Once upon a time a long time ago, surely more than 100 years ago, there was a tiny fishing camp high in the mountains of Southern California where boys and girls and grown-ups loved to hike in the mountains, fish for trout, and play in the rivers. It was a delightful place filled with sunshine, flowers, and even fruit trees. The children were told stories of how it had all begun. It seems that long ago, while California was learning to become a state, that a man and his family were granted a homestead document which granted them 130 acres of land high in the mountains of Southern California. The man’s name was Edwin Ball and he had a beautiful wife named Jennie. They had a big family with eight children. Ed and Jennie were important pioneers in the new community of Redlands where they owned and operated a restaurant named Pioneer House, a rooming house, and a dray business. Ed was also hired as the first police officer in Redlands. As much as they enjoyed their busy lives in the Redlands area, they dreamed of having some land and living up in the mountains.
President William McKinley was encouraging homesteading out west. Knowing this Ed and Jennie found the perfect site along the river known as the Santa Ana. In 1888 and 1889 they built a sturdy log cabin on it. The three room home sat high on a bank overlooking the Santa Ana River. Before long their homestead papers came through and they settled in with their family. It was an ideal place with three water sources running through it, neighbors close by at the thriving resort of Seven Oaks, and land enough to graze animals, plus a lush meadows on which to plant fruit trees. They named it Oakdale Ranch.
The apple trees thrived. Edwin grew produce for the guests at Seven Oaks where a post office was installed in 1894, and even a telephone line. The Bear Valley Toll Trail was opened in 1894 which brought many more people to the area, as well as up across the mountain trail into Big Bear via mule pack and stage coach. A tiny toll keeper’s cottage of stone was built at the base of the toll trail next to the ranch’s river crossing.
The area thrived. The brothers Lewis who owned Seven Oaks built 15 housekeeping units, added onto their dining hall, and built a small school house. It was said that over six hundred trout were pulled from the river in a single afternoon. The resort which could accommodate 75 guests was so popular that it was booked all summer long.
By 1902, Seven Oaks changed owners, and W.H Glass was in charge. He had big ideas including constructing a road through Ed Ball’s property to Seven Oaks. He paid Edwin $100 for the rights to put a road through; Ed had certain stipulations about not hauling freight without his permission. It was named Glass Road. The road was built, water rights were clarified and life continued until Edwin passed away. Eventually Jennie sold the property and after several different owners, it was purchased by a citrus rancher and his wife who were founders of the City of Placentia. The couple, Charles and Maud Wagner dreamed of spending their summers in the cool mountain air; fishing and relaxing.
The couple decided to create a club and sell memberships in the property to their siblings and friends and create a club. And thus Weesha Country Club was born and incorporated in November of 1910.
By 1910 the trees Edwin Ball had planted were in full force, bearing so much fruit that for some years the club hired workers to pick and box up the apples for sale. They soon needed a year round caretaker as the tent fishing camp was being developed and there were several permanent cabins. They needed year round caretaker.
A river rock caretaker’s cottage was built on a high bank on the north side of the Santa Ana River. The caretakers, Jeb and his wife Nell, moved into the charming cottage where they enjoyed a wonderful life. They were friends with the residents of Seven Oaks and enjoyed the colorful personality of Mary Stetson, of Stetson hat fame, who rode through the club property on her way to Stetson Ranch where she lived.
The caretaker’s wife, Nell, loved gardening. She planted a vegetable garden and two apple trees in her back yard which was next to the new Glass Road. In the afternoons she would play her piano while her husband checked the Forsee Creek water system which provided all of the water to the club.
At the end of summer, when all the families left, it was very quiet at Weesha. It was then that the Jeb and Nell watched as bears lumbered into the orchard to fill their bellies with apples. Sometimes a herd of deer could be seen across the river from their cottage. They would be snacking on the colorful apples which littered the ground beneath the trees. There were green, red, and yellow apples. There were cherries and pears. It was a banquet for the wildlife.
