The Story of the Ridge Route (Part 1)

First, of course, came early game trails and Indian footpaths. When the Spaniards arrived, their carreta roads made use of those same rough tracks. They’d follow the route of today’s Temple Street north through what we now call Hollywood to reach Cahuenga Pass. Then it was onward to San Fernando, crossing the foothills at Newhall and up San Francisquito Canyon before veering east to Elizabeth Lake. Eventually the rude track emerged from the mountains at Quail Lake and Gormon Station, then dropped down Canada de Las Uvas (Grapevine Canyon) to reach the plains of San Joaquin Valley.

For Episcopal bishop William L. Kip, who undertook that journey to tend souls at Fort Tejon in 1855, it was a four-day ordeal by mule-drawn wagon. By 1858 the speedy Butterfield Overland stage reportedly was able to cut the time from L.A. to Tejon to a speedy 32-1/2 hours, though passengers would have arrived considerably jostled by the experience.

Auto Club of So. Calif map from 1912, showing the early route to Bakersfield winding east through Lake Elizabeth.

The road itself remained a twisty dirt path well past 1900. Early Gorman settler Mary Ralphs described the trip by horse-drawn buggy from Gorman to Bakersfield as a day-and-a-half journey. In the opposite direction, to L.A., the trip took two days plus, broken up by layovers at Lake Elizabeth and Newhall. And the difficulties weren’t limited to just the hours and the dirt and the bumping. No, that old road also required fording a creek close to sixty times, according to Bakersfield historian Lawrence Weill.

But that was the old wagon days. And then came the automobile!

One of the earliest motorized journeys along the old wagon road – gleefully reported by the Bakersfield Californian in April, 1903 – was that of adventurers T.E. Baker and F. Hughes, who accomplished their 150-mile drive from L.A. to “Kern City” in 31 hours’ driving time – miraculously, “without one single breakdown.” A heavier-footed motorist with the inauspicious name of Jackson Graves ventured over the same primitive dirt road in the summer of 1911, spanning the distance from Saugus to Bakersfield in a mere 12 hours.

By then, the motoring public had become a large enough lobbying group that even the government began to take notice. When a three-person California Highway Commission was formed in 1911 (a branch of the  Department of Engineering), one of their primary missions was creation of an auto-worthy road between Los Angeles and the fertile, oil-rich San Joaquin Valley — preferably by a more direct route than the long, leisurely, easterly jog of the old wagon road.

Surveys for just such a new highway were ordered on January 25, 1912 and actual surveying began the following September, led by engineer W. Lewis Clark. For the next eighteen months, with mules carrying their equipment, the survey party hacked and chopped their way through some of the most survey-inhospitable landscape imaginable.

“[C]linging to the precipitate walls of canyons where no pack mule could keep his feet, across ravines and along the crests of the mountains, the surveyors fixed their stakes, and, link by link, laid the lines along which this mighty highway should run,” as a 1916 California Highway Bulletin later enthused.

Surveyor W.L. Clark on the left.

Once that preliminary survey was completed, a few months of wrangling followed over the best route. And, of course, real money was needed to actually build the new road.

Luckily, series of state road bonds had already been issued, beginning in 1909 with enabling legislation for an $18 million bond issue (which became effective on December 31, 1910 after voters approved). Despite bearing favorable interest rates of four and five percent, those bonds found few at first. They “have not been readily salable,” a newspaper column confessed in February, 1913.

That hurdle was finally surmounted by assuring bond purchasers that road construction would begin in the county with the most bond purchases. Voila! L.A. financiers quickly snapped up some $270,000 worth of bonds. Work on the new Tejon route was finally ready to begin!

A second bond measure, passed by the Legislature in 1915 and quickly ratified by the voters, kicked in December 31, 1916, adding another $15 million to the state’s road-building coffers. And a third bond issue was approved at a special election July 1, 1919 – authorizing a whopping $40 million more. Yes, the new automobile-owning public was all for better roads!

Grading for what was initially termed the Tejon Route (soon more popularly dubbed the “Ridge Route”) began on Sept 22, 1914. A second stage of the grading contract was let that December. And just a year later, once the fills had been given a few weeks to settle, the new roadway was finally “thrown open to travel” in October, 1915.

Where once there had been only mountains and sage, depressions and gullies, a neatly-graded, freshly-oiled roadway now opened its arms to eager travelers. The brand new road became “instantly popular with the motoring public.” Total length: 30 miles. Total width: 24-feet of graded road bed. Cost for grading: $450,000.

In place of grades once as monumental as 20 percent, the new Ridge Route touted much gentle slopes said to be no greater than six percent. That benign figure, however, may have been measured only by the eye of a friendly beholder rather than by instrument. In real life, a few grades still reached a fairly steep seven percent. But even those were a big improvement over the old wagon route.

