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History preserved with Hart

Community: Norman Phillips has worked at Hart Park on-and-off for more than 15 years

Posted: January 10, 2011 11:35 p.m.
Updated: January 11, 2011 4:55 a.m.

Norman Phillips, superintendent of William S. Hart Park, shares a moment with Norman the cow at the park’s barnyard in Newhall on Monday. Phillips has worked for the park on-and-off since 1986.

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When Norman was just a wee calf plucked from a slaughterhouse truck and brought to William S. Hart Park, it was only fitting his official rescuer be the guy who runs the park, whose name is also Norman.

The calf — now a 2,000-pound steer — was named after the calf rescued in the movie “City Slickers,” about city dwellers making their way on a cattle drive.

And in many ways, that’s what Regional Park Superintendent Norman Phillips does on a daily basis: helping preserve the legacy of Western silent-movie star William S. Hart.

Hart’s dying wishes were to invite the public into his home and for his ranch animals to continue living there in peace.

Sixty-five years later, the job is still getting done.

The park’s seven-strong buffalo herd, for example, has doubled in size since 1962.

“When he made out his will, he specifically said he wanted all those people who paid a nickel or a dime to see his movies to be invited, without cost, to visit his home,” Phillips said about Hart.

“It’s an honor to do this job,” he said.

A history with Hart
Phillips first came to the Santa Clarita Valley in 1986 as the park’s recreation supervisor.

Before that, he worked in a similar capacity looking after Hart’s first home in West Hollywood, off Sunset Boulevard.

In 1992, he was made regional park superintendent.

After a five-year hiatus working at another county park, Phillips returned to Hart Park in 2008 — one year ahead of the arrival of Norman, the 1-ton steer.

Thanks to a mid-90s court ruling re-interpreting Hart’s will, park administrators are now allowed to raise money in ways that were previously off-limits.

“We’ve been working with county counsel on what we can do to raise money,” Phillips said. “The one thing that will never change is: You’ll never see a fee to get into the park, you’ll never see a fee to get into the museum, and you’ll never see filming done here.”

New digs for animals
So when Norman the steer arrived in 2009, officials looking for novel ways to raise money led the calf into a new home.

The pen waiting for him, however, wasn’t made of the handmade strips of nailed lumber many park visitors may recall from the ’90s, but rather, a new green-painted heavy-duty interlocking metal fence.

Although not declared a historic site, the park is still “eligible for historic registration,” which means the same rules apply when it comes to preserving it.

The log cabin near the animal pens, for example, must be built using natural log-cut wood — in this case, shipped from Washington state — and using thick “wavy” glass that was commonplace at the turn of the century.

New fence planned
With the help of fundraising revenue added to the park’s coffers, plans call for getting rid of the “jail-like” chain-link fence that envelops the acreage and replacing it with a decorative wrought-iron fence.

“We’re integrating design and landscaping so that it’ll be really pretty,” Phillips said, “so that you won’t be seeing a chain-link fence anymore.”

A constant revenue stream is needed, he said, because property is constantly in need of repair.

“Take Clyde the buffalo,” he said of a now-deceased former park denizen. “He destroyed seven county vehicles. If we were 15 to 20 minutes late in feeding him, he let us know.”

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