The Stagecoach Inn Museum and Historical Landmark
The original Stagecoach Inn, called the Grand Union Hotel, was built in 1876 at the southwest corner of what is now Ventu Park Road and the Ventura Freeway.
The Grand Union Hotel
"...Shooting, fishing and bathing, and a first-rate table, are among the good things on hand for visitors... So soon as the hotel becomes known, we look for a rush of visitors. ... " Weekly Free Press 1876
James Hammell, a contractor in Santa Barbara, and his partner, Asa Adams, a real estate developer, began to acquire land on Rancho El Conejo when property became available for sale in 1874. Within a year, they had purchased over 4,300 acres of land. According to the deed, Asa Adams sold his half-interest to Hammell in November, 1875, for $13,000. During this period of the early development of the Conejo Valley, new settlers were buying property, crops were abundant and the Coast Line Stage Company ran daily stages through the Valley. In 1875, Newbury Park was recognized as a community by the establishment of a post office, with Egbert Starr Newbury as its postmaster. The only links between other areas to north and south or east and west was by way of an unpaved road later called Ventura Road, another which became Potrero Road leading to what is now California State University Channel Islands , and a third going north through the hills above what is now California Lutheran University.
In April of 1876, James Hammell announced in the Ventura Signal that he planned to build a hotel on part of his property. He had every reason to believe that his establishment would become a popular and respected place of business. Not only did he expect patronage from the stagecoach passengers, tourists and vacationers, but he had hoped to sell lots from his vast property holdings. He advertised that the Conejo had a "salubrious" climate and was a very healthful place to live. He even said he would sell lots at a very nominal price to those who were willing to build cottages on them.
Hammell insisted that only the finest materials be used in the building of his hotel. He had the best redwood lumber available shipped from Northern California to Hueneme. From that port, horses pulled wagon loads of lumber and supplies up the dangerous Conejo Grade to the building site. A carpenter by trade, Hammell probably helped with the construction using square nails. The lumber was on the grounds by May 20, 1876. Advertisements stated that the hotel would be open to the public on July 4, 1876, during the last year of President Ulysses S. Grant's term of office, the year of Custer's last stand at the Little Bighorn River, and just in time for the nation's centennial celebration. The sturdy structure was erected very quickly. The final cost was $7,000.
Mr. Hammell named his hotel "The Grand Union Hotel." The impressive Monterey-style structure was a two-story "L"-shaped building, thirty feet high, with a porch and balcony wrapping around two sides. The original building had a root cellar but no basement or attic.
To the right of the lobby entrance was a large barroom. There was a back-to-back fireplace between these two rooms. A huge bar, reputed to be the longest in the county, ran along the windowless side of the room. A door opened onto the front porch and another at the back opened onto a small porch with stairs to the ground. In 1969, Mrs. John Kelley of Newbury Park recalled that these stairs "had lots of bullet holes in them." A room behind the lobby was the hostelry's office. Today's parlor was a parlor then as well, and shared a back-to-back fireplace with the dining room. There was no opening between the parlor and the dining room as there is now. Beyond the dining room were the kitchen rooms. Originally, there was a kitchen and pantry with a door between them. The narrow room off the dining room, today's Archives, was a storeroom for dishes.
All of the ground floor rooms were wainscoted. There were no picture moldings. The woodwork was painted or stained a dark brown color. The wide floorboards were painted and the doors were all fitted with china doorknobs.
The staircase newel posts were hand-turned. There was a short flight of stairs under the main staircase that led to a root cellar where potatoes, fruit and vegetables were stored.
The upstairs was divided into two wings. There were at least sixteen or seventeen bedrooms. It is difficult to know exactly, for the rooms were remodeled many, many times over the years by various tenants who lived in the building. Most of the rooms were small, no more than eight by ten feet. In the "family" wing, today's large rooms were originally each divided into two rooms. The last room down the hall on the left had a corner fireplace. The small closet near the staircase was a storage room for linens.
