The Horned Toad House
Crescenta Valley in its early days, the late 1800s and just after the turn of the century, was a get-away destination for businessmen and workers from the booming city of Los Angeles. Much in the same way as people today own weekend cabins in Big Bear, people had vacation residences in La Crescenta, ranging from a cleared spot in the sagebrush on which to pitch a tent, all the way up to full-on working ranches for “gentleman farmers.” The attractions here were many, foremost being the clean air, which at that time was considered a cure-all, along with easy access to hunting areas, solitude and quiet.
The owners of these properties had a penchant for giving them fanciful names, such as El Nido, Sunny Acres, Wilhelm’s Run, Cuddle Doon, Onandarka and Green Acres. One such property was on the northwest corner of Montrose Avenue and Ramsdell.
That corner today is most notable for the church that spectacularly burned to the ground one evening a couple of years ago. It still has not been rebuilt. I know they took one run at rebuilding, failed, and since then a rather attractive lawn has been planted where the church was.
That property was purchased in 1898 by an old gentleman named Jim Hartley, who immediately began building a house out of the stones that were strewn everywhere on his property. The ready supply of stones was one of the attractions of the area. The ever-present rocks were a free and easily found building material. In one advertisement for real estate, the realtor told prospective buyers to forget about building materials, just bring a sack of cement and a trowel.
Anyway, as Hartley sorted through the piles of rocks he was struck by the abundance of horned toads, one of the odder lizards that were once plentiful in CV. When he finished his small stone house, rather than the noble names for estates preferred by his neighbors, he called his house “The Horned Toad House.” We have one surviving photo of The Horned Toad House and it’s a funny looking little cottage. The thin but tall two-story place seems oddly proportioned in the picture, rising like a monolith out of the stark sagebrush dotted dry wash that was typical of our valley then.
In the surviving history we have of the house, its main claim to fame seems to have been that it was a frequent stopover for race driver Barney Oldfield. Oldfield had an amazing career in the early days of auto racing from 1902 until the late teens, and was the first to break the 60 mph barrier on an oval track, and the first to go 100 mph at the Indy 500.
There was a lot of racing activity in Los Angeles and Hollywood, and there was even a big street race in Glendale, akin to our Long Beach Grand Prix, so CV would definitely been within Oldfield’s range. In the polite histories of the past, Oldfield was said to have stopped at the Horned Toad House on the way to his frequent “deer hunting” trips to Whiting Woods.
Of course today we know that the main attraction of Whiting Woods at that time was the “Pasadena Mountain Club,” a thinly disguised whorehouse. It featured a main house that had a bar, and several one-room shacks in back where the ladies could ply their trade in privacy. It’s doubtful that Oldfield brought back much venison from his trips to CV.
And what about the horned toads? When I was a kid these prehistoric critters were still plentiful, but they’re rare today. They look just like miniature dinosaurs, with spikes all over their squat, saucer shaped bodies, and a fringe of longer horns at their collars like Styracosaurus. Their diet consists almost entirely of a particular ant native to our area. That ant has been pushed out by invasive exotic ants, and so the horned toad has all but disappeared from La Crescenta, now being only occasionally found in the Verdugo or San Gabriel Mountains.