Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

Mary Wright, An Agua Dulce Pioneer
•Mary Johnson Wright celebrates 96th birthday.

There were no roads when Mary Johnson Wright moved to Agua Dulce in 1914 shortly after her eighth birthday. The landscape of Agua Dulce back in 1914 was nothing but shrubs and manzanitas. But despite the hardships, her family made the trek from Sawtelle (in West Los Angeles) to the rural county setting of Agua Dulce, to  homestead the land and start a new life.

Born April 25, 1906, Wright recently celebrated her 96th birthday among family and friends in her home in Agua Dulce. During the celebration, Wright reminisced about her family's early years in the valley.

Wright still owns land that was part of her husband's family's remaining homestead. Wright has fond memories of growing up in Agua Dulce. Located just north of Santa Clarita, and just below Palmdale, Agua Dulce, which translated means "sweet water," still remains a rural haven for those who seek the quieter setting of the rural country side.  

For Wright, the memories were made all the sweeter, with a full life forged through the love and hard work of a pioneering family.

"Many of the families who moved to Agua Dulce at that time actually came from the Community of Sawtelle," Wright said, adding that  the Johnson family had previously lived on Rimpau,  a community at the end of the trolley car line.

"Everything up here was brush, no electricity and people were lucky to have oil for a lamp." Wright said. When the family began to arrive in Agua Dulce, the land had to be cleared by hand and the one room house had to be built.

Wright explained that the move took the Johnson family three days to travel from the Community of Sawtelle to Agua Dulce. It was Wright's father, Ulysses Sumner Grant Johnson and her brothers — Paul, Edwin, Chester, Harry and David (also known as "Dode") who moved the family from Sawtelle in an open mud wagon led by horses. Wright's  father was named after her grandfather's heroes whom he proudly served as a captain in the Union Army during the Civil War. Wright's Grandpa Johnson (buried in the Veteran's cemetery in Westwood,) was killed by a car at the intersection of Sierra Highway and Johnson road in 1918.

When Wright's father and brothers reached Fremont Pass, the road was so narrow and the pass so steep the wagon-load full of furniture and household goods had to be unloaded. Separately, the wagon and horses pulling the wagon went over the pass. Once they made it to the other side, her father and brothers carried  all of the furniture and household goods piece by piece, by hand, over the pass to the wagon where it was re-packed. Wright's first squarely shaped home measured about, 24 feet by 24 feet.

"The home, built in 1914, burned down the same year," Wright explained. When the Johnson family first arrived, Wright's four oldest "brothers slept outside in a tent," said Wright. After the home was built her brothers slept on the porch which was covered with canvas to keep out the weather.

Wright and  her mother Lulu Chappel Johnson and her sister, Ruth and her one-year old brother Malcolm,  later joined the rest of the Johnson clan, arriving by train and disembarking that spring at the Acton Train Station.

One of the requirements for keeping the homestead, Wright explained, was to plant five acres for a period of three years. Families used Chemise, also more commonly known as Greasewood for cooking, while Manzanita and Juniper were used for heating.

Water was not always easy to come by back in those early homestead years. Wright recalled the arduous work involved in  digging wells to secure enough water for the family's needs.

"People didn't waste water — it was too hard to come by,"  Wright said, adding that water for the household was obtained a mile away from their home and had to be hauled to their home in barrels. In those days, they dug holes that had a 6-foot diameter to a depth of 50 to 100 feet. She said they used ladders and the help of children, (usually a small boy) to bring the dirt up one pail at a time. Sometimes, she noted, they would dig 100 feet and find no water. These holes were always lined with wood to maintain the sides.

Perched on a small hill behind Wright's home, an old tank from those days still remains intact and can be seen from Sierra Highway. Wright proudly pointed out a tank which provided the family with their water supply.

"The one on stilts was a water supply was built by Papa Wright." Wright said. Papa Wright was Wright's father in-law, Frank Wright, a hard working farmer who loved the land and rugged life in Agua Dulce. In a diary entry Glen Wright wrote: "Finished hauling out manure. Fixed puncture in left rear tube of car. Drove up to Walkers after supper and borrowed 2 bars laundry soap and some coffee. Weather clear and warm."

Not only was water hard to come by, but food and supplies were not always easy to come by. Wright's family ordered their groceries by catalog from Los Angeles grocer, Albert Cohen. They would mail the order and the money to Cohen. The following week, the groceries would be shipped by train to Acton.

It was a day's ride to retrieve the groceries in Acton traveling from Agua Dulce and return home.

