The Rust Family: Lower Topanga Canyon Pioneers

Above, the Rust Family, late 1920s. Brothers Roy and Clayton are on the left. Blanche is in a light gray coat. Thais is making a sandcastle. That’s Ella, in white dress, and Ina in a striped bathing suit. Raburn is on the right. Photo courtesy of Lori Sykes Ardis

Clayton and Ina Rust arrived in Lower Topanga Canyon in the 1920s, and helped  transform what was still a corner of the wild west into a neighborhood of interconnected families and family businesses. 

Clayton and Ina Rust moved to Topanga Beach around 1922. Nearly 20 relatives soon followed, making their family the biggest that ever lived in Lower Topanga. This group not only influenced the development of the community, but of the local businesses, many of which they owned.

Although Clayton’s first job in the area was driving a Santa Monica school bus, by 1923 he was the operator of a Red Crown gas station at the Topanga intersection, where Oasis Imports is today. He must have done great business when the Elks, which he belonged to, threw their “monster rodeo” that year. The gas station was just a shack with a single pump, but it was painted in eye-catching colors: “Fill your tank with ‘Red Crown’ at any red, white and blue pump in town.” Gradually, the station grew to include more pumps and a garage. 

In 1936, Clayton’s gas station, garage, and a car that was parked inside burned in a fire caused by bad electrical wiring. Fireman D. F. Hooper, of the Topanga Canyon station, was burned on his hand and arm while fighting the blaze. The gas station was wisely rebuilt out of metal by Shell Oil, but Clayton didn’t like it as much, and sold it to neighbors Fred and Ethel Clark. In 1949, Fred sold it to neighbors Henry “Van” and Mary Van Ostrum, who renamed it Van’s Shell Station. It was demolished in the early 1970s, and rebuilt across the street by Gulf. Today, it’s operated by Arco.

Another early business was a small store across the street from the gas station that Clayton and his brother LeRoy “Roy” Rust bought from Jack Messenger. Little is known about Jack, but it seems like he was a cowboy from the Elks Rodeo who stayed on at Topanga. He’s not listed in the rodeo program, but the year before, he was touring California with three others who are: Hippy Burmeister, Calgary Jack McDonald, and Sam Howe. A fourth companion, Hank “Deadman”—so nicknamed because he once woke up in a morgue after being thrown from a bronco—was probably Hank Steelman from the rodeo program. 

Roy ran the store with his wife, Blanche. In 1929, they sold it to Charles Potter, who had just moved to Topanga Lane. The flood of 1938 caused a mudslide that pushed Potter’s Store into the street. Charles salvaged the lumber and rebuilt his store on the same side as the gas station, renaming it Potter’s Topanga Trading Post. Later, it became part of the Malibu Feed Bin. 

Blanche’s parents, Frank and Myrtle Paxson, had a hamburger stand called Paxson’s Cafe at the future site of the Chart House and Mastro’s Ocean Club. After they retired in 1939, it was renamed the Tides Cafe. It burned in 1941, and was rebuilt as Marino’s at The Point (later shortened to The Point) by a Greek family, who caught the restaurant’s fish from long rowboats that they parked on the beach. It was the Marino family’s second restaurant in the area. Since 1933, Harry and Anna Marino had been operating another Topanga Beach restaurant simply called Marino’s, where the Reel Inn is today.

On the north side of Clayton’s gas station, Ina Rust opened her own restaurant in the early 1930s. It was called Rust’s Barbecue and was intended to serve the road workers who came to build a new bridge across the lagoon.

In 1935, Ina began leasing out her restaurant to others, including Louise Steeb, who lived on Old Malibu Road. Louise was the daughter of William and Frances Steeb. William was an Elk who had been around since the rodeo days. In 1922, he worked as a cowboy on the Coopers’ Topango Ranch. In the mid-1920s, he had a restaurant called the Las Tunas Inn that was one of the only buildings on Tuna Beach to survive the stormy waves of 1926. Other restaurants he created were the Malibu Trading Post at Trancas Canyon in the early 1930s, and the Big Rock Cafe in the late 1930s. 

On the south side of Clayton’s gas station, Ina’s friend Lucy Loggins created another barbecue restaurant called the Step Inn Cafe. Nothing could be learned about Lucy, but an older restaurant had existed in that building that was probably the same “lunchroom” where Deputy Fire Warden H. D. Smith and Deputy Sheriff William Edward Harris were caught selling alcohol in 1925.

In 1938, a man named Warner Eater sold the Step Inn Cafe to the woman who would become the restaurant’s longest owner, Sue Blackwood. Sue took it over in the same week that the 1938 flood happened, and endeared herself to the neighborhood by staying open all night to feed the rescue workers. Her brother, Cecil Terrill, and his son, Steven, helped run the restaurant. During World War II, she married Howard Van Wagner, another “Van” for short, who also got involved with the business. 

The Step Inn Cafe was made famous as the place where boxer Kirk Douglas breaks the heart of waitress Ruth Roman in the 1949 film Champion. It burned on July 4, 1958, but was rebuilt as Ted’s Step Inn Cafe by Sidney “Ted” Koskoff of Ted’s Grill in Santa Monica Canyon. In 1962, a new owner, Irene Girourd, renamed it French’s Wee Nook. It was demolished in the late 1960s.

Besides contributing to the development of Lower Topanga, both Clayton and Ina were connected to some of the region’s early settlers.

Clayton grew up in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and spent the best time of his youth leading tour groups on mules into the Grand Canyon. Sometime after 1910, he and several other members of his family came to Los Angeles. 

