Ken Miller (KM) interviewed Topanga octogenarian Henry Smith and his step-daughter Wendy Skofield as part of the 2016 TRANSPORT Topanga Literary Festival. This transcript of the interview is part of the Messenger Mountain News’ TRANSPORT project—revisiting the interviews, and sharing some of these Topanga origin stories with the community.
Henry Smith: My story goes back to when I was 19 years old and I joined the Navy for four years. I was on a reservation, a small reservation. It was really poor, it had no economy at all. The government was supposedly supporting us, so I went back and stayed another year after I got out of the Navy, but the situation was not any better. In fact, it was worse. The government-sponsored program of relocation came around to the houses, trying to round up some people to leave the reservation and go mainly to cities for jobs. They promised them a job and a place to stay until they got situated.
While I was in the Navy, I went around quite a few states in the country. I’d never been to California, but I’d heard a lot about it and there was this job down in California. I learned this down in L.A. at the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] Building, when I came out. They said there’s a place way out there, they say. Way away from the city. I said, “It sounds good to me!” And the place was Rocketdyne.
HS: Yeah. And there was no freeway, nothing like that. But I kind of enjoyed it, because I lived up on a hill, with your mother.
Wendy Skolfield: This was when we were in Woodland Hills. My parents were divorced when I was really young, and my dad left. Then my mom and Henry met, and fell crazy, madly in love, and they came together. It was during that time that Henry began also working at Rocketdyne. This was the early infancy of the space program. I mean, the sound barrier was still just being played with then. And so there was a huge push and an investment in people, machinists, and that’s what Henry knew how to do. So he came out to take that job, and needed a place to live, and found my mother’s rental. He became the tenant, then the boyfriend, and then the husband! All three of us kids loved it.
KM: Henry, where was the reservation you came from?
HS: In northern Wisconsin. It’s called Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation. It was Chippewa.
WS: He goes back every year.
HS: That’s where I was born, in a small log cabin.
WS: And his mom was fourteen. And he was the oldest of –
HS: Well, there were fourteen of us. I do go back there at least once a year for the big pow wow and homecoming. See, what happened with that relocation, probably ninety or more percent of the tribes went back to the reservations. That program didn’t work very well. It took people a long way from their family. It was a village where I was, where I eventually grew up. So anyway….
WS: So you came out and got the job at Rocketdyne…
HS: Yeah, I worked a little over fifteen years…
WS: He’d ride his bike to work…
HS: Till that project, I forget, what the heck’s the name of it?
WS: The Apollo, was it Apollo?
HS: Yeah. We got the first man on the Moon.
KM: What was your job at Rocketdyne?
HS: Well, I started off as a machinist. Then worked my way to different things. I ended up in the clean room where I cleaned all these little parts and parts and parts. Everything was so interesting to me. I mean, I never experienced anything like that. What started Rocketdyne, they had the Redstone project. That was getting the first man in space. And I’d say, “Well, how in the world is he going to get back?” Because space is quite a ways up there. But he made it back! And then he went into more things, like a rocket [simulator] for the astronauts to get used to a lot of “G’s”, gravity. That was all interesting. And we were building the first, second, and third stages of the…so it was wonderful when the guys landed on the Moon.
WS: Do you remember the first time you came out to see Topanga, once you were living in Woodland Hills?
HS: [Wendy’s] mother, Mimi found the property on Old Canyon. I liked it because it was a lot different. It still is a little different from the city. I never rode a horse in my life, so I learned to ride here. Eventually we had three horses. I got into competitive riding. The Deer Creek Ranch is the one that started it. We met them, and they turned us on to a lot of stuff about horses, especially competitive and endurance riding. Totally different. So we rode for a lot of years, I dunno, it must’ve been thousands of miles.
WS: They were Grand Marshals in the Topanga Parade.
HS: So anyway, Mimi found this place on Old Canyon. I really liked it. There was no water…people had their water in wells, most people. Some people had cisterns and they’d store the water during the rains. So that’s basically how I got to Topanga. We came and built, well, there are two houses. I still live in the same place. I have about a hundred steps.
KM: That keeps you in shape?
HS: Yeah! I’m 84 now.
WS: They keep telling Henry, “Move down to one of the other cottages!” But growing up at that place, there was always the sense of, you know, that anything could happen in Topanga. It could be a fire, it could be a flood. We lived through many of them. The Mansons! And our houses were always this gathering place, culturally, for a lot of the radicals at that time. So almost every night at dinner there were people that were there just for that night, and move on. There was a whole lot of people that were in their own transport modes, moving from place to place, and stirring up political stuff.
KM: Now I have to ask you: both of you were here from the beatnik times, through the rise of the hippies, and then to the present day, which is so different. Tell me about the cultural shifts that you’ve seen.
HS: Well, it hasn’t seemed to shift too much, because all the people we knew didn’t change. They’re all the same. I just think there’s a big feud between Topanga and the Valley. Because people out here were mostly artists and musicians…
WS: And a lot of blue-collar too…
HS: …and actors and actresses…
WS: Yeah, artists mostly, but in the ’50s and ’60s there was also family life going on. A lot of people who worked in the aircraft industry lived out here. It was a bedroom community for a lot of what was happening at Rocketdyne and the South Bay, in addition to all the artists and beatniks and all that. I think one of the things that changed Topanga over the long haul was water, county water. It allowed developmen, and development allowed our property values to rise. And then it allowed more and more people to come in with more money. So I think that going from a population of whatever we were – when we moved here there was less than 2,000 people living in Topanga, so it was very open. I don’t ever want to be one of those people that says, “Oh, Topanga isn’t what it used to be!” But it isn’t.
KM: Well, nothing is.
WS: Nothing is! And that’s called moving through time. You know, just sitting here and hearing the sound of the Boulevard, and it’s not even Summer, and you’re hearing it, and it’s like, wow! And Old Canyon used to be…there wasn’t even a line down the road. So it has changed, but it’s wonderful, there’s wonderful new voices in Topanga and a new sense of community spirit. And people ante-ing up, people volunteering, and people getting involved.
It’s new and it’s different, and it’s fresh blood.