The Valley Yesteryear : Whitley Van Nuys Huffaker: Van Nuys’ firstborn.


Whitley Van Nuys Huffaker took his first breath in 1911, the year Van Nuys incorporated, above a bank in Dr. Charles Canby’s medical office and down the street from the booming real estate business of the town’s founders--H.J. Whitley, W.P. Whitsett and I.N. Van Nuys.

In a burst of civic pride, George and Dora Huffaker named their nearsighted seventh child after two of the founders, inexplicably ignoring Whitsett, whose aggressive and innovative salesmanship is remembered today.

Huffaker’s destiny, as well as life in the San Fernando Valley, was to be shaped by the automobile.

His father drove the town’s first automobile and opened the Valley’s first dealership on the present site of the Van Nuys Federal Building. His father-in-law paved many of the streets. Huffaker himself sold auto parts in North Hollywood for more than 50 years. And any remnant of rural character was doomed when the concrete ribbon of the Ventura Freeway unfurled in 1960.


But Huffaker spent much of his early life on horseback, ranging over and among grassy meadows, apricot orchards, walnut trees, chicken ranches and fields of lima beans, asparagus, tomatoes and melons.

The Los Angeles River was still untamed, and there were crawdads to be caught, swimming holes to splash in. The air was crystal clear, making the mountains seem within range of a boy with a strong arm and the proper river stone. And, instead of auto exhaust, the valley was filled with the astringent smells of agriculture.

“We had freedom,” Huffaker said wistfully. “You could go almost anywhere you wanted to on horseback, or just on a hike.”

Now the vast open spaces of his childhood have been reduced to the Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks Park and the chip-and-putt golf course at the apartment complex where Huffaker and his wife, Zella, have lived for 20 years. “At first it was so gradual that we didn’t pay that much attention to it, a little plot here and a little plot there. You didn’t realize you were getting engulfed by houses and apartments.”

The Huffakers’ apartment is in a section called Cocoa Palms, in keeping with the tropical theme of the complex, and caged exotic birds sing amid the sounds of water rushing from painted concrete reproductions of famous waterfalls. But a view of something green and growing is as important to him as ever, and he’s grateful for what he’s got.

When the owner built the place, Huffaker said, “he left open areas--the golf course; we’ve got four swimming pools on the property here and whatnot,” he said. “They build these new complexes . . . and you’re looking at walls all the time. There’s darn little shrubbery, a few flowers. It’s just almost sickening, because it’s not like this place.”