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Thanksgiving steeped in history, memory for one of the Santa Clarita Valley's founding families

Posted: November 27, 2013 3:30 p.m.
Updated: November 27, 2013 3:30 p.m.

Melba Fisher, 97, enjoys a cup of coffee at the Way Station Coffee Shop in Newhall on Friday. Signal photo by Dan Watson.

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There was no turkey on the Walker dinner table on Thanksgiving 1946 — but there was pork roast, and a fresh-picked watercress salad and, of course, beans.

At the Walker household, there were always beans to eat.

Holidays weren’t always a big deal at the home of one of the Santa Clarita Valley’s founding families. Patriarch Frank E. Walker, who owned land in Placerita Canyon and eventually deeded it to the state for a park, had relatives in Los Angeles, and wife Hortence V. Reynier Walker had relatives in Sand Canyon.

But “I don’t remember anybody coming to the house” for holidays, said Melba Walker Fisher, one of the 12 surviving children Frank and Hortence Walker gave birth to and raised on Walker Ranch between 1909 and 1928.

However, Thanksgiving 1946 was different.

It was a late holiday that year, falling on Nov. 28 - as this year’s does. It was an occasion for celebration for thousands of American families who were holding reunions with their soldiers, sailors and Marines after five years of battle in World War II. So it was at the home of Frank Walker Sr.

Harsh life

Melba Walker Fisher is sixth among the 12 Walker children. She is 97 years old now, living in a house in Newhall. She and her brother Richard, who lives in Chico, are the last of that generation of Walkers.

She describes what would seem a harsh life by today’s standards for the youngsters growing up on Walker Ranch in Placerita, though in her still-impish way she suggests it was all a lark to her.

Her father put the kids to work at a young age raking leaves, repairing seasonal damage to the then-unpaved road up Placerita Canyon, mining for gold in the stream that flowed across their property and caring for livestock on the ranch.

“If we wanted some milk, we’d walk down to the corral and milk a cow,” Melba Walker said. “We’d walk down to the spring to get water.”

“Mamma would store the milk in a cup in the cupboard,” she recalled with a twinkle in her eye. “I’d sneak in and spoon the cream off the top. Momma would always wonder who took the cream.”

But generally, she added with a smile, the family knew when something was amiss or went missing, Melba the middle child was at fault.

Her brothers and sisters would chant, “We know who did it. Melba did it,” she said, almost proudly.

Up a tree

Her father was a strict disciplinarian, so when there was hell to pay, the Walker kids climbed up one of the many oak trees on the property until Dad cooled down.

“When Dad was mad, we’d go up a tree” because the elder Walker wouldn’t climb up after them, she said. “I was on top of every tree.”

The family had two homes on the property: The 20x20-foot cabin that can still be seen near Placerita Canyon Nature Center, and a larger “summer house” up the canyon in the area now called Walker Ranch – actually a compound of buildings including three bunkhouses. Melba Walker remembers when the lower, or winter, cabin was just 10x20 feet with the entire family living there.

The Walker kids all went to Newhall Elementary School — the boys usually shoeless no matter the time of year.

But when Melba showed up without shoes, “the teacher was really mad,” she recalled. “She wrote a note to Daddy to get me some shoes.”

That he did, begrudgingly, spending $1.98 for a pair of shoes in Newhall, she recalled. “He never let me forget that — that $1.98,” she said.

She recalled having just one dress to wear to school every day and being teased about it. And she recalled lunches at school consisting of bean sandwiches.

“Nobody knows what it’s like to eat a bean sandwich every day for lunch,” Melba Walker said with a laugh. “My one brother, his name was Edward, but everybody called him ‘Beans.’”

Leaving home

Most of the Walker children left home at an early age.

“Charlie, one of the middle boys, when he was 16 he woke (his siblings) up in the middle of the night with a suitcase all packed,” said George Starbuck, Melba Fisher’s first son.

Charlie said goodbye and took off on foot, headed for the home of relatives in Los Angeles, George Starbuck said. He became the chief baker for Four ‘n 20 Pies Restaurants.

While Melba married into the Starbuck family of Iron Canyon around the age of 20, many of the Walker men — like their peers across the country — joined the service before or during World War II.

“Things were in such an uproar due to World War II,” George Starbuck recalled. “All the uncles were off in Europe fighting.”

But that changed in 1946. Victory in Europe was declared on May 8, 1945, and Victory over Japan on Aug. 14, 1945. By November 1946, service men were flocking home in large numbers, ready to resume their lives. The enemy was vanquished, and the nation was poised for a period of economic growth and technological innovation like few others in history.

Thanksgiving

The Walker family’s summer home in Placerita Canyon was the magnet that year for the family’s Thanksgiving. At least two brothers were home from the war and able to join in the holiday dinner, George Starbuck said. George and his sister, Gail, were both there.

It had been raining as the Starbuck family set out from Iron Canyon, so the “back way” to his grandfather’s home – the family called him “Papa” – was not an option.

“We had to go the long way around old Soledad Canyon Road to Highway 6 and up the front way to Walker Ranch,” George Starbuck said.

“We took the 1931 Model A truck — it had dual tires on it so we could get through the mud and ford the creek.”

His mother and sister “picked watercress all the way through down by Newhall and back up through Placerita Canyon” for a salad for Thanksgiving dinner.

Dinner was at the summer house because the winter cabin was rented out permanently by then for filming by RKO Pictures. It was the haunt of Hoot Gibson and Hopalong Cassidy, not the Walkers.

Much of the extended Walker family was there, George Starbuck recalled, including his aunt Hortence (who went by “Mickie”) and her husband Glenn with their son, residents of San Fernando; his uncles Raymond Evans Walker; Frank R. Walker, who was in the Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge; Edward Walker and others.

“We ate at the big long table” inside the summer house. “We had cornbread — Papa used to make cornbread all the time. And there were beans — perpetual beans.”

During the dinner a thunderstorm rolled in and “it rained — it just poured for hours. We walked down to the creek and we saw mud in waves coming down (the canyon).”

The road that the Walker kids labored to keep open for years was impassable.

“Nobody could go home.”

With three bunk houses for the adults to spend the night in, the youngsters — George and his sister Gail and their cousin Kenneth — bedded down on couches in the main house that served as a kitchen and dining room, with a pot of beans perpetually bubbling on the back burner of the stove.

“That’s the only time we remember spending the night at Papa’s,” George Starbuck said. And he remembers much laughter and storytelling that night.

llittlejohn@signalscv.com
661-255-1234

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