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A Short History of Tarzana

Indigenous People to the Missions

The local area has been inhabited for approximately 13,000 years.  The first historically recorded settlers of the area were the Chumash.  They once numbered in the tens of thousands and lived along the coast of California, from the beaches of Malibu to Paso Robles and inland to the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley. Over 500 years ago the Chumash were joined by the Tongva or Gabrielino Indians, migrating from the Mojave Desert area. The indians were able to enjoy a more prosperous life than most other tribes in California because they had resources from both the land and the sea. In 1769, a Spanish land expedition, led by Gaspar de Portola, left Baja California and explored the region as far north as Santa Barbara. In short order, five Spanish missions were established in the indian territory, including Mission San Fernando, founded in 1797.  The area that is now Tarzana became part of the mission property and the indigenous population essentially became serfs of the mission.  The population was eventually decimated, due largely to the introduction of European diseases. By 1831, the number of mission-registered indians numbered only 2,788. As with most Native American tribes, Chumash and Gabrielino history was passed down from generation to generation through stories and legends. Many of these stories were lost when the Indian population was all but decimated in the 1700s and 1800s by the Spanish mission system. 

Mexico to Edgar Rice Burroughs

In 1821, Mexico gained its independence from Spain and California became part of Mexico. During the 1820’s the mission population continued to decline and the non-indigenous population of the towns and presidios continued to increase, resulting in a decision by the Mexican Government to redistribute the mission land in the form of land grants to Spanish families loyal to the Mexican government. Although couched in terms of greater liberty for the Indians, the result was complete ruin of the mission system and dispersion of the Indians. Huge cattle ranches, or ranchos, emerged as the dominant institutions of Mexican California. After the conclusion of the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 and the admission of California as the 31st state in 1850, the title to many of the ranchos became unclear, and a period of turmoil ensued. The Valley, primarily large cattle ranches, underwent a series of ownership changes by the wealthy and powerful local elites. Beginning in the 1870’s, the area was purchased by investors who transformed it into a large-scale wheat farm operation. In the early 1870’s, the Southern half of the Valley was sold to the Los Angeles Farm Homestead Association.

In 1909, in anticipation of annexation of the area by Los Angeles and the arrival of water from the LA aqueduct, the surrounding area was purchased by the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company. General Harrison Gray Otis, founder and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, had invested in the company.  In 1909, he purchased 550 acres in the center of modern-day Tarzana. Another investor established a small town called Runnymede in the general vicinity and allocated the surrounding land for small poultry ranches and berry farms. The area was annexed by the City of Los Angeles in 1915.   On March 1, 1919, Edgar Rice Burroughs purchased that 550 acre country estate from General Otis, built his home there and named it Tarzana Ranch. 

Biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs was born in Chicago on September 1, 1875.   Until he submitted half a novel to All-Story Magazine in 1911, Edgar Rice Burroughs struggled through a series of life events and occupations:

  • He attended six different public and private schools before he finally graduated in 1895 from Michigan Military Academy.
  • He failed the entrance examination to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, enlisted as a private in the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, and was posted to Fort Grant in the Arizona desert. His mission, as he put it, was to "chase the Apaches…but fortunately for me I never caught up with any of them".
  • He was soon discharged, arranged through political friends.
  • In 1900, he married Emma Centennia Hulbert, who dutifully followed him back and forth across America during the next 11 years.
  • He became a cowboy in Idaho, a shopkeeper, a railroad policeman, a gold miner, and an ‘expert accountant’, and raised money for a number of his own businesses, all of which failed.
  • Perhaps to escape from reality or to amuse Emma, he would sketch darkly humorous cartoons or write fantastic fairy tales of other worlds.
  • By 1911 he even went so far as to apply for a commission in the Chinese army. (The application was summarily rejected.)

Later that year he wrote Tarzan of the Apes, which appeared in All-Story Magazine in 1912 and became an astonishing success and 1914 best seller in book form. Today, that story is acclaimed by scholars as the turning point of 20th Century science fiction, and new editions of it continue to be published each year throughout the world. Although his next literary effort was rejected, he followed with stories about Mars, Venus, Apaches, westerns, social commentaries, detective stories, tales of the moon and the middle of the earth, and more Tarzan books.  In 1918, Tarzan came to the screen with Tarzan of the Apes, starring Elmo Lincoln, the first film in history to gross over one million dollars. Since then, 41 Tarzan films and 57 one-hour television episodes have been produced, each a great financial success.

