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BACK AT THE RANCH; WESTERN MOVIES TOLD THE TALE OF A REGION'S CHANGING LANDSCAPE.

Byline: David Greenberg Staff Writer

In the years between the end of World War II and the beginning of suburban development, east Ventura County reveled in the old days.

Hollywood set up shop, using the area's rolling hills and wide open valleys as a backdrop in an endless run of westerns, from Clint Eastwood's ``Rawhide'' to Barbara Stanwyck's ``Big Valley.'' Corriganville, a working movie ranch, opened its gates to visitors as landscapes across the Conejo Valley appeared on the big screen.

``It was a fantastic site for filmmaking,'' said Ed Lawrence, a local historian and photographer in Thousand Oaks. ``No (development) went on out here. So the area looked the same as it did hundreds of years ago.''

The movie-making heyday sandwiched two eras, from the 1940s when Simi Valley residents took up arms to ward off enemy invasion to end of the 1950s when the Ventura Freeway would replace a two-lane highway and migration from the neighboring San Fernando Valley would begin to change the landscape.

During the war years, local farms thrived on feeding American forces overseas, while Simi Valley residents manned homemade watchtowers, in fear of Japanese warplanes making a mainland attack.

``People were so fearful after Pearl Harbor,'' said Patricia Havens, Simi Valley's city historian and director at the Strathearn Historic Park and Museum. ``People as young as 11 or 12 and World War I veterans signed on for a shift. They all took turns, round the clock, for at least two or three years.''

Most young men left high school in the serene community of slightly more than 2,000 residents to join the service. In one Simi Valley Historical Society and Museum photograph, just three male students are pictured in the June 1945 graduating class at Simi Valley Union High School.

Among those who stayed behind, some three dozen joined the war effort at home by forming the Simi Valley Militia. Made up of preteens and World War I vets ineligible for the draft, militia members were issued uniforms by the state but carried their own weapons. They manned homemade 15-foot-high watchtowers on Cochran Street near the Santa Susana fields and at a fire station near Fourth Street.

A minor shelling attack by a Japanese submarine of a beachfront area north of Santa Barbara in February 1942 heightened fears, even though the incident turned out to be the only assault on the mainland, according to ``Simi Valley: A Journey Through Time,'' published by the Simi Valley Historical Society and Museum.

``They wanted to form this state guard on the home front in case something happened - if Japan just kept coming,'' Havens said.

While Simi Valley was known as the home of Corriganville, which drew thousands of visitors to the movie-making ranch, Thousand Oaks was known as a community for farming and filming throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

The list of movies and television shows filmed there offers an endless library of classics, including several ``Tarzan'' flicks, as well as television series such as ``Rawhide'' and Ward Bond's ``Wagon Train.''

Much of the filming took place on the 12,000-acre Albertson Ranch, which would later be transformed into Westlake Village.

Fred Albertson, a Los Angeles car dealer, bought the ranch from newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in the early 1940s.

Albertson strived to maintain its pristine condition - even though as many as five film crews utilized the land at a given time, according to Lawrence.

Legend has it that Albertson once kicked a production company off site after one employee cut a large branch off a tree.

``He wanted to keep it beautiful,'' Lawrence said. ``He wouldn't allow billboards or anything on it. And (Hollywood) did a tremendous amount of work in the east end of town.

But suburban development was on the horizon for an area whose cities were on their way to incorporating and farmlands were to be replaced with homes and businesses.

To accommodate those looking for a rural setting with an industry base, the Janss Corp. in Thousand Oaks began developing its 10,000 acres in the late 1950s.

It marked the major start of a housing boom that would send the population skyrocketing - from 2,028 residents by 1950 to 9,446 by 1960, and more than 100,000 today.

``Developing the area really went into full swing around 1958,'' said Brad Bauer, in charge of special collections at Thousand Oaks' Grant R. Brimhall Library. ``They wanted an area where residents could both live and work. They didn't want it to be merely a bedroom community.''

What is now the Ventura Freeway was a two-lane road at Thousand Oaks Boulevard during the 1940s. The state relocated it to its present site in 1950-52, and it became a divided road with two lanes in each direction.

``That was one of the main routes going from Los Angeles to San Francisco,'' Lawrence said. ``It was a time for highways to start changing because traffic was getting heavy all over.''

Simi Valley experienced a similar transformation in the late 1950s, as groundwater dried up - state water wasn't imported until the 1960s - and farmers were forced to sell off their land.

``It was too tempting to sell to developers,'' said Havens. ``We were just bringing in people faster than you could (develop) a tract. We were building schools three per year to keep up with the demand.''

Before 1950, Simi Valley's population remained under 3,000 but by 1960 it more than doubled to 8,110.

By the time the next decade was to roll by, both communities would become incorporated cities.

``There was massive growth in bedroom communities,'' said James Purtee, deputy director of Simi Valley's Economic Development Department. ``That's really what spurred on the incorporation of the city - to have local control over growth issues.''

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: Crash Corrigan, riding his horse Flash, waves his hat at Corriganville in the early 1950s.

Courtesy of Bill Appleton
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 20, 1999
Words:986
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