22 December 2014

A Little Early History of the Mountain View Park Tract

In the first half of the 1920s, there was a population boom and major economic expansion in the Los Angeles region and the real estate market was red hot.  While much of that growth consisted of spreading suburbanization away from the central core of downtown Los Angeles and into the outlying sections of the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valley, there was also a great deal of "resort" development.  This occurred in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, the region's beach communities, and canyons in the lower-lying hills and mountains.  Whether it was small coastal bungalows or cabins in the canyons and mountains, a growing number of the region's residents were buying and using weekend residences to escape the growing urban environment.

It's hard to believe now, but Carbon Canyon's first subdivisions were developed to meet the wants of Los Angeles-area citizens looking for that weekend get-away, as well as a chance to speculate and make a quick buck on rising real estate prices, and the canyon, being 35 miles from downtown Los Angeles was seen as a vacationer's retreat.  The clientele was definitely working and middle class, as evidenced by the moderate means of the subdivisions' developers and as indicated by what censuses tell us about the occupations and home values of early buyers and residents.

As noted here before, Sleepy Hollow was the first Carbon Canyon subdivision, created in 1923 by Cleve Purington and associates, mainly people associated with the Long Beach area.  The lot sizes were small and were known as "cabin lots" so that buyers could build small cabins for those weekend and holiday visits.   Very shortly afterward, another subdivision was created just a short distance to the east along Carbon Canyon Road.  This new tract was dubbed "Mountain View Park."

The name was actually apt, especially for those lots that were plotted out higher up on the steep slopes to the south of the roadway, as these had views of Mount San Antonio (Baldy) and other peaks in the majestic San Gabriel chain.  The four street names are mostly obvious:  Canon Lane (the Spanish spelling, missing its tilde or ñ, for "canyon"), Low Lane, this being the one closest to Carbon Canyon and the lowest in the tract, and Observation Lane, because of the fine views found there.  One street, however, has an unusual moniker:  Chernus Lane.  That leads to the founder of the community.

The 1940 census showing Morris and Rose Chernus at their South Los Angeles address.  From Ancestry.com.  Click on any image to see them in enlarged views in a separate window.
Morris (or Maurice) Chernus was a native of the Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire, born 25 March 1881 in the village of Tashan, southeast of Kiev, now the capital of the embattled republic.  His parents were Herschel (Harry) Chernus and Rachel Dienstein and there were four other children, brother John and sisters Anna, Rose and Dora, and the family name was probably Chernuskin.  After Harry Chernus died in 1898, and perhaps because the lives of Jews in Russia and the Ukraine were always precarious due to vicious pogroms launched against them, the family uprooted and moved to America.

Rachel Chernus and her four children, ranging from a year to Morris's eighteen years, took a ship from Bremen, Germany to Baltimore, arriving in the United States on Christmas Day 1899.  From there, it appears the family migrated to Chicago, perhaps because of other relatives or neighbors living there (which has always been a typical "pathway" for migrants needing familiarity.)

Sometime in the first years of the twentieth century, Morris married Rose Wishnak, another Russian-born immigrant and the couple had two children born in Franklin Park, a Chicago suburb, these being Rose (1909-1990) and Leon (1911-1960).  By about 1915, the Chernus family migrated to Los Angeles and their third child, Joseph (1917-1964) was born there.

It appears that Morris worked for some fifteen years as a contractor, mainly building apartments, which serviced that demand for housing mentioned above.  Presumably, he made decent money doing this, because in 1924 he and others swung a deal to buy some property in Carbon Canyon.

Real estate listings showing the purchase of the Mountain View Park tract by Morris Chernus and his promissory note agreement with the Chino Land and Water Company, 19 June 1924, from the San Bernardino County Sun.
The arrangement, finalized on 19 June, included a purchase of land from the Chino Land and Water Company, the firm that bought the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino in the first years of the century.  The rancho's western boundary passed on the western fringe of the Chernus purchase as it runs southeastward from near Tonner Canyon through where the Circle K convenience store is located and in the hills immediately adjoining the tract before moving into Chino Hills State Park and points south.