A peaceful life continued. A second river rock cabin was built in 1915 in the corner of the orchard just across the river from the caretaker’s. Time passed and more and more cabins were built. Motorized machines began to appear in Weesha as the families returned for the summer. Children played kicked-the-can, hide and seek and cowboys and Indians under the apple trees, and sometimes the young mothers would play games of their own. Once they pretended to be an outlaw gang. Four young women, one on horseback, pretended to hang the one designated the “outlaw”. Nell was watching this from her kitchen window. She grew alarmed when they actually placed a hangman’s knotted rope around the neck of the “outlaw”! She was not sure what to do, as the young ladies were playing a dangerous game! It was not her place to interfere. She just watched from across the narrow river channel. When the shenanigans of the children and adults became too much, she found comfort in playing her treasured piano. It was her most cherished possession, partly due to the great difficulty the mule team had pulling its wagon up the narrow and steep mountain passes.
Life at Weesha continued and within twenty years the tent fishing camp boasted permanent dwellings, some of log, some of batten board or siding. Apple, cherry and pear trees blossomed each spring while wild mint and lush vegetation and alder trees grew in abundance along the banks of the sleepy Santa Ana River which flowed from its headwaters above Weesha and Seven Oaks.
Nell continued to nurture her garden and especially her two beloved Granny Smith apple trees which were thriving in her backyard. Nell believed that she lived in paradise, that is until February of 1938 when it seemed to never stop raining. It rained into March. It rained so heavily that Nell and Jeb packed up their old truck and drove down the mountain to stay with friends.
The news reported that the rain was setting record levels. The great Santa Ana River watershed filled to capacity. Within some days it had reached its saturation point, sending a massive flashflood down the river, wiping out five of the housekeeping cabins, the gas station, and camping grounds at Seven Oaks. Picking up everything in its path, it barreled toward Weesha flinging massive pine trees to the sides and tearing out huge portions of Glass Road. When it arrived, roaring at Weesha, it tore into the bank on which the stone caretaker’s cottage was built, sending it all tumbling into the angry waters. The water rocketed downriver carving away the bank on which the Wagner log cabin sat, and eroding the banks on which sat the next three cabins. It tore off the club’s massive oak tree which sat near the edge of the meadow. It ripped its way along tearing up the foot bridge and raged into the county bridge. It would be known as the Great Flood of 1938, the most disastrous Southern California flood event of the 20th Century. Many thought of it as a 100 year flood.
A week later, when Nell and Jeb finally returned home to Weesha, they could not believe their eyes. Their entire home had disappeared, swallowed up by the tumultuous river waters. All that was left were the two apple trees to mark the spot of their life at Weesha. Nell fell to her knees next to her beloved trees, wailing her pain. Deeply saddened, Jeb crossed the river to study the damage to the club. All the cabins along the main orchard area and southern river banks were damaged, having lost out-buildings or were now precariously close to falling over the steep river bank. It was heartbreaking.
Nell and Jeb decided they were too old to continue their life as Weesha caretakers. Nell carefully made her way across the short distance to what had been her back yard and bent to the ground to bid goodbye to her two beloved apple trees. She brought her right hand to her lips for a silent kiss, and then pressed her fingers to the cold trunks of her two beautiful trees. It was only March, too early to admire their colorful blossomy show. With tears in her eyes she turned her back on them, taking huge calming breaths as she walked to the road and the old truck. The loyal old couple moved down the mountain, their Weesha time was over.
At the club, members began to rebuild, pulling cabins back from the dangerous edges of the river bank and rebuilding sleep houses and out-buildings where they had been destroyed. The last thing Nell heard from the members of Weesha was that someone had found her keyboard down river wrapped around a tree, stuck high in its branches. That was the final note for Nell. She put her trees and her Weesha life to the back of her mind.
In the following years, the world outside of Weesha experienced many changes; a second World War involved much of the world’s population. There was a great bomb, and an ending of the war. Americans began to enjoy good economic times. California grew. Memberships changed at the club. Another war came and was resolved. While America continued to grow and thrive, life at Weesha remained very much the same as it had always been.