Upstairs, in the east or "traveler's" wing the larger rooms were also originally divided into two rooms. The present Victorian Library shared a back-to-back fireplace with another bedroom. The large room at the head of the stairs on the right, today's Crank Up the Music exhibit room, is believed to have been the proprietor's or owner's living quarters sometimes and at other times, a ladies' sitting room. There was a back-to-back fireplace between this room and the adjoining bedroom in the family wing.
Lighting for the building was provided by oil lamps. There was not central heating, only the nine coal burning fireplaces which vented into the three chimneys. There was, of course, no running water in the hotel. According to an old photograph, there was an outdoor privy at the rear of the building. The original exterior paint was beige color with a darker trim.
A month before the grand opening of the hotel, a newspaper reported that the Coast Line Stage Company had changed its route from the Conejo Valley to the Santa Clara valley route. This must have been a major disappointment to James Hammell, who had counted on the stage line to produce business or his hotel. He hired Dr. Jordan Morris as the first proprietor of his hotel. The post office moved from Mr. Newbury's home to the hotel, and soon the following notices appeared in a Ventura weekly newspaper:
"THE GRAND UNION HOTEL The Grand Union Hotel, just opened by Dr. Morris on El Rancho Conejo, will add another to the many attractions which our county presents to tourists and travelers. Shooting, fishing and bathing, and a first-rate table, are among the good things on hand for visitors, besides a host who understands his business. So soon as the hotel becomes known, we look for a rush of visitors. Meantime, our townsfolk will find it a delightful drive on Sunday or any other day." Weekly Free Press 1876
"THE GRAND UNION HOTEL halfway between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles on 'El Conejo Rancho" is now open for the reception of guests. This new hotel has been fitted up and furnished, regardless of expense, and now offers superior inducements to families as a pleasure resort. It is strictly first-class in every respect and is situated among some of the finest scenery on the coast. Good hunting in the immediate vicinity. Bathing facilities, unsurpassed. Swimming Baths in pure, fresh water. Private Stables for Guests' horses if desired. Orders for apartments received onand after this date. Address - Grand Union Hotel - Newbury Park, Ventura County, Cal." Dr. Morris, Proprietor; August 14, 1876; Weekly Free Press; August 19, 1876
Guests in the hotel during these first early years were buyers of cattle, wool or grain, visitors to the big ranches, and land speculators. They made their way up the Conejo Grade on horseback, by wagon, or by hack from Springville. The hotel also received the business of local stages between Encino and Ventura.
Although the Grand Union Hotel had a profitable beginning and a promising future, the devastating drought of 1877 brought financial ruin to James Hammell. He was unable to pay for the expense of building and operating a hotel and his farmland was unproductive. He was forced to sell his business and about 1,000 acres of land to Mr. J.B. Redfield at a sheriff's sale in 1878.
During the 26 years after James Hammell sold his property, the hotel remained open for business. Its name changed frequently as did the proprietors. From 1878 until 1885, the hotel was owned by Mr. Redfield. Three proprietors operated the hotel for him: Eli Rundel in 1878, W.H. Jewitt in 1882, and John McManus in 1885. The name of the hotel was changed to The Hammell House, Post Office and Stage Station in 1882.
The Big Hotel, Grand Hotel, Conejo Hotel
Stagecoaches continued to ply their way through the Conejo Valley into the late 1800s and many hotel guest used that mode of transportation.
An Englishman, Cecil Arthur Entwistle Haigh (b. 1856 in Lancashire), purchased the hotel and approximately 1,000 acres of the original Hammell land in September, 1885. According to the deed, Mr. Haigh paid $6,500 for the property. Haigh descendants would own the hotel building until 1964 when it was donated to the Conejo Recreation and Park District by Cecil's grandson, Allen Hays.
Cecil Haigh hired Reuben Holman to be his proprietor in 1886, a position Holman held for two years. When the Southern Pacific Railroad began service from Saugus to Ventura through the Santa Clara Valley in 1887, traffic from local stages through the Conejo Valley was seriously reduced. In 1888, M. and D. Hadsell became the proprietors, and they changed the name of the hotel to The Conejo Hotel at Timberville.
