By Joe Sinclair
The proposed development of 242 acres in Big Tujunga Canyon is of personal interest to me because the land in question was at one time the turkey/grape ranch of my Sicilian grandparents, Joseph and Frances Beniche. My sister Joan, my cousins Phil and Patty, and I spent much of our childhood there in the 1940s as it was a family gathering place almost every Sunday.
Our grandparents were born and raised in two small towns south of Palermo, places I have had the extreme pleasure of visiting with my wife, children, and grandchildren. They arrived here at the turn of the century and soon married, eventually raising three daughters by the names of Rose (my mother), Mary, and Josephine.
They raised their children in a house on West Avenue 23 (now no longer in existence, its place taken by the Los Angeles River and Gardens and the Santa Monica Conservancy), just north of what is now Dodger Stadium. My grandmother worked for years as a seamstress at the Oviatt haberdashery in downtown LA before moving permanently to the ranch in the canyon.
One of my earliest memories is going with my grandmother to visit fellow Sicilian émigrés in the area. One that I look back on now with great interest was the widow of Joseph Ardizzone, reputed to be the “boss” of the Los Angeles crime family in the 1920s. He was born one year after my grandfather in the town of Piana degli Albanesi, formerly known as Piana dei Greci (now Piana del Albanese), and arrived in the United States by way of New Orleans before heading west to Los Angeles. He had a ranch along Mt. Gleason Avenue, which is now the site of Mt. Gleason Middle School. He “disappeared” while on his way by car to Etiwanda in 1931.
Another frequent visit was to the family of Joseph Criscione, who owned a ranch of 120 acres along Verdugo Boulevard that is now the site of Verdugo Hills Hospital. It was there that I was first made aware of the “newspaper man” next door who turned out to be E. Manchester Boddy, owner of Rancho del Descanso –– now known famously as Descanso Gardens. I have worked there part time as a tour guide for the past 36 years.
My sister and I lived with our grandparents for a short time in the early 1940s and attended Sunland Elementary before moving permanently to Mt. Washington, just west of the Arroyo Seco Parkway. Thereafter we were to spend many weekends with our grandparents. Our grandmother would always cook the things we liked and there were many pleasant Saturday afternoons watching Westerns at the old Tujunga Theater on Foothill Boulevard.
Thanksgiving and Christmas were always busy times at the ranch because people in the area came to purchase their fresh turkeys. Two things remain very vivid in my mind. One was the long line of cars coming up the long driveway from Big Tujunga Canyon Road, and the other was my grandmother “preparing”the turkeys for their fate by slitting their throats. Blood everywhere!!!
Probably the most unforgettable character of my childhood was a neighbor who lived in a shack just upcanyon from my grandparents’ house. He was eden ahbez (much like the great American poet e e cummings, he preferred to spell his name lower case), the composer of Nat King Cole’s greatest hit, “Nature Boy.” He truly was a nature boy, a beatnik before there were beatniks, but a very nice man who was always kind to me.
With one exception, all the neighbors living between the bluff overlooking the Little League fields and what is now the juvenile probation camp were of Sicilian descent. The exception was the daughter of Cornelius Johnson, best known for killing the last grizzly bear south of the Tehachapis in 1916. There is a famous picture of him with one foot on the grizzly that had been raiding his farm.
In the ‘40s and early ‘50s there were three areas where I could swim. The closest was just across the road where my Sicilian relatives would stack up boulders in the creek, creating a kind of swimming hole. There was a sandy beach next to the water where some sunbathing could be done. The other two were Pop’s Willow Lake, in what is now Lakeview Terrace, and the pond across the road from the old Wildwood Lodge in the upper canyon. Both were especially welcome during the hot summer months when there was no air conditioning.
My grandfather died in 1953, and my grandmother, not wishing to live alone, moved into town with one of her daughters. The property was sold in 1955, and the house was destroyed in the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. All that remained years later were the foundations of the house and the outdoor oven where my grandmother once baked her bread.
I realize progress can’t be stopped, but the thought of 242 homes crammed into what locals are calling “Sardine City” is abhorrent to me and my family. We have very warm memories of family Sundays with 40 to 50 relatives enjoying a great meal together and catching up on each other’s lives.