Horseback Outback : No-Frills Park Could Use a Few, Riders Say
Sixty years ago G. Henry Stetson, whose father invented the famed Western hat, moved from Philadelphia to a scenic citrus ranch in the northeastern San Fernando Valley. Stetson entertained movie stars and other prominent people at his lavish hillside mansion, adorned with a mammoth swimming pool.
Today a freeway slices through the rural terrain Stetson once enjoyed, and a mobile home park covers the land where his orange groves thrived. Time and the forces of nature were not kind to his estate, which was destroyed by a mudslide in 1963 and an earthquake in 1971.
But the hat-company heir’s legacy lives on in a 29-acre island of open space reserved for horse riders: Stetson Ranch Park. Most of the park remains in its rugged natural state, and local equestrians prefer it that way.
“I think the people are pretty happy with it,” said Gini Barrett of Sylmar, a Valley Horse Owners Assn. board member. “Horse people really don’t want a lot of frills.”
But even avid supporters say the park could use some help in small doses.
“It’s a rural park in the middle of an urban community,” said Jeannine Roman, a Sylmar equestrian activist. “It’s working, even though there’s been sort of benign neglect by the city.”
With this neglect in mind, representatives of the nonprofit Equestrian Trails group met this month with city officials to seek small improvements at Stetson Ranch Park. They asked for new hitching rails, electrical outlets and water spigots. They also want signs warning bicyclists and motorcyclists to stay away.
Dick Ginevan, chief city parks supervisor for the Valley, said his staff will comply with most of these requests in the coming months.
The park itself has few trails, but Barrett said it is a popular launching point for equestrians who want to ride into the scenic Wilson Canyon area behind Olive View Medical Center.
Along with portions of Griffith Park and Hansen Dam, Stetson Ranch Park is one of the few city recreation areas set aside primarily for horse riders. Equine enthusiasts, worried about the loss of riding areas in Sylmar--the fastest-growing community in the city of Los Angeles in the 1980s--lobbied for its establishment 11 years ago. Since then the remote park, off Glenoaks Boulevard north of the Foothill Freeway, has undergone little change.
The park has a trail network, two riding arenas, restrooms and some battered, graffiti-stained bleachers. There are no lights--even in the restrooms--no paved parking lots, no lawn areas and no picnic tables. Because of its limited amenities and low rental fees, Stetson Ranch Park is used mainly for recreational rides and modest horse shows.
“We’re not looking to have a big equestrian center there because that can cause problems,” said Glenn Hesselbrock, president of the Sylmar chapter of Equestrian Trails.
Commercial horse projects at Stetson Ranch Park could lead to higher fees and traffic jams, he said.
Over the past decade, city officials have considered building such a complex at the park. But now that an equestrian center is planned at Hansen Dam, Stetson Ranch Park will likely remain in its present rugged condition, Ginevan said.
“As money becomes available, we may develop further trail networks, but it won’t become a commercial venture,” he said. Equestrians “are not looking for development. They’re looking for a place to ride their horses, and those are best left in their natural state.”
Because it is geared to horse riders and is not easy to find, some Sylmar residents have never heard of Stetson Ranch Park. Very few know about the man for whom the park is named.
“We’ve had a lot of changes in this community,” said Roman, a 22-year Sylmar resident who serves on the city’s Equine Advisory Committee. “There are only a few people who understand the history of the area. It’s lost in the mists of time. But it’s a very unique part of the San Fernando Valley.”
More than a century ago, John B. Stetson fashioned a wide-brimmed hat to protect himself from the sun and wind while working on the Colorado frontier. He had shown his cowboy friends how to make cloth by boiling animal fur and used this technique to make the hat.
In 1865 he opened a hat factory in St. Joseph, Mo., and began producing the headgear seen in countless Western movies. Late in life, Stetson had two sons: John Jr., who died in 1952, and Henry. In the late 1920s, Henry Stetson began building a large Spanish-style home on his 300-acre Sombrero Ranch in the northeastern Valley.
“It was absolutely fabulous, one of the most fantastic places I’ve ever seen,” said Roy Richardson, a former San Fernando city councilman who grew up on the ranch, which his father managed.
Richardson said Stetson’s wife Lucretia encouraged her husband to enlarge the estate and beautify it with expensive furnishings. “I think she was attempting to make it a small version of the Hearst castle. Every piece was custom-made.”
