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Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

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Onondarka’s Golden Years – Horses and Rodeos

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Homer Baldridge, now “Colonel” Baldridge, had built himself a fine ranch in the Crescenta Valley. For a couple of decades, the teens and ’20s, the former livery stable owner oversaw his Englehardt Canyon acreage (now the Oakmont Woods neighborhood) as a gentleman farmer, cultivating vast orchards and vineyards. But seemingly sometime in the late ’30s, the Colonel’s focus returned to his original love of horses. There was a large flat bowl-shaped portion of his ranch lying between La Crescenta Avenue and the Verdugo Mountains. In older photos we see that area as a huge vineyard but, in later photos in the ’40s, the vineyards have been stripped out and a huge riding ring has been created. Barns and stalls were built, and a business was created on horse stabling, rentals and riding lessons. Onondarka became the valley’s tie to the old west where every kid, and many adults, could live out their cowboy fantasies.

At Onondarka Ranch, valley residents could stable their own horses or rent one and explore the many riding trails of the lush Verdugo Mountains. The “half-hour trail,” the “hour trail” and the “three-hour trail” challenged riders, and the big riding ring taught rodeo skills and precision drills. The “Moonlight Ride” became famous. On hot, clear summer nights, groups of riders would climb up the dark canyons and ridges of the Verdugo Mountains to reach the crest. There below them the sparkling lights of a growing Glendale and the city center of Los Angeles beyond would shine brilliantly.

During WWII, Onondarka Ranch was the base of operations for the Montrose Sheriff’s Mounted Posse that patrolled the Verdugo and San Gabriel Mountains. Then-L.A. County Sheriff Biscailuz created mounted forces in selected communities, and the Montrose group proved its worth in several high-profile backcountry rescues and locating of crashed airplanes. Today’s famous Montrose Search and Rescue team can trace its roots to this group.

After the war, Onondarka thrived under the direction of stable manager Harry Simington. Returning soldiers with young families sought out recreation at Onondarka Ranch as they moved into new homes in the Crescenta Valley. Young kids were receiving a steady diet of cowboy movies at the Montrose Theater, and Onondarka was their place to hone the skills a cowboy needed. Many a Valley kid spent hours mowing lawns or babysitting just to earn the money to spend an hour on a tired stable nag. Lessons were available, sometimes from the Colonel himself. “Play Days” at Onondarka were a regular event with mounted relay races, riding of bucking broncos and other “horsey” activities. Simington put together an award-winning mounted drill team, the Onondarka Riders. A young Bob Eubanks was a member and it’s here that he began his love of horses that he so proudly displays during Rose Parade commentary.

By far the biggest events at Onondarka were several big rodeos held there in the late ‘40s. Although they were staged and coordinated by professional rodeo promoters and attracted attendees from all over L.A., the “Montrose Rodeo” had a goofy, silly side to it. It was kicked off by a week of retail promotions in the Montrose business district. “Western Days” saw local merchants dressing in cowboy garb and holding beard-growing contests. The events were capped with a big parade down Honolulu Avenue featuring many minor cowboy stars on horseback. The goofiness didn’t end there, though, as the rodeo at Onondarka was kicked off with those same cowboy-dressed Montrose merchants, flabby and out-of-shape, going up against professional riders in bronco-riding and calf-roping. It must have been hilarious.

But the cowboy fun ended when Onondarka was sold to housing developers in 1950. As the riding ring filled with new homes, Harry Simington took his horses and the Onondarka name to Thermal, California. Today the prestigious Onondarka Riding School, now run by Harry’s son Don and granddaughter Cindy Simington, is one of the top riding academies in the state, and the Onondarka Medal is a sought after prize.

But back in CV, the thundering hooves of rodeo cowboys are a distant memory on the quiet streets of Oakmont Woods.

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