The Story Behind Fehlhaber-Houk Park
On a busy Tujunga Canyon Boulevard, where heavy traffic grinds along between Sunland-Tujunga and the 210 Freeway, lies a small park, little noticed by the cars rushing by. It’s little used as well, as it is truly a “passive park” – no tennis courts, playground equipment, not even a dedicated parking area – just a winding cement path through lawn and a few scattered trees. But at the bottom end of this obscure park on the western edge of CV is a plaque that dedicates Fehlhaber-Houk Park to the pioneering Fehlhaber family.
Herman and Helena Fehlhaber emigrated from Germany to Cleveland, Ohio. In 1902, they moved their growing family to sunny Los Angeles, settling in what was then suburban Boyle Heights. They craved a rural lifestyle, so in 1906 they bought 59 acres situated on a dirt road then known as Horse Thief Trail (today’s Tujunga Canyon Boulevard). The four sons and one daughter were set to work clearing the sagebrush from the sloping acreage, dotted with stumps of oak trees cleared by woodcutters in the previous century. They planted the cleared land in grapes, a mix of table and wine grapes, using the “crowbar method,” in which a crowbar was thrust into the rocky soil and a grape-cutting inserted into the hole. Water was more plentiful on their property than in other parts of the valley. They straddled Verdugo Creek and the water table was just a few feet down. But to get enough water to irrigate their grapes they dug a 45 foot deep water tunnel into the Verdugo Mountains, and a deep collection reservoir at its head.
Like many valley ranchers the family had to take on a variety of jobs in order to survive. The Fehlhaber boys delivered the L.A. Times through the entire valley on foot, a whopping 45 customers, which quickly grew to 80 deliveries, each morning. A silica mine was opened at the back of their property and the ore was hauled by wagon to the railhead at the intersection of Montrose and La Crescenta avenues. From there the electric trolleys of the Glendale and Montrose Railway took the rock down to L.A. for processing. Many who worked the silica mine suffered years of throat and lung problems from the silica dust. In the ‘20s and ‘30s they maintained a regulation rifle range on their property which they rented to police and National Guard units for marksmanship training. The rifle range was closed soon after WWII started when a few stray bullets whizzed over the heads of the Japanese and German internees at Tuna Detention Camp, where the Verdugo Hills Golf Course is today.
They also built a dance floor, barbecue pits and picnic tables, and rented the resulting picnic grounds out to various church and civic groups for celebrations.
The children all attended far-off La Crescenta Elementary School, getting to know the other pioneer children of CV. A tradition was started by the Fehlhaber children that showed how quiet the valley was back then. At night they would gather on the steps of their ranch house and sing a song, which would be answered clearly by a song from the Le Mesnager children at their ranch in Dunsmore Canyon (today’s Deukmejian Park).
As the boys grew one of them started a trapping business, harvesting hides from local foxes, coyotes and raccoons. Another was drafted into the Army and spent a year and a half in Europe serving the big guns of American artillery in WWI.
But the children grew up and scattered. Herman and Helena died, and the land began to be parceled out to developers as the post-war housing boom of the valley intensified. Eventually all that was left of the 59-acre Fehlhaber Ranch was a 1.2 acre vacant lot on the corner of Tujunga Canyon Boulevard and Elmhurst Drive, owned by cousins of the Fehlhaber clan. In 1975, those cousins, Dr. John Houk and his sister Betty Swanson, donated it to the City of L.A. for a park and, in 1980, Mayor Tom Bradley officiated the opening of Fehlhaber-Houk Park, the last legacy of a pioneering family.