The First Forty Acres

By Karen L. Moran

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The First Forty Acres
Cy Wood holding two-year-old Lannis and wife, Vera looking on. Unknown Person
The land we call Topanga Canyon has been a sacred home for thousands of years. Most of that time, the human beings who gratefully enjoyed life in its scrub forests and abruptly rising mountains have been Chumash and Tongva peoples. Indeed, the name “Topanga” is often thought to have been learned from them. About 250 years ago, new cultures traveling from afar began appearing here, and Topanga was claimed by New Spain. In 1810, Mexico won independence from Spain, and the Canyon became part of “California.” A new system of laws imposed the idea of “ownership” on the communally shared lands, and the new “owners” steadily pushed out the ancient residents. This cycle has been repeated several times since. Americans formed the state of California in 1848, and during the Gold Rush and after, they took over Mexico’s land grants and moved Indigenous people further out to the margins. Later generations using the more peaceful method of purchasing land rights have succeeded and moved out earlier claimants and settlers like waves from the sea.
Around 1944, Cy and Vera started a jewelry and design business in Santa Monica called Cyvra with a plan to move their business and young family to Topanga.
One such wave poured into Topanga after World War II from the burgeoning city of Los Angeles. To escape its explosive growth, artists and individualists of many kinds sought and found refuge here. This included my parents, Cyril and Vera Wood, who were living in Santa Monica at the time. My mother’s family had immigrated from England in 1930, and eventually moved to the San Francisco area where she met my father, whose family had recently moved south from the Alaskan Territory.

My parents bought their first forty acres in Topanga in 1946, in partnership with my mother’s brother Keith Titmus and his wife Thelma. At that time, my oldest sister Lannis was two years old; Lynn, the second oldest, and I had not yet been born. A couple of years earlier my parents had started a jewelry and design business in Santa Monica called Cyvra. They planned to move their business and young family to Topanga. They had a dream.

The forty acres sat at the top of Red Rock Road, where the old fire-break road came into Red Rock from Stunt Road. The road up to Mt. Calabasas had not yet been constructed. Access to Red Rock was gated at the old Boy Scout camp near the current parking lot, and also where the fire road meets Stunt Road. When my father wanted to visit the property, he’d call the Fire Captain at the old fire station in Topanga and ask him to unlock the Boy Scout camp gate. He did, then asked my father to lock the gate again before sundown.
Dad and Uncle Keith had planned on each of them building a home for their families on the forty acres. But Keith and Thelma had not yet had their first child, and she had reservations about the idea. So did my mother.

The land did not have electricity or running water. Looking off toward Stunt Road and Mulholland there wasn’t even another resident in sight. Hard to imagine today! The Fire Department did have a water catchment and a hydrant at the top of Red Rock, but the rain water in the catchment was to be used for fire-related emergencies only.

Dad didn’t seem to mind the lack of power or water and began to drive up from Santa Monica on weekends for the next three years to start building. His first project was to cut a road up to the plateau. The next was to dig a hole with a backhoe and build a septic system lined with mission-style adobe bricks. He’d dig clay out of the ground and use water he’d hauled in to make the bricks. Lannis, who was then about four, remembers mixing the clay and water with her bare feet.

Lynn was born in 1948, and I followed in 1949. My mother now had three children, two of them in diapers. She asked my father to find a more reasonable location to build on. She said she didn’t need much—electricity, running water, and a bathroom.

My father found the burned-out rock cabin at 649 Old Topanga Canyon. He purchased it and the 25 acres it sat on with no down payment and a balloon payment due in 10 years. When I was seven months old my family moved here from Santa Monica. We had electricity, running water, a well, and a septic system, but no roof or doors. (They were installed three years later.)

The forty acres up on Red Rock became our favorite family picnic ground. Mom would pack us a nice lunch and my sisters and I would jump into the back of our father’s ’56 Chevy truck. When we got to the old oak tree on the plateau, we’d lay down a blanket and then run off to play while Mom set the table. We were on top of the world and could see every surrounding mountain range. Dad would walk up the ridge and over to the waterfalls; we were not yet strong enough to join him. Upon his return, we’d all gather for the feast. As the sun began to set, we’d pack up the truck and bounce on down Red Rock Road, locking the gate behind us. Dad always called the Fire Captain to let him know we’d made it home safely and that the gate was locked.


Next issue: What happened to our forty acres?

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