Potter’s Topanga Trading Post

by Pablo Capra

Special to The Malibu Times

The Malibu Feed Bin’s bright red paint belies the fact that it’s one of the oldest buildings in the area.

The business evolved from a 1920s grocery store across the street, nicknamed “The Skyscraper” because it was the only two-story building at the Topanga intersection. The second floor housed the office of Guy Wade (1880-1979), who managed the Lower Topanga property for the Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAAC).

The store’s longest owner, Charles Potter (1882-1956), took over on July 27, 1929, with George Storns managing. After a landslide shoved the Skyscraper sideways in a 1932 storm, Charles built the low sturdy building we see today. Guy Wade moved to a hut across the street, but his office soon ended up back on the second floor when the LAAC built a garage under it to house a volunteer fire truck. This is now the right half of the Malibu Feed Bin.

Potter’s Store survived the next major storm in 1938, one of the biggest in Los Angeles history, while nearby buildings were flooded or swept away. Over 100 people died, and one unnamed local woman, overwrought by the tragedy, tried to drown herself in the ocean as …

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“…numerous rattlesnakes and king snakes washed down and were wriggling out of the debris along Topanga beach.”

(Evening Outlook, 1938-03-08)

A landslide demolished the Topanga road. Engineers decided to rebuild the road farther away from Parker Mesa (today, Sunset Mesa) for the first quarter mile, using the landslide to partially fill in a neighborhood called Shady Lane. They also widened the canyon’s entrance by cutting 200 feet from the hill behind Potter’s Store.

Potter’s Topanga Trading Post is shown beside the fire truck’s garage and the LA Athletic Club’s office perched on top. Photo c/o the Topanga Historical Society.

Forced to move his store to its present location, Charles renamed it Potter’s Topanga Trading Post. Possibly, he got the idea from Louise Steeb (b. 1914), who owned Rust’s Barbecue restaurant next door. Her father William Steeb had opened the Malibu Trading Post at Trancas Canyon around 1930.

Charles Potter was born in Sharon, Pennsylvania, in 1881. He started his career as a Navy machinist, and married Lillian Barnes (1887-1918) in 1909. The following year, the couple moved to California, where Charles worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad in Los Angeles and, later, the Standard Oil Company in Coalinga. Lillian died in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.

Charles’s brother Fred (b.1887) moved to Malibu first, in Las Flores Canyon. Fred worked a steam shovel during the construction of Roosevelt Highway (PCH). 

Charles followed in 1929, when he bought his store. Regardless of the weather, he swam at Topanga Beach every morning.

In 1931, Charles married Eleanor White (1888-1962), a bookkeeper from Louisville, Kentucky, who became a partner in his store. She invited people to bring in social news for her Topanga Journal column titled “Topanga Beach Items,” writing about many events in the community that otherwise would have been forgotten.

The Potters lived walking distance from their store, on a hill above Topanga Lane (later called The Snake Pit). A sign on their door read, “High Nuff.” Their young neighbor, Thais Rust Sykes (1925-2021), remembered, “Nobody would ever visit them because they had to climb so many stairs.” 

The neighborhood children had some friction with the Potters, calling Charles “Pothead,” and claiming that Eleanor looked like her dog, Ming Toy, which she always brought to the store. They once stole a revolver that Charles kept under the counter (because he had been robbed several times), but fortunately the gun was returned without incident. 

Charles waged a “one-man crusade” to stop the children from throwing rocks at the swallows’ nests under the Topanga Lagoon bridge. Every spring, he recorded the return of the birds, finding that they arrived just after March 19, the date when thousands of swallows famously return to the San Juan Capistrano Mission. In 1946, he declared in The Malibu Times that “the swallows are no more partial to San Juan Capistrano than they are to the Malibu.”

Charles was well-liked by grown-ups and advertised his business as “the friendly store,” but what really made it unique was his outdoor museum of Western artifacts.

“The Skyscraper.” Photo c/o Alli Acker Archives.

“The store is decked with many interesting pioneer relics. Among them are an old blacksmith bellows and a plow presented to the Potters by L. P. (Shelly) Sheldon, custodian of Tapia Park in Las Virgenes Canyon, who found them in the park. Deputy Sheriff Walter Pealand gave them a wheel from an old prairie schooner, which he found near his home in Agoura. The posts and tie of the hitching post shown at the left above are redwood timbers formerly used as railroad ties in the roadbed of the old Malibu narrow-gauge railway. A handmade bear trap, over a hundred years old, was added to Charlie’s collection by Mrs. John A. Webster, who found it near the Websters’ Victorville desert ranch. The side saddle, which hangs near the door, is estimated to be more than 125 years old. It was picked up in the San Bernardino Mountains. Other antiquities in the collection include a harpoon picked up on the coast of Baja California, a hand-forged wagon wheel brake and lock, scales, double-trees and a hickory-handled cant hook over 75 years old. The collection also includes elk horns and the skulls of mountain sheep, cattle and deer. A mechanical antique is one of the original vacuum cleaners sold by Sears Roebuck more than 50 years ago.”

(Topanga Journal, 1949-07-22)

Charles had other rare items in his private collection, like a copy of the Ulster County Gazette from January 4, 1800, that described George Washington’s funeral, and a violin made by 17th-century master Nicola Amati, which he gave to local children studying music.

In 1950, Charles underwent a “painful operation” that seemed to mark the beginning of his decline. A neighbor, Martha Morgan (1911-1981), was called in to help at the store. In 1955, the Potters announced that they would be selling their business and retiring. Then Charles had a heart attack, which left him homebound. Fearing that he wouldn’t recover, he callously committed suicide with a shotgun after sending Eleanor to the Trading Post to get chicken for their dinner.

In 1957, the store reopened as the Malibu Feed and Fuel, run by locals Steven Terrill (b. 1924) and Bobby Jacks (1927-1987). 

Next door, the fire truck’s garage became another store that sold Oriental ceramics, called 101 Imports (PCH was Route 101 before the Ventura Freeway was built).

A Malibu investment group merged both stores into the Malibu Feed Bin in 1961. Investor Asa “Ace” Smith (of the Smith-Bennett plumbing company) gave charge of the store to his 18-year-old son, Dale Smith, a prize-winning horseman from the Trancas Riders and Ropers club. Ace bought out the other investors the following year.

In 1966, Marty Morehart (1945-2020) bought the store. An eighth-generation Californian, he ran the Malibu Feed Bin for 54 years until his death. The Morehart family runs the business today.

Pablo Capra is the archivist for the Topanga Historical Society and author of “Topanga Beach: A History” (2020). More at topangahistoricalsociety.org.

Potter’s Store is on the right, in its former location across the street. The LA Athletic Club office is at center. Photo c/o the Sykes family, 1933.

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