"Thais Sykes: A Lower Topanga Girlhood"

By Susan Chasen & Pablo Capra

Thais Rust Sykes was born in Santa Monica in 1925. When she was two years old, she moved with her parents to live along the Topanga lagoon. From 1927 until 1945, Thais and her parents were a part of the vibrant community that inhabited Lower Topanga, including movie stars, surfing pioneers and hard-working families who opened businesses to serve the burgeoning California car culture.

In 1926, Thais' father, Clayton Rust, purchased the lease on a gasoline service station at the mouth of Topanga Canyon. Over the years it evolved from a tiny shack with one pump, advertising "City Prices" to a full-service gas station and garage.

Thais's mother, Ina Thrasher Rust loved to grill and she opened a little restaurant, Rust's BBQ near the gas station.

"She was a good cook and had three or four friends that she hired to help her," says Thais of her mother. "The highway workers and truck drivers came there to eat her good food. I think she stayed there until WWII started and she went to work for AirResearch Corporation near LAX."

They called the area the salt flats. At first they lived in a small cottage there. Then, Thais's father purchased a larger house nearby. During these years, about two dozen of Thais's relatives lived in Lower Topanga, operating several local businesses. It was also there that Thais first met a little boy, Jack Sykes, who she would marry after they met again years later. He grew up on Topanga Beach among celebrity neighbors, which included Greta Garbo and Shirley Temple.

The gas station, which had sold Richfield gas, burned down at one point and Shell Oil rebuilt it out of metal, which Clayton didn't like as well. He eventually sold it to a neighbor, Fred Clark. Clark later rented it out to the Cole Brothers, two young men from the Rodeo Grounds who made and sold surfboards there.

Next door to the gas station was the Step Inn restaurant owned by Lucy Loggins. A grocery store, known as Potter's Store, was originally owned by Thais's aunt and uncle, Blanche and Roy Rust. It was sold to Charles and Eleanor Potter, who lived up the knoll behind the lagoon.

Potter's Store was moved across the street and eventually became part of the Malibu Feed Bin..

In the 1920s, Topanga Beach was a center of bootlegging activity. In 1925, a sting operation resulted in the arrest for liquor sales of a sheriff's deputy and a fire deputy, along with five other Topanga Beach residents. Enforcement officers under the county district attorney posed as movie actors to purchase the whiskey.

In 1928, there was a shootout on Topanga Beach when rumrunners, after unloading a second dory-load of liquor from a speedboat offshore, were surprised by sheriff's deputies hiding behind the rocks. They refused to surrender and began firing at the officers. Eventually two gave up, but a third got away. They were suspected members of a liquor gang that had kidnapped and possibly killed a Russian immigrant fisherman after he told authorities that they had commandeered his boat near Santa Cruz Island for running rum a few nights before.

These activities were too early for Thais to remember, but they might have had something to do with three barrels floating off shore one day after a rainstorm. Thais's father and his friend, John Fondukis, a Greek fisherman and a neighbor on the lagoon, went to pick up the barrels and had a great time when they turned out to be filled with whiskey.

Clayton, the son of a traveling preacher, moved to California in about 1912. He helped survey Topanga Canyon Boulevard, worked at the Orcutt Ranch, and drove a school bus in Santa Monica before moving to the lagoon. Thais was named after a young girl on his bus route in Santa Monica Canyon who died in a tragic teakettle-scalding accident. He met Ina Thrasher in Agoura at the home of Ina's grandmother, Sarah Elizabeth Davis Penland. Thais's family on her mother's side extends back five generations in California. Her great grandmother Penland was born 1858 near Sacramento and her Davis family descends from the namesake of that city.

Her maternal grandfather, Josiah Thrasher, had a ranch in Lower Topanga on a lane that once ran along Topanga Canyon Boulevard from approximately the Rodeo Grounds entrance to Brookside Drive. He grazed cows on pasture dotted with oaks and sycamores. When the area was to be buried with fill from construction on the coast highway, he moved to Canoga Park.

Thais was six when, in 1932, her house was moved about a mile up the road to make way for all the fill dirt, about 800,000 cubic yards, from a three-mile project to straighten out Roosevelt Highway - now knowas the Pacific Coast Highway - and put in a new bridge over the lagoon.

"The Star Moving Company prepared everything - getting the house detached and ready to be moved. I did see it on the truck early one morning before I left for school. When I came home it was in its new location 9/10ths of a mile up Topanga Canyon. It was raised on large wooden beams under each corner. They were removed one at a time to lower it in place."

At its new location, near Brookside Drive, deer nibbled at the flowers in Ina Rust's beautiful gardens. Tiles on the top step in front of the house spell out the name "Rust." It was a few years before the upper floor was finished.

"There were stairs and the flooring - just a big room. We played there and about once a month, my grandmothers, aunts and cousins came to quilt. They had lots of room and there was light from the four gabled windows. We still have quilts they made."

