Above is a photo that I took of the iconic Two Trees in 2013. At that time both the 1898 and 1956 trees were still standing. Two Trees is an omnipresent landmark in Ventura, California. A local’s bucket-list hike which, thanks to the Rancho Ventura Conservation Trust, is now accessible to the public. Two Trees is not a quiet walk in the forest and it won’t be your chance to bag another mountain peak. Actually, without the beloved trees, it would be just another nondescript hill among many other hills. These trees have been a part of the landscape for as long as anyone around can remember and the locals feel a strong connection to them. There is a sense of ownership that you come to feel for the trees. Hiking up that hill is a chance to walk among the trees that have always guided and welcomed you home.
One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1987 film The Princess Bride. Those of you who have seen it are sure to remember the scene when Fezzik and Inigo Montoyo take the hero Westley to Miracle Max in hopes of bringing Westley back to life. The had just rescued Westley from Count Rugen’s torture machine. What Miracle Max explained to Fezzik and Inigo was “your friend is only mostly dead” and that “mostly dead is slightly alive”. These lines were brought to mind as I was writing the Two Trees story. Two Trees has had a remarkable history. I spent hours reading newspaper clippings, blogs, and historical documents gathering all the information I could find related to its history. I looked for themes and consistent timelines among the multiple accounts of the story. I tried confirm everything through legitimate records. A lot of my time was spent chasing down an interesting tidbit that led to some pretty distracting rabbit holes. The information presented in this blog is, as far as I know, correct. However, honestly, I think it’s mostly correct. And what is mostly correct can be slightly wrong. Take from it what you will. I enjoyed the heck out of putting this together.
I found wonderful historic photos on the San Buenaventura Conservancy website and the Gaviota Historical Society Website to add to this story. These photos have been credited to them. If anyone has different, conflicting or consistent information to add to this story, I would love to hear about it.
The story of Two Trees began in 1898 when Joseph Sexton decided to plant thirteen Blue Gum Eucalyptus trees on top of the hills of his property. Mr. Sexton did not do this alone. He had the help from his neighbor and part-time employee, Owen Barron, to assist in the planting. And after the trees were planted it was Mr. Barron who watered and tended to the trees. I’ve also read accounts that there were many volunteers who pitched in to water and tend the trees. This included his brother-in-law E.P. Foster. In 1898 caring for the trees was a very difficult chore. The water had to be drawn from wells and carried up the one-mile steep hill by wagons drawn by horses or burros. It had to have taken quite a bit of grit and determination to keep the saplings alive.
A bit about Mr. Joseph Sexton
Joseph Sexton moved to Santa Barbara, California from Ohio in 1867. He was a horticulturist and was instrumental in the development of agriculture to the Goleta Valley. He is known for introducing walnuts and avocados to the area though he was best known for popularizing pampas grass plumes in the late Victorian Era. The plumes were used in women’s fashion, particularly hats. They were also used to decorate floats for parades. Mr. Sexton made a lot of money selling the plumes in both the United States and Europe. By 1889 he was producing over 500,000 plumes annually. The pampas grass plume craze lasted almost two decades and faded out by the turn of the century. The grass is an invasive, non-native plant and efforts are now being made to eradicate it along the California coast. But I digress…
Below are photos from the Goleta Historical Society Website showing Mr. Sexton beside pampas grass in front of his home in Goleta and the harvesting of pampas grass plumes.
By 1894, Mr. Sexton had turned over most of the operation of the Sexton Nursery in Goleta to his sons. That year, he purchased an 8,000 acre cattle ranch in Ventura. Sexton would take the train to the Ventura ranch during the week and travel back home to Goleta to his wife and children on the weekends. (You can read more about Mr. Sexton and his family in a memoir written by his son Horace Sexton in 1964 entitled “Fourteen at the Table: An Informal History of the Life and Good Times of the Sexton Family of Old Goleta” if you are interested) It was on his Ventura Ranch that he planted the original thirteen trees.
