The name “Onondarka” harks back to a relatively brief period, less than 40 years in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s when one of the green canyons of the Verdugo Mountains sheltered a beautiful orchard and equestrian paradise called Onondarka Ranch. That ranch today has been subdivided and built upon and is today named Oakmont Woods, a secluded neighborhood off La Crescenta Avenue.
The story of Onondarka goes back to the very beginnings of American settlement of the Crescenta Valley in the 1870s. While the valley floor was owned and later developed by large landowners, like Lanterman and Briggs, the little canyons of the San Gabriel and Verdugo Mountains were up for purchase or homesteaded by industrious pioneers. Because of that, the histories of the canyons tend to be a bit older that the valley’s history.
In 1875, just four years after Theodor Pickens was the first American to settle in the Crescenta Valley, German immigrant George Englehardt came to our valley. He purchased 135 acres of a canyon of the Verdugo Mountains, a canyon that still bears his name. His land fronted the year-round Verdugo Creek, and had a spring-fed stream down the center. A large relatively flat area near the bottom promised to be good land for crops and orchards. Englehardt built a small house on a rise on the eastern side of Englehardt Canyon, a spot that today overlooks the intersection of La Crescenta and Shirleyjean. As the valley grew under the hand of developer Dr. Benjamin Briggs, Englehardt participated in building the community, helping to form the first school in 1888.
But by 1900, Englehardt was ready to move on. It was a time of hot-and-heavy real estate sales and land speculation. He sold his land, house and orchard to the Sepulveda family, who immediately flipped it to Angelino Galentinos, perhaps one of the earliest Italian families (of which there were many) to settle here. Galentinos added vineyards to the orchards.
In 1912, Galentinos’ property caught the eye of Homer Baldridge as he passed through on a ride from Pasadena, where he owned a livery stable. He purchased the acreage, and began plans for a home there. His daughter and a friend, Mary Blackwood, enjoyed rides from the Pasadena stable, crossing the iron bridge across the arroyo at Devil’s Gate. They transited La Cañada along a dusty wagon trail that is today’s Foothill Boulevard, then cut down the grade near where Verdugo Hills Hospital is now. They used the row of eucalyptus trees (today’s Broadview Avenue) at the northern edge of William Sparr’s citrus orchard to guide them through the flat sage-covered land that is now Montrose until they reached Baldridge’s new ranch.
In 1913, Homer Baldridge began work on a grand house on a ridge at the back of the canyon overlooking his orchards. He named it Onondarka, literally “house on a hill” in the Seneca (east coast American-Indian) language. Workers hauled big rocks up the hill from the creek bed of Englehardt Canyon and Verdugo Creek for several months to create the stone foundations of the rambling mansion, and to build massive fireplaces and long rock walls. With his working orchard and vineyard, Baldridge settled in to the life of a “gentleman farmer,” even assuming the honorific title of “Colonel” Baldridge. Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, Onondarka Ranch provided jobs for hardy young workers. Tom and Bart Bonetto, of La Crescenta’s landmark Bonetto Feed and Fuel, worked at the ranch as youngsters. Lawrence Tibbett, who later found fame as an opera singer and movie star, worked the ranch, living with his wife and twin sons in Englehardt’s old cabin. He practiced his opera singing among Baldridge’s grapevines and in the hills behind the ranch. Writer Eric Howard, who penned a few cowboy movies, also lived at the ranch.
From his vantage point above the Crescenta Valley, Baldridge watched the valley grow and evolve from deserted acres of sagebrush into a thriving community. Onondarka evolved in purpose as well, from agriculture to equestrian. The late ’30s saw the growth of Onondarka’s horse stables and riding activities, which I’ll cover next week.