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Mentryville vs. chain saw

Historc pepper trees being chopped down in old oil town

Posted: August 17, 2008 9:15 p.m.
Updated: October 19, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Darryl Manzer stands next to the stump of a pepper tree in the historic town of Mentryville. Arborists are claiming that the trees are diseased and cutting them down.

History is being wiped out in Mentryville, one pepper tree at a time, says a man who grew up in the hilly historic area tucked away in a corner of the Santa Clarita Valley.

"There's stuff going on in Mentryville that I am very much concerned about," said Darryl Manzer, an author, columnist and historian. "They've chopped down all the eucalyptus trees and they're getting ready to chop down the pepper trees."

Manzer, who grew up in Mentryville's "big house" from 1959 to 1966 but has since moved to Virginia, said taking a chain saw to these two types of trees is tantamount to taking a chain saw to Mentryville history.

Think of historic Mentryville as one of the hard-bitten pioneer communities depicted in the movie "There Will Be Blood," a community that developed around California's oil boom in the last 1880s.

Many native to Pennsylvania, the people who settled on the western edge of the Santa Clarita Valley around oil rigs set up at the far end of Pico Canyon Road responded to the intense sun that welcomed them here by planting pepper trees outside their homes for shade, according to Manzer.

They chose pepper because of the trees' billowing canopies of hanging branches that produced umbrella-like shade for hard-working pioneers, he says, adding that they also planted eucalyptus trees.

According to Manzer, every structure built - home, barn, single-room school house - had its own pepper tree.

But now those pepper trees are being cut down. Rolling hills once peppered with pepper trees are slowly becoming pimpled with stumps, he said.

The towering shaggy willow-like trees remain an integral part of Mentryville's history, and since Mentryville is deemed a state-recognized historical site, the tree-cutters have been defacing a historical site, Manzer maintains.

Most trees are cut down in Santa Clarita Valley by developers to make room for more homes or commercial property.

Not so in old Mentryville, where the little one-room school house, and the tiny sheds with loosened planks hanging from a nail, enjoy state historical status that protects them from the wrecking ball and the chain saw.

History-sensitive conservationists at the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy have several reasons to explain why the eucalyptus and some of the pepper trees are being removed, but the main reason is simple.

The trees are diseased.

"Darryl definitely has his point of view," said Rorie Skei, the conservancy's chief deputy director. "There are many reasons to take the eucalyptus trees."

An arborist, brought in by the conservancy, assessed the health of each tree before any decisions were made about removal, she explained, describing the eucalyptus trees as having reached "the end of a healthy life cycle."

In the case of the old eucalyptus towered over "the big house" - the one in which Manzer grew up - the decision was made to remove it before it crashed into the building, just as a similar "uke" did to another of the historic buildings not too long ago.

"Our main concern about the big ukes was to have them taken out to keep them from falling on out structures and on people," Skei said.

"The big uke in front of the big house gave us a lot of concern," she said. "The arborist looked at it and found it rotted on the inside.

"The main thing here is ... they're diseased," Skei said, calling those trees a fire hazard.

But, they're part of history, Manzer argues.

"We fully recognize the historic landscape and take that into consideration," said Skei in response.

"We really don't have evidence that they came with the community. We only have Mr. Manzer's claim that they came here. I don't know where he gets that."

In Tuesday's Signal: A walking tour with Manzer through Mentryville, and the debate over plants brought with oil workers over those here when Native American Tataviam roamed the Santa Clarita Valley.


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