"It was a long trip because sometimes you would have to walk. Groceries weren't ordered regularly," Wright said, adding that the family ordered groceries only when they had enough money. Wright said the family limited their purchases to "canned good and bare essentials because everyone was poor." To survive, the Johnson family grew oats on their homestead.

In 1926, Wright married Glen Wright's son Leslie Wright. Together, Wright and her husband built their own house, complete with a cellar, at the corner of Sierra Highway and Davenport in Agua Dulce in 1928. The 1928 adobe-style house crumbled in the February 1971 earthquake. Their new home was built over the same site of the old house, with the cellar still in tact. The cellar, about  8 fee by 15 feet in dimension, is located 15 feet below the ground and was used for storing canned items. "Now the cellar  is filled with lots of junk," Wright said.

Schools, education, church, music and volunteerism were important activities in Wright's life. Wright's family were all musicians and known quite well by the locals in the community. In addition to their community  involvement, Leslie Wright was responsible for development of transportation of children in the William S. Hart Union High School district.

Known as Les to his family and friends, Leslie Wright was transportation manager for the school district. He has been recognized as being a prominent participant in the formation of the William S. Hart Union High School District. Prior to working for the Hart District, Leslie Wright worked for  the Antelope Valley School District.

Before getting married, both Leslie Wright and his brother Glen Wright Jr., worked at the Borax mine. Glen Wright had his own homestead near Sierra Highway. Glenn Wright's wife, Clara Long, was a school teacher at Agua Dulce Elementary. The school's roots began with Wright's mother.

Lula Chappel Johnson decided the community needed a school. Johnson provided the land in the summer of 1914. The 16-foot-by-16-foot Board and Batton school building was completed in time for the beginning of school that same fall.

The school class was held at the school in 1948, after the two school districts, the Soledad School Board of Acton and the Aqua Dulce School Board, voted to unionize.

With the two separate districts now one, it was decided to transport Agua Dulce children to Acton. After nearly two years, the school was abandoned until Wright's mother designated that it be used as a church with the stipulation that as long as it remained a church, they continue to use the Johnson family land. The school site became the "United Christian Church" in 1951. Today the church is located near Sierra Highway, near  the corner of Agua Dulce Canyon Road.

In addition to her memories of happier times, Wright could remember the eve of a tragedy as if it was yesterday. Wright recalled that she and her husband had picnicked at the top of the St. Francis Dam on Sunday March 10, 1928 just two days before it broke at 11:58 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12. Stretching a soft blanket beneath them, the two enjoyed a panorama that was to disappear, mired in human tragedy. They even took a photo of that picnic, although it could not be located.

"We even noticed it leaking on one side (she indicated right) but thought nothing of it. There was an overflow trickle on one side. We picnicked up there on Sunday and on Wednesday it was gone. No one believed the dam was going to break,"  Wright said.

But even through hardships and tragedies Wright continued to forge lasting friendships within the community. Wright and her mother were members of a women's social quilting club called the Mint Julip Club. Meetings were held at each of the members homes on a rotating basis. As part of the tradition of the meetings, the ladies would each enjoy a cup of homemade mint julep. After the mint juleps were passed around, the ladies would then get down to the serious business of sewing a quilt. Eventually, everyone in the club would end up with a completed quilt of their own which had been pieced together by all the members. Some of the families  who participated in the Mint Julip club included the Smiths, the Hanawalts, Dyers, Wrights, Melons.

Though the years, Wright has continued be active in the community. In 1993 Wright was presented with an award from the American Red Cross for 50 years of service. Most of her work for the Red Cross was performed in the Newhall, Saugus area. At a special presentation in 1997, Wright was also recognized as a pioneer by the Agua Dulce Chamber of Commerce. Today, Wright enjoys a more leisurely life than the good old days of hauling water from a well to her home, but she said she will always look back on those early days with fondness.

Jo Ellen Rismanchi is a resident of Canyon Country. She acknowledges the following people for their assistance in putting the story together: Dick Wright for news clippings, photos and facts; his cousin, Charles L. Wright for Glen Wright's diary, Letty Dyer Foote and her July 9, 2000, videotaped interview of Mary Wright; and Donal and Kathy McAdam for the loan of their book, "Heritage Happenings: Our Pioneers In Acton, Aqua Dulce, Antelope Valley and Elsewhere, U.S.A.," by Meryl Adams of Acton. The diary excerpt was written by Frank Wright, Glen Wright's father.

Signal staff writer Margie Anne Clark contributed to this story.

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