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Oral History Project Features Tales of Conejo Valley Pioneers : Preservation: People who moved to the area in the 1930s and ‘40s recall its physical beauty and lament the loss of small-town atmosphere.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roy Hoover takes it slow, crossing from Thousand Oaks into Hidden Valley in his big old pickup truck. He has a lot to remember about the place, having first arrived there in 1936 as the new foreman of W.T. Kester’s cattle ranch.

“My son was born right here,” Hoover said, pointing out a tiny white house in the shadow of one of the newer mansions in the wide green valley.

Just across the sweep of rich meadow was the landing strip Hoover used to swoop down on in the 1940s when he became foreman--and part-time pilot--at the John McMahon ranch.

And along Potrero Road, not far from the homes of movie stars such as Sophia Loren and Robert Wagner, is the spot where he and his wife, Marie, bumped into movie actor Richard Widmark.

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“Here comes this little pickup down the road,” Marie Hoover said. “And it stops. I said to him, ‘Get out and see who it is. Maybe it’s a movie star.’ So he gets out and they shake hands and the fellow said ‘I’m Richard Widmark.’ I just like to died.”

Now the Hoovers live in Newbury Park, but Roy still makes a daily trip through Hidden Valley, usually on his motor scooter. He doesn’t make too many stops to chat--people have got work to do, he says--but he keeps an eye on new homes being built and who might be moving into his much-loved valley. Of the original Hidden Valley pioneers, he said, he is the only one still living.

“Everybody is gone,” Hoover said. “I’m the only one. I’m the only first-timer left.”

Along with the tales told by other pioneers, Hoover’s unique perspective is part of an ongoing oral history project of the area being sponsored by the Thousand Oaks Library Foundation.

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Project coordinator Tina Carlson, a member by marriage of one of the area’s oldest families, hopes to compile up to 30 interviews with early residents of the Conejo Valley. The interviews will eventually be available in transcript form and possibly on videotape at the Thousand Oaks library.

“We want to record things that aren’t a matter of record,” Carlson said.

The goal of the project is to conjure up a time when Thousand Oaks looked not at all as it looks today, when elephants from Jungleland wandered across what is now Thousand Oaks Boulevard, when there was one telephone in town and when people ordered their clothing from a Sears catalogue instead of J. Crew.

The people Carlson is talking to are former ranch hands, business owners, farmers and entrepreneurs. Through their voices, she wants to tell the story of what day-to-day life was like, long before housing developments began to spring up in the valley.

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“These are just down-to-earth, practical, hard-working people,” Carlson said. “They were the pioneers.”

Carlson said the common thread running through all the interviews she has done to date is love of the physical beauty of the area.

“Almost everyone says they chose Thousand Oaks because of the beauty,” Carlson said. “They loved the oak trees and they loved the weather.”

The first time Cecilia Hodencamp and her husband came to Thousand Oaks, they were taking a day trip from Los Angeles. It was 1943. They drove through the San Fernando Valley, territory they had covered before.

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But before that day they had never ventured beyond Agoura; gas rationing during World War II had limited how far they could drive. On that day, they had enough fuel to keep going.

“There was a sign,” Hodencamp said. “Thousand Oaks, population 1,600. The country was so free, that we kind of stopped and looked around and bought a piece of property that moment.”

Hodencamp, like some of the other participants, has a city landmark--Hodencamp Road--named for her family. But as she explained it to Carlson, it was more a result of growing up with the town than a tribute.

After they had been here a few years, she and her husband bought a second property, a one-room cabin. They went to City Hall in Ventura to ask to have electricity run into the cabin, which was on an unnamed road.

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“So the officials or whoever was at City Hall said, ‘We’re going to name that Hodencamp Road,’ ” she told Carlson. “I didn’t know for sure. I didn’t say anything. I thought they were probably kidding me. Sure enough, it was on the map, the first thing we noticed.”

That casual attitude at City Hall extended to developments as well. After Hoover left ranching he went into construction, building homes all over Thousand Oaks.

“We used to have to go to Ventura to get permits for the grading,” he said. “I remember going down there and trying to lay out a plan for what we were going to do, and the guy said, ‘Well, you know more about it than we do, so just go ahead and do it like you want to do it.’ ”

For Tina Carlson, the job of coordinating the project has been made somewhat easier by the fact that her father-in-law, Fred Carlson, 75, knows most of the pioneers who are still living. Carlson opened his building materials store on Thousand Oaks Boulevard in 1946. By selling sand, gravel, blocks and steel, he bumped into just about everybody in the town.

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“Everybody knew everybody then,” Fred Carlson said. “If they needed something they would just yell.”

His yellow and brown store still sits on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, just north of the Civic Arts Plaza. Carlson sometimes slips and calls the street Ventura Boulevard, as it was known when he first moved to the town.

The boulevard was two lanes wide then, and instead of looking out on office buildings, Fred Carlson could watch the Arroyo Conejo meander by. The stream was 20 feet wide, he said. Now it runs under the road, boxed up in concrete.

“It was just like a tunnel,” he said, looking down the road. “The trees grew right over the road.”

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Carlson, like Hoover, used to pilot his own plane. In the 1940s and 1950s, Thousand Oaks always had at least one airport, including one where the Janss Mall is now.

“You could hop into the plane and take a salesman to lunch in Santa Barbara,” he said. “Take you 20 minutes. And you didn’t need flight plans or anything. You’d just radio to say you were coming.”

Having enjoyed the freedom of sharing the Conejo Valley with only a few thousand people for the first two decades in the community, he said change was not easy to accept.

“After you have done your own thinking for 20 odd years it’s hard to have someone else telling you what to do,” he said.

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Tina Carlson asks several questions of each participant: where they shopped, when they noticed that the community had made the jump from small town to a growing city and how they feel the transition has worked.

She said they watched the changes with mixed reactions, happy that their children would have somewhere to live and work, but reluctant to lose the small-town atmosphere that had drawn them to Thousand Oaks. Most think the city works well, Carlson said.

“It’s the hectic pace they aren’t happy with,” Carlson said. “They all have a hard time with the traffic. They feel people need to slow down.”

For those people who choose to browse through the transcripts in the future, the look at history may give them a new perspective, she said.

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“It will make them aware of what came before them,” she said. “It will give them a deeper sense of where they are. And it might make people slow down, and think about the bigger picture.”


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