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San Buenaventura: Erle Stanley Gardner’s Town of Grace

by L.J. Martin

Old California.

What a gracious time it was.

A time when it was said, It’s better to be on time than invited.

When you were never late for a meal – one magically appearing on the table when you arrived.  When a haciendado, a ranchero, would leave a bowl of coins near the front door so a traveler would never be short.

A different time indeed.

Determined to seek solace and moderate temperatures, my wife and I travel to San Buenaventura for our annual pilgrimage from snow and biting cold to sun and caressing warmth.

Each year we marvel at the Ortega Adobe.  The manicured grounds, the beautifully preserved and restored period furnishings.  This little Spanish-style house provides us with peace and tranquility.

But we never forget San Buenaventura’s other past.

San Buenaventura was a pastoral Spanish/Mexican Californio agrarian mission village.  However, the industrial revolution, and pools of black gold beneath her fields, pushed the town, kicking and screaming, into transformation.  It boomed into an on and offshore oil oasis.  Pipe yards and machine shops replaced breathtaking architecture and sweeping trees.

A metamorphosis of graciousness into hydrocarbons; beauty and tranquility gone tragically wrong.

After many trips to San Buenventura, we yearned to learn something more about the town’s Spanish history.  This time we set out to discover who lived there and why.  And we came across one famous inhabitant, one unlikely inhabitant, who caught our eye.

Erle Stanley Gardner.

You might wonder what Erle Stanley Gardner, destined to become the world’s best-selling mystery writer, saw in this place in 1921.

We certainly did.

At that point in time, San Buenaventura was a burgeoning village struggling to take advantage of an oil boom that marked and desecrated much of Central and Southern California.  What Gardner saw was the remnants of a village that, pre-oil boom, had been gracefully growing to a small town.  But suddenly, due to gooey hydrocarbons, it became an excellent blossoming economy in which to establish a law practice.

The question: why did Gardner come to San Buenaventura?  The answer: money.

It wasn’t until he was well-established in that field that he switched from briefs, contracts and agreements to the world of novels.

At that time, prior to his birth as a novelist – typical of other oil boom towns – San Buenaventura reeked of hydrocarbons, sweaty men in coveralls.  Smoke billowing from diesel engines driving pumping units. Trucks hauling the foulest kind of liquid gold, and of money.  Not an altogether offensive smell to many, but as you age and reflect on what makes a place truly desirable to establish a real home or merely visit, you look for something more.

Erle Stanley Gardner found much more in San Buenaventura.  And so did we.

A few meandering steps toward the ocean and spacious white sand beaches, and there’s the historic Erle Stanley Gardner Building, where Gardner maintained an office.  Here he began his stellar writing career, becoming the world’s best-selling mystery writer under his name and several pseudonyms.

A dapper fellow, Gardner could often be seen walking up the hill to the courthouse, a white Panama pulled low over his eyes, trailing smoke from a cigarette in a luxurious ivory cigarette holder.

A stylish building, in a prime location on the corner of Ventura’s two main streets, the Gardner Building has been home to offices and antique stores in the years since the writer left. In 1933 Gardner made his transition to full time writer and novelist when The Case of the Velvet Claws was published.  In 1937, he moved to Temecula, California.  He went on to write under several pseudonyms: A.A. Fair, Kyle Corning, Charles M. Green, Carleton Kendrake, Charles J. Kenny, Les Tillray, and Robert Parr.  Gardner wrote for the pulps: westerns, history, travel, and mysteries inventing a rogue’s gallery of characters, notably Lester Leith, the gentleman thief.

To Gardner’s credit he devoted thousands of hours to a project he called “the court of last resort.”  The project reviewed, and in many instances sought to reverse, the convictions of incarcerated convicts.  Poor legal representation or careless/illegal actions on the part of police and prosecutors denied these convicts of fair trials.  More often than not, the convicts suffered the consequences of misinterpretations of medical or other forensic science evidence.

This project of Gardner’s led to the creation of his character Perry Mason, who was portrayed in various Hollywood films and became a hit TV series starring Raymond Burr.

Gardner wrote over eighty novels about Perry Mason.

Inspired, we decided to trace Gardner’s footsteps.

Down California Street is The Sportsman, an eatery seemingly stuck in the past, where one expects to see Gardner, ivory cigarette holder and Panama hat; or maybe his most famous character, Perry Mason, leaning his prodigious girth on the bar.  The food here, like Gardner’s novels, is consistently good, if out of the 40s and 50s, the film noir era.

We stroll to the east end of California Street, just below the historic City Hall – this was originally the County Court House frequented by Gardner.  I stand next to a large bronze statue of Father Junipero Serra, who founded Mission San Buenaventura.  We inhale a fresh ocean breeze.  It’s carried across a field of strawberries.

Fresh scented air is the finest of perfumes and stimulates the creative juices.  I can picture Gardner at work in his third storey office, the window open wide, his old Underwood chattering away creating another enigma for Mason to solve.

Joining the good padre, I gaze out across the tops of hundred foot tall palm trees, equally majestic eucalyptus; distant windward fields of berries, vegetables, citrus, and flowers.  The red tile roofs are miraculously preserved.  Oft times refurbished homes, bungalows, and commercial structures give me hope that this affable culture has not waned.  It should be obvious that Gardner, after being raised in Palo Alto then being relegated to dry San Joaquin Valley, was pleased to return to a seaside town with palm trees and fresh breezes.

The bronze Father Serra’s view is across those trees and structures, above even the three storey Gardner Building only a long block away.  Behind us, the hard sandstone-shouldered, oak and pine of the Santa Ynez Mountains, and the Los Padres National Forest rise quickly from Ventura’s ocean side plateau.  Seagulls and pelicans to the west, condors to the east.

This was a trip that we’d never forget.  It was different, like in the days of Old California.  Gardner showed us around San Buenaventura, his town of grace and beauty.  We may not have solved a mystery, but we found our solace.

L. J. Martin is the author of 20 western novels and is married to Kat Martin, a NYT bestselling internationally publisher romantic suspense and historical romance novelist. Visit www.ljmartin.com and www.katbooks.com.