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Thursday, June 11, 2009


by editor Dana Larson

"On a plain concrete lot, surrounded by bowed chain-link fence and in the shadows of stark industrial warehouses, sits a boarded-up old clapboard house, out of place and frequented by vandals and homeless squatters. It doesn't look like much of anything. But to hundreds of people in North Hollywood, California, it represents their heritage - they fondly call it "The Mother House" - and they are fighting to save it, Storm Lake roots and all.
It's a long story, reaching back into the earliest days of Storm Lake, as well as meandering through the heart of California history.
Wilson C. Weddington was born in 1847 in Anderson, Indiana, and apparently fought in the Civil War while still very young. After taking a bride, Mary Ann, the daughter of a Civil War surgeon, he was lured to her home state of Iowa by the promise of rich land to be homesteaded.
In the 1870s, the couple settled at the just-founded village of Storm Lake to farm, but Weddington soon left his land when asked to become the third sheriff in Buena Vista County history, an office he held for a dozen years while raising his two sons.
Indians and gypsies and pioneers were giving way to modern trappings in Iowa, and in the fall of 1887, Weddington decided to travel west to visit his sister Mollie, who was married to the superintendent of the vast, desolate Lankershim Ranch which sprawled across 12,000 acres of the sunbaked San Fernando Valley, from the current location of Burbank to the foot of what is now knows as the Hollywood Hills. The region was still frequented by cowboys and Indians. According to family lore, the Iowa sheriff was "dazzled" by what he saw.
The ranch had an auction for some small, dusty parcels of land it didn't need, and Wilson decided to buy a corner lot on streets that existed only on paper - now known as the trendy Riverside Drive. The family went back to Iowa, packed up what they could carry, and left Storm Lake for good the following year. They rented a tiny house on the ranch site, what is now Burbank; scraped up what money they could to start buying a few acres of empty, desolate land - land that today is worth millions and millions of dollars in the heart of the Hollywood Arts District.
They took all of Iowa that they could with them, reportedly having their home in Storm Lake dismantled and carried 1,700 miles west by railroad and wagons, to be reassembled at the edge of a vast barley field on the ranch in 1891.
He probably couldn't have known that he was standing on the most important spot in California. Long known as Toluca, or "fertile valley" to the native Tongva Indians, the region is home to Spanish missions that date to the time of the American Revolution. The precise spot Weddington chose to homestead was the same one where Lt. Col. John C. Fremont of the United States and General Andres Pico of Mexico met on the porch of an adobe to sign the treaty that was to end the war between their two countries. The spot is known as the beginning of statehood for California and the Manifest Destiny for Americans. Every January there is a fiesta and reenactment of this fateful moment.
In 1890, Wilson, convinced his lonely homestead would one day be the site of a booming community, established the location as a city, which he named Taluca in honor of the natives who had preceded him there. Weddington bought 12 acres of the future town site himself for $720 and later purchased an additional 20 acres, and encouraged the 10 other families ranching in the region to support his bold scheme.
Taluca did indeed become a small village, then a thriving town, and by the time it was renamed North Hollywood at Wilson's urging in an attempt to woo the fledgling film industry, it became the host to the new "Universal City" pioneering movie studio and home of film stars such as Bob Hope, as well as the daring female aviator Amelia Earheart
In the beginning, when the Southern Pacific railroad was reaching to bisect the nation, its path went right through the Weddingtons' few acres, and he provided the land they needed, sacrificing his acres of carefully-tended fruit trees. A grateful President Grover Cleveland personally declared Weddington as the first postmaster of that region of California. The railroad named the station Lankershim in honor of one of two original owners of the ranch. The other is the namesake for Van Nuys Blvd. The living room of Wilson's home became the first post office, then he established a general store.
His son Milo became superintendent of the rachos, and president of his own fruit company as rich orchards thrived in the California soil. In fact, the Weddington family, with a few neighbors, are credited with developing the cling peach, still a staple of every grocery store. Area farmers, thanks to the Weddingtons, could now ship their crops across the country and beyond by rail.
Younger son Fred, born in Storm Lake, became the first constable of Lankershim. Around the turn of the century, he earned fame for single-handedly riding down and capturing two holdup men, having them tried, overseeing the sentencing and delivering them personally to San Quentin prison, all within less than 24 hours. Guy and Fred later established and led Hollywood National Bank, opened in 1905, and the Weddington Investment Company, incorporated in 1910. Fred remained active in bulding the community as a land developer until his death in the 1960s.
"The vision, hard work and perseverance of the Weddingtons enabled the town to grow and prosper," a history of the region says.
So much so that the Weddington's family home had to be moved away to make way for progress. Wilson Weddington pushed for a theater to be developed in the 1920s, moving his own house to make way for it beside the family bank.
