Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Old Postcard Wednesday--Wilson's Restaurant (aka Holy Alamo Ministry), Sierra Hwy., Saugus, CA

Sometimes you just can't keep it simple stupid. Such is the case concerning this week's old postcard. I selected it from the box and scanned it Tuesday afternoon in preparation for the post, which I figured would entail an end-of-summer-travel kind of discussion and how places like Wilson's Restaurant are iconic representations of Americans' love of a good road trip.

Then came the breaking news that Ted Kennedy died. I wondered if I should see if I have an old postcard that would be more appropriate, and as none came immediately to mind I considered this: the postcard of this place called Wilson's is a sweet and simple scene. The most spectacular thing about it is the shelter of huge oak trees affording shady respite from what must have been at the time a lovely drive along the Sierra Highway. I decided to go with this one and began researching first the Sierra Highway and the town of Saugus, and then Wilson's Restaurant. It was supposed to be a simple and serious post......just a short drive.

Here we go.....

Saugus is no longer. It was one of the four communities (along with Valencia, Newhall, and Canyon Country) that merged in 1987 to create the city of Santa Clarita. It is now a census-designated place (CDP), which evidently means that demographic and other statistics are still kept separately for the former town that is frequently still referred to by that name.

The best way to get a feel for what travel along the Sierra Highway was at one time is by reading a Los Angeles Times article dated December 25, 1989, that was given what I think may be the longest newspaper article title ever, The Road Less Traveled - Nostalgia trip: Rural Sierra Highway to the high desert holds on proudly to its traditional eccentricity.

Below are some interesting parts that I pulled from this immensely interesting article, should you not have time or inclination to read the full piece and added emphasis is by me:

In a rapidly changing area filling up with mini-malls and housing tracts, the old Sierra Highway remains a stubborn throwback to the Santa Clarita Valley's past.

"You get on it and it's almost like flashbacks," said J.J. O'Brien, a retired CHP officer who started patrolling the roadway in the 1950s. "It's still the same old street."

And what a street it was.

In its heyday--before the nearby Antelope Valley Freeway opened in 1963--Sierra Highway was the principal link between Los Angeles and the high desert. Then, the thoroughfare supported an odd assortment of bars, motels and restaurants--. . .

. . . Where else will you find, all along the same road, an oil refinery, a museum dedicated to honey, a gourmet French restaurant, a defunct theme park and a religious foundation headed by a self-proclaimed preacher wanted by the FBI who claims the Pope is a communist bent on world conquest? Farther up the road, a woman known as Mother Green built a village of stone buildings in the 1930s as a refuge for destitute families. Today, it's a serene religious retreat. . .

. . . Sierra Highway begins where it intersects with San Fernando Road, near the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways, and continues to Palmdale 40 miles away to the northeast before heading north through the Antelope Valley. Its story is best told through the people who traveled it: . . .
{pssst... The stories in this part of the full article are great!}

. . . Often clogged with vacationers headed for the Sierra Nevada on holidays, Sierra Highway was well known for "Boiling Point," a hill where many radiators blew their stacks after a tedious climb. Traffic would back up for miles. . .

. . .After the first leg of the Antelope Valley Freeway opened on Aug. 23, 1963, traffic disappeared from Sierra Highway. Kronnick, who by then had his own real estate office along the road, said traffic was so rare he "could have gone out my door and crossed the street blindfolded."

Businesses withered away. Cliff's, where frog legs were the house specialty, closed up shop. Wilson's, a 24-hour cafe and local institution, was sold to the Holy Alamo Christian Church, whose founder, Tony Alamo, is wanted by the FBI on child abuse charges.


Neighbors call the foundation an embarrassment and critics have branded it a religious cult that brainwashes its members with outrageous conspiracy theories. A church pamphlet once charged that a cabal of Catholic international bankers had placed specially trained agents in the media and government to help the bankers "control everyone in the world." . . .

. . .Will Sierra Highway change like the rest of the Santa Clarita Valley? Yes and no, say real estate agents and planners for Santa Clarita and Los Angeles County. . . Most of the highway is zoned for low-density housing and probably will remain that way, planners say. . .

