The Stone House, Part 6: ‘John Heron Lives to 100’

Pablo Capra
Pablo CapraBy Pablo Capra      May 27, 2022

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The Stone House, Part 6: ‘John Heron Lives to 100’
John Heron’s homestead in upper Hondo Canyon, circa 1908. The Topanga Journal, December 1, 1960.
John Heron (1861-1961) was born in San Francisco, and worked for Wells Fargo & Company Express when it was a stagecoach mail carrier. In 1893, he married, Iva Powell (1871-1948), from Portland, OR. He next worked for an insurance company called the Board of Fire Underwriters (later, the Pacific Fire Rating Bureau) in Salem, OR, in the early 1900s. In 1905, the company transferred him to Los Angeles. There, the Herons reconnected with Salem friends Rev. Frederick (1860-1942) and Mary E. Post (1858-1910), who had moved to Topanga to the former George Harter house (later, the first post office). Frederick planned to homestead land in Hondo Canyon, giving John the idea to do the same.  The Herons’ only child, Dora, was born in 1908. According to Topanga historian Ivan L. Nelson, John lived and worked in the city during the week, and hiked back to his cabin on the weekends. “When Monday morning came and the alarm buzzed the early hour of 5:00 a.m. Heron began his hike down to the spot on the coast highway now marked by the Light House Café. The long walk began under the light of morning stars and ended when he climbed upon the horse car at the foot of the Long Wharf [at Potrero Canyon]. The horse car carried him to the point on Third Street in Santa Monica where he was able to make connections with a Red Car and continue to his office in Los Angeles. “The return trip to Topango on Saturdays was a lark if he chanced to meet one of his neighbors. In this case he rode in a wagon or buggy, otherwise he had to walk home and carry a week’s supply of food for his family. There was no store closer than Johnston’s Grocery in Santa Monica and he walked the entire distance carrying a heavy load on many, many weekends.”
Caroline Hansen, whose parents owned the Outside Inn, at John Heron’s homestead, 1920s.
(“Mountain Echoes,” Topanga Journal, 1950-06-30)

This account sounds exaggerated. Couldn’t John get a horse? Did he really leave his family alone in the Santa Monica Mountains all week?

Census records show that the Herons lived at 1127 20th Street in Santa Monica; and, around 1930, at 1231B 5th Street. Although Dora got some schooling in Topanga, it doesn’t appear that the Herons actually settled there until John retired.

In the late 1930s, the Herons moved to 1 Hillside Dr., in the Topanga Oaks development, and Iva became a schoolteacher at the nearby school. Their “Heron’s Peak” homestead burned in the 1943 fire. In 1946, they bought the stone house ranch with Dora and her husband, Lee Conger.

Iva became bedridden and died from an enlarged heart in 1948. The following year, John sued his family, demanding a partition of the property and the money that he’d given them to buy the ranch. They reconciled, but only after John took full ownership of the stone house.

A neighbor boy, Richard Esparza, remembers that John was friendly until you crossed him.

“If John saw us stealing apples from his orchard, he’d grab his shotgun and shoot us with rock salt, which left stinging red marks. We never told our parents because we didn’t want to get in trouble.”

When John approached his 90th year, his remarkableness began to be celebrated by the community.

Iva Heron holds daughter Dora, born in 1908. The Topanga Journal, February 27, 1958.
He participated in a “Pioneer Round Table,” telling stories with other old-timers like Bob Hutton, Lucy Cheney, Tom Cheney, E. R. Julian, and George Melcher. 
He helped Ivan L. Nelson write his “A History of Topanga” series in the Topanga Journal.

He struck wonder by continuing to drive and shop into his late 90s. 

And he was honored by the post office for being a patron since its opening day in 1908. Postmaster Hal Rolfe included photos of the Herons in a Jubilee history exhibit in 1958.
John had voted in every presidential election since the one in 1884, between James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland. Proudly Republican (most of his lifetime was known as the era of “Republican Dominance,” 1861-1933), he cast his last vote in 1960 for Richard Nixon, who lost to John F. Kennedy... but not in Topanga, where Nixon won 651 to 494. 

Above: John Heron votes for Richard Nixon in 1960. He is flanked by Lee (l) and Dora (r) Conger.” Seated are election officials Mrs. Milford Scott, Mrs. Phil Gingerich, and Mrs. W. Lewis. The Topanga Journal, November 17, 1960. Left: John and Iva Heron, 1908. The Topanga Journal, February 27, 1958.
President Kennedy sent John a 100th birthday card on November 9, 1961 anyway.

“Mr. Heron had set the attainment of his 100th birthday as his last major goal in life; and his family reports that although he enjoyed his 100th birthday party, highlighted by visits from his old friends and a birthday card from the President of the United States [John F, Kennedy] (below), he seemed to lose interest in life following the party.”

(“Oldest Topangan Dies,” Topanga Journal,
November 30, 1961)
John died on November 24, 1961, at the Pacific Convalarium in Santa Monica, where he had been a patient for “some months.” His son-in-law Lee died in San Luis Obispo, CA, in 1964. Dora lived the rest of her life in Fresno, CA, until 1981.

Pablo Capra is the Archivist for the Topanga Historical Society and author of “Topanga Beach: A History” (2020). More at topangahistoricalsociety.org.
Pablo Capra
      May 27, 2022

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