Fern Dell Cottage – a Continuing Legacy

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The Cottage at the Western Entrance to Griffith Park

Amidst Griffith Park’s 4,000+ acres, its many attractions, hundreds of hiking trails and unique eco-system sits an unassuming one-story 1927 Spanish Revival residence – a small treasure with a long history.

Located on Red Oak Drive near Fern Dell Drive, it was originally built as the Cottage at the Western Avenue Entrance to Griffith Park. Occupied by city employees assigned as caretakers, it became known as the Foreman’s House. Over the years the 900 sq. ft. building underwent modifications: a garage was added sometime between 1925 and 1940, and in 1928 and 1937 Department of Recreation and Parks drawings show planned modifications like extending the living room, adding a walk-in shower and adding a dressing room in one of the bedrooms. Some, but not all, were carried out.

But in the fall of 1951 Rec and Park plans were drawn for changing the building from a watchman’s house into the Fern Dell Nature Museum. The living space was reconfigured as an exhibit space, a projection room, an office and a lecture room.

The idea for the Nature Museum, it is thought, is likely to have originated with Ranger Bill Eckert. “The museum was Bill Eckert’s base. He was really the foundation of the museum,” recounts Ranger Albert Torres, Captain, Park Ranger Division, who’s been a Park Ranger for 35 years and has 45 years in Recreation and Parks, “He was the consummate interpreter, Park Ranger and motivator of Park Rangers, volunteers, and the people he spoke to. He took groups of college students to the museum and on nature walks and motivated the rangers to learn about the trees, plants, flowers and animals in the park. He was admired for his vast knowledge of the park and was the perfect ambassador to visitors of all ages.”  Pretty much a park legend, Eckert graduated from Cal Poly Pomona with a degree in ornamental horticulture and was a grower of prize-winning fern. Hired in 1949 as a gardener, “he became a charter member of the ranger unit, Badge #1, in 1965” adds Torres.

The Fern Dell Nature Museum opened on April 20, 1952, and drew visitors from far and wide. So it may be said that from its operative years of 1952 until 1978 the little house in the western canyon was, so to speak, put on the map. “We gave tours to the public and to school groups,” says Ranger Anne, now retired. “Each room had interpretive displays that included local plants, animals, insects and Native American artifacts.” Ranger Anne’s father, a geologist, helped her gather rock specimens for the museum. “We even had a moon rock specimen on display in a secured case and showed short 8mm movies, some shot locally, on different nature subjects for the public and the kids to enjoy.“ Ranger Anne would contact teachers to find out if there was something in particular they wanted the kids to learn about while at the park and in that way she was able to tailor the tours to the curriculum for different student groups. A few years later, when she was a ranger, she compiled a children’s Activity Book and “Plants & Trees” booklet, which she revised in the 1980s.

Born in Hollywood not far from Griffith Park, “I always wanted to be a ranger,” says Ranger Anne, whose parents often took her there. As a senior at San Fernando Valley State College (now CSUN) she mastered in Outdoor Recreation and Resource Management, which required in-service training. No surprise, she chose Griffith Park and received college credit for working at the Fern Dell Nature Museum in 1972 with Eckert. A kind of park legend, Eckert was hired as a gardener in 1949 and became a charter member of the park’s ranger unit, Badge #1, in 1965. “As a student worker,” says Ranger Anne, “a lot of my work was done in the museum… Bill Eckert had the most knowledge about the interpretative area of the job and was the inspiration. He got me interested in nature stuff and that’s why I was a nature guide when I became a ranger.” Ranger Anne became a Park Ranger in 1988 and Senior Park Ranger (Supervisor) in 1994.

Ranger Dave Feliz, retired, served over 20 years and joined the park’s the mounted unit in November 1970. From 1972 until 1992 he was the mounted unit trainer, several years of which included training LAPD mounted officers. “His ancestors,” wrote Eckert in the Spring 1990 Griffith Park Bulletin, “rode horseback on the same land, hunting deer and checking the grain fields on what was then El Rancho de Feliz.” Feliz remembers his father, who at one time worked as a gardener in the park, telling him that he had it on good faith that it was not unusual for families to scatter the ashes of family members in Fern Dell.

