By Michael Picarella
Acorn Staff Writer
Calabasas is considered by many as a premier place to live; a great location to raise a family with its lovely open space, parks and recreational programs, fine schools, and cultural activities. But Calabasas once had a reputation, according to historians, as one of the toughest and wildest spots in California.
Before 1886 when the Southern Pacific Railroad linked Los Angeles with San Francisco, Calabasas was the place to go to do just about anything—complete with a dance hall, a saloon and a jail for those who got completely out of line. The famous hangman’s tree in Old Town Calabasas across from Calabasas Junction could’ve been used for serious offenders of the law, but no record of hangings was ever found, according to Leonis Adobe public relations representative Judy Uthus.
"People from Los Angeles knew they could come out here and the saloons and the activities out here were just like what we would consider Las Vegas today—but a bit more wild," Uthus said.
And who held the land? Many have called him "the king of Calabasas." Miguel Leonis (1824-1889) controlled and ruled for many years during the late 1800s much of the west end of the San Fernando Valley and some of nearby Ventura County.
"They were trying to make Los Angeles a well-respected city and Leonis would have no regard for that and let anything go out here in Calabasas … Leonis would rule just the way he wanted," Uthus said.
Leonis lived in a simple farmhouse that still stands today as a museum, open for tours. The Leonis Adobe in Old Town Calabasas welcomes more than 17,000 visitors a year, according to Leonis Adobe representatives.
Leonis had much more than just the house. He made a living as a trader. He owned much land and livestock, sources said, and he did whatever he could to keep them. Many of his acquisitions were probably the spoils of shrewd trading, according to historians. And Leonis wasn’t above claiming land in the public domain.
Leonis must have known that his way of acquiring wealth wasn’t always fair to the other guy. He had an army of Mexicans and Indians who would intimidate anyone who tried to match wits or challenge Leonis.
If they weren’t easily discouraged, Leonis would have them carted off to the jail and charged with trespassing or stealing, sources said.
According to historians, if a trial ever materialized around a case of trespassing or theft, Leonis could influence the judge and jury with food and drink. Often times, a trial wasn’t necessary. But a file drawer full of trial summaries proves that many did occur.
At one time, according to historians, a battle between persistent settlers and armed mercenaries who worked for Leonis was fought in what’s now known as Hidden Hills. Leonis reigned over the battle when his men killed the leader of the settlers. The followers of the fallen leader fled.
Leonis died in 1889 when his wagon overturned in Cahuenga Pass. He was returning home after winning a lawsuit in Los Angeles. Leonis was buried in Cavalry Cemetery in Los Angeles.
The Leonis Adobe Museum is the result of dedicated workers who wanted a faithful restoration of his home. For more of his story and about Calabasas, visit the museum.
For more information, visit www.leonisadobemuseum.org or call (818) 222-6511.