If you grew up in the Crescenta Valley, then you’ve probably known someone from the Rakasits family. They are a common thread running throughout the history of our valley. Not because they did anything outstanding or infamous – it’s merely for the fact that there were so darned many of them, and they were always out and about, and building or tearing things down. As an amateur local historian, when I meet an old-timer for the first time and I’m grasping for something to open the tap of old memories, one of the standard questions I often use is “Did you ever know any of the Rakasits?”
Their family story is typical of many of our local pioneers. They came here to escape something, or to make a fresh start, or for the weather, or maybe all of the above. Patriarch Julius Rakasits was a member of the pre- WWI Hapsburg Empire aristocracy in Europe. He was a highly educated officer in the Austria-Hungarian military, literate in nine languages and fluent in 13. In 1911, some untoward romance or failed political intrigue made the up-and-coming young officer flee to America. Landing in Chicago, he used his education and mastery of languages to secure a job in international banking.
The wealthy Rothschild family, perhaps clients of his, employed a beautiful young Hungarian maid who caught Julius’s eye, and the two married. As soon as America joined the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, Julius was almost immediately picked up as a spy. After six months in prison, one of his influential banking customers got him sprung and he and his growing family escaped to Texas near the Mexican border.
Aristocratic Julius, who had probably never done a day of manual labor in his life, envisioned himself a cowboy and carved out a little cattle ranch. However, Pancho Villa’s soldiers continually raided his little ranch, and son Gene Rakasits to this day carries a scar across his face where one of the banditos swung his machete at the boy who couldn’t run fast enough. The Rakasits lost everything.
Julius found a way out when he secured a job with the Bullocks Department Store family of La Cañada and in 1923 moved into an abandoned chicken coop on a piece of sagebrush at Ocean View and Cross Street.
Mrs. Rakasits and the kids soon joined him in the coop, as “learn by doing” Julius began slowly building a stone house that took him 20 years to complete. (That house is still there, much enlarged as the “Disney style” house on Cross near Ocean View.) The family grew quickly, nine kids total, dominated by a pack of rough-and-ready boys. They had an outdoor lifestyle that toughened the kids. One of the boys helped feed the family by running trap lines up in the mountains, and captured live bobcats and coyotes for movie star Victor McLaglen’s little zoo at his La Cañada mansion. The Rakasits boys are easily identified in old school photos by their lack of shoes and Joe Rakasits today tells me they would eat their way to and from school, grazing through the fruit orchards.
Each of the Rakasits kids got into local construction, and started big families of their own. They were everywhere! With their hands on nearly every construction project locally, an almost genetic memory of the Rakasits runs through every neighborhood. For my generation, it seemed there was a Rakasits in every grade.
But they scattered to the wind and today, locally, there’s only Gene, who at 91 still keeps his contractor’s license current, and Joe and his wife Linda. Joe spends his days building hot rods, and downloading his vast knowledge of local history to a new generation who appreciate the dynamic local history that he lived. Joe spent his career in local demolition and excavation, and so collected a treasure-trove of local historical artifacts. He’s somewhat of a philosopher as well, and remembers what it felt like to be the poor offspring of an immigrant.
I’m proud to know a Rakasits, as many of you do. My life is better for it.
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the
Crescenta Valley. Reach him at