Cabin built in 1962
on the Winkler homestead in Romero Canyon. It was lost in the 2,183-acre Castaic fire of Aug. 27, 2001. Click image to enlarge.
The cabin is forever gone, but the memories remain vividly alive for former owner Marylynn Butters, daughter of the late World War I veteran, Pvt. Norman C. Winkler, who built the 600-square-foot ranch home in 1962. The secluded cabin and everything in it — and even the surrounding trees Winkler planted — were destroyed in the 2,183-acre Castaic blaze of Aug. 27, 2001.
Located in a remote, hilly area of Romero Canyon off of a long, winding dirt road, the small cabin was in the process of being renovated by new owner Philip Scorza, a teacher at Canyon High School. It was only four months earlier that Scorza purchased the home from Jim Gilmartin, who had purchased the home from Butters in 1999. Before the latest purchase, the aging cabin had been unoccupied since 1994.
When Butters heard the news, she was disheartened to hear television news commentators refer to the cabin as an "out-building" or an "abandoned building."
"There was so much history to the home. I just want people to know that," Butters said as she fought back tears.
She explained that the cabin was actually the second dwelling to be built on the remaining four acres of the original family homestead that once encompassed nearly 350 acres of land in the Castaic hills. The notice of Winkler's original homestead was announced in the Newhall Signal on Jan 12, 1922.
The first homestead cabin was built in 1921 and destroyed in a 1978 fire that claimed the life of Butters' uncle, Clifford Winkler. Butters and her family believed the fire started when her uncle tried to light the fireplace.
"The home burned down before anybody could get to it. Things were never quite the same after that," she said. "It was too hard for me to spend time there after seeing what had happened. There were just too many ghosts of the past and it was just too hard to bear."
Butters and her family lived in the original 900-square-foot homestead cabin from 1935 until 1944. Her father, who earned his livelihood by raising chickens, built the newer cabin as a place to stay while caring for his brother Clifford, who had moved into the original cabin in the early 1950s. Clifford Winkler was in poor health at the time and needed assistance.
By then the Winklers had already moved their chicken ranch to the family's current 10-acre property in Castaic, in 1944.
"My father built the second cabin in 1962, without using any power tools and very little money," Butters said. "He used lumber which he had hauled from an old antique home that had been torn down, on the corner of Newhall (Avenue) and Market (Street)." Her father even used the old glass windows from the building, she said.
"The windows had a wavy finish to (them). That's probably why many people think the cabin was so old." Winkler used new lumber. "He really put his heart and soul into the home and we were all so proud of him," Butters said. The cabin took her father, then 64, nearly three years to complete.
"The cabin was beautifully paneled and had stained ceilings, a built-in bookcase, carvings and handcrafted chandelier," she said, adding that her father completely wired the cabin for electricity, though it lacked indoor plumbing
"My dad thought that there would be electricity out there sooner, and he wanted it to be ready in case I decided to live there at some point," Butters said. (Electrical power is still not available in the area of the cabin without a generator.) A nearby well provided water for the kitchen sink.
Butters said her father was a foreman in a garment factory in Los Angeles after returning from the war, but he "really didn't enjoy the lifestyle, and wanted to move to the country." Winkler had enlisted in the army in 1917 and was stationed in Camp Kearny in San Diego. He was sent to France where served as a private in the 103rd Infantry, fighting the German army at the front in the woods of Verdun. He received an honorable discharge from the army in May 1919 and lived in Glendale before moving to Castaic.
Longing to live in the country, Winkler began work on the original homestead cabin in 1921 and planted more than 200 eucalyptus, cedar, and pine trees on the acreage.
"He watered all of the saplings by hand by hauling water from the Sloans' well," Butters said. "He didn't like living in the city and loved being outdoors. After serving in the war, he figured he could tackle anything. He was mountain man at heart with a great pioneer spirit. He was a very talented man."
In 1935 Winkler moved his wife Mary and baby daughter Marylynn (Butters) to the original homestead cabin. Later, their daughter Barbara was born. Butters said her father raised more than 3,000 chickens on the ranch property; he also owned two horses and a few cows.
"He earned his livelihood by selling eggs," she said. "We would go down to Potters Milling Co., a feed and hay store, to sell all the eggs each week. It was quite a feat to drive down the dirt road and not break any of the eggs.
"We also sold eggs to the local businesses and to the people who lived on Circle J Ranch back in the days when it was a working ranch," she said, adding that Potters was located on Spruce Street in Newhall, before the street was renamed San Fernando Road. The building is now the site of Newhall Lumber.