The little community surrounding the hotel was called Timberville because of the area's large oak trees. In the late 1800s, a religious group called the Dunkards moved into Timberville. They had many children, and because there was no schoolhouse at the west end of the valley, Cecil Haigh agreed to allow them to use several rooms in the hotel for classes and church services. The group used these rooms until Timber School was completed in 1889. Timberville also had a post office, the discontinuance of which was ordered by the Postmaster General in 1893. Newbury Park, by contrast, began as a postal stop (at a ranch or house where somebody assumed the job of postmaster), rather than a settlement. In an irony of history, today Timberville is no more and Newbury Park is a town.
Mr. Haigh went to England for a visit, and soon after his return to the Conejo, he was joined by his cousin, Cicelie Flora Haigh (b. 1863 in Lancashire). They had married in New York in 1892. Cicelie, like Cecil, was a member of a prominent English family: their fathers Edwin and Reginald Haigh were cotton-brokers in Liverpool and Cicelie's maternal grandfather was an admiral and consul general in England. Cicelie's brother, Alfred Grenfell Haigh, was a noted painter in England. Letters between Cicelie and her father Reginald show they remained close despite being separated by so many miles.
Cecil took over operation of the hotel, while Cicelie, with the help of Chinese servants, took charge of the kitchen. The Haighs lived in the hotel for a few years until Cecil built their home on a hill nearby. The Haighs had four children. Ethel Flora was born in December, 1892, followed by Catherine Lorna in 1894, Donald Sidney in 1896, and Edwin Cecil in 1905.
Around 1888, Mrs. Susan Hays came to live in Timberville with her two small sons. Her husband, Elijah, and her baby daughter had died soon after their arrival in Los Angeles from Texas. Her two sons, William Washington Hays and Simon Pet Hays, grew up in the Conejo Valley and eventually purchased a large piece of farming property from Cecil Haigh. Simon would marry Ethel Haigh in 1919.
By the end of the 1800s, there were three hotels operating in the Conejo Valley: the Philbrook, which did not serve liquor, and the Vejar which did. The "Big Hotel", as the Inn was called during those years, also served liquor and according to several sources, at times things got quite "uncultured".
James Hebron Bell became the proprietor of the "Grand Hotel" about June 1896 and changed its name to the "Conejo Hotel". Bell had two daughters, Minnie and Lydia. Andrew Cawelti, a young man whose family had a ranch in the Camarillo-Oxnard area, came to the Inn on horseback to court Minnie. Fred Hunt, whose family owned the Salto ranch (now Lynn Ranch) courted Lydia. They had a double wedding ceremony at the hotel, attended by many well-known Los Angeles people. The invitation stated that Minnie Bell was to marry A.E. Cawelti and Lydia Bell was to marry H. Fred Hunt on Sunday morning at 10:00 A.M. on September 19, 1897, at the "Conejo Hotel" at Conejo, Ventura County, California.
In 1904, the Conejo Hotel ceased doing business as a hotel when it was remodeled into four apartments for rent. In 1914, a traveler named Gertrude Murk, whose buggy had broken down in front of the building, accepted the Haigh's invitation to stay and together with Ethel, the Haigh's eldest child, opened a (short-lived) tearoom there.
The liquor bar still operated and supposedly was a favorite spot for the "young bucks" from Los Angeles and Ventura to congregate on weekends - "when the boys got liquored up, they would shoot out the window; once, a Chinaman was shot in the bar." The hotel grounds had some small cottages, one of which was used exclusively by Mr. Haigh to house his billiard table.
During World War I, the building was used as a meeting place by Red Cross groups. They rolled bandages and performed other service projects. On April 17, 1919, the Oxnard Courier reported that Cicelie received a letter from her son Donald, who was serving in the American Expeditionary Forces (Fourth Division) in Europe. He wrote that he "was in Kaisevsech, Germany and did not know when he'd return." By August of 1919, the Courier reported that he had returned home from France.
