Ojai History

A slightly modified version of this brief town history appears on my Daughter’s home page at lynda.com.



The  geologic structure of the Ojai Valley is essential to the charm and the spiritual influence with which it affects those who live within its gentle confines.

The Ojai Valley is ten miles long and three miles wide. The unique atmosphere  which impresses even the first time visitor is due to the transverse nature of the surrounding mountains, they lie in an East/West configuration, whereas most of California’s mountains run North/South.

The sun rising at one end of the valley and setting at the other provides the residents with lingering morning and evening sun, and some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets available anywhere.

When conditions are right (nearly all of the time) everyone in the valley stands transfixed for several moments at sunset watching the surrounding mountains turn a brilliant shade of rose. It has even been given a name, “The pink moment”.

Unfortunately not enough is known about the earliest human settlers in the valley, the Cumash Indians. We know they were a “milling stone” people, who subsisted on a diet of grains. The abundance of acorns in the valley undoubtedly provided some of the food supply.

In October of 1542 Cabrillo anchored his fleet off what is now Ventura. The peaceful and uneventful life of the Cumash was to change forever from that time on.

Many Spanish and even English explorers and  visited the valley and recorded impressions of the natives they found, however, they recorded on impressions of this people, nothing more. The wonderful opportunity that existed during the Mission years to study and preserve a culture was lost to the drive the Missionaries had to Civilize and convert.


Like most areas of the Pacific South West, the Ojai valley was originally the site of several large Spanish land grants. Ojai was granted to Fernando Tico who began to raise cattle and planted crops beginning in 1837 on what was known as Rancho Ojay (the Spanish spelling).

Tico sold his property in 1853. Many reselling transactions followed until 1864, when the newest owners began to explore for oil.

Oil exploration in the Ojai Valley was never a big success. Ten years later people were settling the area and extolling its health giving aspects. In 1874 the Ventura Signal ran ads for subdivisions, one called “the City of Ojai”, the other for the “City of Nordhoff.”

Charles Nordhoff was a writer who wrote beautiful tributes to the idea of moving West, to California. There is no evidence at all that Nordhoff ever actually came to or saw the Ojai Valley, nevertheless it was his name that stuck. What we now call “Ojai” was called “Nordhoff” from 1872 to 1917. What changed everything, and what shaped the town and the valley as it now exists, was the coming to Ojai of Edward Drummond Libbey.


Edward Drummond Libbey

As previously noted, from 1872 to 1917 the town we now know as Ojai was called Nordhoff. Charles Nordhoff was a writer for the New York Herald who had seen and come to love the California Coast during his service in the U.S. Navy. He extolled the health giving qualities of the State and wrote a book, “California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence, a Book for Travelers and  Settlers” . The book sold well, and influenced many to come to the new State.

In 1872 a group of early settlers decided it was time to incorporate into a town. They were led by Abram Wheeler Blumberg who wanted to name the town “Topa Topa” which Blumberg believed meant “gopher” in the Cumash Indian language. But his wife, Catherine Elizabeth Blumberg suggested the name Nordhoff. She reminded her husband that it was Nordhoff’s writings that had influenced their coming to California in the first place. And Nordhoff it became.

Nordhoff grew and prospered, schools, a library, churches and restaurants, hotels and ranches flourished. The climate of the Valley and its seemingly mystical ability to soothe and heal the troubled soul attracted a number of very influential and prosperous men who gave generously of their time and money to advance the city’s prospects. Among them were names still engraved on the physical town by the way of streets, schools, and landmarks. Sherman D. Thacher, Earl Soule, H.R. Cole, and Harrison Sinclair among them. But none were more influential than Edward Libbey.

Libbey was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, where he inherited a small cut glass business and transformed it into one of the major manufacturing giants of the new Century. In 1908, at the invitation of his close friend Harrison Sinclair, Libbey came to visit the Valley. He was seldom away from it for long ever after.

The men and women who settled the American West were all people of high stature, brave, optimistic, and generous. But some were also uniquely possessed of a vision, and Libbey was such a man. His vision for the town and the Valley he loved is what we see today. Nearly every aspect of the City of Ojai is the way he envisioned it in 1914.

Libbey built a home on Foothill Road and lived there for an increasing period of time each year. In 1914 he shared his ideas with a group of civic leaders.  Libbey thought the town needed a sense of cohesion. He wanted distinction. His view was to enhance the existing rustic shops on Ojai Avenue with an architectural structure. And he had Ideas for an area above the main town to be called the Arbolata, with winding roads and architecture that blended with the natural landscape.

On April 24, 1914  87 men attended a special meeting called by Libbey in which he described his plans. They were received with unanimous approval. Libbey then hired a San Diego architect, Richard S. Requa.

Requa looked the town over and came up with an idea for a Spanish style arcade which would enclose the shops on Ojai Avenue. And a tower fashioned after the famous Campanile in Havana, which would house a Post Office. And a beautiful Pergola to face the arcade from the other side of Ojai Avenue, and provide access to a civic park. All were built, most financed by Libbey himself.

On March 2nd, 1917  the Men’s League of Norhoff planned a day of celebration and thanks for the gift of Edward Libbey. They wanted to call it Libbey Day, but Libbey declined, he wanted it called Ojai day, and so it remains to this day as an annual celebration unique to the town.

Only one item remained, the name of the town.

People had always called the valley Ojai, and the town Nordhoff. A difficult issue it proved to change the town name. But eventually, Ojai won out. On March 23, 1917 the name change was made official by the United States Senate.

The fate of the Pergola is shrouded in mystery and legend. What is known is that it was destroyed by demolition in 1977, after already being damaged by explosion some years earlier. The swelling sentiment to rebuild it has borne fruit, work is planned to begin next year.

As a final note, the name Ojai.

Most residents are sure it means “nest” in the Cumash language, but experts disagree. They say it means Moon.Those of us who live here say it doesn’t matter. To us, it means paradise.

Don Weinman, Dec. 1997

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