The Steele Family Moves from Chantry Flat

Submitted by James P. Steele Jr, son of the man who built the Pack Station…

Steele Home at Chantry Flat

Steele Home at Chantry Flat

After the “Great Flood” of March 1938, and the ravages it visited on Big Santa Anita Canyon, the viability of our family venture came to a crashing halt. Overnight First Water Camp was completely gone, as were other resorts and any number of the cabins upstream of First Water upon which the pack station’s business depended. Family income from both First Water and the pack station stopped abruptly; in the middle of the depression.

My Dad, who had been a construction engineer and general contractor before the Big Santa Anita, returned to that line of work within a couple of months… out of dire necessity. The employment he found was way down in Phoenix, Arizona. This left my mother to deal with pretty much all the aftermath of the flood, including selling what she could of the pack station, and what to do with our house.

It’s hard to imagine in today’s world of cellphones and e-mail instant communication, and daily airline transportation options, how the situation was in 1938. Long distance telephone communication was generally not easy, and particularly so when living at Chantry Flats. Transportation was largely limited to trains and automobiles. Airline travel was still in it’s infancy and costly, which most working people (those lucky enough to have a job) couldn’t afford. So everything my mother did to pick up the pieces was largely on her own, with just minimal input from my Dad, so far away from us in Phoenix. Mother had been a professional accountant before our move to the mountains, and she was also a very competent business woman – 30 years ahead of the dawning of the feminist movement. Yes, Mom could do it all; and she did!!

Luckily Mother’s Dad, who had been a carpenter and a house builder all his life, was there to handle the trade and technical problems while she took care of the business issues. The first of which was some kind of a wrangle with the Forest Service. They apparently decided that our house at Chantry Flats somehow belonged to the federal government and couldn’t be moved. Well, because this house then represented the major asset in our family’s economic picture, and also embodied a whole lot of sweat, tears and hard earned money in hard times, my Mom wasn’t having any of that. So while the Forest Service was agonizing this issue up and down the bureaucracy from Sierra Madre to Washington D.C., my Mother bought a lot in Monrovia, hired a house moving company, and moved the house, in three parts, down that twisting canyon road. She always said that the first time the forest service knew for sure that it was gone was when they saw it going down the hill. Apparently the Forest Service didn’t follow up on their objections; maybe on the basis of “what’s done is done?” Whatever their reasons, there was no legal action, and that was the end of that as far as I know.

From that time on, and for the next eight years, there was a never ending parade of property improvements and additions. The lot my mother first purchased was one of a four-lot parcel. A gravel surfaced alleyway, parallel with Foothill Boulevard, separated the four-lot parcel from the half block deep, by full block long, vacant property facing to Foothill. At that time, and all during the time that we lived there, the long vacant lot facing Foothill remained just that…vacant. It became a favorite spot for the us kids in the neighborhood to play softball, and have glorious dirt clod fights. Not long after we were settled-in, my parents bought the adjacent lot on our north side. Dad then built a garage building (about 1000 sf) at the rear of that lot, which had space for two cars, a well equipped wood shop, and a spacious storage room. He then put in a long concrete paved drive way and apron to the garage area.

Soon after that Mom and Dad purchased the last two lots of the original 4-lot parcel. Our property then extended all the way through from street to street. In addition to the garage and long driveway, lots of lawns, tree plantings, box hedges and miscellaneous landscaping, Dad continued to build a number of additions to the house and it’s original small storage building. In it’s original edition (at Chantry Flat) the house was probably not much more than 1100 to 1200 sq.ft. (living room, dining room, kitchen w/ wood burning cook stove, bath, two bedrooms, and the lower level storage room). After the move to Monrovia, Dad completely remodeled the kitchen, adding a 3/4 round banquette style breakfast area, and expanding the “back porch” into a full fledged laundry and utility room. He then remodeled the dining room by adding a large, stone faced bay window. Following that he added a large, walk-in, fully cedar lined closet in he and Mom’s bedroom. In between those little projects, he remodeled and expanded the small storage building (at the rear of the first lot) into a home office room/expanded storage space; then he added a large, roofed, patio and bricked-in barbecue to the front of that structure. He also built a five foot high, vertical board fence around all of the front two lots area, and added several latticed rose and bougainvillea arbors. After acquiring the back two lots, he planted orange, lemon, and avocado trees there. All-in-all, by the time the property was sold there was about 3000 sq. ft. of livable and useable space.

The house exterior was sheathed in knotty pine, T&G boards (nominal 1in.x12in.) fastened horizontally (for the most part) to the framing with counter sunk 8d finish nails…sealed over with putty. Well that in itself was pretty much conventional, i.e. board siding for exterior sheathing. What was somewhat different was the 1-5/8 inch wide milled detail at the Tongue edge of each board. It’s this detail that accounts for the series of horizontal lines which are noticeable in various photos of the house exterior.

But what was not conventional by any means was the interior finish of the house, which was also with the same knotty pine boards; except on the inside application they were installed vertically to the wall and partition framing. This was in all rooms including the kitchen and bathroom (except for a tiled-in shower stall). The living room had a trussed, open beam ceiling which was also finished with the same knotty pine boards. I don’t remember what the other ceiling (or flooring) materials were.

This use of mass paneling was used in lieu of the (then) conventional wood lath and plaster for interior house walls and partitions because it 1) was faster to install, 2) needed no drying time or multiple plaster coats, 3) was cheaper, 4) was lighter in weight per sq. ft., and 5) seemed more in the “rustic” motif of a mountain home. (NOTE: In 1936-37 when the house was built, gypsum sheetrock was still in it’s infancy for use as an interior finish material for houses.) On the exterior, the board siding was primed and painted. The interior paneling was given a coat of orange shellac, much sanding, and finished off with a coat of clear, satin varnish, giving a beautiful, warm look and feeling. Prior to any coatings, inside or out, the knots (where cracked or loose) were filled with a painter’s putty compound. When the house was built at Chantry Flats, the exterior was painted tan with brown trim. After moving it to Monrovia it was repainted white, with white trim (as were all the succeeding remodels and additions).

The entire house at Chantry Flats was completed (lock, stock and barrel) in about four weekends. My Dad hired carpenters and other necessary craftsmen, from the project he was working on in Los Angeles, to come up on the weekends and help him build the place. It was still depression times, and he apparently had no trouble getting the guys to come up and put in 10-12 hour days on consecutive Saturday-Sunday sessions for the extra money they could earn. To sweeten the deal, he had free hot lunches and a keg of beer for them each day. I still have a distinctly clear picture in my mind of my mother and grandmothers cooking up batches of chili and beans, over an open grill, in a washtub!!