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Murphy Ranch Mysteries Revisited

Local historian Randy Young lectures on the strange legacy of the Rustic Canyon site.

The mention of Nazis alongside architectural mysteries is bound to grab people’s attention.  That explains the standing room only crowd at the Pierson Playhouse Monday night to hear author/historian Randy Young’s lecture on Murphy Ranch

“We’ve never had this many people in this room ever,” said Young.

Accompanied by an intriguing slide show, Young led an hour-long discussion on the enigmatic Rustic Canyon site that was meant to be a base camp for a bizarre Nazi utopia. 

This complicated, sketchy saga dates back to the 1930’s.  The place is named for the Murphy family, who resided in Pasadena and had made a fortune in the thumbtack business.  Their daughter, Winona Stephens, used all of her lavish trust fund to buy a huge piece of land. Why? It seems that she and husband Norman had fallen under the bewitching spell of a Nazi saboteur named Herr Schmidt, who convinced them to fork over $3 million to create a massive self-sufficient compound to house followers of the Third Reich. (That alone might be fodder for local resident Steven Spielberg’s next Indiana Jones adventure—with a setting not far from his own estate).   Although that dream was never fully realized, elaborate plans were drawn up and several structures were built, including a power station and a 500,000-gallon water tank.

As Adolph Hitler rose in power, he formed partnerships in the United States, including a group called the Silver Legion (a slide showed one of its sinister-looking leaders with a scarlet “L” emblazoned on his shirt).  Schmidt led one of these groups, and rumor has it, he conducted odd séances and led paramilitary marches at the Murphy Ranch.

Silver Shirts (members of the Silver Legion) patrolled the grounds, which included long winding staircases leading into the hills. However, the dream of a Nazi Shangri La fizzled when the U.S. entered World War II.  The F.B.I. arrested Schmidt at the ranch, discovering code books and evidence of secret radio transmissions to Germany. Young displayed a Wanted Poster of a man named Joseph Schmidt, who may or may not have been the fugitive in question, because he was never heard of again.

“Why was an African-American designing their Valhalla?” asked Young, showing a photo of famed architect Paul Williams (who dreamed up the LAX theme building). 

Williams created designs for Murphy Ranch along with Welton Beckett (famous for designing the Capitol Records Building). Beckett’s gate plans remain standing, but other grand ideas were never realized.

“Will Rogers never met a man he didn’t like, but he knew how to sue them,”  said Young, referring to the cowboy humorist’s threatened lawsuit over the owner’s plans to manipulate enormous amounts of water in the area. 

Next door to Murphy Ranch lived Anatol Jespho (credited with inventing the photo booth).  Concerned with the strange Nazi antics nearby, Jesepho allegedly kept a loaded gun wherever he went.

Young chronicled more of the Murphy Ranch legacy, which at one point was a famed artist’s colony, then eventually became government-owned property.  More slides revealed how wildfires destroyed some buildings, while other structures have become the relentless target of graffiti artists.   Young credited many of the photos and research to a special archive at Cal State Northridge and the book he co-authored with his mother, Betty Lou Young, Rustic Canyon and the Story of the Uplifters.

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