Eventually, two bedrooms and a bath were added upstairs, as well as a small dining room and a laundry room downstairs.

Outside, Ina, who loved to grill, hosted frequent large barbecues for friends and family.

"There were many parties and everyone had fun, especially all the young cousins who loved playing in the creek."

There weren't many fish in the creek, but one day, after heavy rains, Clayton snatched a large trout out of the creek with a rake.

Clayton's cousin Cleo and her husband Fred Wendell and their daughter Avis lived across the creek from the Rusts. They once tried having an Easter Egg Hunt, but rattlesnakes found the eggs first.

Among other relatives nearby, on Brookside Drive, were Thais's mother's sister and her family - Mary and Carl Kays with their children Carl and Marilyn. Thais and Marilyn grew up as sisters, hiking up and down the creek, making photo albums of movie actors, and going to the beach.

"It didn't matter how large the waves were - we just had fun. When the tide was out we searched for anemones on the rocks near the lagoon….For our lunch when we were at the beach we were given 25 cents - 15 for a hamburger and 10 for a soda. One afternoon the Hindenberg flew along the coast. It was huge and beautiful."

Once they went swimming at the beach with another neighbor - Ida Lee Carrillo - when they were caught in a riptide. Ida Lee's father, Ottie Carrillo, saw what was happening from shore and called for help.

"We were picked up just before Sunset Boulevard. We were having a great time, but Ida Lee's dad was frantic."

Ottie Carrillo's brother was the actor Leo Carrillo, who in his later years became a strong parks advocate. The Carrillo family history dates back to the Californio days.

Ottie and his wife lived on Brookside Drive. Tragically, Ida Lee was later killed in an automobile accident near Fresno when returning from Stanford to attend the Stanford-USC football game.

Like today, Lower Topanga was often threatened by fires and floods, and Thais's family saw its share of natural disasters and watched many houses washing down to the sea.

On November 23, 1938, Thais was at Madison School in Santa Monica and the children watched a fire in the mountains from the second story windows. She didn't know it was moving toward her house.

"My uncle came to get us. We were allowed to go through because we lived there. There were huge flames on the right side of the road on the way up the canyon. It was pretty frightening. My aunt and uncle's house on Brookside Drive did burn, because no one was at home. My dad fought to save our house…He got buckets of water from the fish pond, ran to the second floor, out the window and onto the roof where the sparks had set fires. Then he would slide down the roof, and go back to the pond again for more water. He did save most of the house except for my bedroom. It was burned and completely open to the sky. The next day my mother cooked Thanksgiving dinner for all the family.

"After the fire in 1938, there was a terrible flood in 1939. There were two elderly people living in the Rodeo Grounds that had no way to get out. John Fondukis and my dad set up some type of pulley system…to the other side of the creek and John went across on the pulley. …His boat was attached to the ropes and he carried the people one at a time back to safety."

During the war, Thais volunteered for aircraft sightings on the coast, working Friday nights in a two-story building located across from the site where The Getty Museum was later built.

Thais's husband Jack Sykes recalled that during the war, there was a machine gun nest in front of his house on Topanga Beach and howitzers were set up along PCH above the houses.

"They dug large holes in the sand for the soldiers to observe any unusual actions."

Jack's house was on a beachfront section of Old Malibu Road that took off down along the beach near the intersection of the coast road and Topanga Canyon Boulevard. His house was the third house down from the lagoon. They had a gangplank they pulled up to keep high waves from splashing in the house.

One of his neighbors, an older woman, thought he was very cute when he was about 5 years old, so they took long walks together on the beach. It turned out these walks were with Greta Garbo.

Once Jack cut himself badly on broken glass while sliding down the bluff behind his house.

"My dad thought I should go to the hospital in Santa Monica. Shirley Temple lived at the end of our road. I don't know why but she needed a ride to town and she came by at that very moment. I sat on her lap on the way to have stitches in my leg. At the time I didn't think much about it. We saw her once in a while and she was always very nice and pretty. She was about 15 or 16 and I was 8 or 9.

"Thais and I met on the beach when I was 10 or 11. She was older than I was. Then we didn't see each other for a long time. I was in the service and we met again about 10 years later when she was living in Santa Monica. We were married in 1956 in Santa Monica."

Thais and Jack visited Thais's old house in 1993 and met George and Katie Wood. The Woods bought the house in 1963 for $14,000, still renting the land from the Los Angeles Athletic Club. They ultimately lived there for 38 years, the longest of anyone - raising their two children, April and North, to play in the creek as Thais and Marilyn had.

"Jack and I noticed that the river bed has risen over the years. There was a steep bank to get to the creek when we lived there, and now it is almost level with the house. …The Woods loved the house and garden and were so unhappy to have to leave them."

In 2001, State Parks bought Lower Topanga. The house in which Thais grew up was identified as an historic resource, an example of an early 20th century Cape Cod-style vacation home, a unique type of American vernacular architecture. It reflects the 1920s "surfurbia" development from Malibu to Newport Beach, which arose with affordable mass-produced automobiles.

