“It’s a town of artists, musicians and outdoorsy people. There are spiritual seekers, ranchers, farmers and equestrians. It’s been home to many entrepreneurs and innovators. It’s a tourist and spa town, a power vortex, a hippy town, a wedding destination and an elite enclave. You hear all these things. Some of them overlap and some of them are seemingly contradictory. How does one validate them? That’s a long conversation.”
That’s how Christopher Land, Ph.D., and director of communications for the Thacher School in Ojai described his mountain town of about 8,000 residents, just minutes from the coast. The smallest city in Ventura County was Chumash Native American territory originally, like so much of the region. After that it was part of a Spanish land grant.
The post office bell tower was originally constructed in 1917.
Photo by: Gaszton Gal
Ojai is a Chumash word, but the original village was known as “Nordhoff” for over 40 years, beginning in the 1870s. This was in honor of author and journalist Charles Nordhoff, a European immigrant who mentioned the Ojai Valley in the second edition of his book California for Health, Pleasure, and Residence.
Ojai has also been affectionately known as “Shangri-La,” the fictional paradise in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Word is that the area was considered for the 1937 film adaptation. In the early 20th century, Edward Libbey, founder of the Libbey Glass Company, contributed substantially to new construction downtown.
A common trait of Ojai residents is their refusal to be typecast, labeled or stereotyped. If you try to compare them to Humboldt, Santa Cruz or Idyllwild, or label them “New Agers” or “hippies,” they won’t stand for it. They’re proud of their diversity of lifestyles and prefer to be thought of as rugged individualists with community spirit.
The Ojai arcade, originally built in 1917 and then
refurbished in 1989, features eclectic shops and eateries.
Photo: Courtesy Ojai Visitors Bureau
In addition to Thacher, Ojai hosts several other boarding schools. These include Besant Hill with an expansive arts curriculum, Oak Grove School featuring a vegetarian lifestyle, the solar-powered Ojai Valley School and the Catholic Villanova Preparatory School. Most host students from multiple states and countries.
Sherman Day Thacher came to Ojai in the 1890s from New England. His dad was a teacher at Yale and his sickly brother needed the fresh air. Word got out that Thacher knew how to prep youngsters for entrance to Ivy League schools. Thus a prep school was born on a working ranch in Ojai. According to Land, the Thachers were instrumental in the civic development of Ojai, including the library, the tennis tournament, newspaper and buildings. Thacher was also a friend of Charles Nordhoff.
Today’s Thacher School is heir to Sherman’s philosophy of education, which includes a blend of personal responsibility and strong academics. Each student must personally take care of a horse for an entire school year. The kids also take several expeditions into the Los Padres National Forest and Sespe Wilderness bordering Ojai.
The Thacher School offers a horse program that teaches students
about taking care of horses as well learning how to ride them.
Photo: Courtesy Thacher School
According to school officials, “He believed the most worthwhile education combined a vigorous academic life with rugged outdoor activities that engendered self-reliance, concern for others and fidelity to four principles: honor, fairness, kindness and truth.” Furthermore the school’s mission is to inspire “self-knowledge and concern for the world.”
Sustainability is very important to students and staff of the Ojai Valley School, a K-12 residential prep school. About a year ago, a thousand photovoltaic panels that cover about 19,000 square feet of roofs and hills were installed at one of their two campuses. The goal is to let the sun power most of the campus, saving the school upwards of $60,000 per year and reducing its carbon footprint by at least 300,000 pounds.
But prep schools have not been the only ones to benefit from the natural beauty of the Ojai Valley in the name of intellectual enlightenment.
“It is essential sometimes to go into retreat and stop everything you’ve been doing.” With thoughts like this, it’s no wonder that Jiddu Krishnamurti, the late renowned East Indian spiritual teacher and world traveler chose Ojai as his home base. He spoke of the ideal place for contemplation and renewal: “This place must be of great beauty with trees, birds and quietness, for beauty is truth and truth is goodness and love.”
As a teen, he was discovered by British Theosophists and promoted as a uniquely gifted thinker in India. They saw him as a sage who could clarify the deepest philosophical quandaries of existence. Ultimately, he rejected the burden of expectations in favor of a life as a freelance thinker. He had no attachment to any country, religion, culture or official philosophy.
The Krishnamurti Foundation of America operates the retreat as part of the Krishnamurti Education Center. It includes cottages designated as historic structures by the Ventura County Historic Preservation Commission. There are visitors center, library, archives and a conference facility. Individuals, couples and groups can rent lodgings for short or extended stays.
Krishnamurthi’s Oak Grove School has a decidedly “progressive” outlook, which is intended to carry out his vision for a school to be “a blessing to the world.” According to the web site: “This is a school that asks our students to question ‘life as usual,’ and dare to live differently, because change we must if we are going to have a future worth living.” The school maintains an organic garden as part of its Vegetarian Hot Lunch program and encourages environmental sustainability.