Simon and William Washington Hays, two enterprising young men, bought 120 acres from the Haighs. They planted it in grain (like much of Conejo farmland) and raised horses, occasionally holding a rodeo at the ranch. The brothers prospered, investing in land in other areas as well. Upon returning from military service in WWI, Simon married Ethel Haigh in 1919. Simon was 32 years old; Ethel 26. A local newspaper described Simon as "a prominent young farmer owning a nice ranch in the Newbury Park district" (Oxnard Courier; May 16, 1919).
In 1926, after a long illness, Cecil Haigh died, leaving the property to his widow. Soon after, Simon and Ethel Hays bought the hotel building and 28 surrounding acres from Cicelie.
During a brief, but doubtless exciting period in 1928 and 1929, motion picture actor Nick de Ruiz leased the building (by then often called "the old hotel and roadhouse") from Cicelie to operate a restaurant with "Spanish cooking". This being the Wild West and in the middle of Prohibition (1920-1933), in November 1928 Nick was nabbed by the Sheriff in a county-wide drag net and fined $250 or 250 days in jail for bootlegging. By February of 1929, de Ruiz had moved his eating establishment out of the hotel and down the road to Thousand Oaks.
Early in the 1930s, the movie "Roaring Ranch" starring Hoot Gibson and Sally Eilers was filmed at the old hotel. Rodeos and other events were frequently held on the property during the '30s.
In September 1933, the building was leased to Colonel Robert Ingersoll, who opened the Robling Military Academy there. Simon rented horses to the academy, which closed after a year or two, probably due to the economic recession. A back staircase was added to the side wing of the structure to act as a fire escape at this time, and the facade of the building was changed to a Georgian style, with pillars and shutters.
Another restaurant venture was begun by Ralph Harriman, a pharmacist from Ventura. From 1935 to 1945 he rented the building from the Hays and ran a steak and chicken restaurant. This restaurant was very successful until gas rationing during WW II forced people to curtail weekend excursions.
After the deaths of Ethel in 1945 and Simon in 1957, the division of their estate left the hotel and other land to H. Allen Hays, their son, and his wife, Dorothy. Other land was left to Reba, their daughter.
In 1951, Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth McIntyre rented the building to operate a well-known gift shop called "Tantony", at which buyers could purchase exotic things from faraway places. The interior of the building was beautifully decorated in Victorian style. Mrs. McIntyre was exclusive in her choice of clients, and it seems she required a sponsorship for someone to be admitted. She excluded children and animals. Tantony operated until 1964 when the highway department condemned the building to make way for the new 101 Freeway and the new Conejo Grade.
The Stagecoach Inn Museum
In the 1960s, the Conejo Valley was entering a tremendous housing boom and there were thousands of new homeowners and a rousing spirit of accomplishing things. H. Allen Hays, intent on saving the hotel from destruction, got together with a few civic leaders, including J. Michael Hagopian, a noted cinematographer, and Guy Runnion, editor of the local paper.
This group founded the Conejo Valley Historical Society in 1964, formed in order to save the hotel building. They named it the Stagecoach Inn and were successful in having it declared a California Landmark in 1965. H. Allen Hays, grandson of Cecil Haigh, gave the building and about four acres of land at the present location to the Conejo Valley Historical Society, who later deeded the property to the Conejo Recreation and Parks District in return for a 50-year renewable lease to operate the facilities for cultural and educational purposes.
After the hotel was moved in 1966, community volunteers and the historical society prepared it as a museum. A docent council was formed and tours given.
In April of 1970, a fire of undetermined origin completely destroyed the museum and most of its contents. It was rebuilt to appear as it did when it was first constructed. Although the reconstructed museum was dedicated and opened on July 4, 1976, the second floor was not completed until 1980. Since the reconstruction of the Inn, numerous donations have been received from generous and caring community members to furnish and rebuild the museum to its present-day beauty.
© 2017 Conejo Valley Historical Society. Many thanks to Miriam Sprankling and Dr. Cyril Anderson for their contributions to our historical research and publications.
The Stagecoach Inn Museum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is California Registered Historical Landmark No. 659. The Stagecoach Inn Museum and the Historic Sycamore Tree are Ventura County Landmark Nos. 30 and 34 and City of Thousand Oaks Historical Landmark Nos. 1 and 2.