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End of an era for the Varney homestead

The Varney brothers forded the gurgling creek and passed through the grove of oaks and sycamores before climbing the cabin steps for the last time.

The wood-frame 1890s house hidden on 154 acres at the western end of Agoura’s Lobo Canyon had once been their home. The place had been in the hands of the Varney family for 97 years.

But now it was being carefully dismantled, one board at a time, by workers for the National Park Service.

Waiting outside the cabin was ethnographic researcher and archaeological monitor Eva Larson. She had been hired by the park service to watch the demolition and catalog any artifacts found hidden in the walls or around the old house.

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Robert Varney, 67, paused on the porch. Gary Varney, 63, disappeared inside, stopping to study a section of the original wall board that had been exposed by the removal of newer paneling.

“It’s probably redwood or cedar. It’s true 1-inch batten board. They don’t make it anymore,” Gary said, rapping his knuckles on the stained 130-year-old wood.

Robert pointed to a dark streak on the wall. “It’s the outline of where a thermometer was hung in the 1880s or ‘90s. Sunlight did that — the shadow was preserved when the wall was covered over.”

One of the oldest structures in the Santa Monica Mountains, the cabin had survived a litany of disasters: earthquakes that sent rocks raining off the sheer cliffs towering behind it; floods such as the one in the 1960s that carried an oak-bearing chunk of hillside into the cabin’s dirt driveway, permanently planting the tree there; fires like the 1978 conflagration that destroyed everything the Varneys owned except the cabin.

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In the end, though, the cabin couldn’t stand being left alone.

Parks officials purchased the property 27 years ago for $495,850 as part of an ambitious effort to connect a swath of publicly owned land across the Santa Monica Mountains. As part of the deal, the park service agreed to lease the home back to the family for 25 years.

For the last two years, the old cabin had been boarded up and entry to the acreage prohibited. Parks officials deemed the structure unfit for use but remodeled too often to be called “historic.”

Trespassers discovered it and turned it into a party house. When one young woman reportedly suffered a fatal overdose there, parks officials decided to tear it down.

As workers dismantled the cabin, they peeled away more history.

Behind the bathroom mirror was an old newspaper that reported the 1915 sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania. Hidden in a wall was a wooden toy train caboose that Larson estimated was about 90 years old.

In the rafters, Gary discovered a piece of an old wooden ammunition box that had been used as a shim when new rooms were added on to the cabin. Robert found part of the Jan. 2, 1927, Los Angeles Times that had been stuffed into a wall as insulation.

In the kitchen, Robert pointed out two large windows he had installed so the family could look out at the creek. Above the stream was a deck he had built for a hot tub. Filled with spring water, it was heated by a wood fire.

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“It was heaven. It was hard to imagine you were anywhere near a cosmopolitan area. You couldn’t hear anything except the water coming over the waterfalls behind the house. After a rain, the creek sounded like an orchestra tuning up. Each waterfall added to the symphony,” he said.

On a rocky outcropping above a pile of tin, the brothers pointed to where a pair of eagles once nested. They said they had been watching one day when an adult eagle returned carrying a snake in its talons. As its mate flew toward it, the eagle dropped the snake and the mate swooped down and caught it in midair, delivering it to the nest to feed it their eaglets, they said.

Cross-country settlers

Varney family members were among the earliest commercial beekeepers on the East Coast. The brothers’ great-great grandfather and great-grandfather had tended hives in the Syracuse area of New York, where their grandfather, Edmund Varney, was born in 1865.

When great-grandfather Ransom Varney moved his family to Nebraska in the late 1860s, he took the bees with them. While in Nebraska, Ransom worked as a scout for the U.S. Army alongside William “Buffalo Bill” Cody while homesteading in the North Platte area.

Edmund Varney moved to California in 1889, settling in Lankershim, which is now known as North Hollywood.

He branched out into the water business in the quickly developing San Fernando Valley.

In 1904, he was one of 164 defendants named in a lawsuit by the city of Los Angeles seeking to block Valley farmers and ranchers from diverting Los Angeles River water for purposes other than domestic or livestock use. The family still holds ill feelings toward L.A.'s famed water boss William Mulholland and other city leaders of the time. “Mulholland put us out of business,” Gary said.