There had evidently been some kind of agreement by Chino Land and Water with a firm called the Chino Oil Company, because the latter had to issue a quit claim (essentially disavowing any rights to the property) to the former before the Chernus deal could be consummated.  Then, came the sale to Chernus, who then turned around and arranged for five promissory notes, four for $400 and one for $776, with the notes due year-after year, so that the last was due in 1929.  This made the total price for the land, dubbed the Mountain View Park Cabin Site subdivision, $2376.

Sales of lots began not long afterward and there were regular reports in newspapers like the San Bernardino County Sun of sales of lots, though whether these were for investment and speculation or for building of cabins or permanent homes is not known.  One couple, Bert and Mary Bell, bought a significant amount of property in Mountain View Park.  The pair lived in South Los Angeles, where Bert was a grocer and then a plumbing company worker.

A number of purchasers were Jews, including musician Moses Mayer, a native of Russia; house carpenter Israel Friend, born in Poland; and Isaac Gorin, a Russian-born owner of an iron working firm.  Though it may be incidental, the fact that, within a few years, just a bit cater-corner from the Mountain View Park tract was Camp Kinder Ring, the Workmen's Circle youth (and, later, all ages) camp founded by Jews.  And, of course, a couple miles west down Carbon Canyon Road in Brea was La Vida Mineral Springs, where the cafe was owned by Russian-born Jew Archie Rosenbaum, who also ran a restaurant in the late 1930s and early 1940s associated with the Carbon Canyon Mineral Springs resort at the west end of Sleepy Hollow near the county line.

Short article in the Sun for the incorporation of the Mountain View Park Mutual Water Company, 25 November 1926
As was the case with Sleepy Hollow, water had to come for purely local sources, so Chernus, his wife Rose, Los Angeles attorney Lester Roth, G.G. Hetherington, and B.M. Melton created the Mountain View Park Mutual Water Company, which incorporated in November 1926.  This was a "small potatoes" endeavor, as the capital stock of the little firm was only $200 and the project consisted of a single well and the equipment to pump the water--presumably from Carbon [Canyon] Creek across the road, though the well could have been elsewhere.

It appears that, despite the low purchase cost, spread out over five years due to the promissory note arrangement with Chino Land and Water, and the minuscule capitalization of the little water company, the success of Mountain View Park was limited.  Likely there were few cabins built compared to the number of lots purchased for speculation.  Moreover, the real estate market in the region peaked in 1923, the year prior to the founding of the tract, and a gradual decline ensued, heightening by the end of the decade.

Finally, the American economy, largely driven by manic speculation in the stock market, in which many investors were "buying on margin," or borrowing off future earnings, was expanding into a gigantic bubble.  In October 1929, the famed crash of the stock market took place and the bubble burst.  It took a few years for the Great Depression to really take effect, as bank closures in the thousands took place by 1932.

Not surprisingly, then, slews of tax defaults appeared in the public notices section of local papers, including the San Bernardino County Sun, for places like Mountain View Park.  Bert and Mary Bell and Morris and Rose Chernus were the biggest property owners in the tract and, consequently, the ones that had the greatest amount in arrears.  Eventually, both lost their properties and these were either assumed by banks or picked up at tax foreclosure sales.  With the Depression followed by World War II, it is unlikely that activity picked up much at the tract, though there was probably some improvement after 1945, especially as a gradual increase in full-time residents supplanted the weekend cabin use.  In many ways, the trajectory of Mountain View Park probably mirrored that of nearby Sleepy Hollow.

A 24 May 1930 Sun article requesting that the county take control of the Mountain View Park water system, indicating that financial problems for founder Morris Chernus and other investors were growing serious.
As for Chernus, he remained in Los Angeles until his death in April 1966, with his wife passing away in July of the following year.  As a little sidenote, their daughter Sonia had an interesting career.

