A 1980 conversation with Olive Carey, widow of Harry Carey, Sr.

By Don Ray

It was in May of 1980 when William Thomas and I sat down for an enchanting conversation with Olive Carey, the widow of the famous motion picture cowboy actor, Harry Carey, Sr. She was living in Carpinteria, south of Santa Barbara, California. Our main purpose was to learn details about their ever-popular attraction in the San Francisquito Canyon, The Harry Carey Trading Post. We were gathering first-person accounts of survivors of the 1928 collapse of the St. Francis Dam — a disaster that sent a wall of water more than 50 miles to the ocean near Ventura, and killed upwards of 450 people. We had already interviewed their son, Harry Carey, Jr., himself a successful motion picture actor. We were working on co-authoring a book, Without Warning; Diary of a Disaster. The book project ground to a halt when jobs and other circumstances moved us both in different directions. Only now is the project back on track.

Seven people there died when the water erased the entire trading post and much of the Carey ranch. However, it could have been a lot worse. The entire Carey family (Harry, Sr., Olive, their two children and Olive’s younger sister) were in New York when the dam collapsed. Just a day or two earlier, there had been 32 Navajo workers at the trading post, but through a stroke of luck, they were not there the night the dam broke.

For the past three days, I’ve been transcribing the audio of 66-minute interview. I confess that, over the 33 years, I had forgotten most of the conversation. She talked about much more than the damn disaster and the tragic flood. Since people are showing a great interest in The Harry Carey Trading Post and ranch, I decided to share some of Mrs. Carey’s interesting anecdotes and share some of the facts that we learned. Some of the details will add to the body of knowledge regarding the family and their property — and some of what she told us sheds new light on at least one 85-year-old rumor.

Harry Carey, Jr., Dobe as everyone called him, had told us days earlier the same story we had heard from others — the story that, only days before the collapse, some of the Navajos from the trading post had ridden on horseback to get a look at the damn and the huge reservoir it had created. The story tell of how they returned to the trading post and told the others about a premonition — a premonition that the dam would soon collapse and it would wipe out everything in the San Fransquito Canyon. They decided as a group, Dobe had told us, that they were going to leave the canyon for good, which they did.

“Dobe says that that happened, but I don’t think it ever did,” Mrs. Carey told us. She had a different explanation for why there were no Navajos present that night. She remembers clearly that the Navajos who worked the trading post on Sunday were on a train heading back to Arizona when the damn collapsed on Monday night. In fact, she had phoned the foreman at the trading post on Monday, right before he was to take them to the Santa Fe Station in Los Angeles.

“A new load of Navajos were coming in,” Mrs. Carey told us. “You see, every six months we used to get a bunch of Navajos in to work the ranch and the wild west show and the whole bit. And he had put them on the train and was to pick up a new load … the following morning. Of course, he was killed. It was all straightened out. They got it all straightened out. But there weren’t any Navajos killed. It was just the luckiest day.”

Who do you believe? You can choose between a seven-year-old boy or his mother.

Mrs. Carey also told about how she and Harry discovered San Francisquito Canyon and decided right then that they wanted a ranch there. They were living in Newhall at the time, so they set out to explore the nearby canyons. When they crossed over the saddle back into the canyon, they were hooked. She says they saw a farm house right near where their ranch entrance would be. She got out of the car to talk to the owner of the place. When she asked if anything was for sale nearby, he pointed to a little, white shack and told her that the man and woman who had homesteaded it were going through a nasty divorce and might sell it.

“And so he gave me the lawyer’s address,” Mrs. Carey told us, “and I went down to see her lawyer. And she was hiding because she and her husband had split because her husband was going to kill her, she thought. So she was hiding out somewhere in Glendale, but the lawyer knew I was on the level about the whole thing so I went to see him.”

His name was Bill Evans, she said. “He was a congressman afterwards from California. Evans and Pierce was the name of the law firm.” He gave her the wife’s address.