The complex included a hotel-size kitchen, servant’s quarters and a separate nine-car garage, where Stetson kept the plush Lincoln automobiles he favored. He entertained frequently.
“He loved to be outdoors barbecuing,” Richardson said. “I remember once when they gave a party for the entire cast of Eddie Cantor’s movie ‘Whoopee.’ ”
Although he did not manage his father’s company, Stetson remained on its board of directors. “He made a big thing out of giving Stetson hats to the people who worked on his ranch and to his friends,” said Richardson, who still has a hat given to him by the rancher.
A highlight of the Stetson home was its swimming pool, 235 feet long and 100 feet wide. It held a million gallons of water and was connected to a stream and a series of smaller pools and waterfalls, Richardson recalled. The pool easily accommodated the Stetsons’ rowboat.
Sybilla D. Stetson, who married Henry after he divorced Lucretia, said the pool once provided another type of recreation. “During the war, when we couldn’t get the materials to keep the pool clean, we used to put fish in it,” said Stetson, 86, of Woodland Hills. “Friends used to come over and fish.”
The family kept tame deer on the ranch, which was devoted mainly to orange, lemon and lime groves, she said.
In 1959 Henry Stetson sold the ranch to the Mormon Church, which planned to build a college on the site. But Stetson retained the right to live on his estate for the rest of his life.
In February, 1963, the forces of nature stepped in. “There was a fire in the hills directly behind the house, followed by a rainstorm,” Richardson said. “The water just came rushing down the canyon and right through the house and filled the whole thing with mud.”
The mammoth pool was also filled to the brim with mud.
Sybilla Stetson said she and her husband were away when the disaster occurred, but she returned quickly to inspect the damage. “It was dreadful,” she recalled.
The home could not be salvaged, and the Stetsons relocated to Woodland Hills. Henry Stetson died at that home in 1983 at age 95.
The 1971 Sylmar earthquake further devastated the estate and destroyed the water system that fed the ranch’s citrus groves. A few years later the Mormon Church hired Bob Van Dulm to oversee a small herd of cattle brought to the ranch.
Von Dulm said most of the Stetson estate was demolished by the church after the earthquake. He lives in the chauffeur’s house, which he said is the sole remaining structure built by Stetson. Van Dulm now is a maintenance worker for the adjacent mobile home park.
The church’s plan for a community college fell through, and it began planning a mobile home park instead. In the late 1970s it sold the land to Fullerton-based Continental Mobile Housing, which built the 600-space Oakridge Mobile Home Park that now occupies most of the land.
The city required the developer to pay park fees or set aside land for a public recreation area, said Myron Reichert, a general partner in the firm. At the time, Sylmar-area horse owners were worried about the rapid loss of riding areas, so the developer donated Stetson Ranch Park for their use.
“I think everybody was really happy because it was a good trade-off,” said equestrian activist Roman. “It was just raw land that had been used for growing oranges.”
Dedication ceremonies were held on Aug. 26, 1978. Four years later another nearby developer put in the horse arenas, restroom building, water systems and some landscaping in place of paying a park fee.
Sybilla Stetson believes that preserving a portion of the ranch for an equestrian park was a fitting tribute to her late husband.
“It kept that land from being built up,” she said. “I’m delighted.”
The park has changed little since its opening. City officials say they don’t plan to add picnic tables because that might turn it into a hangout for potential lawbreakers after dark.
Horse enthusiasts say they are glad to have a low-key, low-cost alternative to commercial equestrian centers. “If we didn’t have Stetson Ranch Park, we wouldn’t be able to have our horse shows,” said Claire Shannon of Newhall Trail Riders. “We’re a nonprofit group. We just want to make enough money to put on the next horse show and have a little Christmas party.”
Judy Hersh moved to Sylmar in 1978, the year the park opened and has been using it ever since.
“When I started using it, nothing was up there, just a dirt road,” she said. “I watched them put the arenas in a few years later.”
Hersh, noting that the changes would be “pretty minimal,” said she’d like to see the ruggedness of the park maintained.
“I think the people of Sylmar would like to keep it that way. I know I would,” Hersh said. “We’re horse people living in the city, but we like being where the terrain hasn’t changed.”
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