12 Facts About Ojai History

12 Facts About Ojai History

  • Sharon MaHarry
  • 01/17/22

Northwest of Los Angeles and east of Santa Barbara is where you’ll find the city of Ojai, located in California’s Ventura County. Part of the east–west trending Western Transverse Ranges, the valley stretches about 10 miles long by 3 miles wide, split into lower and upper valleys surrounded by hills and mountains. 

One of the oldest towns in Ventura County, Ojai was settled in the 1800s and incorporated as a city in 1921. Tucked away in the Ojai Valley, the town is surrounded by peaks that give off a glow in the evening light known as the pink moment. The 2010 census marks a population of 7,461, down from 7,862 at the 2000 census.

Now a tourism destination with a reputation for boutique hotels, wellness and recreation opportunities, and local organic farmers' markets, the Ojai community encourages local small business development, prohibiting chain stores to keep the town unique. Small businesses established throughout the area range from local and ecologically friendly art and design to home improvement and more. 

1. The city is known for its spiritually-focused natural environment. 

Derived from the Mexican-era Rancho Ojai, the valley goes by the self-styled nickname "Shangri-La", which references the region’s healthy and spiritually-focused natural environment as well as the mystical sanctuary of the 1937 film adaptation of James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon. Despite a lack of known references, there are claims that the mountains visible from the city were used in but then cut from, the movie. 

A reputation for healthy air quality motivated early settlers with one or more family members battling respiratory illnesses to head for the Valley, many getting well upon making the move. The climate here, known to mystically soothe and heal the troubled soul, attracted some of the most highly influential, prosperous, and generous men who invested in the advancement of Ojai’s prospects. The Valley’s reputation for its healing mystique also hinges on the discovery of hot springs in Matilija Canyon and the subsequent development of hot springs resorts in the late 1800s.

2. The city grows, prospers, and builds the elite Foothills Hotel.

The early history of the area tells the story of how Nordhoff, a popular wintering spot for wealthy Easterners and Midwesterners, grew and prospered, flourishing with schools, a library, churches, restaurants, hotels, and ranches. In 1903, the elite Foothills Hotel, built on top of a mountain overlooking the town, became the go-to spot for dining, music concerts, horseback riding, and hunting and fishing trips into the backcountry. 

Waves of businessmen arrived to advance the community, many building homes in the valley. Around the same time, artists and craftspeople became homeowners throughout the community of Ojai as various spiritualists and religionists began advocating for meditation, yoga, theosophy, naturalism, astrology, and holism.

3. The town is named after writer Charles Nordhoff. 

Laid out in 1874 by San Buenaventura businessman R.G. Surdam, the town of Nordhoff was named after writer Charles Nordhoff who authored the book California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence: A Book for Travelers and Settlers. Charles Nordhoff made several visits to the town in the early 1880s but had not visited the Ojai Valley at the time of his writing in 1873. However, his revised 1882-version of the book mentions the Valley. The public high school in Ojai is still named Nordhoff High School while the public junior high school, named "Matilija", formerly served as Nordhoff Union High School and still features large tiles with the initials "NUHS" on the steps of the athletic field.

4. Edward Drummond Libbey transforms the rustic town. 

The late history of Ojai tells the story of Edward Drummond Libbey, a winter visitor who envisioned transforming the rustic town of Nordhoff into the Spanish-style town center we know and love today. With beautiful ideas reminiscent of city living, Libbey purchased all the properties on the south side of Ojai Avenue, demolished most of the buildings, and hired Frank Mead and Richard Requa of San Diego in 1916 to make his vision a reality. 

5. Thomas A. Scott buys the 17,716-acre Rancho Ojai.

In 1837, Fernando Tico, a Santa Barbara businessman, received a land grant for the 17,716-acre Rancho Ojai, which included both the lower and upper Ojai Valleys. Tico moved his large family to adobe in the lower valley and turned the land into a cattle ranch until selling it in 1853. Over the next eleven years, the rancho belonged to different owners until Pennsylvania oil and railroad baron, Thomas A. Scott, bought the land in 1864. 

6. Scott and Stanford strike oil. 

Reports of oil springs along the Sulphur Mountain drove Scott to explore petroleum in the area. In 1866, Scott's nephew, Thomas Bard, began drilling the north side of the mountain, striking a gusher at 550 feet on May 29, 1867. The end result of the drill was a production line of 10-20 barrels of oil a day. Later that same year, Leland Stanford's brother Josiah dug oil tunnels on the south side of the mountain, supplying their San Francisco refinery with 20 barrels of oil a day. 