There are many theories as to why Mr. Sexton planted thirteen trees on his hilltop. It was speculated that the trees were planted there to help guide ships safely into the Ventura Harbor. The trees are still used today for that purpose. Another popular theory is that Mr. Sexton planted thirteen trees to represent each of his children. That is a great theory, as he and his wife Lucy had twelve children, adding Lucy in would make thirteen.
Joseph and Lucy Sexton
Lucy and Joseph celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary in 1898. Were the thirteen trees a gift to her. The Sexton’s also lost their oldest son, Charles, in a tragic accident in March of 1898. Were they planted in memorial to him? The most practical reason is that the trees were planted to mark the western-most boundary of his ranch. Perhaps. But Mr. Sexton was a horticulturist. He had an eye for beautiful plants and trees. He most certainly planted them because he knew he would enjoy looking at them.
Back to the trees….
Those original thirteen trees, cared for so diligently by Owen Barron, survived intact for five years. Then, in 1903, a fire swept over the hilltop and destroyed eight of the thirteen. The fire began in Santa Paula in October, and fueled by strong winds, and swept over the hills to Ventura, much like the Thomas Fire of 2017.
Cornelis Botke (1887-1954) was an renowned artist who lived on a ranch in Santa Paula from 1924-1954. During that time, he created this bookplate which depicted the Five Trees. It’s a beautiful interpretation by the artist. This image depicts the library as it appeared from 1921-1959. The trees in the bookplate look remarkably like the trees in the photo above.
For thirty-seven years the citizens of Ventura enjoyed the view of the five trees. At that time, the trees were called “The Five Sisters”. Then, on Halloween night in 1940, vandals cut down three of the five trees as a prank. Over time, the three trees grew back from the stumps. The five trees would remain until 1956. Then, on Halloween in 1956, vandals again chopped down three of the trees. Three local men Marcel “Slim” Sap, Pat Deardorf and Ray McKay planted three blue gum trees in December of 1956 to bring the total back the the historic and much loved five trees. “We just kinda felt that the landmark was important to Ventura and wanted to see it restored,” Sap told a reporter in December, 1956.
In 1958, vandals struck again and took down two of the five trees. Five trees became three. There were now two 1898 and one 1956 tree.
By 1966, one the the three remaining trees died. It was one of the 1898 trees and it most likely died from old age and drought. The lifeless tree remained standing for a while but was later burned down by a fire started by a careless smoker. Or a wild fire. I’ve read both versions and I’m unsure which is correct. The charred tree stump was never removed and remains upon the hilltop still. Below is a picture of the remains of that tree.
In 1966 the Ventura Junior Women’s Club (who met in the Poinsettia Pavillion where one of the trail begins) took on the project of bringing three new trees to the hilltop. For unknown reasons, the project failed. Two Trees remained Two Trees.
In January of 1987 the surviving two trees were recognized as an official landmark by the County Cultural Heritage Board. The official name is Five Trees. While I can’t find documentation to verify this, I believe that the board members were old enough to have fond memories of the five trees and chose to keep that memory alive when naming the landmark.
Time, drought, fires and vandalism took its toll on the remaining 1898 tree. It had obviously died by 2016. To the delight of the community and through the efforts of the Rancho Ventura Conservation Trust, on April 22, 2017, a sapling Blue Gum Eucalyptus was planted on the hilltop.
On October 9, 2017 the last of the 1898 trees was felled by strong winds. It
remained where it fell on the hilltop. It’s remains were burned by the devastating Thomas Fires. It can still be seen there.
The story of Two Trees continues. The last of the 1956 trees is dying. The victim of age, drought and vandalism. Soon a young healthy Blue Gum Eucalyptus will be planted to take its place. Those beloved silent sentinels above the city will watch on. Because the people of Ventura would want that.
