Deukmejian Wilderness Park History and the Stone Barn Nature Center

Things are about to get pretty exciting at Deukmejian Wilderness Park. The long-awaited nature center planned for the inside of the historic Le Mesnager stone barn will open on March 19. Schools throughout the region will have a new and amazing field trip destination for learning about the wonders of the natural world around us. Hikers preparing to head up into the park will have detailed trail info at their fingertips. And our community will gain an important new cultural center focused on Crescenta Valley’s unique interaction with the unspoiled mountains that embrace our valley on both sides. Let’s look at the past of the land that is now Deukmejian Wilderness Park and the pioneering Le Mesnager family that built the stone barn and planted the extensive vineyards.

But first – let’s address the elephant in the room. How the heck do you pronounce Le Mesnager? Everyone from the past to the present stumbles on that one. Although there are many opinions on proper pronunciation, I think it’s safe to go with “Le-mess-na-shay.” That’s manageable to the American tongue and falls somewhere in the middle of the completely proper, and the completely wrong, pronunciation.

Dunsmore Canyon on the front face of the San Gabriel Mountains is the location of today’s Deukmejian Wilderness Park. The canyon contains an intermittent stream. Two large earthquake faults cross the canyon on the front face of the mountains. The Sierra Madre fault runs through the canyon down low, just below today’s stone barn following a track just above Markridge Road. It was this fault further north that broke for the Sylmar Earthquake back in 1971. Higher up, the Lukens Fault crossing the canyon causes underground water to “pop up” to the surface, creating a waterfall that flows all year.

For thousands of years, Native Americans – the Tongva people – used the canyon as a food source. They hunted deer and rabbit there and also collected pine nuts and acorns. In the heat of summer they probably established temporary village camps in the cool of canyons. They walked on trails they made, perhaps the same trails we hike today. They did controlled burns to keep the forest and meadows healthy.

When the San Gabriel Mission was established in 1771, some Natives were drawn there by curiosity. The ones who didn’t go willingly were rounded up by soldiers and the villages emptied out. The canyon was left quiet and uninhabited.

Historical records tell us that the canyon and the other canyons on the front face contained forests of tall pine trees, the bigcone Douglas-fir. This tree only grows in the coastal ranges of Southern California. When the Americans took over in the mid-1800s, they logged out these forests. Chinese crews were sent into the canyons above the valley to cut the trees for firewood. The trees never grew back.

The first American to settle in the canyon that is now the park was Civil War vet James Dunsmoor and family in 1874. He sold honey from his bee-keeping operation but moved on in 1882, leaving behind his name on the canyon (spelled incorrectly “Dunsmore”). Benjamin Briggs, the founder of La Crescenta, bought Dunsmore Canyon as an investment, reselling it to Georges Le Mesnager in 1884.

And this is where the story gets interesting because Georges was quite a character. Georges came to Los Angeles as a young man in 1866, possibly out for adventure and to make his fortune. But when the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870, he rushed back to France to serve in the French Army. After he returned he got into the wine and liquor business. He also got heavily involved in the vibrant French community that was a big part of Los Angeles in the late 1800s. Georges was a French patriot, giving speeches in French and helping to start a French newspaper. As his wholesale wine and liquor business expanded in downtown LA, Georges purchased land in 1886 in Dunsmore Canyon and Verdugo Canyon, intending to make wine from his own vineyards.

Next week, our history will cross into the 20th century and continue up to the present.

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