In all the house was moved three times, finally plunked down in a residential neighborhood a few blocks from the original site, both on Weddington Street. Slowly the neighborhood gave way to the industrial area it is now until only the Weddington House remained. The home's history was largely forgotten, and it passed through the hands of various owners and tenants, its charming touches slowly stripped away, and by a few years ago, it faced likely demolition.
Guy Weddington McCreary, a descendant of the former sheriff from Storm Lake, traced the home to Iowa and a local museum revealed its history and its significance in the establishment of the Hollywood region; destruction of the house was staved off. It was named a California Historical-Cultural Monument in 2007.
Still, controversy raged around the little house, even amid the efforts to save it. The powers that be decided the house should be moved 15 miles away to a museum in Highland Park near the Pasadena Freeway.
Residents of North Hollywood rallied.
"Thank God for e-mail, because literally overnight 400 to 500 people had objected to the city, and that got the city council behind the effort to keep the house here in North Hollywood. We think history belongs where it was made," Gerald Fecht, former director of The Museum of the San Fernando Valley in Beverly Hills, told the Pilot-Tribune this week.
The locals propose to move the house to popular nearby North Hollywood Park, which coincidentally was developed on land Weddington donated to the city for parks. There, it would be restored not to its original form, but to represent the era somewhat later when farmers from places like Iowa journeyed west to transform the arid valley.
It will be fitted out with cutting-edge interactive technology. Visitors to the house will be able to virtually visit historical landmarks all over the state from the house, and use their cell phones to interact with electronic stars around the property.
"It's pretty amazing," Fecht says.
With California hard-hit by the economic crisis, there is no money yet to move the house, even though the descendant of the Weddingtons has pledged $100,000 to.renovate and maintain the home - only if it is kept in North Hollywood. Supporters worry. Four times in the past three months, it has been broken into and vandalized. One fire in what appears to be a vacant old house, and priceless history will be lost, Fecht says.
For Fecht and others, Storm Lake is a part of the history of Hollywood.
Still in the attic of the home are big crates stenciled with the words "Storm Lake," likely used to ship parts of the house and some of the furnishings.
The Los Angeles Times, which has editorialized to keep the landmark in North Hollywood, says it was build in Storm Lake. So does the historical group PreserveLA. But one researcher claims that it was a different house build in Iowa and moved to the ranch, which was torn down years ago. That controversy too rages on, but Fecht said that numerous items and materials found in the original portions of the house can be easily traced to Iowa. Regardless, the house is the oldest surviving home in the North Hollywood region.
Many of the residents of the area have their own roots in Iowa, too - Fecht and his wife among them, both grew up in Iowa.
"There is a strong stereotype here of Iowa - that it is the salt of the earth, and that the hard working and energetic people from Iowa came here with not a lot of money, but they created this place. The Weddingtons alone discovered wells, built the first post office, first bank, first parks, first fire station, first pool - they built a little Iowa town in California."
And there's another legacy. Weddington planted the first English walnut tree in that part of the country. Thanks to countless generations of birds carrying the seeds in their stomachs, English walnut trees are now found all over that part of California.
The Weddingtons never lost their love for Iowa, Fecht says. "They brought all of their Iowa memorabilia with them. And it is strange, but our museum in California has lots of Iowa history, and even a lot of stuff from the Sac and Fox Indians who must have still been in northwest Iowa when the Weddingtons were there."
Even the ambitious pioneer couldn't have imagined what was ahead for the rural village he founded.
Today, a new Universal CityWalk complex has emerged not far from where Weddington first herded cattle. A growing movie studio and modern subway have sprung up where he tended orchards. There are nearly 35 theaters in the area, and the San Fernando Valley he pioneered is home to some 1.8 million people. The bank, the theater, the parks, the fire stations, the railroad depot Weddington established are still there.
Wilson Weddington was a prominent citizen for the remainder of his life, guiding the city he founded for many years. He served as the President of the Chamber of Commerce he created until 1929, almost 40 years after he arrived.
There are few records today of Wilson Weddington's time as sheriff of the barely-founded Buena Vista County, but in the Hollywood Hills, his name will be forever connected with the bold ambition that began it all."

Minor corrections: The Weddington House was very near Campo de Cahuenga where the final stages of the War with Mexico concluded. Dr. Fecht is the present president of The Museum of the San Fernando Valley. The Museum is not located in Beverly Hills.

1 comment:

Gerald R. Fecht said...

Many Iowa farm families migrated to California before and after their retirements. The dry warm air of the San Fernando Valley was considered ideal for older people, who dreamed of a place where one could grow 3 and sometimes 4 crops a year.
Many articles of importance to Iowa history ended up in the San Fernando Valley, and other parts of California. Your Museum is anxious to share information, images and to possibly loan artifacts to Iowa museums and academic institutions.