In 1913, Clayton got a job as a surveyor for the Topanga road, which was being rebuilt, and married his first wife, May Jennie Daic, who was the daughter of a Calabasas pioneer named Wencil Daic. Clayton also befriended Malibu pioneer Rhoda May Rindge and Topanga pioneers, the Cheneys. In 1915, the same year that the new road was completed, May Jennie died at only 28. 

For the next five years, Clayton worked as a car mechanic in Northridge. He met Ina while living at the Burbank boarding house of her aunt, Senea Lou Barnes. Ina was nearly half his age, 

Senea had come to California with nine children after her husband died in Texas in 1902. She was preceded by her brother Josiah Thrasher and his wife Alice—Ina’s parents—who became pioneers of Van Nuys. Alice was said to be related to Jerome C. Davis, the founder of Davis, CA, but there was no proof to be found that this was so. 

Topanga and Pacific Coast Highway, circa 1933, showing Clayton’s gas station, Los Angeles
Athletic Club office, and Potter’s Store. Photo courtesy of Lori Sykes Ardis

In 1919, Clayton and Ina married, and he got a job at the Orcutt Ranch near Northridge. A few years later they moved to Lower Topanga. 

The Rusts first lived in a small beach house, then bought a two-story house behind the Topanga Beach Auto Court. They were able to afford it because the builder had run out of money before finishing the interior. The Rusts couldn’t finish it either, and only lived on the first floor.

A few houses away lived fisherman John Fonducas, whom Clayton befriended. When somebody came to the gas station and reported three barrels floating offshore after a storm, Clayton and John went to pick them up. The barrels contained bootlegged whiskey, which they enjoyed in secret.

Some of the first relatives to move to Lower Topanga were Clayton’s parents: Raburn Stedman Rust, a traveling preacher, and his wife Rachel, who went by her middle name Ella. It’s likely that Raburn helped plan the Pacific Palisades, which was founded as a Methodist religious commune in 1922, but his involvement is unclear because of a nephew with the same name. On the Pacific Palisades Association were Raburn Ross Rust and Noel Rust, the sons of his brother, Albert Rust of Long Beach.

Clayton’s parents lived in his old beach house. When they moved to Arcadia in 1928, they passed the house to Ina’s sister, Mary, her husband Carl Kays, and children, Carl Jr. and Marilyn. 

The Rusts’ property was buried by fill dirt from the construction of the new lagoon bridge, which was completed in 1933. To save their house, they moved it half a mile up the canyon to Brookside. The Kays may have faced the same problem because they also moved to Brookside. Other relatives joined them or were already living there.

Albert Rust’s daughter Cleo, her husband Fred Wendill, and daughter Avis lived across the creek from the Rusts. 

Senea Lou Barnes’s daughter, Toy, her husband Clyde McClellan, and daughter Marvelle had a vacation home that they had to be rescued from during the 1938 flood. Three of Senea’s children lived to be over 100. Toy had lived in three centuries by the time she died at 109.

Ina’s father, Josiah, moved to Shady Lane, near the Rodeo Grounds in the 1930s. He had a large field where he kept cows. After the 1938 flood, the Topanga road was rebuilt over his property, and he moved back to Van Nuys.

The Rusts were friends with two other Shady Lane families: Frank and Ruby Porter taught “Topanga Beach Bible School” on Sundays to the Rusts’ daughter, Thais. Joseph Harward, a carpenter who lived with his wife, Odessa, finished building the interior of the Rust’s house after it was moved to Brookside. 

During the fire of 1938, Thais’s bedroom on the second floor burned. Clayton single-handedly saved the rest of the house by pouring buckets of water from his fishpond onto the roof. Flames burned a handkerchief in his back pocket, but he somehow escaped without injury. In the garage was a propane tank that could have exploded at any moment. 

As often happened in Lower Topanga, where the borderline between city and county land led to odd responses. Fire trucks parked on the boulevard but wouldn’t enter the neighborhood, which contributed to nearly 50 homes being burned. The Kays were among the unfortunates, but were able to rebuild with lumber and supplies donated by the Red Cross. Amazingly, the day after the fire, Ina cooked everyone a Thanksgiving dinner.

Around this time, a fire station was built at the Topanga intersection, on a space formerly occupied by the office of Los Angeles Athletic Club property manager Guy Wade. Wade’s office was lifted up and added onto the roof. The fire station later became part of the Malibu Feed Bin.

Guy, his wife Elsie, and daughter, Elizabeth, had a cottage at Brookside. He and Clayton were friends, and took hunting and fishing trips together in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In 1944, Clayton and Ina divorced. Clayton stayed in Lower Topanga, while Ina went seeking wartime jobs at Garrett AiResearch and Douglas Aircraft in the city. She continued to work in aerospace after the war.

Clayton and Ina’s daughter, Thais, would join another Lower Topanga family to theirs when she married John “Jack” Sykes, who grew up on the beach.

The Rust-Thrasher family tree, showing all of the family members who lived/worked at Topanga Beach. Those who did not were either omitted or are listed in gray.

 

Pablo Capra is a former Lower Topanga resident, and continues to preserve the history of that neighborhood on his website, www.brasstackspress.com, and as a board member of the Topanga Historical Society, www.topangahistoricalsociety.org.

 

Pablo Capra
Pablo Capra

Pablo Capra is a former Lower Topanga resident, and continues to preserve the history of that neighborhood on his website, www.brasstackspress.com, and as a board member of the Topanga Historical Society, www.topangahistoricalsociety.org.

3 Comments
  1. Thanks for the in-depth research and writing of this story, Pablo. I loved reading it. Especially now. It’s an important reflection on the ways that people connect and couple and disengage, like railroad cars moving down the tracks of life. Full of hardships and full of ingenuity, grit, and wily know how.

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