October 18, 2014

Haunted History: Stetson, California


Dedicated in the Year of Our Lord 1893
In memory of those who perished by fire on this land.
Having suffered a terrible and unjust death,
may these souls find their way to God.
Dare not to disturb these dead.



What happens when you disturb those who are best left alone? Stetson, California, may well find out.


Stetson is a sleepy little neighborhood rubbing shoulders with the hills of the San Fernando Valley. The whole thing is a rare remnant of the valley’s early farm and ranching days. Most lots have been reduced to dirt, their buildings leveled and land stripped, waiting for developers.

San Fernando Valley
Like many parts of southern California, Stetson once belonged to a sprawling Spanish ranch. In 1798, Eduardo Luís Espadillo, the ranch’s first don, showed up with a land grant in hand bearing the King of Spain’s seal and signature. Despite protests of the local mission padres, Espadillo treated the native people like slaves, and his brutality became legendary. Thus, he enjoyed all the power and prestige of the landed gentry, farming the willing land; raising a large family and vast herds of cattle with equal ease; living and dying under the warm Western sun. For him and his family, life was good and just.

Then Spain’s grip on Mexico slipped, and in 1846, Mexico lost the land north of the Rio Grande. By this time, Rancho Espadillo was in the hands of Luis’ grandson, Vicente Gabriel. It seemed the height of good fortune when the madness of gold brought thousands to seek their fortune in the gold fields of California. The ranch prospered, shipping beef north to feed the hordes of ‘49ers pouring into the new territory. But, just like the Gold Rush, that prosperity was short-lived. The miners moved on or went home and the cattle boom went bust. Don Vicente, with the help of his son-in-law, Juan Adolfo Serrano, held on for awhile, turning from cattle to sheep—a smart move until the sheep market collapsed. Then, like vultures, the creditors moved in, and the Espadillo ranch, like all the others throughout the territory, was purchased and broken up into small farms and ranches owned by gringos. Slowly the Spanish speaking population was driven from the valley. The few that remained led poor, wretched lives.

One parcel of former Espadillo land was this pocket of the valley I now call home. Over the next few decades, it reverted to a sleepy, backwater region where nothing much happened and little changed. Then the township of Stetson was established.

Stetson was the brainchild of Thomas Winslow, a combined religious zealot, socialist, and Virginia chicken farmer who dreamed of establishing a pious, self-sustaining commune of like-minded devotees. Everyone would raise chickens, do a little farming, live off the land, and maybe conduct a bit of commerce on the side, selling eggs and fresh produce. So, in spring of 1892, Thomas, his wife Eva, and twelve families loaded their belongings onto carts and wagons then rail cars and made the arduous journey West, arriving in California just before winter’s first blizzards hit the Sierras.


Winslow’s utopian chicken farm cooperative did well, thriving for nearly five decades. But with the close of World War II, a cancer spread throughout the entire San Fernando Valley. Tract housing moved in, eating up the open land until little was left of the rural life. Shopping centers, strip malls, apartment mazes, and industrial parks crowded in where simple ranches, dairy farms,
grazing land, orange orchards, and wheat fields had once stretched. 

 Stetson caught the disease, but the little community died slowly, with its final gasp literally in 1986. Delia Davies—last descendent of an original commune family—took a faltering breath and died while reading her bible one evening in February. She left no family and had no heirs. Her land went to auction, then sat idle for years. The neat rows of chicken houses sagged with weather rot and age. Her tiny home was boarded up.

Well, it was next to this relic of Stetson’s past that I took up residence a couple of years ago. However, its history, as I knew it, didn’t explain why it felt so creepy to walk the grounds, or why the lot was shunned by neighborhood animals and children alike.

Thank goodness for dusty old historical accounts. Further research turned up that when the Spanish took over the area, there were still some Native American villages. One was right here in Stetson. When Don Espadillo showed up to lay claim the land, the people said, ‘Go away. It is ours. We live here, we farm the land to feed our families, etc.’ Espadillo said, ‘Fine; no problem,’  and left. Three nights later, the village burned to the ground. No survivors.

There were one hundred twenty-seven souls lost in that fire. Espadillo organized a mass burial of the remains, then marked it with a little fence and a headstone. That’s as far as his conscience took him.

It seems he was a good judge of land. Anything he planted grew. The difficulties cropped up—pardon the pun—around harvest time. The locals still knew their history and wouldn’t come near the place. Superstitious. So, it was hard to find laborers to work the fields and orchards.

By the time Thomas Winslow got his cooperative going, much of that history was forgotten, and the fence and marker had disappeared. I imagine it was quite a shock when Delia’s grandpa unearthed the headstone. Well, he started asking around and found an old timer who’d heard the tale from his granddaddy. When Delia’s grandma found out, being a good Christian woman, she insisted that the area where the marker was found be set aside, consecrated, and never used. The oak was already there—maybe planted by Espadillo. So, Delia’s grandma had a metal marker made up and nailed to the tree, where it couldn’t be lost or buried again. It read:
Dedicated in the Year of Our Lord 1893
In memory of those who perished by fire on this land.
Having suffered a terrible and unjust death,
may these souls find their way to God.
Dare not to disturb these dead.

Last week, J.S. & Sons Construction put up signs on the chain link fence around the property. Someone’s planning on doing some building, and they’ll clear the land for starters. Makes you wonder what trouble they could possibly stir up. I’ll keep you posted.

Stetson, California, is the setting for “The Lot on Winslow Street”  a new ghost story in Tales from the Dead of Night II, due out in 2015. 




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