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  • Writer's pictureConejo Valley Botanic Garden

History of the Conejo Valley Botanic Garden (1972-1992) by A. Fliers, August 1997

In 1970, when I moved here from Los Angeles, the Conejo Valley was still a small, rural community of about 35,693 people. And Jungleland and the movie industry was what most people associated with this City. But keen developers were turning their eyes towards its rolling hills and valleys with visions of expansion and growth. The San Fernando Valley was quickly heading North, trying to meet Ventura County to the South.

In 1972, the Klingbeil Corp. of Columbus, Ohio, developers of oak Knoll Villas, owned an additional 34.9 acres on the steep hill adjacent to the townhouses. Located at the south end of the park at Dover & Hendrix, this land previously belonged to the land was used for ranching, mostly horses, pigs and sheep. A nearby pond, called Shadow Lake, provided water necessary for the animals. Several underground springs to this day supply water for vegetation around the creek at the bottom of the hill. Shadow Lake was drained I 1967 to give way to development of the Racquet Club and surrounding townhouses. Early residents of the area still remember their children fishing and boating on this pond as late as 1966.

The Klingbeil corporation, represented by Calvin Clark, decided not to develop the steep hill and offered it for sale to the City of Thousand oaks. The City Council refused it, as did the Conejo Recreation Park District (CRPD) .

Fortunately, this move was seen as an opportunity by three local families, Jackson Granohlm, Fred Wilson and Raymond Garcia. A Committee was formed to secure the hilltop property for a botanic garden. The Committee was instrumental in setting the ground rules with the CRPD. An additional 13 acres (from the Great Oaks Development Corp.) adjacent to the property was included for future use, according to James Gilmore. The Park District’s negotiating team included Tex Ward, General Manager, James Gilmore, landscape architect and Park Development Planner, Fletch Friedman, and Gene Andal, Administrators of CRPD where Doris E. Granholm was chair of the Board.

The Committee was called the “Gregor J. Mendel Botanic Foundation, Inc.” in honor of the Austrian Augustinian monk who laid the foundation of science of genetics in 1822-1884.

Its Board of Directors included: Jackson W. Granholm (Brown Realty), President; Raymond A. Garcia (attorney), Vice President; Emmett R. Quady (IBM, Westlake), Secretary; Fred P. Wilson (CPA), Treasurer; Julius E. Pearce (attorney), Legal Advisors; E. Calvin Clark (Klingbeil Corp.), Director; Robert Haaland (Municipal Engineer), Director; James E. Crossman. The Executive Committee consisted of: Dr. Clinton F. Schonberger (Moorpark College), Chief Scientist; Lawrence Dolan, Director of Horticulture Botanic Studies; Sylvia Wheelock, Director of Botanic Studies; Jean Brown, Director of Taxonomy.

This non-profit California Corporation signed its bylaws on January 22, 1973 which established itself as a “voluntary charitable organization of persons interested in promoting scientific knowledge of plant life.” Its purpose read: “to conduct research and disseminate information to the public regarding plant life, primarily that adapted to the Southeastern area of Ventura County.”

The above-mentioned land was donated to Park District in 1973 under the Quimby act (named after State Senator Quimby).

The arrangement with the CRPD was such that they would lease the California Botanic Garden (as it was named by then) back to the Foundation for $1.00 a year. The Garden would provide day to day operating care. The CRPD would handle the heavy labor needed to install irrigation, fences and trails. This team approach was similar to arrangements made with the Stagecoach Inn, according to Jim Gilmore. The garden was to be supported by grants, donations and foundation memberships, as well as by the City of Thousand Oaks. Major duties of the Foundation would be to coordinate the acquisition of plants along with the actual planning of the material for the Garden.

In the coming year some fund raising and publicity events were organized, like a celebrity golf tournament and an Easter Sunrise service on top of the hill. Donna Fargo, a prominent Thousand Oaks citizen and benefactor, made efforts to transport a windmill from Simi (Now Wood Ranch) to the garden to be placed in the creek area, according to Ray Garcia. However, this effort was halted with her death on July 22, 1984.

