Strength, Caring Saw Couple Through the Depression

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They lost everything when the stock market crashed in 1929. But Myrtle Beyer and her husband, John, discovered a caring community among the Conejo Valley's early settlers and found a place they could belong.

"You see, I've lived here so long, and been so involved my memory goes way back. We had many characters here; I guess they even claimed John and I were characters. And maybe we were. They claimed we were activists. And maybe we were. We had all kinds of names. John was named "Mr. Thousand Oaks" many times. I was called "Preacher Beyer."

John Beyer came to Ventura County from Germany in 1922, Myrtle from Detroit in 1930.

"My entry into Thousand Oaks was to care for a woman who had been badly burned. They had no money. It was Depression time, 1930, and I was only asked to baby-sit her."

John and Myrtle were married, and together, through a pattern of caring for neighbors and organizing community events, they coaxed and inspired a small community into a growing town concerned with children, the elderly and the church.

"We had no water, we had wells. We had no gas or electricity, so we had butane or kerosene. This lady had a kerosene stove and it blew up and she was badly burned."

A pattern of caring for people began for Myrtle and lasted her's and her husband's lifetimes.

"John hauled water to the people whose wells were dry. We met each other's needs. If somebody needed an operation and the county wouldn't do it because it wasn't death-threatening, we chipped in for it. When they needed glasses and they couldn't get them, we chipped in. There were about 200 families scattered [around] Erbes Road. It was a loving, caring community."

John worked at any job he could find, most often as a laborer or handyman. The poverty didn't bother Myrtle. "It made me a better person, compassionate. It wasn't easy, but God knows his business."

Self-sufficiency was a way of life for the people who moved to Thousand Oaks before and during the Great Depression. The Beyers grew much of their own food, sold sweet corn and garlic to help pay the taxes and paid cash for everything, including $125 for John's first car, a 1929 Ford. They shopped by mail-order from Sears or J.C. Penney. Fresh fish and produce vendors came to town once a week.

"I could actually feed my family--there were five of us--for about $5. That would be the fish and the vegetables."

Even the mailman pitched in, delivering groceries occasionally.

"Our mail came from Canoga Park. Our mail carrier was very, very good. Over there they had the Safeway stores, and when I wanted the specials and I couldn't get over there to buy, he would shop for me."

During the Depression, the Beyers opened a business selling gas, groceries and meals alongside what was then known as the Ventura Highway, before it was renamed Thousand Oaks Boulevard.

"I did the buying and I did most of the cooking, and I did my own laundry. John would work out during the week and he would be there Saturday and Sunday to help. When there was no work, John went down to the bean threshers [in Oxnard]."

Residents who did not have their own business in town worked at the military bases at Port Hueneme and Point Mugu, or joined road construction crews for the county or state. Others worked in Hidden Valley as caretakers and managers of the ranches. When the movie industry came to town, everybody made money.

"In the early days, they didn't have food trucks. So many of those old movie stars ate my food. John delivered the food in the early days. Later on they had a limousine pick it up. We were going to charge them $1.50 per meal. Ha! No way! Charged them $3.50. So that brought in extra money."

Some of the stars who visited the Beyers' outpost included Martha Raye, Jayne Mansfield, Franchot Tone and Wallace Beery.

During the days of prohibition, bootleggers would careen through small dark towns like Thousand Oaks packed with illegal liquor that they had loaded on the beaches of Oxnard and Ventura. Many stopped in town for gas on their way to Los Angeles.

"The best liquor in the world, from France, came right down our highways and was unloaded right across the county line. Many a night I would get up at 3 in the morning to give people gas. I would slip on a robe, and I had a gun in my pocket, and I knew how to use it. I never had any problems, but I wouldn't do that today."

In spite of the many drawbacks of living in the Conejo Valley when it was a small, out-of-the-way place, Beyer said that it was the best time for her.

"It was the greatest in the world. Everybody cared for everybody. We had the open fields to roam. It wasn't 'keep out and keep off.' I thank God many times that my children grew up here when they did."

Growing up in the Conejo Valley meant spring and summer barbecues and rodeos, and a big parade on Mayors Day, the forerunner of Conejo Valley Days. In the winter, shows were put on by circuses when they stopped at the Goebels' Lion Farm and the children were allowed to watch the animals being trained in preparation for the next season. Bake sales were organized and tickets sold to the plays and Christmas programs. Myrtle wrote the plays and the Beyers as a family performed.

Myrtle and John endured food rationing through World War II. In later years, they started a Sunday school, helped build the original Goebel Senior Center and established scholarships to Cal Lutheran University and other local schools. The couple had celebrated more than 60 years of marriage by the time John died in the early '90s.

Myrtle expressed no regrets about her life.

"God has made me a humble person. I am thankful for this. I am also thankful--and this is from the bottom of my heart--for anyone who gives their time, be it to the church, the school, the city, wherever they give their time, for the good of all of us, I thank God for them."

Tomorrow: Long before the country club and the exclusive homes came to Lake Sherwood, Norm Suffern bought a lot at the quiet Ventura County watering hole.

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Four years ago, a group of Thousand Oaks residents launched an oral history project to preserve the memories of the Conejo Valley's earliest settlers. With support from the Thousand Oaks Library Foundation, dozens of residents were interviewed and their remembrances transcribed and filed at the library. Tina Carlson, who heads the project, has pared down some of the interviews, and provided them to The Times to publish during Conejo Valley Days. Today, she tells the story of the Great Depression through the voice of Myrtle Beyer, who was interviewed a year before her death in November 1994.

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