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Sylmar mobile home park has long history

For the rest of the week, culminating with a documentary on Saturday's "Off-Ramp," KPCC is taking a special look at Oakridge Mobile Home Park. Oakridge in Sylmar was devastated in the November wildfires. Of the 600 homes in the park, 482 burned to the ground. Oakridge was not your standard mobile home park. For one thing, as KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports, its roots go deep into Western History.

Frank Stoltze: Sylmar means "sea of trees." In this case, olive trees because Sylmar was once the site of the world's largest olive groves.

["Don't Fence Me In" by Gene Autry plays]

Stoltze: In 1926, G. Henry Stetson – son of the hat company's founder – bought 286 acres tucked at the northern end of the Sam Fernando Valley, and named it Rancho Sombrero. Local historian Kevin Roderick writes that the ranch was reputed to have the largest private swimming pool in the country, and became an L.A. society hangout.

But Stetson got in hot water when his wife called the sheriff on him for getting drunk and holding her captive. Deputies even climbed the fence once to serve a court order on Stetson.

In 1958, most of the ranch was sold to the Mormon Church, and twenty years later, a man named Myron Reichert went to Salt Lake City and bought the property from the Mormons. Reichert started building the Oakridge Mobile Home Park, and brought his son Paul into the family business.

Stoltze: What a location.

Paul Reichert: That's a big draw for us. A lot of the comments I've received from people here even after the fires is that they really don't want to leave such a beautiful place. You know we've had the mountains behind the community, and it's kind of an escape from L.A.

Stoltze: Reichert's company, Continental Mobile Housing, put it this way in promotional materials:

[Voiceover: "Oakridge is nestled in the foothills of Sylmar just north of Hollywood. Residents are close to the largest and most diverse job market in California, as well as an endless amount of things to see and do. Beautiful surroundings, modern amenities, and a strong sense of community make Oakridge one of Southern California's premier manufactured home communities."]

Stoltze: It's not really "just north of Hollywood," but according to residents, much of the rest of that is true. Yvonne Witkowski, who lost her mobile home in the fire, just turned 75. She moved in 20 years ago.

Stoltze: What prompted you to move here?
Yvonne Witkowski: I heard about it for a woman I worked with, and my first thought was, "I don't want to live in a trailer." And she said, "No, we don't call them trailers, they're mobile homes." So I came up, fell in love with the first model we saw, and we bought it.

Stoltze: Candy Kessler lived with her husband Adam at Space 173. Their home burned down, too. She calls Oakridge "our little city." Specifically, Mayberry.

Candy Kessler: When you came past the guard gate, it's always maintained impeccably. It's like a hidden jewel in The Valley. I mean, the owners and Jenny Harmon–

Adam Kessler: Our park manager-

Candy Kessler: – park manager, ran this with an iron fist, but with good reason. It was impeccable.

Stoltze: There were parties at the community center, dinners at each other's houses, front doors that were never locked, mornings and evenings spent sitting outside looking at the mountains. That was Oakridge.

Tomorrow, as our series continues: building standards. Some say nothing could have survived the fire that destroyed most of Oakridge, but others say mobile homes could be made safer.