The new oil-graded Ridge Route was indeed an engineering marvel. And the feat was accomplished almost exclusively by manpower and mule-drawn Fresno scrapers. A steam-shovel and dynamite were used only on a single especially difficult cut (known as the “Big Cut” or “Culebra Cut”). And that particular undertaking moved an astonishing million cubic yards of earth and rock.

Postcard of the “Big Cut” (also known as Culebra Cut or Swede’s Cut) circa 1920. (Dustman collection)
The Culebra Cut as it looked in September, 1992. (Dustman photo)
A steam shovel being used in highway construction (1916 Calif Hwy publication).

As the road left the mountains on the north, engineers nixed the notion of simply paving over the original old wagon track down Grapevine Canyon. For one thing, that early wagon road included onerous 20% grades. Simple observation also convinced them that leaving the roadway in the belly of the canyon would mean constant erosion from spring rains and snow runoff.

Instead, the road-builders decided to loop the new roadway across the hillsides in a series of gentle bends that moderated the drop and weren’t as prone to erosion. The result was a series of sweeping, swooping curves across the foothills of Grapevine Canyon. They made for many accidents. But also for many dramatic photos.

The Grapevine Grade, circa 1923. On the back of this postcard was the handwritten notation: “1200 turns in 20 miles; 30 miles on straight-away into Bakersfield.”

With its much-welcomed opening in 1915, the newly-graded Ridge Route now cut 24 miles off the distance between LA and Bakersfield compared to the old Bouquet Canyon route – and saved more than twice that versus the Tehachapi road.

“Winding to the Summit” was the caption of this early postcard. There’s one small wooden guard rail barely visible just left of the third car.

The Ridge Route was, they said, southern California’s magnum opus in mountain highway construction. And the scenery was magnificent. As the S.F. Chronicle enthused in 1916, the new road traverses “the wildest of southern California mountain country, a section previously known to only a few ranchers and oil companies.”

A contemporary California Highway Bulletin offered a similarly glowing description:

Enraptured by the panoramic beauty of the scenery at every dip and turn of the road, the traveler is lulled into happy forgetfulness of the fact that but a few brief seasons since where he now rides in cushioned and upholstered luxury, mountain goats and coyotes monopolized the solitudes of these perpendicular canyon walls and mountain ledges.”

Magnificent views there might have been. But a driver’s attention really needed to be glued to the roadway. Estimates varied of the number of twists and turns in the new route. One viewer counted a total 697 turns, which taken together represented a dizzying 110 complete circles. Written on the back of the an early postcard was another motorist’s own computation: “1200 turns in 20 miles”!

Many were the stomachs that didn’t appreciate all that twisting and turning.

Something had to give. And within a very few years, it did.

(Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Story of the Ridge Route!)

Looking toward Black Mountain from the Ridge Route. (Dustman collection).

 

The Forgotten Story Behind the Lebec Hotel: Thomas O’Brien

He always carried a Colt .45 under that natty suit jacket. “Irish-stubborn” about business, he was filled with exuberance, too. Over the years he founded half-dozen saloons and gambling halls from Kingman to the Klondike. Yet he didn’t drink or gamble (or so, at least, his family said).

Meet Thomas O’Brien, little-known proprietor of the legendary Lebec Hotel from 1913 to 1931 – and an amazing rags-to-riches-to-rags story!

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Born in Ashland, Kentucky in 1869, Tom O’Brien’s life got off to a rocky start. In 1884, his father drowned while fishing in the nearby Ohio River. Tom was fifteen at the time. And his mother now had five father-less children on her hands.

Tom, the eldest, struck out on his own. He found a job on a railroad, dutifully sending part of each paycheck home to help support his younger siblings. Some say he worked his way up to become the youngest engineer on the Santa Fe Railroad. Others say that was pure puffery; he simply ran a saloon “on the side” to bring in extra money.

Bakersfield oil derrick during the boom. (Dustman collection.)

However he made it, the money was good. O’Brien continued on west to Bakersfield, arriving about 1899 – just as the astonishing Kern River Oil Field was discovered.

By now in his early 30s, O’Brien recognized opportunity when he saw it. With his younger brother, he invested in Elk Hills oil leases. He also opened a saloon known as “The Louvre” at 18th and K Streets, which became known for its paintings, stuffed animals, and “Orchestrion.” And oh yes, prize-fights.

Thomas O’Brien’s “Louvre” (Bar, Cafe and Billiards) in Bakersfield, at the corner of 19th and K Streets.

