped there while the new road was under construction.

Postcard image of Sandberg’s early “Summit Hotel” circa 1918-1922. (Dustman collection)

Sandberg’s lodge was constructed of hand-hewn logs on a stone foundation, and was surrounded by a stand of bull pines and oaks. This was one of the highest points on the Ridge Route – a great place to offer respite to overheating tin lizzies and serve hungry travelers.

There was only one problem: Sandberg had already used up his homestead rights. So he persuaded his wife’s brother, Alexander Grant, to homestead the site in his own name. In exchange. Sandberg promised to build Grant a house beside his lodge, and make him postmaster of the “town” of Sandberg.

Four years into the five-year homestead prove-up period, however, a family feud erupted. Rather than help Sandberg perfect the homestead, Grant relinquished his rights to the newly-created Forest Service.

Sandberg was furious. He’d already built his new lodge. Now he was forced to negotiate a lease with the Forest Service. This he did in 1920, which allowed the Lodge to continue to operate.

Early guidebooks show “Sandberg’s Summit Hotel” offering 25 rooms, “most with running water and toilet.” Room rates were $1.50 to $2.50, or $2-$4 for double accommodations. Lunch was cost $85 cents; dinner would set you back a dollar.

Sandberg’s in the snow, circa 1940. (Dustman collection).

Wife Marian’s apples were made into tangy apple pies and homemade cider. At least one 6-year-old boy discovered – much to his chagrin – the after-effects of sweet hard cider stored in a barn.

But even good things eventually come to an end. In 1933, the old Ridge Route was bypassed by modern Highway 99, leaving Sandberg’s off the beaten path. Predictably, business plunged. In February, 1936, Sandberg’s bills were going unpaid; a supply company sued him, alleging he owed $302.27 for supplies. Sandberg didn’t even bother to contest the debt. A default judgment was entered against him that April.

Harold Sandberg passed away in July, 1939, at the age of 71. Mrs. Sandberg’s brother, Alexander Grant, may have tried to keep the lodge going; Grant died there at Sandberg’s of a heart attack on May 22, 1944. And Mrs. Sanders soon sold the property.

Pottery by Lillian Grosjean, manufactured at Sandberg’s, displayed a signature “Sandberg apple” motif. (Dustman photo collection)

Subsequent owners included a man named Cox, and a ceramic artist named Lillian Grosjean, whose beautiful greenware pottery featuring Sandberg apples was said to command high prices in the L.A. market.

Another example of Mrs. Grosjean’s pottery from the 1940s. (Dustman photo collection).

During the 1940s the Lodge reportedly became the scene of some rollicking good times. Open 24 hours a day, it continued to offer food, lodging, and – some say – gambling and X-rated entertainment. For such activities, its remote location apparently came in handy.

Then in 1951, Sandberg’s was acquired by Walter “Lucky” Stevens for about $15,000. A larger-than-life character, Stevens had previously worked as a Hollywood stuntman with such stars as John Wayne.

Lucky Stevens, in 1992, at his property in Lebec. (Dustman collection)

“The mileage was rough but it was fun,” Stevens laughed, when we interviewed him in 1992. “I’d ride anything you could saddle, and if you couldn’t saddle it, that just made it a little more interesting.” Among other colorful stories this uber-colorful guy could tell: he once stole bottles of booze from Al Capone’s rum-running gang.

Map drawn by Lucky Stevens to promote his hoped-for guest ranch.

Stevens dreamed of making Sandberg’s a guest ranch. But the old inn was in pretty sad shape. By the time he acquired it, pigeons were making their home in the rafters. An old Victrola was still inside, primed to play that long-ago classic, “Brown October Ale,” if anyone was inclined to crank it up.

Sketch showing arrangement of the buildings at Sandberg’s, drawn by Lucky Stevens. Grant’s house is shown at upper left, and the ceramic studio at right.

Over the next four and a half years, Stevens set about making improvements, trading his labor for logs at the sawmill on Frazier Mountain and hand-hewing them to match the originals. When he was done, the lodge featured a massive stone fireplace, three full floors of guest rooms, an 8-foot mantel, and ten-foot-long wooden dining tables. And there were now a total of 7 outbuildings. “I got good with a draw knife!” Stevens bragged.

Interior of Sandberg’s after Lucky Stevens’ renovation.

Perhaps the ghost of old Man Sandberg or those ladies of the evening hadn’t entirely left. Stevens claimed to have witnessed doors opening and closing all by themselves. Locals say a female spirit remained in the “crib” even after that building was toted a few miles away to become a bunkhouse for the Rodriguez Ranch.

In 1959 and 1960, Stevens arranged lavish Christmas parties for underprivileged kids at his lodge. Stationwagons-full of food and gifts were donated. Wrapped Christmas presents formed a ten-by-twenty-five foot pile, and a delightful turkey dinner was served. “We just flat had a ball!” Stevens recalled. That made him decide to try to open the resort as a campsite for children. He incorporated his business endeavor as the “Town for Lucky Children” on April 29, 1960.

Lucky Stevens dreamed of opening a camp for teens.

But at least in Stevens’ telling, the Forest Service had a 20-year plan to “get everyone out of the Forest.” The government refused to renew his lease. Stevens tried to arrange a land-swap that would allow him to keep his property going, but officials said no.

Exactly a year to the day after Stevens filed those incorporation papers, on Saturday, April 29, 1961, Sandberg’s burned to the ground. It took less than an hour to turn the lodge and another cabin in the rear to ashes.

The timing and severity of the blaze were – to put it mildly – suspicious. “There was evidence that some kind of explosion might have occurred, as pieces of burning wood debris were scattered about,” reported the Bakersfield Californian. One first responder claimed to have heard “popping noises, such as ammunition of dynamite caps.”

Report on the fire in Bakersfield Californian (May 1, 1961)

Locals would quietly hint later that Stevens had packed the fireplace with fuel and closed the damper – deliberately torching his many years of hard work just to make sure that the Forest Service couldn’t have it. But  early news reports blamed a “defective chimney.”

The property was uninsured. “Even if it had been insured, the Forestry would have gotten the money to fight the fire,” Stevens shrugged. He wasn’t able to raise an estimated $250,000 to rebuild.

Stevens continued to live on the property while lawsuits with the Forest Service dragged on. “It took three federal court orders to get me out,” he concluded with a certain amount of pride. “I had to be out on June 17, 1963. I left about three hours early.”

As for the once-thriving resort: “They bulldozed the remainder.” Lucky Stevens eventually acquired a new property in Lebec. And that is where we interviewed him in 1992. His large metal warehouse was filled with out-of-date electronics and miscellany. The steel door had stood open so long two birds had taken advantage, building nests in the doorframe. He was still a dreamer. And his eyes still sparkled when he talked about happy days at Sandberg’s.

Lucky Stevens in 1992 when we interviewed him. (Dustman photo)

Later, we made a pilgrimage to the spot where Sandberg’s once stood. And lo and behold. Small, unglazed apple-leaf shapes could still be found poking from the ashy-soil.

Remnants of this pottery were still visible in the 1990s. (Dustman photo collection).