Sonia Chernus, born in 1909, graduated from UCLA and went into civilian service with the United States Navy during World War II.  Her secretarial and editorial skills were such that she became a secretary at Warner Brothers in the early Forties.  She then went to work for producer Arthur Lubin.

One day, Sonia, who was an avid reader, came across a series of short stories that she felt might make a good television program and pitched the idea to Lubin.  From this came one of the more popular (and goofy) sitcoms of its day, Mister Ed, a show about a talking horse.  The credits included one for Sonia as the developer of the format for the show.

In the later 1950s, while at Universal Studios, Sonia met a tall, handsome actor whose career was stalling to the extent that he was considering quitting acting.  So taken with him that Lubin later said that "Chernus had a lifelong crush" on the actor "and would have gone to the ends of the earth for him," she arranged for the struggling thespian to meet Lubin about a new show being developed by the producer.

Lubin liked the young man's look and was able to get him a starring role as Rowdy Yates on the western series Rawhide, which ran for several seasons.  The actor was Clint Eastwood and Chernus was so loyal to him and he so thankful for her pivotal role in his big break that, when the rising star created his own production company, Malpaso, by 1970, Chernus was hired as a story editor.  It was said, though, that her job wasn't so much as a necessity as a show of thanks by the actor.  In fact, one Eastwood biographer stated that, "Chernus dutifully pulled up, sifted through, incoming scripts.  Her position was considered, in-house, almost a gratuity; in general, people though Clint didn't value her strong opinions."

Chernus was also a close friend of the actor's first wife, Maggie, and considered like an aunt to their two young children, so that also was a factor, even as Sonia's often forceful personality created some conflict.  In one case, when Eastwood developed Play Misty for Me, an early film where he received some critical acclaim, it was Chernus who suggested a storyline involving the star's character and a girlfriend.

In 1976, Eastwood filmed The Outlaw Josey Wales, which received more critical praise, and Chernus, after aggressive lobbying, was assigned the task of sketching out a storyline from a novel and generating a first draft.  Although the script was completed by the film's director, Philip Kaufman, Chernus requested a co-writing credit, to which the star demurred.  Going over his head, Sonia appealed to the Writer's Guild, looking for membership and, more importantly, a pension, and was successful in securing the credit.  Eastwood, riled by the show of disloyalty, asked Chernus to vacate her office at Malpaso and ordered her to work at home with less assigned work.

Occasionally, though, she was allowed to offer more opinions.  For example, when Eastwood was looking to film a final western to close the book on the genre that largely defined him and had a source in mind, Chernus warned that "I can't think of one good thing to say about it, except maybe get rid of it FAST."  The star ignored her and went on to use the story for one of his best-known films, Unforgiven.

That film came out in 1990 and, while Chernus was kept on salary, she hadn't seen the actor for almost fifteen years and barely had contact by phone or otherwise.  It was said that Eastwood referred to her as a "bottom feeder," though her closeness to the actor's first wife probably kept her on the fringes of his orbit.  Yet, as she was dying in 1990, Eastwood, who a biographer said had one of his few female friendships (as opposed to other relationships) with Chernus, visited Sonia in the hospital and held her hand as she lay in her deathbed.

It's a small community nestled on the steep slopes of Carbon Canyon, but, like all places, Mountain View Park does have a history and one that has some interest.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a great article! And Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours! May you be blessed with a healthy, happy, and prosperous New Year! Looking forward to more great Carbon Canyon Chronicle in 2015!

A fan in MV Park Tract!

prs said...

Hello Anonymous in MV, glad you liked the post and best wishes for the holidays and New Year to you, as well. Thanks for your support!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Paul, very interesting! Nice to know a little bit about our tract!

prs said...

Hello Heidi, thanks for the comment and glad the post was interesting. Best wishes for the New Year!