Women’s History Month: Malibu Style

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May Rindge visits the Adamson House, 1930s. The house was built in 1929 for her daughter, Rhoda Rindge Adamson and her husband. It’s been called the “Taj Mahal of Tile,” due to its extensive use of ceramic tiles created by Rufus Keeler of Malibu Potteries. It was designated a California Historical Landmark and is still standing today. Photo courtesy of Adamson House Archives.

A few of Malibu’s visionaries, trailblazers, environmentalists, proud civic leaders, and trendsetters 

By Barbara Burke 

Special to The Malibu Times

For several years now, March has been Women’s History Month. Malibu’s women’s history is replete with visionaries, trailblazers, environmentalists, proud civic leaders, and trendsetters.  

We should begin such a discussion by noting that Chumash history instructs that in Malibu, where part of the Coastal Band of the Chumash nation resided — as with all branches of the seven Chumash nations — women were integral to the indigenous culture, served as chiefs and priests, and were involved tribal members practicing responsible stewardship of their ancestral lands.

Next, there is the doggedly determined, indefatigable, but ultimately unsuccessful, Rhoda “May” Knight Rindge, whom historians have dubbed “The Queen of Malibu,” and “the Founding Mother of Malibu,”  as well as L.A.’s first high-profile female environmentalist, according to a 1998 article in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Defenders of Malibu’s Beauty.”  Rindge and her husband, Frederick, purchased the Malibu Rancho as the final Spanish land grant owner of the property and established a cattle ranch.

After Frederick passed away in 1905, May Rindge founded Marblehead Land Company in 1921 and Malibu’s first business, Malibu Potteries, in 1926. May founded the Malibu Movie Colony, ultimately selling cottages to movie stars such as Mary Pickford and Bing Crosby.  She fought to preserve her family’s rancho — the Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit — which extended from Los Flores Canyon to Ventura County.

She constructed some amazing structures, to wit, the Franciscan Order’s Serra Retreat (now known as The Adamson House), Rindge Dam, and the Malibu Pier. She won some of her battles. When the Southern Pacific Railroad wanted to connect its Santa Barbara terminus with Santa Monica, Rindge started her own railroad, taking advantage of a law that stated that if one railway ran through a property, no other railway could do so. She also drilled for oil on Pt. Dume, but found none.

Rindge was determined to preserve the beauty and topography of the Pacific Coast. However, she lost a 16-year Herculean battle, first to keep out county roads that homesteaders wanted for access to the coast and then to preclude a federal highway from being built. She lost both cases. As for the highway, she lost before the United States Supreme Court. Ultimately, the Roosevelt Highway, now the Pacific Coast Highway, was constructed, creating a highway from the Mexican border all the way to the Canadian border, and changing Malibu forever.

Rindge died in 1941 and some of her descendants still live in Malibu and nearby.

Mildred Mae Meek Lewis Mandeville Decker, affectionately known as Millie Decker, was the daughter of one of the Santa Monica Mountains’ original homesteaders in the 1860s. Decker died peacefully in her sleep on Christmas Eve 2018, just weeks after surviving the Woolsey Fire. She was 98 years old. 

Those celebrating Decker’s life lovingly posted on social media with Sam Haskell saying, “5 feet tall, horse lover, bull rider, dynamite detonator! Long before Malibu became known for surf and celebs, Millie was mixing it up in the hills high above the Pacific Ocean. She had the energy of a teenager, truly one of a kind — What a wonderful life!”

“We just lost a giant. Sara Wan, fierce environmentalist and coastal defender, dies at 83,” Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times announced on Sept. 7, 2022, quoting Jack Ainsworth, then executive director of the Coastal Commission.  The obituary noted that Wan served longer on the Coastal Commission than anyone and was an environmental crusader for four decades. 

“When I needed to know the history of an ongoing coastal dustup over the years, Wan was able to break it down with historical perspective and encyclopedic precision,” the obituary quoted Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network as saying. Wan’s effort to preserve one of the last undeveloped canyons in Malibu resulted in the space being named the Corral Canyon Park Sara Wan Trailhead.

“The homeless come in every description: addicts, young, old, families, single women, men, people down on their luck, etc. The stigma is the hardest thing for them to bear. Perhaps we can restore some dignity and receive a little suffering.” That was part of a note that Malibu’s Carol Moss wrote when asked to convey her message about the homeless, according to her obituary written in The Malibu Times on April 28, 2021.  Moss died at the age of 91.

Moss, a resident of Malibu Colony since 1964, was, the obituary aptly said, “a force to be reckoned with throughout the 55 years she lived here.” The piece noted  that her activism was ceaseless, well into her 80s. In 2015, Moss co-founded CART (Community Assistance Resource Team), a local grassroots organization to help the homeless.  

Since Moss’s passing, Kay Gabbard, Terry Davis, and others continue to honor her legacy by leading efforts to help the homeless. 

Lucile Keller, wife of the late Walt Keller, Malibu’s first mayor, needs no introduction to long-time Malibuites.  The City of Malibu is in the process of naming Charmlee Nature Center in favor of Lucile and Walt. Dedicated environmentalists, the couple were involved in all things Malibu for decades.

“Lucile is a community treasure,” states the Malibu Township Council webpage, adding. “She was a driving force in founding the City of Malibu and has been stalwart in her continued support, and defense and promotion of Malibu’s Vision and Mission Statements. Lucile is one of Malibu’s matriarchs who has steadfastly served as a custodian of the area’s unaltered natural resources for present and future generations.” 

Although not a civic leader, philanthropist, or environmentalist, one lady also changed Malibu forever

If one visits Duke’s Malibu for lunch on a Friday or for Sunday brunch, they might just see a petite, smiling lady with a tropical flower in her hair, usually surrounded by curious children as she explains how surfing culture became so famous in Malibu and burgeoned worldwide. 

Kathy Kohner, aka Gidget, was a woman leader of a different sort in Malibu. The name Gidget is a portmanteau of “girl” and “midget,” and the 1957 book, “Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas,” written by Kathy’s father, Frederick Kohner, recounts the surfing adventures of his daughter and her surfing friends on what is now first point on Surfrider Beach in Malibu.

Simply stated, everything changed in Malibu due to that book and the Gidget character appearing in several films, television shows, and a stage play.  

Although Kohner was not a civic leader, not an environmentalist, and never held public office in Malibu, her life was instrumental in charting Malibu’s course as the epicenter of surfing.

As we celebrate Women’s History month, we honor the fact that Malibu is replete with ladies who make history every day, and in doing so, make Malibu a better place to live and enjoy.