“Bill Eckert and [Ranger] Miles Baer set up the [museum’s] displays,” recalls Feliz. “They would get display cases and exhibit items from area museums and help set them up.” Raising his arm he describes a large book-like display of fern species found in Fern Dell. “It was really big, and you would stand in front of it and turn the ‘pages’ just as you would with a book. I think it was probably Bill Eckert who got that together. Rangers would take groups of elementary school kids—a lot from inner-city schools—through the museum and explain the displays and then take them on a tour of [the]Dell.” During his years at the park Feliz enjoyed “the opportunity to give his personal touch to park history and share intriguing tales of the park that few visitors ever get to hear.”

“There was a very nice tradition,” says Torres, “A Boy Scout would start at the museum and hike to Mt. Hollywood. To document the 5-mile round-trip, he would put a note into a metal pipe at the museum and leave marker notes along the way. When he returned to the museum, he received a certificate from the rangers that he’d completed the hike.” A proud moment.

Located near the fabled Fern Dell, during its 26 years, the Nature Museum served as a kind of gateway to Griffith Park. It welcomed thousands of visitors and introduced persons of all ages to the park’s many and unique natural wonders. But lack of funding related to Proposition 13, passed in 1978, forced its closure that same year.

In 1988, though, the Fern Dell cottage was returned to its original function as a residence and made available to Park Rangers by the Department of  Recreation and Parks and took on new life as the Ranger House. Situated near one of the most heavily trafficked entrances to the park, occupancy of the 1927 structure has always been important to the security of the western canyon area, which borders residential neighborhoods. When the house becomes available, all full-time Rec and Parks employees are eligible to apply for tenancy, but from the outset, strong support from neighborhood and community associations and individuals, including Friends of Griffith Park, assured ranger tenancy. “Park Rangers were preferred at the house because their presence provided better safety and response. They are always available to help and are a good resource for the Department,” says Torres. “The ranger speaks to a safety presence and helps obviate problems…[and]acts as a preventative.”  And it’s not unusual for the LAFD or LAPD to call at any hour to ask for ranger assistance

Among those it has been home to is Senior Park Ranger Adam Dedeaux, Supervisor of In-House Search and Rescue Training—“just Ranger Dedeaux,” he smiles. “I grew up camping, fishing and backpacking [so]I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors.”  He has a bachelor’s degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies from Long Beach State where he specialized in outdoor recreation resources, science, hiking and mountaineering—and where he met his wife. After graduation, a special Alaska State Parks internship enabled Dedeaux and his wife to spend four months honing their skills in Alaska’s back country. Back in LA, Dedeaux says, “I wanted to find a job where I could play in the outdoors,” and in January 2007 he applied to be a park ranger. “I chose to live in the Ranger House for a few reasons. It was a great opportunity to gain a lot of experience in a short period of time. I had the opportunity to engage with the community in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise (Friends of Griffith Park and other community meetings). I also just really love and appreciate Griffith Park and didn’t want to pass on this unique experience.”

As to the oddest request for help he’s had, the ranger cocked his head and smiled, “Well….,” he mused, “I once got a call to rescue two skunks that had somehow gotten into a huge planter in Pecan Grove.” After a few tries, he got one on of them out and was grateful that the animal stayed calm. “Then I reached back in for the other one and… yeah, he sprayed me,” and chuckled at the memory.

He and his wife lived in the Ranger House for about three years and their son was born during that time. Upon moving in, Dedeaux was introduced to the local community with a “Meet the Ranger” garden party, replete with refreshments. He relates that he and his wife learned to live with the eccentricities of the nearly 100-year-old building. No doubt having survived several months in Alaska’s back country helped them adapt. Finding picnickers in front of the house or a bobcat on the roof are all part of life at Ranger House. Of being a ranger, “The most important part of the job is helping people,” says Dedeaux. “Besides, I like the variety of the job and the scenery’s not bad either.”

