Historical societies are the heart and soul of keeping history alive in California and beyond, so I was super excited to get an online shout-out from the San Fernando Valley Historical Society! Based in Mission Hills, the society is in charge of maintaining two important historical landmarks, the Rómulo Pico Adobe (Landmark #362) and the Pioneer Memorial Cemetery (Landmark #753), and to “research, collect, and preserve the history, art and culture of the San Fernando Valley.” They are Helpers!
I met with President Ron Van Deest, and Tour Director, Jerry Coscia, in the historic kitchen of the Pico Adobe, carefully restored to its original condition, because I wanted to learn more about what it’s like to work for a historical society, what draws them to history, and what they do to keep it alive for future generations.
Both Ron and Jerry have seen a dramatic transformation of the San Fernando Valley in their time. Ron was born here, and Jerry came from New Jersey in 1948 when it was mostly orange and lemon groves connected to Los Angeles by a long road called Sepulveda. Jerry liked to ride his bike into the city, to the Coliseum, and to the Pacific Ocean Park in Venice, which burned down and was replaced by the Santa Monica Pier.
The Valley has transformed over the years, but the history remains as vibrant as ever. Ron has always been interested in history, so when he retired in 2000 and a friend recommended he attend a meeting with the San Fernando Valley Historical Society, he got hooked. Jerry came here with his son, David, who wrote a book on Pacific Electric and the Growth of the San Fernando Valley and gave a talk at the adobe. Jerry stuck around.
“My favorite part is just giving tours and trying to teach people about the history of the San Fernando Valley, going back from 1832 to about 1930.”
Ron agreed, “It’s the surprise people have when you tell them what’s happened in the past, and they’ve been around this area for a lengthy period and have no idea what the history is or what their roots are. It’s the surprise they have that is gratifying to be able to teach them.”
So I asked them to teach me something about the adobe I had visited briefly in April 2011 when it was undergoing renovations. It was built by former Mission Indians in 1834, expanded by Don Eulogio de Celis in 1846, and expanded again by Andrés and Rómulo Pico around 1870.
Andrés Pico, the last Mexican general in California, who surrendered to John C. Frémont across from what is now Universal Studios, had two children: Rómulo and Catarina. Rómulo was his child by blood, but since Andrés never married, Rómulo’s mother remains a mystery. Catarina was the child of one of Pico’s officers and became Pico’s ward for reasons unknown because there is no written record of that either.
“Around 1875,” said Jerry, “Rómulo and Catarina got married and lived here, so I think that was one reason why Rómulo added the second story, so they would have a house to live in. They lived here about 30 years. Around 1898, they sold the property and moved to downtown Los Angeles, because you have to remember, there was nothing here but wheat fields in those days. There were no buildings out here.”
“They were Andrés’ adopted children,” continued Ron. “Romulo being in his thirties, Catarina fourteen or fifteen years old. Most people find that kind of interesting when they see the pictures of them in there, that they married at those ages and that they were sort of brother and sister.”
“They were not blood related, though,” added Jerry quickly.
The adobe, circa 2011!
Jerry took me upstairs where a young woman, the head of the teen center at local church, scanned through historic documents to learn about the city of Van Nuys, surrounded by artifacts of the Valley’s history. On the walls hung photos of the Valley as remembered from Jerry’s childhood, and sure enough, orange groves lined the small road that would become CA-7 in 1961 and Interstate 405 in 1964. James Cagney’s horse ranch hung back toward the mountains, where many movie stars resided in the 30s and 40s.
I spotted a sign labeled “Vasquez’s dagger” in a box on the floor, and I asked Jerry if it was related to Tiburcio Vásquez, the famed stagecoach robber. It was. In fact, it was his whole trunk with his whip, his ropes, his spurs, and even the pots he used for cooking!
“He was captured across the street from the Hollywood Bowl. Then the sheriff took him up to San Jose because he was wanted up there for murder… He didn’t have any money when he was captured, so when he went up to San Jose…his lawyer took pictures of him and sold postcards of him to make money. And eventually, he was hung up there.”
Ron and Jerry love teaching, and they were clearly meant for it, but there’s a whole lot more that goes into being a member of a historical society than just teaching. They themselves have painstakingly restored the adobe over several years with some assistance from the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, but the city is backing out.
“The city is in financial hardship,” said Ron, “and so they’re pushing more of the expenses on us. Consequently, we’re depending more and more on the donations we get from the visitors that come and see us.”
The cemetery, circa 2011!
Donations also go toward research and maintenance of the Pioneer Memorial Cemetery, which was abandoned in 1934 and has suffered years of theft and vandalism.
“We know who’s buried there,” said Jerry, “but we don’t know where their graves are because most of the tombstones are taken away. We do have five people from the Civil War…but we don’t know where they’re buried.”
“We raised money and did a ground-penetrating radar to determine where the actual gravesites were,” said Ron, “and we came up with 200-something gravesites in a list of 400-500 people. So we thought that was going to solve our problems, determining where the graves were and who was there, but it’s still a challenge… We’re going back, researching in history to find out where groups were, family groupings and so on, and that way if we know where one is, we might know where others are around it. But it’s kind of frustrating to try and determine that. We’re doing the best we can.”
Everyone who works for the San Fernando Valley Historical Society is a volunteer who is passionate about keeping history alive. They rely on donations for research and preservation, but they also have a major need for volunteers.
“I’ve been giving a lot of tours this morning,” said Jerry, “but I get hoarse and I get tired sometimes. I didn’t have lunch until 2:00. I finally went home at 2:00, but people come here at lunchtime. They ate lunch, I’m still giving tours, so it’s kind of hard on us because we don’t have enough volunteers. We’re kind of doing double duty.”
But it’s something they both love, and it’s something they badly want to expand.
“Our goal is to be open 2-3 days a week,” said Ron, “and so that’s part of our new contract. That’s what we’re shooting for, but it requires more volunteers, and that’s a challenge too.”
To help the helpers at the San Fernando Historical Society as a volunteer, donor, or member, visit their website at www.sfvhs.com, or swing by on Mondays from 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM at 10940 N. Sepulveda Blvd, Mission Hills, CA 91346!