As the seasons came and went Nell’s two beloved apple trees flowered and bore delicious Granny Smith apples which dropped to the ground unnoticed. No one came to visit the two trees, to prune them, to water them, to fertilize, or to even acknowledge their existence; certainly not to taste their delicious fruit. They took solace in each other, but then sometime around the 1960’s the smaller tree stopped bearing fruit, and before many years it simply stopped. It was done. It passed away. All that was left was Nell’s most beloved tree which had been closer to her kitchen door.
Now bereft and alone, all the little tree could do was what it had always done. It rested in the winter, bore glorious white fluffy flowers in the spring, always hoping that someone might notice, produced wonderful tangy apples at the end of the summer, and then slumbered once again. It went on like this for what seemed a lonely eternity.
Then in the 1970’s some changes to the club occurred. A young family bought the stone cottage just within the tree’s view across the river. There were children, three of them. Oh how they liked to fish along the river and hike around the grounds. Sometimes the whole family hiked nearby. The little tree began to feel hopeful. At least there were some children to watch; some laughter and excitement. Before long another family joined in, purchasing the log cabin which had almost fallen in the river during the great flood. That family too was packed with children.
The little tree smiled to itself as it watched the two young mothers carry a heavy wooden pen down to the nearby river crossing. They put their two smallest humans in the pen while the four bigger children laughed and splashed in the river. The children had rock throwing contests. They found pieces of wood and drifted boats down the river. Their laughter carried all the way to the lonely tree perched alone on its side of the river.
The families began to explore the area, the parents would strap the smaller children on their backs and the others would hop and skip along next to them. One day the family from the stone house came upon the little apple tree. The blonde lady called to her husband to notice that a fruit bearing apple tree was so very far away from all the other trees in the orchards. The little tree could see that they were baffled. How could this be they seemed to wonder. Why is it so far from the orchard?
Once they had spotted the little tree, they often returned, enjoying its apples. The little tree was beside itself with joy!! Someone cares for my delicious fruit. Someone is noticing me? Hope filled its branches.
There were visits across the years and the little tree was filled with happiness at having its fruit eaten as it listened to the laughter of the children. It was especially fun to watch the serious little blonde boy in his cowboy boots as he spent most days fishing in the river. It was a joyous time.
The children grew up and those two mothers, who had heard all the stories of the olden days at the club, decided to write it all down. They learned about Nell and Jeb and what a tragedy that had taken their stone cottage. They wrote about all of it. They would talk about the two trees which were left, especially that blonde one, she would sometimes come and sit with the tree and think about its lonely life.
The decades came and went and that woman did not return very often. Sometimes the tree could hear her on the road telling her friends about the caretaker lady Nell and her beloved apple trees, but she did not come over and sit much anymore. No one ate the fruit. The little tree continued on as it always had, alone, growing its beautiful flowers and then bearing its delicious yellow-green apples which dropped unnoticed on the ground. It did not know what else to do but continue on. There were thousands of other trees in the forest, and across the river it could see other apple and cherry trees being trimmed and watered; their fruit picked and their blossoms admired and photographed. It was nice to see.
The years passed. A new millennium began. Something like twenty-three years had passed since the century changed. The little tree realized that Nell had left 85 years before, that it must be 108 years old. It thought to itself, that apple tree across the river is even older. Goodness that old thing next to the stone cottage must be 133 years old! I wonder how old I will be? I wonder about my future?
The little tree settled in, gazing across the river channel at all the children. It seemed like the earlier group of children, which had grown up and left, had come back with more and more children than ever. The sounds of laughter and games filled the air at Weesha. It was a happy place and the little tree smiled to itself.
Weesha was alive with laughter; there were parades, volleyball games, cribbage tournaments, splashing in the water, and inner tubes with gleeful children floating down the river. There was a life force like the little tree had never before seen. It was comforting to observe all of it from its perch on the other side of the bank, even though it was still alone.
