The Making of Topanga’s Story

By Ami Kirby
The Canyon ChronicleBy The Canyon Chronicle      December 10, 2021

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The Making of Topanga’s Story
Cover for first edition of “The Topanga Story.” (1992)
It takes a village, and time, to write one book, let alone two books of consequence about its own history. The first edition of “The Topanga Story” (1992) is no longer in print but “The Topanga Story: Expanded Edition,” (2012), a richly illustrated hardcover book that documents Topanga’s history from its homestead days through the 1990s, is on sale during December for $25. Copies are available on the Topanga Historical Society website and at Topanga Homegrown, during Snow Night, December 19, 4-8 p.m., at Pine Tree Circle. The original “Topanga Story,” a softcover, coffee-table book, has its own origin history that began in 1983 when the recently formed Topanga Historical Society (THS) asked Louise York to write a history of Topanga. Louise was well qualified for the task, having worked as a journalist for several publications before her marriage. In 1955, she and husband Kenneth, a law professor at Pepperdine College, moved to Topanga where they raised four sons and were active in the community. Both were members of the newly formed THS and Louise was active in the Republican Women’s Club and the local Christian Science church. Her high energy and capacity for hard work made her an ideal candidate for the huge task that took ten years to complete. Louise first examined the historical materials gathered by the THS from community members, then sent letters seeking information. Her correspondence file shows the gratifying number of responses she received from Topanga’s early settlers who offered photographs and reminiscences of their Topanga years. She interviewed Topanga’s resident “old-timers,” and soon reported that information was “flooding in.” She organized the materials into 16 chapters. The first two described Topanga’s topography, vegetation, wildlife, and the Native Americans. The following five chapters covered events from 1880 to 1990, beginning with the early Mexican and pioneer homesteaders; the last nine focused on topics such as Schools, Disasters, the Arts, and Businesses. When the text was finished and photographs collected, Louise worked closely with local artist and graphic designer Barbara King, who designed the book. The book, which has 266 pages and more than 500 photographs, was published in 1992. The 2,000 hardcover and 1,000 softcover copies quickly sold out. A second printing sold out in 2002. Sadly, Louise suffered a major stroke in the late ‘90s, which limited her ability to speak. She died in 2007.
Photo by lynn Morley Graphic designer Barbara King (l) for the first edition of “The Topanga Story” with editor Louise York.
“The Topanga Story: Expanded Edition” (2012)
In 2002, under the leadership of THS president Buz Tarlow, work began on the expanded edition when Michele Johnson agreed to take it on as editor. Like Louise, she was also well qualified for the project both as a journalist, who also served for several years as editor of the Topanga Messenger, and as a writer for TV quiz shows “Jeopardy” and “Hollywood Squares.”

Michele began the work by enlisting 24 Topangans to write about topics she had chosen. These included Lower Canyon history, the Mermaid Tavern, Topanga’s music scene, T-CEP, Top O’ Topanga, Topanga’s State Park, and an update on the ever-popular topic: Topanga’s hippies.

She interviewed many longtime Topangans, including Pearl and Bill Sloan, Henry Smith, Vera Woods, Herta Ware, Ellen Geer, and Harriet Swenson, who told their stories of Topanga in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. She researched and expanded materials for each chapter, focusing on the Arts chapter where she gathered extensive material, especially on Topanga’s music scene of the ‘70s and ‘80s. She added the new chapter, “After 1980: Into the New Millennium,” that contains Susan Nissman’s lengthy article, “The Battle for Summit Valley: 1991-1994.” She asked Topanga’s highly regarded author and Los Angeles Times columnist Al Martinez to write the book’s foreward, and obtained permission from the Times to print his poetic ode to Topanga. She also got permission from Topanga author Carolyn See to print an excerpt from her book, “Golden Days,” set in and around Topanga.

Michele and I met regularly in the THS office for more than a year, selecting photographs from the Society’s photo archives. We chose almost all that were in the first edition, plus many new ones for the expanded edition. We also selected photos from the Topanga Messenger files and gathered new ones from community members. THS board member Kathy Virkler scanned the great mass of photos so they could be sent electronically to the designer to place in the text. Virkler’s digital preservation also made it possible for THS archivist Pablo Capra to build a digital archive on the website.

The 400-page expanded edition, completed in 2011, retains almost all of Louise’s text, some lightly edited to match Michele’s vigorous style. The finished text, a third of which is new, works well with the second book’s designer Amy Inouye’s bold, color-saturated format.
Cover for “The Topanga Story: Expanded Edition.” (2012)
In 2012, shortly after the books arrived from China where they were printed, THS president Buz Tarlow presided over the book’s celebratory launch program held in the new Topanga Library’s community room. The large audience, that included many who had contributed to the book, received, along with Michele, heartfelt praise for a job well done.

Ami Kirby is the former THS archivist and photo editor of the Expanded Edition of “The Topanga Story.”

Please support the THS by becoming a member and checking out their catalog of books reflecting the history of Topanga at: topangahistoricalsociety.org.
Topanga Historical Society ArArchivesAArchives Michele Johnson, editor of the second edition of “TheTopanga Story,” at the Topanga Historical Society office looking through the archived collection of the Topanga Journal. (2003)
The Canyon Chronicle
      December 10, 2021

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