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Edmund married his second wife in 1917. They had five children: Edgar, Edward, Edmund, Edwin and Edna.

Edgar, the father of Robert and Gary, was fond of explaining his parents’ naming technique: “All they had to do is holler ‘Ed’ and we’d all come and they’d pick out the one they wanted.”

Gary said his grandfather was introduced to Lobo Canyon by his Lankershim barber, who was familiar with the Santa Monica Mountains. He took Edmund Varney to the western end of the canyon, where a hidden shack stood.

“The story is that a game warden built the cabin and then dropped out of sight. It’s said that he was killed by poachers. His rifle was still in the cabin when my grandfather bought the property in 1913" for $385, Gary said. “I still have the rifle, a .25-35 caliber Winchester.”

The family stayed in the warden’s one-room shack when they were tending their honeybee hives or simply wanted to get away from the city. Over time, they added on to the cabin, built other structures and dug a 40-foot well from which they drew drinking water.

By 1925, the Varneys’ busy bees were producing four tons of honey in the canyon each spring. The family sold it for 20 cents a pound, providing an income that allowed them to ride out the Great Depression.

And as their beekeeping business thrived, generations of Varneys lived at one time or another in Lobo Canyon.

“My great-grandfather, our grandfather, our father, uncles and aunts, my brother, myself and my son were all there at one time or another,” recounted Gary, now of West Hills and still, like his brother, a beekeeper.

Haven amid a metropolis

The cabin was never connected to the power grid, although a telephone line was eventually strung in. “I lived here 26 years with no electricity and for 10 years with no phone,” said Robert, now an Ojai resident.

In the 1920s, family members suspended a long antenna between two rocky cliffs at the end of the canyon and hooked it up to an early crystal set radio for entertainment. The wire still hangs between the cliffs.

The canyon was full of surprises — like the time the Edgar and his brother discovered a small cave. Inside were the partially buried skeletal remains of a man. Next to him was an old-style pick and a leather pouch containing some gold coins. “I don’t know how they got divided up,” Robert said.

The pair’s grandfather tapped into a natural spring high on the mountain so the family could have a flush toilet.

“He jacked up the back of a Model T and took off one of its wheels and turned it into a winch to pull pipe up the mountainside,” Robert said.

The brothers told of how when their father was a boy he tossed one of the Model T’s old license plates like a Frisbee and sent it flying into the side of a sycamore. In 1978 a windstorm dislodged the metal plate.

“I was near it when it came out. The license plate that Dad threw in the air at age 12 nearly hit his 35-year-old son when it fell to the ground,” Robert said with a laugh.

Gary and Robert grew up catching rattlesnakes and selling them to Hollywood filmmakers.

The pair reminisced over the disastrous 1978 brush fire that swept from Agoura to Malibu in a few short hours.

“Our barn and the honey-extracting house burned down. You could see a flood of honey flow out — it caramelized in the creek,” said Robert, who had hurriedly gathered valuables from the house and placed them in a getaway car.

But the cabin was spared when the wind created a “vortex” that sent the fire shooting up the canyon’s cliff sides, he said. The car caught fire, though, and the valuables were destroyed.

The fire burned away the canyon’s native rosemary, lupine and mustard blossoms that had provided nectar for the honeybees. But hundreds of the insects survived by taking cover in the cliff’s caves and crevices.

Moving on

The Varney brothers lingered a bit before heading back through the oaks and sycamores and over the stream toward the mouth of Lobo Canyon.

National Park Service Ranger Todd Bonds, who was observing the demolition, said the old homestead will remain closed to the public and will serve as a mountain wildlife corridor.

Robert showed Larson where the family’s honey-extraction hut had stood as Gary walked over to a blue-blossomed bush on a nearby hillside.

Darting around its fragile blooms were small bees. Gary called Larson over to the rosemary bush and told her that the bees were descendants of grandfather Edmund Varney’s original honeybees — just as he and his brother are practicing descendants of the family’s original beekeepers.

Gary explained that the wild bees around the bush are smaller than today’s commercial honeybees. Larson snapped a close-up photo of one for the two brothers.

That took some of the sting out of the day for them.

bob.pool@latimes.com


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