"Life was very hard for my parents, but as a child I didn't realize that most people were not living as pioneers in those years. While growing up, I worked very hard, and I think that's a good thing.
"They made a wonderful childhood for us," Butters said of her parents. "My mom was a city girl at heart but managed very well in those days. It was a great adventure for all of us."
"My dad kept up his new home, the chicken ranch, and the two cabins while caring for his brother and working at the Bermite Powder Co.," she said. Winkler eventually sold off most of the chickens and went to work as head janitor for the Newhall School District during the 1950s and early 1960s. He held the position for 11 years before retiring.
Winkler later sold off portions of the homestead property to his sister Ruth and her husband Peter Veir. Other portions of the land were sold in the late 1960s.
Due to his failing health, however, Winkler never completed everything he wanted to do with the second cabin before his death in 1977. Butters maintained the property and the cabin until she decided to sell it in 1999.
Butters returned to look at the property one last time after the Aug. 27 fire.
"This has been a heartbreaking experience for our entire family and I can never go back there again," she said. "I want to remember is as it was."
She said fire seems to be an ongoing part of the history of her family's homestead. Prior to the 1978 blaze, the original cabin was threatened with near-destruction in 1946 when fire spread from the old Whites Café off of Old Highway 99
"We've had several fires," she said. "Joe Trout, the only fireman in the area, saved our place with his little red truck. The fire went over Sloan Canyon and Romero Canyon up near the cliffs. It burnt all of our fences and burnt down about 100 of the 200 small trees my dad had planted."
Fire nearly destroyed Winkler's surviving cabin in September 1979. Butters said she had installed a generator for Castaic residents Patrick and Lynn Igoe, who moved into the cabin just before the fire that year.
"One day the generator blew up, probably from a spark," Butters said. "The fire destroyed the horse corral and the small barn my father had built. I was just devastated, because it had only been less than a year since the homestead ranch had burnt down." On top of everything, her husband was struggling with cancer during those years.
Lynn Igoe later died, and when the 1994 earthquake struck the valley Patrick Igoe moved to Northern California, even though the cabin held up quite well. Butters continued to keep the property clear of brush.
But there were other tragedies in the canyon. "My dad told me about the time when our neighbor, Lee Romero, was cleaning his rifle and the gun accidentally went off," Butters said. "Mr. Romero stumbled to my dad's cabin, and my dad put him in the car and tried to get him to a hospital, but he died on the way." The Romeros had homesteaded their property in 1913.
"It snowed the very day they started building their house," Butters said. Romero's father, known to neighbors as "Old Man Romero," lived to age 104 before he died in 1947.
Butters also recalled a plane crash in 1943 in area known to locals as Hell's Canyon. "The plane crashed about five miles from our house, and my dad and I walked into the canyon to see if we could help." The crash site was not accessible by car. "He helped save three men, but three of the men died instantly." Men on horses carried out the survivors on stretchers.
"I was happy when Phil Scorza purchased it because he seemed to really love the ranch and could do so many things to improve the place, which as one woman I couldn't do," she said. "In the short time that he owned it, he had already done a lot. My heart goes out to him."
Despite the tragedies, Butters has fond memories of growing up on the property and later, sharing her memories with her children. During the mid-1960s she would frequently bring her four sons to the second cabin.
Butters and her boys David, Dana, Gary and Greg vividly recall listening to Winkler's stories by the light of a kerosene lamp as the coyotes howled nearby. Dana reminisced about the good times he had as a child when his mom would take the kids for visit to the ranch homes.
"It is hard to express in words my sorrow at the loss of the cabin," he said. "My brothers and I would spend my summer vacations listening to my grandfather's World War I stories inside the cabin at night. During the days, regardless of the temperature, I would play and explore outside, looking at birds or collecting insects and rocks.
"I often felt that I was the first person to see a particular bush or tree or rock — just like a real explorer," he said. "In the last 20 years the eucalyptus trees were used by a nesting pair of red-tailed hawks. The trees were a welcome wildlife oasis in a relatively secluded valley so close to L.A."
For Marylynn Butters, the memories of her father, and growing up on the property, will live on forever.
"I will always cherish the memories of my father, and everything he did on the ranch. He was a very special man and he worked hard. It's sad to think that everything he poured his life into is gone, and with it, a part of us has died.
"I'm still numb from the whole thing and I'm just not accepting it right now," she said. "But I know that, although it might take a long time, I'll come to terms with it. With all the unthinkable tragedies going on the world these days, it's hard to come to grips with everything. ... The best thing I can do now is to hang on to the wonderful memories, and to live each day the best I can."