Now awash in cash, O’Brien apparently financed a saloon in the booming Klondike, too.

About 1906, he tried his hand at a slightly different venture, opening the “Empire” vaudeville theater in Bakersfield. Although he didn’t know it at the time, that theater enterprise would eventually bring him a wife — in the form of Cowee Erskine, an opera singer who performed there for a time with Al Jolson.

Thomas O’Brien, left, with son Thomas E. At right is Bakesfield City Marshal Bert Tibbet with son Harry. (Circa 1913).

O’Brien and Cowee Erskine were married at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in February, 1911. Son Thomas Erskine O’Brien arrived that December.

But the high-energy O’Brien wasn’t ready to stop there. In 1913 he purchased 11,500 acres in Lebec. This remote outpost included a thick-walled adobe home and a crude store. The early dirt Ridge Route which ran by its front door wasn’t even oiled yet.

O’Brien quickly tacked on a large dining room and added 25 small cabins in the rear. And voila: the “Hotel Lebec” was open for the traveling public. Wife Cowee was said to be not thrilled when O’Brien insisted in moving there with their two-year-old son.

The adobe Hotel Lebec (left portion) with attached lunch room. (Dustman collection)

Situated some 82 miles from Los Angeles and 42 miles away from Bakersfield, the site wasn’t exactly convenient to anything – hence the need for a hotel, he reasoned. O’Brien touted local hunting and fishing opportunities, and claimed to offer “every service.” To attract tourists, he advertised Sunday chicken dinners. He also ran cattle on his large ranch nearby.

Sunday chicken dinners were a “thing” at O’Brien’s roadside stop in Lebec. (1913 Oct 31 Bakersfield Californian ad).

By 1915 the Ridge Route had finally been oiled, and in 1919, it had been sturdily paved in concrete. The traveling public could reach O’Brien’s mountaintop resort much more easily. And soon he was working on even bigger ideas, adding a general store, lunch room and garage.

Andrew Kingsbury, a retired motorman from L.A. and local “character,” is shown crossing the street in front of O’Brien’s store. Visible in the distance are the grill and lunchroom, and garage.

Even that wasn’t enough dreaming for the high-spirited O’Brien, however. By spring of 1920, there were reports of a planned “Class A” hotel. Thanks to financing provided by the Durant family, it was to be called the Hotel Durant. (Russell “Cliff” Durant was nominally involved, but the deep pocket actually belonged to his father, auto magnate W.C. Durant.) Thomas O’Brien, of course, was a partner in the new hotel venture.

Advertisement for the Hotel Durant, May 8, 1921.

A blazing headline in the Bakersfield Morning Echo of October, 1920 noted an astonishing $200,000 price tag for the “fireproof” hotel project. A giant barbecue was held for the laying of the cornerstone that November. The hotel’s split-wing design was said to be the creation of Maury I. Diggs, a brilliant but scandal-dogged San Francisco architect who would later design the Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields racetracks.

O’Brien, as always, spun magnificent plans. There would be an “aviation field,” a man-made lake for fishing and boating, a golf course, and of course hunting in the nearby hills – creating a “mountain resort with its own amusements.”

The design for the hotel included 80 guest rooms, plus a ballroom and billiard room. Drapes were sky-blue. There was a “modern” electric plant, plus steam heat. And oh yes, telephones in every room. Out back were 24 separate bungalows, each with cooking facilities.

The hotel opened with a bang. But by the following year, 1922, trouble was already brewing. The national Teapot Dome scandal wiped out O’Brien’s oil interests. And his hotel partnership with “Cliff” Durant quickly fell apart.

A 1923 postcard of Curry’s Lebec Lodge (Dustman collection)

In October, 1922, Durant’s hotel interest was bought out by Foster Curry, of Yosemite fame. Curry also purchased the store, restaurant and garage from O’Brien. The hotel was now “Curry’s Lebec Lodge.”

But a year later, a fresh disaster appeared. This time it was a devastating fire, which on November 4, 1923 wiped out the garage, store, restaurant, and several cabins. Some say the flames broke out in the restaurant; others say it was a grease fire that started in the shop. Either way, O’Brien is rumored to have blamed Curry for not preventing it. The only lucky part of the whole ordeal: the hotel itself managed to escape unscathed.

Lots in Lebec were selling for $150 to $375 in 1924. (June 12, 1924 Bakersfield Californian)

By the following June (1924) O’Brien and Curry were duking out their differences in court. O’Brien claimed Curry owed him $150,000 worth of payments on O’Brien’s mortgage. Curry claimed O’Brien had induced him to undertake the mortgage by fraud.