Scott and Stanford abandoned oil exploration in the Valley in late 1867 due to economic reasons, the decline of post-Civil War oil prices, and cheaper imports from the east. Thomas Bard later sold surface rights to parcels of Rancho Ojai, returning in the 1890s as the president of Unocal to dig about 50 oil tunnels into Sulphur Mountain, which produced oil for more than one hundred years. 

7. Flooded and destroyed Ventura and Ojai Valley Railroad becomes the Ojai Valley Trail.

In April of 1898, the Southern Pacific Railroad bought up all capital stock in the Ventura and Ojai Valley Railroad, which connected Ojai to the national rail network near Ventura station. In January 1969, a nine-day Pineapple Express with rainfall intensity reaching 6.2 inches per day flooded and destroyed the rail line, which was later converted to the Ojai Valley Trail in 1989.

8. Libbey hires architects to transform Nordhoff into a Spanish-style town center.

Edward Drummond Libbey and his wife Florence were among the wealthy Easterners and Midwesterners who visited the elite Foothills Hotel in the winter of 1907. Owner of the Libbey Glass Company of Toledo, Ohio, Libbey fell in love with the valley, bought the property in the Foothills track, and built a Craftsman-style house designed by Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey.

In 1916, he hired the architectural firm of Frank Mead and Richard Requa of San Diego to transform Nordhoff into the Spanish-style town center that stands today. Libbey’s work included a Mission-style arcade along the main street with a pergola with two arches on opposite sides and a bell-tower reminiscent of the famous campanile of the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Havana, Cuba. 

9. Ojai Day is born. 

On March 2, 1917, the Men’s League of Nordhoff planned to celebrate the first-ever Libbey Day, thanking him for the completion of the renovation project and for the gift of a thriving city.  However, Libbey declined the offer, requesting instead to name the day of celebration Ojai Day. 

The name of the town was then changed to Ojai. 

People originally called the valley "The Ojai". However, leading up to and during World War I, anti-German American sentiment spread across the United States, changing German and German-sounding place names. Past Ojai writers speculate that anti-German sentiment contributed to the name change of Nordhoff to Ojai in 1917, despite the lack of clear evidence supporting the theory. 

The proposed celebration was to happen in the new Civic Center Park, which was later changed to Libbey Park. The first Ojai Day took place on April 7, 1917, and occurred every year thereafter until 1928. In 1991, local school teacher Craig Walker revived Ojai Day, which has been celebrated ever since in the month of October.

10. Ojai comes from the Chumash word for “moon”.

“Ojai” comes from the Ventureño Chumash word a’hwai (“moon”). The Chumash were early inhabitants of the Ojai Valley and a Native American people who inhabited California’s central and southern coastal regions in portions of what is now Morro Bay in the north to Malibu in the south and the Channel Islands. However, a 1905 book records the name as coming from an unidentified Indigenous language word meaning "nest". 

11. Two fires engulf the city. 

In 1917, two fires ripped through the community. The first ignited in Matilija Canyon on June 16 and burned 60 buildings along its destructive path including many homes and the Foothills Hotel. However, the blaze failed to impact the newly Spanish-style structures in the downtown area. On November 28, another fire started in a gasoline stove in a store and burned down the western half of the Arcade. In 1919, builders replaced the old Arcade with a new Spanish-style Foothills Hotel.

12. Taormina becomes the city’s first historic district. 

In 2016, The Taormina neighborhood became the city’s first historic district. Members of the Theosophy movement built the housing development adjacent to the Krotona Institute of Theosophy and in the style of French architecture of the 1960s and 1970s Normandy. Theosophist Ruth Wilson founded the district, envisioning the development as a retirement community for fellow theosophists. However, the courts demanded the community be open to residents of all faiths and backgrounds in the early 1980s. 

Ready to make the move to gorgeous and historic Ojai? Contact Ojai real estate agent Sharon MaHarry today and find the stunning home for your dreams.

Work With Sharon

Sharon is highly-seasoned real estate professional dedicated to providing exceptional, personalized service for all of clients. She take great pride in the relationships, build and always work relentlessly on the client’s behalf to help them achieve their real estate goals.