Preliminary plans for the layout of the Garden were drawn up and from 1975-78. With a grant from Land and Water Conservation Fund the first trails, trenches, and irrigation were gradually installed.

Moorpark College biologist, Dr. Clinton Schonberger, his dedicated botany students, hard working private citizens, Garden Club members, Boy Scouts as well as Conservation corps volunteers, the project seemed off to a great start. A quarterly newsletter was started in 1974, supported by a grant from the Janss Foundation.

However, in 1980, Dr. Schonberger and his family moved to Bellingham, Wash., where he died unexpectedly, just a few days after their arrival. His widow, Audrey, now 86, still resides there. In talking with her, she vividly recalled the enthusiasm and effort put into the Garden in those early days. Her husband would hold his classes on the hill and let students do fieldwork for class credit. It so happens that I was one of his students in 1974 and remember all too well the hot, long arduous hours in the blazing sun atop a dry hill.

After Dr. Schonberger’s departure two of his most dedicated students Marjorie Haszard and Lee Culver tried to keep the garden watered and protected from vandalism, but unfortunately this proved to be too big a job with not enough help and the garden fell into disarray.

Dr. Barbara Collina. A biologist from California Lutheran College became involved as a technical advisor in 1980. However, by this time vandalism by motorcycles and destructive youths basically had destroyed most of the hard work of the past years. Eventually the Garden was fenced off in 1981, financed by a grant from the Water District.

On Sunday, November 22, 1981 an official ribbon-cutting dedication ceremony was held with a presentation of an Oak Tree Study, donated to the Foundation by Ben Johnson and James Dean from the architectural landscape firm Dean-Newman and Assoc.

A new Board of Directors was elected and in 1982, the following people were nominated: Chris Clarke (Treeland Nursery) President, Edwin Gutmann, (Oaknoll Apartments) Vice President, Betta Phillips, Acting Secretary, Brenda Souza, Treasurer, Anjane T. Clough (Realtor and Pres. of Westlake Garden Club) Grantmanship, J.D. Eiland, Donna Fargo, Raymond A. Garcia, Legal Advisor, Preben Jensen, Publicity Chair and Arline Miller, Membership Chair.

In 1982 Chris Clarke signed a contract with Tex Ward, General Manager of the Conejo Recreation and Park District for a $10,000.00 loan to the Garden for badly needed improvements over a three year period.

Guided tours for the public were planned and a Memorial planting area was started. The Australian Garden was being developed at this time.

The Mickey Yablan family donated a large greenhouse to the Garden in 1982. This was put on California Lutheran College property through coordinated efforts of Dr. Collins and Ray Garcia with the understanding that the Garden would benefit from some of the plants grown in the greenhouse. Many trees were donated by Treeland Nursery and various other citizens. Marian Kurash, President of Conejo Valley Garden Club, Federated, started a Gregor Mendel Botanic Foundation Fund.

Ten years later, in 1983, Steve Heidman, the Garden's Project Manager, and Carol Song, then Secretary for the Foundation, were instrumental in convincing the Public Works Dept. of the City to erect signs pointing the way to the garden, since access had been difficult to find. With the involvement of Barbara Song, a new group of volunteers came on board and new programs initiated. John Oblinger, Carmen Day, Lillian Davies, Bill Griffiths, Dr. Ed Hager, mother and daughter team Becky Franco and Sylvia Hicks, as well as Gary Song, just to mention some of the hardy ones.

The Botanic Garden showed signs of growth, evident in increasing membership. A quarterly newsletter was printed and many volunteer hours were put in by dedicated staff behind the scenes. For the next three years efforts were put into the development of a masterplan in cooperation with the CRPD.

In 1986 the Board consisted of : Jackson Granholm, President, Steve Heidman, Vice President, Annjane T. Clough, Jeanie Smith and Marge Haszard, Edwin Gutmann (Oak Knoll Villas), Barbara Song, Treasurer and Carol Song as Secretary.

In 1987 a Concept Committee headed by Marjorie Haszard (Chair), Ed Gutmann and Steve Heidman summarized the role of the garden as follows: "The Botanic Garden is to serve as a demonstration ornamental garden, built within a framework of heterogeneous tree plantings, showing the maximum possible diversity of plant material which may be grown in this climate" The Garden was to include:

1. A demonstration orchard ornamental Garden of fruit crops grown in Ventura County. Such an area will include, a.o. citrus, avocados, apricots, etc.