“She was a charming woman,” Mrs. Carey told us, “a very nice woman living over there in Glendale. She said she’d like to sell the 40 acres that was in the front. But how we would get the house, she said, ‘You’ll have to get a hold of my husband and I don’t know where he is.’ So I said, ‘We will find him.’ So the lawyers knew where he was. Bill Evans knew, so he told me.”

She says that the husband agreed to accompany the Careys to Downtown Los Angeles and relinquish he homestead claim. The minute he filed that paper, Mrs. Carey told us, Harry filed his own claim, and the ranch was theirs. They subsequently purchased more adjoining acreage, she said.

She also set the record straight about what became of that little, white shack. She says they added two wings to the wooden house and fixed it up. The flood waters from the collapsed dam came very close to the house, but didn’t reach it. Where the trading post had been, of course, was now nothing more than sand.

“And then when we were back at the ranch after the flood, the house burned down,” she said. “This was was the end of ’31 and we’d been there about six months. We’d re-fixed the house and had everything all fixed up and everything and the house burned down. And so we got a Mexican family and made the adobe bricks. Dobe built the house. It’s the one that’s standing now.”

We asked Mrs. Carey to tell us about a family that had lived in the canyon for generation — the Henry Ruiz family. She delighted in telling us a story about Henry and the coyotes that were messing with his watermelon patch.

“He had this watermelon patch and Harry had a theory that you shouldn’t kill coyotes. It upset the balance of nature — and that the coyotes got more gophers and ground squirrels, and they should be left alone. But Henry had a watermelon patch and the coyotes came down and, you know, a coyote will pick up a watermelon in its teeth and drop it on the ground do it’ll break open. Then they’ll eat the heart out of it. So Henry used to trap these coyotes. And so Harry paid five dollars a piece for every coyote he trapped and then he’d take the cage in the station wagon or the truck and he’d put the coyote in a cage and he’d take them up to our ranch and turn them loose again.”

Apparently Henry Ruiz was unaware what Harry Carey was doing — that is, until the day Henry Ruiz caught the same coyote twice.” Mrs. Carey said that her husband was way ahead of his time. “he was one of the original ecologists.

“We probably had seven or eight, ten dogs,” she told us. “One time they had a rabies scare in San Fernando years ago. I know we had the trading post. San Fernando was a little Mexican town, like Ensenada, with a lot of mutts running around. So Harry said, ‘Come on Olive,’ He didn’t drive. I used to do all the driving. ‘Come on, let’s get the station wagon and go down and pick up a few dogs.’

“I said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘If the cops see a dog running along the street for Christ sake, they’ll shoot it because of the rabies scare.’ And he said, ‘We’ll go down and we’ll save a few dogs.’ He loved dogs. So we went down and we loaded up the car and made several trips. It ended up we had 42 dogs. And in the meantime, we used to butcher our own beef and we had a big, butcher’s ice box and we would boil up corn meal. We’d get sacks of corn meal — hundred-pound sacks of cornmeal and we’d smash some bones and stuff to feed them. And at last, just got too many dogs.”

This was before the flood, but after they had fixed up their white house. “Of course, whenever it would rain or anything and Harry would have a few drinks, he’d open the door and let all the dogs in. Oh Jesus! I’d go nuts. And so I said, ‘We’re going to get rid of these dogs — some of them.’

“‘All right,” he says, ‘but we’ve gotta find good homes for them.’ So I ran an ad in Times that Harry Carey would give away a dog to a child who could prove that it had a good home — next Sunday or whatever day it was. And so if they’d come to the trading post he’d give them a dog if they could prove they had a good home and everything. I got rid of all of them except twelve. These kids just flocked up there with their parents and got dogs.”

There was so much more she shared with us 33 years ago. One thing I’ll think of whenever I drive down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles is about how they advertized the The Harry Carey Trading Post.

“We had great big Foster and Kleiser signs. We had a couple of them on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles … and the slogan on it was ‘Where the pavement ends, the west begins.’”

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