The story behind the name Tarzan is intriguing.  Burroughs invented a full imaginary language for many of characters and settings.  In the Tarzan setting, the word “Tarzan” is composed of two words, tar, meaning white, and zan, meaning skin; both syllables should be pronounced.

In 1919, with financial security assured, Burroughs moved to California where he purchased the 550 acre estate of General Harrison Gray Otis, renaming it ‘Tarzan Ranch’. In 1923, Burroughs sold a large portion of it for home sites. In 1923, Edgar Rice Burroughs became one of the first authors in the world to incorporate himself. By the mid 1930’s, he was ‘big business’. Daily and Sunday Tarzan comic strips appeared in over 250 newspapers all over the world; millions of Tarzan comic books were published and sold; and a Tarzan radio serial thrilled its listeners across the country. Today, Tarzan television programs are syndicated to more than 200 TV stations in the U.S. and abroad, and a Tarzan movie plays somewhere in almost every country in the world every day. In 1942, he became the oldest war correspondent, covering stories with the Pacific Fleet for United Press. He returned home from the South Pacific only after suffering a series of heart attacks. On March 19, 1950, Edgar Rice Burroughs set down his pen for the last time.

From the 20’s to the 40’s

On March 15, 1919 when Edgar Rice Burroughs moved to Tarzana, “there were a few farms and ranches. A narrow pavement ran out from Hollywood, just wide enough for two cars to pass; but most of the time there weren’t two cars on it”. (The Tarzana Herald, 1940).   About 1920, people started moving into the west end of the valley.  Several hundred far-sighted people saw the potential where there was previous nothing but barley fields.  These settlers were pioneers as there was no gas or electricity and water was scarce. 

In 1922, Burroughs formally subdivided approximately fifty acres of his ranch land extending from Tarzana Drive at the foot of the main ranch house hill north to Ventura Boulevard, (El Camino Real), bounded on the east by Avenida Oriente and on the west by Mecca Ave. The City of Los Angeles assigned to the subdivision the official designation of Tract 5475 as recorded in Book 64, page 35 of maps records of Los Angeles County.  The land consisted of sixty-three commercial lots on Ventura Boulevard and 139 residential lots, many of which were an acre in size and dividable into smaller, one-third acre parcels.

In the same year, Charles L. Daniels purchased a 320-acre tract of land on Reseda Boulevard between the Southern Pacific railroad tracks and Ventura Boulevard. and bordering Tarzana Ranch, and founded a town, Runnymede.

In 1923 Burroughs subdivided an additional portion of his land for homes and in a promotional brochure described Tarzana Tract as, “Tarzana is the pride of the beautiful San Fernando Valley.  Tarzana will enjoy everything that makes for ideal home life.  High elevation, water, gas, electricity, paved streets, etc..Tarzana offers you homey, spacious acres, with cool, livable surroundings, here amidst nature’s own, on a subdivision in which the price includes all improvements, with convenient schools, churches, and theaters, it’s the place to live. Do you know you can buy one of these full acres for $1,500?” 

In an October 1923 article, Pacific Homeseekers Magazine raved, “To purchase a property that affords both a home and an income, or property that increases in value far above the depreciated value of the improvements on it, is a good investment.  Pacific Homeseeker’s Co. one-acre home sites offer an even greater opportunity. A one-acre poultry, berry or fig farm affords the owner a home, an income that assures a comfortable living, an independent future and a property that is certain to greatly increase in value  - a one-acre farm is well within reach of moderate means.”

On July 20, 1928 a meeting of every resident of the area was called in the Masonic Hall, Reseda, for the purpose of selecting an appropriate name for the community. Of the four names that had been proposed, and of the 400 members who voted, nearly 95 percent of these were for the name “Tarzana.”  Later that year the residents formed an organization known as the Tarzana Civic Improvement League; this later merged into the Tarzana Chamber of Commerce. The 1928 Tarzana census indicated the number of homes was 402 with 1,133 inhabitants.