Ask a local about current affairs and you are likely to hear mention of a “water war” simmering in the Ojai Valley. For decades, Golden State Water, a private purveyor and the only one regulated by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), has supplied much of Ojai’s water supply, in addition to portions outside the city. Recently many Golden State “Ojai rate payers” became frustrated by years of annual 8 percent rate hikes, and began to challenge the status quo.
Eventually seven people formed “Ojai FLOW” (Friends of Locally Owned Water) to advocate for the buyout of Golden State by Casitas Municipal Water District through the power of eminent domain. According to the group’s chairman, Pat McPherson, “The PUC system is the broken system that allows Golden State to get away with rate increases far beyond the other water companies.”
In August 2013, 51 percent of registered voters participated in a special election to consider the buyout as expressed in Measure V, for using what is called “Mello-Roos” (Community Facilities Act 1982) bond funding. Most (87 percent) voted in favor of the bond measure to fund up to $60 million. But Golden State has been contesting the legality of the funding concept as it relates to water rights. It’s doing this in an appeal of a decision by the court in April 2014 that already approved it.
A spokesperson for Golden State Water said that it is proud of its record of service, but declined to go into details about the legal dispute. The appeal is still in progress.
When most people think of Ojai, they include the even smaller bordering communities of Oak View, Meiners Oaks, Casitas Springs and Mira Monte. The unincorporated Oak View has about 4,000 residents and a little downtown along Highway 33 en route to Ojai. Casitas Springs is just south of there and famous for being the home of Johnny Cash at one point in the 1960s. Meiners Oaks is just west of Ojai and known for its earthy vibe. Mira Monte, situated in the middle of the Ojai Valley, is also unincorporated, but has a population of about 6,800.
According to Scott Eicher, president of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce, “The Ojai Valley is based primarily on three industries: agriculture, education and tourism. We have a very large per capita representation of fine artists, actors, musicians, galleries and performance venues, all of which bring visitors to town. Art is a vibrant and vital component of the makeup of Ojai, but to say it’s an ‘art town’ might be overstating it somewhat.”
He continued: “The chain-store ordinance came about through a public effort to keep fast-food restaurants out of the downtown area. The Chamber helped broker a deal between the public and the city. I think most of the people are pleased with the outcome so far.”
“Ojai is a passionate, vibrant community of artists who support each other and the arts. Not just sculpture and pottery, but photography, theater, film, writing, poetry, dance and song. It’s a mecca for artists with numerous venues and opportunities to study, perform, and grow.”
These include Ojai Center for the Arts and Ojai Studio Artists, said Christine Golden, chairperson of the Ojai Arts Commission, which advocates for the arts in town.
Twenty two years ago, Alice and Richard Matzkin visited Ojai from the San Fernando Valley for a weekend. The married artists were working in other fields in L.A. and growing tired of the crowds and crime. That visit changed their lives forever. “We knew we wanted to be in a small-town environment. Ojai was close enough to our families in L.A., but provided a countrified atmosphere,” recalled Richard in a recent interview.
At the time, middle age was approaching. Today they are in their 70s and thriving as artists, neighbors and friends. With Alice’s painting and Richard’s sculpting, they promote the beauty of the aging process through unique portraits. Their early friendships were formed within the artistic community. But the Matzkins love the funky, diverse blend of locals that extends beyond their circle. “We have hippies to multi-millionaires, the famous to the infamous, and the homeless. We also have foreign students from Asia at the prep schools,” said Alice.
“When you go through the town, it looks like nothing is going on, but there are so many artistic, intellectual and spiritual events,” said Richard. Alice is a big fan of the ban on chain stores. “I still shop in Rains Department Store. They have everything from clothes to hardware. I also like The Kindred Spirit. You can be friends with the store owners here,” she added.
They live on one acre at the base of the Topa Topa Mountains and particularly relish “The Pink Moment,” the name given by locals as a time several days per week when the sun sets just right on the hill, creating a pink sky.
The couple warns that Ojai is not for everyone. “Ojai spits out certain people. I’ve seen it happen to some friends,” recalled Richard. “If a person can’t handle the energy, they leave fast,” added Alice. “But we love it. It’s got a consciousness that’s very sweet.”
Eicher of the Chamber of Commerce shared his vision for the future:
“In 10 years I would like to see more new families with school-aged children, Lake Casitas at near dam-breaching level, and a fourth piece to the economic base that is administrative and/or technology-based. We have a fragile ecosystem here, and we need to be very careful how much we grow. If Ojai can retain its independent character and rural appearance, and as long as writers continue to use words like ‘laid-back’ and ‘hippie’ when describing us, then I think the future will bode well for our little town.”