Simi Valley's 'Total Authority' Has City's History in Her Head

Times Staff Writer

First off, Pat Havens wants to set the record straight. Simi, as in Simi Valley, is pronounced see- me , not see -me, as most people usually say. The accent is on the second syllable.

Havens has spent years correcting the pronunciation of Simi Valley because, she insists, getting the name right is another way of preserving the city's cultural heritage.

Preserving the history of Simi Valley is a full-time job for Havens, a 56-year-old retired elementary school teacher. As the city's official historian, she is recognized as the resident expert on Simi Valley, with an understanding of the town's history that goes back about 4,000 years.

Other cities usually have a number of local history buffs who share a common knowledge of the past. But in Simi Valley, Havens is the acknowledged expert on what has been.

'Total Authority'

"If you really want to know what used to happen here, she's the one to ask," said the city's mayor, Greg Stratton. "If she doesn't know, she'll know who knows."

"She is the total authority," added Billee Gillibrand, president of the Simi Valley Historical Society's board of directors. "So many of us let it go in one ear and out the other.

"Pat seems to have a memory bank."

Of course, having one person carrying the city's historical torch has a drawback: What Havens knows about the city is largely stored away--in her head.

"I hope some day she will write a book because that information would be lost if not written down," said Mike Kuhn, a city environmental planner who also is a Simi Valley history buff.

Pat Havens, whose family moved from Benton County, Ark., to Ventura County in 1937 when she was 7, is the first to say she's no know-it-all when it comes to the city's history. But she acknowledges having one advantage.

Compiled Oral Histories

"I have dozens of tapes of interviews with the old-timers telling it themselves," she said of the members of pioneering families that she has interviewed over the years. The tapes are stored in a 1920s-era icebox in the kitchen of Strathearn House, a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places that doubles as Simi's historical museum and Havens' office.

"I just listened to everybody. I see and hear a lot," she said. "People who move here think they are creating Simi Valley, but they aren't. Simi Valley was here all the time."

In all, Havens has 155 audio tapes and as many as 20 videotapes of interviews with families who came to Simi Valley beginning in the late 1880s. The names Strathearn, Robertson, Binns, Wright, Crinklaw, Haigh and Runkle are the "Who's Who" of Simi Valley pioneers.

Teaches Local History Class

The woman with all the knowledge in her head is a stout mother of three who is married to the local postmaster. When Havens talks, which she loves to do, it's usually in the deliberate, rapid-fire delivery of a schoolteacher. Havens stopped full-time teaching about 16 years ago, but continues to teach a local history class at the Simi Valley Adult School.

Mostly, though, her work is running the Strathearn Historical Park, a collection of buildings on 6 1/2 acres at the west end of town. On the property is the facade of a barn used in the long-running television series "Little House on the Prairie," which was filmed in Simi Valley's Tapo Canyon. To run the park, Havens is paid $180 a week by the Rancho Simi Park District.

Thousand of items, many of them donated, are crammed into the main house, a Victorian structure belonging to the Strathearns, a well-to-do family that once owned a considerable part of Simi Valley. The Victorian house is attached to an original Indian adobe, since covered by modern building material, that dates from about 1795. The Strathearns donated the land for the historical park, named for pioneer Robert P. Strathearn, mainly because of the existence of the adobe.

Few Adobes Standing

"There are so few adobes left, it's such fragile building material," Havens marveled as she conducted a tour of the grounds. "The fact that this one exists is a major historical fact that we need to call more attention to.

"It's probably our most important artifact. It's something we mustn't let go of."

Simi history includes Santiago Pico, a soldier who came up from Mexico with the Juan Bautista de Anza expedition in 1776 and became one of the first persons to acquire land in what was known as Rancho Simi.

Pico asked for and received from the governor of Alta California a grant to use 100,000 acres, land that stretched from Simi Valley to Moorpark.

"To us the important thing now is to acknowledge Santiago Pico," she said. "A lot of details were overlooked in the past because there was a lot of racism, I hate to say."

Through her research, Havens has learned that there were signs of human life in the Simi Valley area long before Pico arrived.

Indian Remains Found

"We have sites here in the Valley that go back 4,000 years or more," including ones where the skeletal remains of the Chumash Indians that inhabited the area were found, she said. "Isn't that fascinating?" she said with excitement in her eye.

Facts like that, pulled from her memory, have gained Havens a measure of respect in Simi Valley.

"You can just call her up and ask her something and she can answer right off," said Gillibrand. "With the rest of us, we would have to go look it up."

Havens would like to write a book so there will be a permanent and accurate account of Simi Valley's past, but she says she hasn't been given the time or encouragement to do so. Although she has some volunteers at the historical park, Havens complains that she is bogged down with the park administration, giving her little time to write.

"The thing that worries me the most is that I have always been a pretty detailed person," Havens said. "I feel that, if I don't do it, it isn't going to be done. Nobody is going to listen to these 100 or so tapes.

"I don't see anyone on the horizon, anyone who is going to get interested in this as much as me. I know that a lot of this is in my head, and I have to be freed to do this.

"It's not something that has to be immediately put into print," she added. "But the information needs to be organized now, while I'm able to organize it."

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