. . . The only certainty the future holds is traffic--lots of it. . . The Antelope Valley Freeway, which for years proved to be a fast alternative to Sierra Highway, is now so jammed with commuters that many drivers are switching to the older route. . .

Let's back up to that part about Wilson's Restaurant becoming a church compound of Tony Alamo, who, according to the above 1989 article was wanted by the FBI on child abuse charges. Seems the best way to back up is via an LA Weekly article published ten years later July 22, 1999, titled Believe It or Not - An Agnostic on Hollywood Boulevard. Picking up the article about mid-way we get to these tidbits (once again the full article is fascinating and once again added emphasis below is by me):

I REMEMBERED THE BUS FROM THE OLD days, the big red, white and blue churchly beast lumbering about the streets of Hollywood, arriving here at Highland at 6:30 each evening (and at 1:30 Sunday afternoons as well). It still does, only now it's devolved into an old blue Dodge van with room for eight or so, depending on the heft of the "guests," ready as ever to spirit you to the old restaurant turned church under the oak trees somewhere in a surviving patch of country north of Saugus. Ministry founder Tony Alamo, a.k.a. Bernie LaZar Hoffman, onetime Hollywood promoter turned evangelist, won't be there, of course. He's back at church headquarters in Alma, Arkansas, not long out of prison after serving a six-year tax rap in Texas.

One thing seemed true: Whatever money Alamo had accumulated from his various churches (Arkansas, Chicago, New York, Texas at different times), most of it, he said, snatched by the IRS, little had made it to the California outpost of the Holy Alamo Ministry. . .

. . . Not far beyond where the 14 freeway splits off the 5, just beyond Magic Mountain, and then beyond the tidy new tracts and after a jog or two, we arrived at a shady bend in the old Sierra Highway, once the main road to Vegas from these parts. The van pulled up at a low-slung building overhung by oaks. Though it had been a church for 30 years, it wasn't hard to imagine the building in its previous incarnation as Wilson's Restaurant, which was popular here in the '40s and '50s. It retains a stubborn suggestion of its original self, with the four big windows overlooking the parking lot on one side and the two takeout windows, boarded up, on the other side. Inside there's a big floor-to-ceiling sandstone fireplace next to the old dining room, now implanted with 10 or so church pews. Perhaps 15 adults were in attendance, and seven or eight small children. . .

. . .There's a window at the far right-hand corner, and after the songs, when the testifying began and the oak tree outside the window moved with the afternoon breeze, the mood was hypnotic and sleepy and timeless. One after another of the adults reported on his or her path to Jesus through the Alamo ministry, out of heroin addiction and alcoholism and other dead ends. But there were others too who spoke and fit no stereotype. One man had grown up Jewish in Boston and found the church when he was 17. Now here he was at 45 in the old restaurant on the Sierra Highway, under the oak tree throwing its moving patches of shade.

Are we there yet?

Almost, but not quite. An updated December 4, 2008, report by The Signal of Santa Clarita Valley, titled No raid at Alamo compound said in part (emphasis is mine):

Arkansas child welfare officials seized six more children Wednesday from the ministries of an evangelist who also has a compound in Saugus.

With Wednesday's operation, Arkansas state officials have seized 32 children associated with the ministries of jailed evangelist Tony Alamo.

Alamo, 74, faces federal charges in Arkansas that he took children across state lines for sex.

Accompanied by Santa Clarita Valley sheriff's deputies, officials with the Los Angeles County Department of Family and Children Services visited the Alamo compound in Saugus on Wednesday during what child services officials called a referrals-based visit, said Laura Grasmehr, spokeswoman for the department.

"There were no kids living there and no one was taken into custody," Grasmehr said. "It wasn't a raid. We don't raid compounds." . . .

We're very nearly at the end of our road trip...... and there is current news about Tony Alamo.

Reported on, quoting an Associated Press article updated July 24, 2009, titled Evangelist Alamo found guilty of kid-sex crimes, here are portions of the latest:

TEXARKANA, Ark. - Tony Alamo, a one-time street preacher who became an outfitter of the stars and fought the federal government over claims he underpaid followers for church work, was convicted Friday of taking five girls across state lines for sex.. .

