LA Weekly: July 11-17, 2003
The Last of the Malibu Hillbillies: Millie Decker and the ring of fire
by Jake Halpern
The wind was blowing through Malibu's Decker Canyon on the day Millie Decker stepped out onto her back porch and heard the distant clatter of helicopters. Moments later, several wide-bellied prop planes roared overhead. Millie could not yet smell the smoke or see the flames, because the wind was at her back, but she knew that a fire was coming, and she was determined to fight it. She moved quickly across her property, checking the shovels and gunnysacks and barrels of water with which she would save her ranch, just as her extended family has been doing it since the 1880s.
At 83, Millie Decker is Malibu's dust-strewn memory. She remembers when Point Dume was just a grassy mesa, the Pacific Coast Highway just a rutted trail, and Malibu was home to more cowboys than people who played them in the movies. Millie has known her share of danger - taming wild horses, riding crazed bulls, detonating dynamite - but nothing has tested her nerve like the wildfires that periodically ravage the area. Like the one that was burning its way up Decker Canyon that day last January. But this time, something unusual happened: Millie's son, Chip, called to say that she would have to evacuate; minutes later, a family friend named Kim Tipper arrived to escort her to safety. "I know you're going to give me hell," she told her, "but I have to do this." Of course, Millie objected, said she wasn't going, reminded Kim that she had never once fled from a fire. But when it was clear that Kim would not back down, she gathered up her two dogs, climbed into her 1969 powder-blue Chevy pickup truck and headed up the canyon to a neighbor's ranch, where she waited out the fire.
"That was the first time I ever left for a fire," Millie told me, "and it gave me a bad feeling. I guess my kids think I am getting too old, but I would have liked to stay and fight. I am not as fast as I used to be, but I think I could have handled myself - the way I always have."
Millie Decker is the last of a kind. She is known by many as the last of the Malibu hillbillies. She is also the last of the Decker clan, though only by marriage - her husband Jimmy, who died in 1991, was the last of the bloodline Deckers to live in the canyon. At one time, Decker Canyon was inhabited almost entirely by the Decker family. The original family members were homesteaders - most likely a mix of war veterans, tenant farmers and disgruntled Midwesterners looking for a better life and a bit of free land. Under the 1862 Homestead Act, they were entitled to as much as 160 acres, and they found it in the dusty canyons above Malibu. The children attended the Decker Schoolhouse, where they allegedly referred to one another as "cousin." Like the Scottish clans of old, the Deckers melded family and place until both had just one name. No one in the family spoke of "Decker Canyon," or "Decker Road," just "Decker." Yet as wealthy industry types began migrating to Malibu in increasing numbers, property taxes went through the roof, and the Deckers slowly moved away. All that remains now is Millie's ranch.
The property itself is a near-vertical piece of land, a multitiered horse ranch carved out of the steep walls of Decker Canyon. The first tier contains the horses, the second tier houses Millie and her chickens, the third tier belongs to Millie's son, Chip, the fourth to her daughter, Bonnie, and the fifth to a renter named Dave. In general, the ranch is built so steeply that it is impossible to see the tier above or below you; Millie says the landscaping exemplifies the old homesteader spirit - making something out of nothing.
A slight woman not much more than 5 feet tall, Millie has a full head of curled white hair and fierce blue eyes. When I paid her a visit not long ago, for a book I was writing on people who live in bizarre, disaster-prone areas, she was wearing a pair of reddish cowboy boots, green denim work pants and a turquoise shirt with a wide butterfly collar. These were just her work clothes, she explained. At her feet were several sheepdogs dashing about frantically, guarding her every step and barking at me in unison. Without saying a word, Millie reached down and began to stroke the largest of the dogs, patting his head and rubbing his fur. At that, all of the dogs quieted down.
I followed Millie down a small dirt road that ran along the length of the second tier. As a young girl, Millie told me, she attended the Decker Schoolhouse. She first met Jimmy at the age of 5 when her father - a renowned hunter named Perc Meek - saved his dog from a hungry mountain lion. After that they became friends, yet they didn't actually marry until their 40s. By then Millie had two young children from a previous marriage - Bonnie and Chip. Jimmy Decker never had children himself, but he raised Millie's as his own. Bonnie even changed her last name to Decker.