On Sunday August 20, 2023 it began to rain. It rained all night. It wasn’t cold, it was just wet. The little tree held its roots tightly, clinging to the damp soil. By nighttime it could see that the river waters were rising. The river was filling all the way across from bank to bank. Suddenly at 8:22 it heard an awful roaring sound heading its way. It grasped its branches tighter than ever, but it was difficult as they were heavy with ripe apples. The rumbling and roaring got closer. The earth shook. It was becoming louder and louder, and then shockingly, a massive wave of water roared by, ripping off the road’s asphalt from the side of the mountain. The asphalt seemed to fly across the width of the river along with huge pine trees and boulders, ricocheting into the bank on the other side. The mass collided into the big beautiful brown home which suddenly seemed to sink into itself as the driveway was pulled apart. Then its huge pine tree crashed against the porch and all its support beams were ripped away careening into the river.
The historic antique wagon held on as long as it could but as the bank was beaten and pulled, the wagon finally had to let go and was washed into the tumultuous current. The wall of angry water bit into the side of the meadows and lawns, tearing huge chunks of grassy area along with it. It hurtled down the river, filled with monster boulders and magnificent uprooted trees. The new footbridge was no match for it and it moaned and argued and finally succumbed to the furious torrent. The little tree held steady through the long and terrifying night.
At daylight it could observe the devastation. The old wagon lay lifeless. The flood was something like that fated night when Nell and Jeb’s cabin was lost; when the tree’s beloved Nell left forever. Days passed.
The roads were gone. The new caretaker was stranded in his wooden house down river. Weesha was devastated. Helicopters whirred overhead.
More days passed. There was heavy equipment across the river. Two weeks later on a sunny day, three people came across the swift waters of the river and struggled across the huge river boulders and up the path below its roots. It had dropped a dozen apples down during the storm, and the narrow, steep path was littered with the sweet fruit and pine needles. It was slippery and dangerous. A young woman came up first below its branches, then a very tall strong man, and then… the little tree could not believe it.
Did not believe it until the blonde woman, older now, began to tell about Nell’s cabin. The little tree recognized her voice!! It was its old friend from so long ago. As she spoke, the younger woman picked up an apple and bit into it. The blonde woman did the oddest thing. She tied little green ribbons around the branches and the plants near what was left of the road. Then she sat down and studied the tree. She was in awe that the little tree was still bearing fruit. She could not believe the tenacity of it, to cheerfully bear fruit for over 100 years in complete neglect. She began to tell the others all about it; about Nell and the lost house. Her eyes filled.
After awhile they left making their way up to what was left of the road toward Seven Oaks. A few hours later they all returned. The conversation was sad as they were talking about the tragic devastation at Seven Oaks. The younger woman collected many of the little tree’s apples from the ground. The blonde lady sat on a rock, once again staring at the tree, and ate an apple. Her companions made their way down the path; the younger one seemed to trip on one of the exposed roots. She dusted herself off and they went ahead, down the slippery path.
When they were out of earshot, the blonde lady came close to the little tree’s branches. She inhaled a calming breath and whispered to the tree. “You are the bravest, most beautiful tree in all the orchards. Here you have stood all these decades by yourself. No one has paid any attention to you, nor given you any sign that you were of value, yet you have stood bravely guarding our properties.”
She stopped for a time, and then finally continued, “Things are going to change from now on little tree. Already you are marking the path from Weesha to Seven Oaks. All those little green ribbons I tied around you are markers to find the path. You show the way. I promise to visit you every time I am here. I promise to tell your story of bravery in the face of abandonment to my grandchildren so that they can tell their children about you. I will enjoy your apples and I will write up your story. No one will ever forget the little apple tree which never gave up. You will be remembered.”
She paused again as she had a lot to think about. “I will make a plaque to place by your trunk proclaiming you as the bravest little apple tree in the forest. Far into the future the people of Weesha will know bravely you stood, sentry across generations of Weesha residents; that you survived at least two great floods.”
And true to her word, the blonde lady and her dogs have visited the once forgotten tree every time she arrives at Weesha. Her children and grandchildren come to pay their respects and to eat its delicious apples. The sign she placed at its trunk is very handsome. The little tree feels happy and appreciated. It thinks that perhaps it will live another 100 years, living happy ever after at Weesha overlooking the great Santa Ana River.