Yet another investor now arrived for the game of musical chairs: Jack Wooley, a saloon owner from Oakland, acquired Curry’s interest as part of a settlement agreement with Curry in December, 1924. The name of the hotel would be changed once again, back to “Hotel Lebec.”

Hotel Lebec (Dustman collection)

One year after the fire, and mere days after the Curry lawsuit was settled, a third disaster struck: O’Brien’s wife Cowee was killed December 21, 1924 while on a Christmas shopping expedition with two lady friends from Lebec. According to the family, the driver of the big touring car was unable to brake in time at a railroad crossing. The car went into a skid and struck a ditch; Cowee was thrown out and landed on the tracks. She died instantly.

The rock Lebec Coffee Shop complex. (Dustman collection).

Somehow, Thomas O’Brien persevered. He rebuilt the burned-down buildings, this time a rock structure known for years as the Lebec Coffee Shop. Included were a bar, post office, store, and a Richfield gas station/garage.

Travelers on the Ridge Route in the ’20s. (Dustman collection).
The Ridge Route. (Dustman collection).

Despite the many tragedies that O’Brien endured, the ‘20s were good years financially for the hotel. Movies were being made in the nearby hills, with cast and crew from Los Angeles putting up at the hotel. It’s said that movie stars would sometimes sneak away from Los Angeles, too, for a quiet weekend rendezvous.

Prohibition – lasting from January 1920 until he end of 1933 – may have been good for hotel business, too. Just before the new dry laws went into effect, Tom O’Brien is said to have sent a truck all the way to San Francisco to to pick up a huge supply of liquor from a brother-in-law. Forty cases of that liquor disappeared in August, 1925, however, when purported “government agents” arrived at the hotel and “held up” partner Wooley.

New partner Wooley had had enough; he sold his interest in the hotel that same week to O’Brien for about $50,000.

Two years after losing Cowee, O’Brien married Gemma Ann Martina on Christmas Day, 1926. Son Thomas E. was sent off to a private school in Carpinteria – riding over the mountains on horseback with a cowboy, to get there!

O’Brien was able to find a new buyer for his hotel and adjacent land in November, 1927 – this time for the mind-boggling sum of $400,000. The purchaser was an L.A. corporation known as Sales Development Company. Things were looking rosy again.

And then, the Great Depression hit.

O’Brien was unable to make his payments on a debt to Richfield Oil. Meanwhile Richfield was in financial turmoil of its own, with a president/general manager indicted for embezzlement. The company called in O’Brien’s note.

The O’Brien family was forced to leave Lebec in 1931. Son Thomas E.’s final poignant glimpse was captured in a photo he snapped from the back window of the car, showing his pet horse “Dick” grazing on the pasture in front of the hotel.

O’Brien and his family settled in a grand old Victorian house at 2028 – 17th Street, Bakersfield. He hadn’t quite lost everything; son Thomas E. remembered a Steinway grand piano that adorned the formal front room. Family members helped Thomas to purchase a restaurant on the west side of Chester, between 18th and 19th. But perhaps his heart was no longer in it. The restaurant venture didn’t last too long. By 1933 O’Brien had been forced to declare bankruptcy.

As for the Lebec Hotel, it changed hands multiple times in the years after O’Brien had left. In 1936, the hotel, coffee shop and 2,000 acres were sold for just $79,000. In 1938 the hotel changed hands again, this time for $100,000. In 1948, it was sold for $190,000, then $300,000 in 1955.

The Lebec Hotel closed its doors for good in March, 1969. Now empty, the once-grand hotel became an attractive nuisance with uninvited visitors starting warming fires. It was finally burned to the ground by then-owner Tejon Ranch on April 27, 1971.

And what became of the O’Briens? Well, the exuberant, tenacious Thomas O’Brien died of a stroke at 1117 “H” Street, Bakersfield on March 14, 1942 at age 73. He is buried at Bakersfield’s Union Cemetery.

“He was stubborn. Perhaps if he’d been a bit more humble, he might have made out better,” his grandson would later say. “He died without a cent in his pockets.”

And son Thomas E., the little boy in the photograph? He became a welder, helping to build Liberty Ships at Terminal Island during W.W. II. Like his mother Cowee, he loved to sing. In later years, he joined barbershop choruses. He especially loved singing “vintage” arrangements like the ones he had heard as a child at the old Lebec Hotel.

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Family information for this story was provided in June, 1993 by grandson Michael O’Brien (son of Thomas E.) and cousins Buzz and Jean Laird. Michael O’Brien died on April 2, 1998 just five years after I had the privilege of interviewing him.

Thomas O’Brien’s family in happier days. At far left is Thomas O’Brien’s mother, Mary; his wife Cowee is lower right, seated on a rock. (Circa 1918.)

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).