Holy Jim : Canyon's Dwellers Live Well Off the Beaten Path

"Dog treed a mountain lion last night; coffee's over there," John Jones drawled, offering his first words to a couple of unfamiliar flatlanders up poking around in his neck of the woods one morning.

Back in a corner of the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department's fire barn, a big pot of coffee simmered on a wood-burning stove. In the rafters overhead, two Holy Jim "fighting volunteers" (motto: "We haven't lost a foundation yet") hammered away at some new 4-by-6 beams, while Jones, the president and "Supreme Commander" of the Holy Jim Cabin Owners' Assn., supervised from below.

Five-and-a-half miles up a tire-eating dirt road, past a succession of signs with "No Trespassing" scrawled in a decidedly unfriendly hand, past a noisy guard dog that bounds through the brush on jack-rabbit legs, over 16 stream crossings and well beyond the point where telephone and water and power lines peter out, the Holy Jim recreational tract lies along the banks of Holy Jim and Trabuco creeks, a dusty anachronism in a region ablaze with sparkling new development. Folks who have cabins there brag that it is the most backward community in Orange County.

"Everyone else is progressing. We're regressing," Jones said, his voice laced with the twang of his rural Texas boyhood.

"Housewives, as a rule, don't do very well (living in Holy Jim); kids get bored stiff," said Jim Sleeper, Orange County's best-known historian and a part- or full-time resident of the canyon since 1948, when, on his 21st birthday, he handed over $800 for a cabin and a lease on the land it sits upon. "The people who do best are the ones that grew up on farms or ranches or in small towns and want to recapture a bit of that flavor."

As Sleeper explains it in his history, "A Boy's Book of Bear Stories (Not for Boys)," "Holy Jim" is an intentional misnomer. The first dwellings in the canyon were erected by a beekeeper back in the 1880s and passed on a few years later to another bee man, James T. Smith.

Smith, Sleeper writes, had "a vocabulary that would 'peel paint off a stove pipe,' " and he picked up an equally colorful collection of nicknames--"Cussin' Jim," "Greasy Jim" and "Lying Jim," among them. But when his friends really wanted to get his goat, they referred to him as "Salvation" Smith, and it was apparently in that spirit that map makers first attached the name "Holy Jim" to the fork of Trabuco Creek that Smith called home.

Sleeper, who may someday replace Smith as Holy Jim's most famous character, is the mother lode of information on the Santa Ana Mountains, and by talking to him and reading what he's written, it's easy to piece together a capsule history of the Holy Jim tract (which Sleeper says is technically two tracts, Holy Jim and Trabuco).

After World War I, Americans began hankering to get away to the great outdoors. With lots of black bear and mule deer prowling about under a thick canopy of Sycamore and California Live Oak and steelhead trout still wriggling up its creeks from the ocean, Trabuco Canyon was this area's answer to the Michigan that Hemingway was writing about. So, in 1920, Orange County and the U. S. Forest Service bulldozed a road up the creek bed and built "Orange County Campground" at the fork of Trabuco and Holy Jim canyons. About the same time, the Forest Service parceled out the first lease lots there for "recreational summer homes."

Transplanted Iowans who had settled in Long Beach were the first people to buy the leases and build there. In a way, that explains why many of the 51 cabins still standing--those that didn't wash away in the floods of 1927, '37, '38 or '69 or burn down in one of the fires that periodically rampage through the area--resemble the small surf-side bungalows popular in Long Beach in the 1920s.

Another reason for the individualistic styles of the cabins, with their waist-high creek rock walls and, in some cases, inelegant architecture, was the fact that they were built during the Depression.

"Labor was cheap and material hard to come by," Sleeper said. "My cabin was roofed originally with old license plates. And there wasn't a beam in the ceiling over four feet long."

Sleeper has since rebuilt his cabin three times, he said. And that reflects another requisite for enjoying canyon life.

'Burn Themselves Out'

"You need to be a putterer," he said. "About half of the people who buy a cabin in Holy Jim burn themselves out in the first six weeks trying to get everything done and then sit around with nothing to do. But the charm of a mountain cabin is working on it. I can say that because I've lived up there now since 1948, and mine's still not done."

According to the terms of the Forest Service lease, owners may not live in their cabins full time, John Jones explained recently during a quiet morning in the canyon. Because he is president of the Cabin Owners Assn., he and his wife, Georgie, are the official exceptions to that rule, Jones added, diplomatically refusing to discuss the possibility that other owners may, perhaps, interpret that rule rather loosely on occasion.

Since retiring and moving to the canyon from Norwalk five years ago, the Joneses have had no trouble keeping busy, they said. A glance around their small, homey cabin suggests why.

Take the fixtures and appliances. The hand pump in the sink, the propane lights hanging in a wagon wheel in the living room and the big wood-burning stove probably haven't been referred to as "labor-saving devices" since the turn of the century.