The first meeting of Tarzana Chamber of Commerce was held at 10 a.m., May 20, 1930 at 18354 Ventura Blvd.  At this meeting one of the most important matters was the establishment of a post office in the community. On December 21, 1930 the first Post Office was established in an 8ft. by 8ft. rear room of Holmquist’s grocery, Tarzana’s Red and White Market, with Mrs. E. L. Holmquist the then present Postmistress in charge. In 1931, the Chamber voted to organize and support an amateur baseball team called the Tarzana Baseball Club, providing $100 to pay fees, buy uniforms, bats and balls. A photo of the team is included in Tarzana Artifacts.

The Tarzana Herald was founded in February, 1937, located at 18509 Ventura Blvd.  Subscriptions cost $1.00 per year for home delivery ($1.50 per year outside the Valley).  The editor and owner was Mr. Knudsen.  August 2, 1937 marked the first day that RFD mail was delivered from the new Tarzana Post Office.  420 families on Rural Route No. 1, Tarzana began receiving their mail direct from their home post office, Tarzana and with the delivery came their home newspaper, The Tarzana Herald.  In 1937, Tarzana had some 58 businesses and professional establishments. The Tarzana Herald in 1940 touts the many virtues of living in Tarzana and the San Fernando Valley:

Tarzana offers an unparalleled opportunity for home sites, whether for the wealthy or the average citizen. The soil of the Valley floor makes excellent sites for garden homes where part of the living is produced from the soil.  The Valley is noteworthy for its many fine small garden homes of an acre, half-acre, and a few acres, with some kind of small farm or other industry. The rolling foothills of the mountains, the lovely knolls, the numerous picturesque, tree-grown canyons, commanding hill sites overlooking the Valley, are demanding the attention of those who seek country homes.

Modern History

The end of World War II marked a significant demographic change in the country, and especially in Southern California.   The population shifted from the industrial northeast and mid-west to the west and south.  The Los Angeles area, in particular, experienced tremendous growth in the late 40’s, 50’s and 60’s; the Valley and Tarzana were part of that shift, with extensive new tracts covering most of the Valley in the 50’s and 60’s.  Tarzana managed to remain free of mass-produced housing.  See the link “About Tarzana” for an overview of the community. See also the link “TPOA History” for a discussion of major events which have affected Tarzana in the last 45 years.  Three events stand out for special note:

  • The Tarzana Property Owners Association was formed in 1962
  • The Tarzana Neighborhood Council was established in 2001; see the link to their webpage
  • The Tarzana Chamber of Commerce celebrated its 75th anniversary event "Safari under the Stars" on September 10, 2005, at the Tarzana Community and Cultural Center.  The Chamber has since joined with the Woodland Hills Chamber to form the second largest Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles.  See the link to their webpage

Today, there are approximately 28,500 residents. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the racial composition was predominantly White (78.9%), followed by Asian (5.6%), and Black or African American (3.8%). Native American or Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander each constituted less than one percent (0.3% and 0.1% respectively) of the population. 13.1% identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino. About 35.2% of the population in 2000 was foreign-born, including 21.9% born in Iran and 10.6% in Mexico.  Tarzana also has a thriving and long-established Jewish community.

Acknowledgments

Much of the material for this history was furnished by Mr. Danton Burroughs, grandson of Edgar Rice Burroughs; we owe him a special thanks for his enthusiastic support.  Among the material he furnished were most of the artifacts shown in the “Tarzana History Artifacts” link, original copies of the Tarzana Herald, the Pacific Homeseeker’s Magazine, and the Tarzana Bulletin; the biography Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Man Who Created Tarzan by Irwin Porges; The Edgar Rice Burroughs Library of Illustrations, Volume One, by Russ Cochran; and miscellaneous correspondence.  Additional material was gathered from websites of the Tarzana Chamber of Commerce, the Woodland Hills-Tarzana Chamber of Commerce, the Tarzana Neighborhood Council, the California History Society, and Wikipedia.  Compilation and editing was done by Terry Saucier and David Garfinkle.

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