I live on the edge of Calabasas. The word, by the way, means pumpkins in Spanish. I’ve lived here for 35 years and never knew that. I’d also never visited the Leonis Adobe Museum just a couple of miles from my house on the Calabasas border with Woodland Hills, which is my hometown. I went there on Friday. What a trip that was.

The old adobe home is adajcent to the famous Sagebrush Cantina Mexican Restaurant. Of course I’ve been there many times over the years and drunk my fair share of magaritas. It’s become an LA tourist attraction these days (the Cantina that is), and I guess it’s still a great pick-up bar like it was in the 70’s and 80’s, though it’s certainly more gentrified than it was when Bob McCord opened it more than 40 years ago. Bob became a friend of mine through a mutual friend, and he’d occasionally come to the New Year’s Eve parties Nettie and I gave. He died a few years back and now has a street named after him across from the restaurant.

I was thinking about all these things and about the passage of time and the constancy of memories and the changing nature of the world as Nettie and I walked first through the Calabasas Creek Park next to the Cantina and then through the Leonis Museum itself.

Depending on what mental glasses you have on, the park is either a splendid little time capsule of an earlier era or another depressing instance of what was lost and crushed by one invading people subjugating another.

It’s the same old story. The Native Americans (in this case the Coastal Chumash Indians) live in harmony in the undisturbed natural landscape for thousands of years, and then the colonizing Europeans (in this case the Spanish Conquistadors, spearheaded by Portola whose name later graced my junior high school) invade the land, conquer and enslave the Indians while introducing them to syphilus, small pox, gunpowder, and Christianity, not necessary in that order. The Chumash gaming casinos came along a tad later in case you’re wondering.

The park grounds feature a few replica Chumash dwellings, a delicate Victorian garden, a one room jail, and the creek itself, which is a year-round running stream, pretty unusual for this part of SoCal. The creek meets up with another stream near Canoga High School and joins the LA River.

I pictured the Chumash making their annual trek along this creek through the Santa Monica Mountains to Malibu each summer season for fishing and surfing and then heading back to the Valley for the winter. Today, you can make that trip in about 15 minutes via Las Virgenes Canyon by way of the 101 Freeway, which conveniently has an off ramp coming right through this ancient Chumash village.

After the creek park stroll, Nettie and I considered slurping a margarita at the Cantina before walking the few hundred yards up the road to the Leonis Adobe. It does get pretty dry out here in the Wild West after all, but we braved it sober instead.

There’s a lot that can be said about the remanat of the great Leonis ranch and the adobe home. What is said and how it’s said depends again on which glasses you want to put on; though no matter how tinted they are, it’s hard to paint a pretty picture of Miguel Leonis himself.

The guy was a bastard…simple as that.

He was born in the Basque region of France and told to leave the country by his dad who pointed out that he was about to be arrested and hung for his smuggling escapades. How Miguel ended up in Calabasas in the mid-1800’s a stone’s throw from the CVS Pharmacy and Motion Picture Hospital is unclear; but what isn’t unclear is that he perfected his nefarious ways here in the good ‘ol U.S. of A.

If you were a fan of his, you could say this character was adept at working the system. He illegally manipulated the Homstead Act, which granted about 150 acres to farmers who built homes and worked the land on the newly opened Far West. Miguel falsely set up innumerable “homes” on empty land until he’d amassed over 10,000 acres of free property. He then organized a private militia of renegades and outlaws to protect his spoils against anyone who might question his dominance. Nice going, Miguel.

He also married, and subjugated, the daughter of the local Chumash Chief. Her name was Espiritu Chijulla, and through the marriage he acquired her ranch and cattle and more land. He showed his appreciation to her by relegating her son to the barn for the remainder of their married life.

Oh yes, Miguel was a helluva guy, referred to as El Basque Grande, not affectionately, by those who came across him. He died supposedly by falling off a wagon drunk while heading home through the Cahuenga Pass from a successful court case in 1889. Some believe he was ambushed by those who knew him best. I hope this version of the story is true. But I digress…

The museum staff are delightful and they tell the tale of the historic past of the outbuildings, ranch memoralilia, and barnyard animals charmingly well. All in all, Nettie and I enjoyed ourselves and felt enlivened by the sense of the immediate past and distant history so close at hand.

I’m pretty sure we’ll come back and visit another time. If I do, I’m planning on bringing my rose-colored glasses with me next time around.

Check out their website for more history and pictures of Then and Now at the Leonis Adobe Museum.




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