Millie Decker celebrates turning 90

Top photo: Millie Decker at age 20; bottom photo: Decker at the homestead. Decker’s family moved to the Malibu area in 1926. A party celebrating her 90th birthday is open to the public, this Saturday, at Decker Canyon Camp.

Decker’s family was one of the original homesteaders in Malibu. The public is invited to her birthday party on Saturday.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Almost 100 years ago, back when Malibu was little but a few homesteads dotting the vast rolling hills of the Santa Monica Mountains, Percy and Rose Meek moved their family of three little girls to Mesa Ranch in Decker Canyon. On Saturday, one of those little girls, Mildred Mae Meek Lewis Mandeville Decker, will celebrate her 90th birthday, and Malibu is invited to the party.

Festivities are being organized by Millie Decker’s extended family-including daughter Bonnie Decker, proprietor of Malibu Seafood, son Chip Mandeville, Malibu’s resident horse whisperer, daughter Vivian Mae Lewis-Smith and her son Adam Lewis Smith, and Dale Smith, a former son-in-law, and, he said, still “a family member”- at Decker Canyon Camp near the old Decker homestead for Saturday afternoon. In an interview with The Malibu Times, Bonnie Decker invited all who want to wish one of the city’s first pioneers a happy birthday to bring a covered dish and come up to the ranch anytime after noon.

“This is an old fashioned potluck,” Bonnie Decker said. “Decker Camp is one of our best-kept local secrets. It’s a park for the city of Los Angeles that just takes you back to the years before anyone ever lived here. Most people think of Malibu as fancy houses and movie stars. We think of Malibu as mountains, and ranches and horses.”

Mountains, ranches and horses are what Millie Decker’s family sought in moving from Des Moines, Iowa to California in 1920, seeking a healthier climate. Percy (“Perc”) Meek worked in a garage for a while, but he ended up managing three local ranches, including Mesa Ranch and what is now the Circle “X” Ranch.

“Daddy ran horses and cattle, and trained hunting dogs,” Millie said in a phone interview with The Malibu Times. “When I was a little girl, he planned an expedition to Manchuria to hunt Mongolian tigers, taking about 30 bloodhounds with him. He trained his dogs by hunting mountain lions around Malibu.”

Meek also kept a mountain lion tethered in his yard next to the barn so he could work with it. One day, the mountain lion got loose and chased young Millie, who barely made it into the house.

“I don’t really remember what mama said about that,” Millie said. “But daddy tracked the lion to a nearby tree and climbed up with a lariat and just grabbed that lion. He was the bravest man I ever knew.”

A tomboy who shadowed her father’s footsteps, Millie grew up riding and competing in rodeos, roping steers with her dad. She and her sister, Thelma, were one of her father’s featured early acts when she was barely 10 years old.

“We would come out of the gate on bucking bulls and daddy would ride alongside and pick us off,” Millie said. “I loved riding. At one time, daddy had over 100 quarter horses and I learned to race.”

In fact, Millie was one of the first women in California to get her jockey’s license and raced at Los Alamitos Race Course and in regional quarter horse shows, a living testament to Will Roger’ old contention that “There’s nothing better for the inside of a person than the outside of a horse.”

“But I would only race daddy’s horses,” she said.

Her father also founded Trancas Riders and Ropers, the local equestrian club, in 1952, “It’s the oldest club in Malibu,” added Millie.

Millie married Harold Lewis (whose family first brought lima beans to California) at age 18, right out of high school (Millie attended the old, one-room school on Decker Road and then Oxnard High School). They had a daughter, Vivian, and Millie spent her life around Malibu, riding bulls, lassoing ponies and fighting the regular wildfires that swept through the canyons. She remembers Malibu when Pacific Coast Highway was just a dirt road owned by the Rindge family, with a locked gate at each end.

“I knew old May Rindge when I was a little girl,” Millie said. “She scared me. She walked around with a gun holster strapped to her hip.”

Millie and Harold separated, but remained “good friends.” She had two more children, “Chip” Mandeville and Bonnie Decker, with second husband Warner Mandeville. Her third husband was famed hunter and explosives expert Jimmy “Dynamite” Decker, whose clan named the canyon where Millie still lives. Hollywood was using the hills above Malibu to shoot a great many westerns then and Millie was called upon to work with horses alongside movie stars like John Wayne and Roy Rogers.

Millie doesn’t ride much anymore, though she still will “go out and pull weeds” in the yard. She said she’s seen many changes during her Malibu years.

“When we first moved here, everyone was a rancher and helped everyone else,” Millie said. “If you had a roundup, everyone pitched in. It’s the way you did things then.”

That community spirit will be on tap for her birthday party Saturday. Chip Mandeville urged anyone who wants to attend to bring a potluck dish and whatever meat you’d like to cook. Grills will be provided and a birthday cake will be served around 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. He also invited people to bring tents to enjoy the beauty of the area overnight.

“Mom is a unique character from a bygone era,” Mandeville said. “She’ll have a lot to say about those years.”

Millie Decker’s birthday party is open to all residents Saturday, May 22, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., at Decker Canyon Camp, 3133 S. Decker Canyon Rd., about 2.5 miles up Decker Canyon Road from Pacific Coast Highway. The family requests that no gifts be brought, but cards and bare roots white or yellow roses are welcome. Facilities are free for the day, but a small fee is requested for overnight camping.