Plenty of Knickknacks

And just dusting and admiring all the knickknacks in the house must take hours. Dozens and dozens of the hats and caps John Jones collects hang from beams in the living room, and coffee pots of every description dangle overhead in the kitchen. Everything from antique toys and tools to a couple of old birds' nests and a pair of mummified crows' feet decorate the cabin's rock wainscotting, and a partially skinned cow skull eyes the room from a door ledge upon which 14 coiled rattlesnake hides sit.

"It's a hobby of mine," Jones said, pulling down a buzz-tail skin that's longer than some men are tall. "I just pick 'em up with my hand. Shhwooop."

Mainly, though, the canyon is a good place to sit back and catch up on the things for which people elsewhere sometimes don't have time, Jones said. For instance: "I hadn't read a book in my life before I moved up here; now I've read hundreds."

In contrast to the Joneses, Mike and Kathy Milligan, who live around the bend in Holy Jim Canyon proper, have pushed the rustic life about as close to modernity as the constraints of the canyon allow. A powerful generator and elaborate battery setup lets them make use of electric appliances or watch video movies on their VCR (commercial television station beams don't penetrate most parts of the canyon). There are limits, though.

No Microwave Oven

"Mike keeps trying to get me to buy a microwave, but I keep saying no," Kathy Milligan said. "Then (the other cabin owners) would really throw us out. They already call this the 'canyon condo,' " she said, gesturing to the interior of the cabin that Mike, who manages real estate investments, built.

For the most part, cabin owners keep to themselves, the Milligans said.

"But if there's ever an emergency, everyone's there," Mike said.

"That's right," Kathy agreed, describing the time recently when Georgie Jones anxiously used the hand-crank phone network that connects the Joneses' cabin with eight others (though not with the outside world) to track down a neighbor who's a registered nurse.

"Georgie's cat was having kittens," Kathy explained.

Membership Automatic

Probably the best example of this community cooperation is the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department, membership in which is automatically extended to anyone who has a cabin in the canyon. With the new roof beams in place and the 1949 GMC pumper back in the fire barn, the volunteers who John Jones had roped into working one recent weekend stood outside for a while talking.

"These are the mountains everyone forgot about--they all went to Big Bear," said Dewie Foulk, whose parents, back in 1939, bought the cabin he now lives in a good part of the time. "But I grew up running in these hills. Holy Jim has always been my place to hang out. Now I'm coming out of a bad divorce and a bad business partnership, and I just came back here to hang out again."

Over the years, public interest in Holy Jim and Trabuco Canyon's Big Cone spruce stands, waterfalls, springs and abandoned mines has waxed and waned, Foulk continued, adding that the peak probably came in the early '70s when, by Foulk's account, "hordes of hippies" set up permanent residence in two Forest Service campgrounds in the canyon, allegedly breaking into local cabins on occasion.

That situation led to what Foulk refers to as "the great redneck-hippie wars"--"We'd go out at night (to the campgrounds) and open the valve on the side of the fire truck; there'd be dogs, kids, sleeping bags all washing down the road"--and a decision by the Forest Service to raze the campgrounds.

Foulk said that with the exception of occasional visits by rowdy dirt bikers and four-wheel-drive enthusiasts, the flow of visitors to the area now remains steady and fairly peaceful. Earlier in the day, for instance, a parade of seven dirt-encrusted passenger cars had rumbled by. They were filled with well-mannered members of "the Chinese Hiking Assn." ("Where is the gas station?" one woman inquired to the amusement of the volunteers, who are accustomed to driving miles to the nearest gas station.)

Hasn't Changed Much

"When you figure there's 10 million people living within a 100-mile radius, I feel we're real lucky for the way we live here," Foulk said. "Really, this place hasn't changed in 45 years."

As Foulk and the other cabin owners realize, however, the forces of change are becoming increasingly persistent. Down the road, where the rotting, bullet-riddled carcasses of automobiles and major appliances lay strewn about as if gunned down by Holy Jim sentries for trying to infiltrate the canyon, backhoes and bulldozers were visible digging on a nearby mesa.

Within walking distance of the road into the canyon, huge earthmovers worked overtime leveling land for the new community of Rancho Santa Margarita, which, according to the Santa Margarita development company, is expected to eventually cover 38,000 acres and be home to 50,000 people. And then, too, the county is talking about buying a large swatch of National Forest land--including the Holy Jim tract--for a regional park, and there's some uncertainty about what might happen to the cabins if that purchase takes place.

Cabin owners said they are working behind the scenes to try to preserve their pocket of the past, and Foulk, for one, isn't terribly worried. In a hopeful gesture, he recently turned over his lease to his son. He said he can't imagine a more important investment for the future than a rock cabin without a phone or electricity or running water.

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