. . .Defense lawyer Don Ervin said the evidence against the 74-year-old preacher was insufficient and that the preacher would appeal. He also said Alamo's criminal history — he served four years in prison on tax charges in the 1990s — "will hurt him" at sentencing in six to eight weeks.

The jury of nine men and three women found Alamo guilty of taking girls as young as 9 across state lines for sex, in violation of a nearly century-old federal law. Alamo was accused in a 10-count indictment that said the abuse started in 1994.

The evangelist could spend the rest of his life in prison, since each count is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. . .

. . .The evangelist built a multi-state ministry on the backs of followers who worked in various businesses to support the church. In the 1980s, he designed and sold elaborately decorated denim jackets, hobnobbed with celebrities and owned a compound in western Arkansas that featured a heart-shaped swimming pool.Federal agents seized a large portion of his assets in the 1990s to settle tax claims after courts declared his operations a business, not a church. . .

Finally, there is an updated AP report dated July 27, 2009, titled Trial reveals evangelist's hidden cash, property/With Alamo's conviction, IRS could try to dismantle ministry, leaving me to wonder what will happen to the Alamo compound -- formerly Wilson's Restaurant -- there under the old oaks along the Sierra Highway in California.

I want to thank anyone who has stayed with me for this long, winding road trip. Here are your California souvenirs as a reward for keeping me company along the way.



流浪汉 瑜伽 Yoga Tramp said...

Hai friend how r u? i would like to discuss some yoga pose with u, u r welcome to my blog, thk

Anders Enochsson said...

This was a very interesting post! The restaurant looks so quiet and beautiful under the trees. It is a horrible story but no the less exciting to read. It probably says a lot about sects.
The picture where the leader is being jailed looks funny in a way, the expression on everyone’s faces is actually comical. I’m glad they caught him.

Batteson.Ind said...

oohh.. I love the snow globe!... wow!, this was a really edge of the seat read! and to think that every building has a tale to tell to some degree or other. It always worries me.. the idea of religeous institutions.. it appears to me to be an easy way to pray on the vunerable, and there a LOT of vunerable people out there. The Catholic church over here has just been through a massive quake, involving abuse of every kind. The church has finally begun to lose it's grip on the populace here now. When i was a kid, hundreds of people would fill the town for saturday night mass, now the place is almost empty. In some ways this is good, in some ways bad.. such is the nature of change.
Cheers for presenting such an epic postcard! :-D

Lydia said...

@Yoga Tramp- Thank you for visiting my blog! I looked at your blog and think you are doing a great job. :)

@Ande- I so appreciated your thoughtful comments about the post. For me also the restaurant under the trees seemed such a peaceful spot. It's more than irksome that such a man became the property owner. I hope there is a nice future for the building and the magnificent trees.

@the watercats- I appreciated all you wrote here. Epic postcard...that's fun!
You and Ande above each mentioned sects/their ability to prey on the vulnerable. It sure seems the case with this dude.
Your information about the evolution of the Catholic church there is fascinating. We just don't get that kind of information here without digging for it. Thanks for the insights.

Kim said...

I love my rewards! So much fun!

That's so weird about that restaurant and everything you found out about it. I guess you never know what you're getting into on Old Postcard Wednesday.

Looking to the Stars said...

Lydia, I loved the trip! I had to chuckle to myself as I read it. It reminded me of the many times I started to research something "simple" and it snowballed into something bigger :)

Great Post!

Lydia said...

@Kim- You deserve those rewards for being one of the most loyal readers of Old Postcard Wednesday, Kim! :)

@Looking to the Stars- Thank you for enjoying - and fully understanding the twists and turns - of this particular trip! :)

Dyann said...

And the 4 decades of Alamo occupation has made this place an assylum.

I called it home in the early 70's.

Now the nightmare is over.

Thank you so much for this Award Worthy Article and the excellent, Excellent research!

Lydia said...

@Dyann- How gratifying to receive your kind comments! To hear from someone who has first-hand exposure to the place and, because of that, also had a personal reaction to this particular post really means a lot to me. Truly, thank you so much for this and peace to you now and all the future.



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