A heightened profile for one of L.A.’s black pioneers
By Bob Pool
February 24, 2009
Negrohead Mountain is an unlikely memorial to a former slave who made a name for himself at the western end of Los Angeles County. More than 120 years ago, pioneers in the Santa Monica Mountains named the peak for John Ballard, the first black man to settle in the hills above Malibu.
Ballard was a former Kentucky slave who had won his freedom and come to Los Angeles in 1859. In the sleepy, emerging city, he had a successful delivery service and quickly became a landowner. Soon he was active in civic affairs: He was a founder of the city’s first African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The arrival of the railroad triggered a land boom in Los Angeles in the 1880s, boosting property values and bringing the city its first sense of class structure and the beginnings of segregation.
Ballard packed up his family and moved about 50 miles west to the snug valley in the middle of the Santa Monica range. He settled first on 160 acres — space that eventually doubled in size when one of his seven children, daughter Alice, claimed an adjoining plot.
Besides raising livestock and a few crops, Ballard collected firewood in the nearby mountains and sold it in Los Angeles.
He also worked at blacksmithing and other chores on the Russell Ranch, a sprawling cattle spread at what is now Westlake Village. He would travel by mule or buggy several miles through Triunfo Canyon to get there.
J.H. Russell, who had grown up on his family’s ranch and as a boy rode his horse to Ballard’s rickety cabin to mooch biscuits smothered with wild grapes preserved in honey by Ballard’s wife, remembered the scene well in his 1963 book, “Heads and Tails . . . and Odds and Ends.”
“The Ballard house was something to behold. It was built of willow poles, rocks, mud and Babcock Buggy signs (“Best on Earth”), Maier & Zobelein Lager Beer signs and any other kind of sign the old man picked up. Hardly a Sunday passed where there were not several buggies, spring wagons and loads of people going down the canyon to see the place,” he wrote.
Ballard was powerfully built — he could hoist 100-pound bags of barley with one hand — and traveled in a wagon pulled by five mules and “sometimes a cow or horse hitched up with the five,” Russell recounted.
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