2. An agricultural demonstration Garden of various food plants grown in Ventura County.

3. A demonstration "touch and smell "Garden for the Blind” as proposed by J. Granholm in a letter.

4. A demonstration Garden of cacti and succulents.

5. A demonstration Garden of native plants, pinpointing flora native to the Conejo Valley and adjacent mountain areas.

6. A demonstration Garden of plants used by Native Americans of Southern California. Plants used for food, medicine, etc. by the Chumash and other Ventura County native tribes.

7. Preservation and enhancement of the present impressive stands of native oaks on the property.

8. A demonstration ornamental Garden of water plants, incorporating streamside plants, making use of year round creek and pools on the property, augmented by a constructed waterfall.

9. A demonstration Garden for residential plantings, featuring suitable plant arrangements for this area's climate.

10. A Ventura County beach Garden with materials suitable for use in yards or patios at the seashore.

11. The viewsite at the west hilltop, high spot of the Garden, will be set aside for a gazebo structure, or similar place of rest, and a quiet special rose garden and lawn.

12. The origins of California horticulture as exemplified in the historic Spanish Franciscan missions of California. Along the hill-trail will be planted 21 stations, each with a clone or seedling plant from one of the California missions, along with a display and legend of that plant and that mission, and its role in California horticulture.

The Committee concluded that the Garden should ".... display the maximum of available kinds of material which can be successfully grown in this climate...".

This concept differs from that found in any other Southern California Botanic Garden. Hence the project does not compete with other present public gardens. The Committee recommended that interest and membership be expanded to include all of Ventura County, not just Conejo Valley. Special recognition in the Demonstration Gardens should be given to each City in the County. The Committee also suggested promotion of the Garden development efforts through presentations to various service organizations in the County, through radio, TV and newspaper publicity.

Since 1987 the Garden has participated in the Conejo Valley Days parade and Arbor Day/ Earth Day activities. As part of the City's 25th anniversary, the City Council, lead by Alex Fiore, adopted the Conejo Buckwheat as the City's official flower and the Valley Oak and Coast Live Oak as the City's official trees. For the next three years, hard work and new seedlings were the order of the day.

In 1990, the Executive Committee consisted of : President Steve Schultz, John Oblinger, Vice President, Barbara Song Treasurer and Carmen Day, Secretary.

The Garden's name was changed to reflect a more local connection. The old name of California Botanic Garden was replaced with Conejo Valley Botanic Garden, or CVBG for short. The Gregor J. Mendel Botanic Foundation, Inc. remained the legal name for the corporation that deals with the leased property from the CRPD.

At this time the immediate short term goals was additional fencing. Long term goals: the development of the top of the hill (vista point) with construction of a low profile gazebo, a desert garden, tropical garden, grass and a natural rock amphitheater. The need to coordinate efforts and resources to stay in line with the Master Plan was discussed. Short term goals which do not support the long term plan should be modified or eliminated.

In 1990, Steve Oblinger accepted a $10,000.00 grant from Exxon Corporation on behalf of the Garden. Together with a $500.00 donation from Janet Main, new projects were now being initiated. Benches, fruit trees, a toolshed and nursery appeared. By now distinct sections designated in the Garden, such as the Native Section, the Desert/Cactus Garden, and the Old Orchard were in place. Volunteer docent Penny Sampson was leading tours for garden and nature enthusiasts as well as school children. Dr. Ed Hagar, President of the Rare Fruit Organization, and Bill Griffith tended to the Orchards with its local and exotic fruit. Composting workshops and plant sales were held. The Garden has become a refuge for wildlife, plants and people. Donations and public interest increased evident in increased membership. The first 20 years have passed and the next five years are crucial in today's development.

Acknowledgement: This is a revised version of the original article. The electronic version was lost, but thanks to Colleen Foxworthy and Winston Zhu, the article has been recreated by retyping the hard copy. Their efforts ensure this valuable history is preserved and accessible.


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