Type of Route: Out and Back
Distance: 1.8 miles
Elevation: 973 ft
Elevation Gain: 734 ft
Time: 1-2 hours
Dogs Permitted: No Dogs Allowed
Permit: Sign up for guided tours at Rancho Ventura Conservation Trust
The Rancho Ventura Conservation Trust website recommends the following:
Due to the nature of the terrain the hikes can be considered moderately difficult and out-and-back up and down steep slopes. The distance from Poinsettia Pavilion to Two trees is approximately .9 miles with an elevation gain of 734 feet over the course of the hike. Average hike times take between 30-45 minutes to reach Two Trees. We ask all attending to:
- Wear proper attire for the weather on the given day.
- Apply sunscreen.
- Wear appropriate footwear.
- Pace themselves during the duration of the hike according to their ability.
- Bring water or a sports drink for hydration.
- Bring a camera for photo opportunities.
Guests will get to visit the permanently preserved land in the Ventura Hillsides, take in incredible views overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Channel Islands and the Cities of Ventura and Oxnard, and the Los Padres National Forest and Topa Topa Mountains to the North and Santa Monica Mountains to the Southeast. There will be incredible photo opportunities due to the great visibility in the Fall and Winter months. Hike leaders will teach the story of the land, History of Two Trees, facts about wildlife and more during the hike. Pre-registry is required to attend the event.
Notes: Hikes will be rescheduled in the event of bad weather. All guests are requires to sign waiver of liability at the onset of each outing. Hikes are limited to 250 guests. Parking space is limited to 150 vehicles so guests are urged to consider carpooling.
Extra Credit: Tripping down a rabbit hole
When I was researching the history of Joseph Sexton, I became distracted by the Foster family. I decided to chase that down even though it’s no exactly related to the hike on Two Trees. Hence, a trip down the rabbit hole! In July 1868, Isaac G. Foster purchased property in Goleta, California. This property was next to the Sexton property. In November 1869, Isaac’s daughter Lucy, who was 16, married 26 year-old Joseph Sexton. One of Isaac’s sons, Eugene (E.P.), would occasionally work for his brother-in-law Joseph at the Sexton Nursery.
Lucy’s older brother, E.P. Foster was to become one of Ventura County’s most important philanthropist in the early 20th century. He donated lands and established several parks around Ventura County. These included Camp Comfort, Foster Memorial Park and Seaside Park. He also donated to Ventura’s main public library, the E.P. Foster Library and helped to fund the construction of Community Memorial Hospital. Community Memorial Hospital was once known as the E.P. Foster Memorial Hospital from 1932 to 1962.
I found the intertwined relationships among these families and their connections to Two Trees interesting. I hope you do as well.
Rabbit Hole #2
While researching this blog I found a reference to Theodosia Burr Sheperd. Around the time Sexton planted his trees there was a tree planting blitz happening in Ventura led by Theodosia Burr Sheperd. She was instrumental in the planting of the Moreton Fig Tree still standing in downtown Ventura’s Plaza Park. It is thought that she may have influenced Sexton’s decision to plant the trees. Wait a minute…Theodosia Burr???!!! Could this Theodosia Burr Sheperd somehow be related to Theodosia Burr, the wife of Aaron Burr, former vice president of the U.S. and antagonist in the play Hamilton? I am a Hamilton-phile extraordinaire and my heart raced as I thought that there may be some connection between Two Trees and Hamilton. This Theodosia was born in Keosauqua, Iowa to Augustus Hall, a lawyer who was to become Chief Justice of Nebraska. Theodosia was indeed related to Aaron Burr. This relationship is discussed in the book; Theodosia Burr Sheperd, Flower Wizard of California
Theodosia Burr Sheperd was an amazing woman. She came to Ventura in 1873. While living in Ventura, she developed the Theodosia B. Sheperd Seed Company and at one point was known throughout the United States as the “Flower Wizard of California”. She was an author and lecturer and was sought after to discuss her work in hybridization, plant life and her success as a pioneering business woman. Remnants of her garden can still be found on the grounds of the E.P. Foster Library. I’m glad to have read about her.
Time to back out of the research of Two Trees. Off to my next hiking adventure. I hope you’ll read along. Better yet, I hope you have been inspired to go out and hike. I’d love to see you on the trail.