Ranger Gary Menjuga has been has been a ranger for five years and has lived at Ranger House with his wife and 2-year-old son for a little over a year. “The [1927] house is showing its age,” he says. “There’s no central heating so we use space heaters, and we have just one window A/C unit. Some of the tiles are separating, which makes the house prone to rodents and ants, so we follow our son around with a dustpan picking up after him when he leaves crumbs or other food scraps to prevent rodent and ant infestations.” He speaks casually of the occasional four-legged intruder, “They live in the park, so I figure they’re ‘clean.’” Menjuga has some electrical skills, which come in handy, and he does general upkeep – except, that is, when he’s not doing things like putting out fires.

“On August 12 at approximately 5:40 am,” he relates, “a hiker called LAFD about a brush fire at the Soroptomist Grove picnic area, near Fern Dell and Red Oak Drive. LAFD notified me, and when I responded the caller pointed me in the right direction.” Asked about first actions, Menjuga matter-of-factly responds, “Identify the location, quick assessment, relay assessment to responding resources, conduct initial attack,” —or, as we civilians would say—fight the fire. Menjuga “was able to extinguish the fire before it spread and cancel most of the LAFD firetrucks and helicopters that were responding. LAFD arrived and sprayed the area with additional water to guarantee the fire was out. The fire had been started by transient activity I also conducted law enforcement actions by citing and removing the transients from the park.”

His ranger vehicle parked at the house, he and his family are used to visitors knocking at the door to for ask directions, or a Band-Aid, even calling in the middle of the night when they’re lost. On a recent Sunday Menjuga received a 2:00 a.m. call from Griffith Observatory security reporting two hikers, a man and a woman, both in an “altered mental state.”  The woman had fallen down a hillside and was unable to climb back up. Menjuga radioed LAFD for assistance and rushed to the scene in his Ranger truck. He began to rappel down the hillside to help the woman and was joined by the LAFD, who helped complete rescue and took the hikers to a hospital. So… like, all in a day’s work.

There’s no “The Ranger Is In” sign on the house, but Park Rangers who live there fulfill the original intent and promise of The Fern Dell Cottage — which remains today a place of caretaking, security, of welcome and of assistance to anyone in need.

The life of a Park Ranger is not just a walk in the park. Along with putting out fires and rescuing people, Park Rangers provide general assistance to the public, conduct nature hikes, lead interpretive education programs and perform a whole raft of other duties that come with the job. They’re caretakers, public ambassadors, preservers of wildlife, conservationists, historians, botanists and keepers of the peace. But at its core, being a Park Ranger is about helping people—a phrase echoed by each of the women and men who serve as Park Rangers. All of which makes for a whole other story.

A final note of distinction for The Fern Dell Cottage: Senior Ranger Patrick Joyce, Patrol Section Supervisor, known to all as Ranger Pat, lived at Ranger House for several years with his wife and their two sons, born during their tenancy. Friends of Griffith Park shared an excerpt, via Ranger Pat, of information (further excerpted here) regarding the Fern Dell area of the park.

It is estimated that Native Americans first came to the Fern Dell area of Griffith Park approximately 10,000 years ago. Archeological surveys have found evidence of a substantial rancheria at the mouth of Fern Dell Canyon. Military commander Gaspar de Portolá encountered the inhabitants of a village in the area —Gabrielinos, so named by the Spanish because of their association with the San Gabriel Mission. The site of this village, or rancheria, includes the area where the Ranger House stands today, in Red Oak Drive.

In 1973 the site was recognized as Los Angeles Cultural Historical Monument #112 and a commemorative plaque placed near the Los Feliz Boulevard-Fern Dell Drive entrance to the park.

~Mary Proteau


Some of the Park rangers included in the article from top: Rangers Bill Eckert, Albert Torres, Patrick Joyce, Ranger Anne and Adam Dedeaux

 

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