After the land was purchased, State Parks decided that the Woods, along with all 125 other Lower Topanga residents had to move off to make way for public park use and that virtually all the homes should be demolished. The Woods moved to a mobile home park in Ventura more than four years ago, hoping that a ranger would move into the house and that its historic status would mean their home, the site of so many memories as well as the legacy of the Rust family would be preserved. It is currently boarded up with no plans for public use or restoration.

Photos courtesy of Thais and Jack Sykes with special thanks to Thais and Jack's daughter Lori Ardis for scanning copies for The Messenger.


"Going for Broke to Battle Blaze"

by Ron Russell
Photos by Cassy Cohen

Inferno: Residents of remote Topanga Canyon enclave ignored warnings to abandon their homes. As the flames drew near, they set backfires that saved up to 40 houses.

Into the wee hours, they watched in horror as flames roared toward their Topanga Canyon homes.

A few wondered if they had done the right thing by ignoring repeated calls to evacuate.

But something kept Shane McMahon and half a dozen of his neighbors in lower Topanga from abandoning their little corner of paradise Nov. 3, even after firefighters had given it up as lost.

Shortly after 5 a.m., as flames shot over the ridge above their homes and there was nary a firefighter in sight, they decided to go for broke.

At the last possible moment, McMahon and his friends lighted three backfires that with the wind's help zoomed up the ridge and met the oncoming inferno like a first baseman outracing a runner to the bag.

In the aftermath of the devastating Malibu fire, "Shane's backfire" was the buzz of the canyon this week, as die-hard residents credited the volunteers with saving up to 40 houses in one of Topanga's oldest and most bohemian neighborhoods.

"No question, if they didn't do what they did, a lot of us would have been burned out," said Domonic Anselmi, 25, who sells pottery and outdoor furniture nearby on Pacific Coast Highway.

Others complained that a decision by fire officials to make a last stand at PCH and Topanga Canyon Boulevard left their neighborhood of mostly older rental houses half a mile west of the boulevard out of the equation.

"We begged them to send us some men and equipment," said Samantha Gann, 40, a fitness trainer who keeps three racehorses in the community. "They just told us we ought to leave."

In the end, everyone did except McMahon and his friends.

"It [the fire] was gnarly as hell up there," said Robert Overby, 43, known in the community by his surfer nickname, Baretta. "These guys are heroes."

McMahon, 38, a surfer and construction worker who has lived in the canyon 20 years, was philosophical.

"We like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals up here," he said. "If there's no one to help us, we'll fend for ourselves."

McMahon said he had watched firefighters use backfires to squelch a 1970s blaze in the canyon. What he learned then, combined with his surfer's knowledge of wind currents, helped him decide when to set them, he said.

"It's not something I'd recommend anyone do except firefighters," he said, "but in this case it was either do it or watch our homes burn to the ground."

Long a hideaway for surfers, artists and aging hipsters, the neighborhood at the mouth of Topanga Canyon near Pacific Coast Highway is tucked away across a creek via an unpaved road off Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Vehicles must ford the creek to get there. During heavy rains, residents leave their vehicles on the side of the creek nearest the highway and use an elevated footbridge to get to their homes.

The community lies on the edge of 1,600 acres owned by the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which has been trying for years to sell it and which leases to residents on a month-to-month basis.

But few seem to mind the inconveniences. "This is like a last oasis," Baretta said. "Every other coastal canyon but this one has been cemented over already."

Several residents who asked not to be identified said they understood why fire officials were reluctant to send firefighters and equipment into the community with the blaze raging just over the hill.

"You get equipment into a cramped space like this and if the fire comes there's no way you're going to get it out," one man said.

On the night of the fire, most residents cleared out about midnight after officials first called for them to evacuate.

About 2 a.m., officials issued a second plea for residents to leave, followed by a third warning at 3:30 a.m., once the blaze leaped across nearby Tuna Canyon.

By 4:45 a.m., as it became apparent that the blaze would roar over the ridge above the community at any moment, McMahon asked fire officials to set backfires on the ridge but was told they were to busy fighting the flames elsewhere.

That's when he and the others took matters into their own hands.

The idea behind a backfire is to burn off an area in front of an oncoming fire, thus robbing it of the fuel needed to continue its march. However, firefighters say miscalculation or a sudden wind change can make the tactic risky, even when performed by professionals.

McMahon said that after he and the others set their backfire, a strike force consisting of 14 county jail inmates were rushed in to provide support.

"They did one hell of a job," he said. "I'm talking about guys who were cutting down eucalyptus trees that were still burning."

Only one house, whose occupants were out of town, was lost in the community, and McMahon said it could have been saved with just a few more volunteers.

And the reaction of fire officials to the backfires?

"For the record I don't think they liked it," McMahon said. "But privately we had firefighters tell us we saved the place. That has a way of making you feel good."

Times staff writer Lois Timnick contributed to this story.

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