"We're horse people," she explained. "I've been riding since I was 1 year old. My father just sat me down on a horse and went about his business, so I guess you could say that horse was my baby sitter. My daddy ran a series of horse shows throughout the area, and I used to ride the bulls in the rodeo for him." Her bull riding was often the opening act. To give the spectacle a little extra oomph, her father would usually tie a "bucking strap" around the flank of the bull to really make it mad. For eight long seconds Millie would hold on for dear life, until her father rode up beside her and whisked her away. By the age of 16, explained Millie, she was racing horses at state fairs throughout Southern California. It took an enormous amount of wrist strength to work the reins of a racehorse, and Millie conditioned herself by milking the cows as much as she could. Within a few years she was jockeying professionally, riding against men who jealously guarded the sport as a bastion of masculinity. "Once they tried to run me through a fence," Millie recalled. "That was one time I swore."
When we reached the chicken coop, Millie slid into the caged enclosure and began talking to her hens. "There's no eggs under you, so you shouldn't be so mean," she scolded one. Emerging empty-handed, she led me through the garden and into her parlor, which was decorated with some 40 mounted deer heads. It wasn't a big room, and the heads were packed in so tight I could barely see a trace of wood paneling. All I could see, in fact, were the eyes - dozens of them, watching my every move - lifeless, but eerily alert. Over the years many visitors had marveled at the parlor's impressive collection of mounted deer heads. Hugh Hefner was so taken with the room that he had asked Jimmy for permission to use it as the backdrop for one of Playboy's nude photo shoots. Millie refused. "That's an insult," she told me. "Besides, I'm not going to God with that on my conscience.
"The deer were my husband Jimmy's," said Millie, carrying a tall glass of water from the kitchen. "You either loved Jimmy or you hated him, and he was enemy number one of the hunters around here. You're only allowed to shoot two deer a year, and sometimes Jimmy shot a hundred."
When Jimmy Decker wasn't hunting, he was usually blowing things up. By trade, he was a dynamiter. Many people knew him simply as ä "Dynamite Jimmy." There was an art to dynamiting, and Jimmy was often called upon to do the most difficult jobs in Malibu - blasting a hole for a pool without breaking a giant picture window, or splitting a massive boulder that was on the verge of crushing a mansion. Jimmy was an imposing figure - over 200 pounds and solid as a rock. In his youth he ran a gym and trained with Johnny Weissmuller, the muscleman who starred in the original Tarzan movies. Jimmy's strength was legendary. Sometimes, said Millie, he would hold up the back end of a car when a tire needed changing. When people gathered to play "donkey softball" - a raucous game in which players rode donkeys around the bases - Jimmy was famous for opting to carry the donkey instead, running full speed about the field with the panicked beast in his arms.
Over time, Jimmy became something of a folk hero in Malibu. Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Orson Welles came to visit, to hunt, and camp, and, most of all, to spend time with Jimmy. He was the real thing.
"I knew plenty of stars when I was a girl," boasted Millie. "A lot of the Western stars used to come to my daddy's horse shows." Since many of those early Westerns were shot in the Santa Monica Mountains not far from Decker Canyon, over the years Millie and her father Perc came to know Buck Jones, Leo Carrillo, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and John Wayne. Bill Boyd, the actor who played Hopalong Cassidy, lived just across the canyon from them and became a good family friend.
During the '30s and '40s, Malibu itself was at a strange crossroads. Malibu's movie colony had not yet fully taken hold, nor had all of the old homesteaders yet moved away. These were dimly mirrored worlds - weathered hillbillies and the wealthy actors who played them onscreen - both in love with a vanishing way of life, and linked by a mutual curiosity of how the other lived it. And it wasn't just the movie stars who crossed over. Millie worked with horses in a number of movies, including Reds and Bounty Hunter, and Jimmy even did a few explosions for television, including an entire jumbo jet for Emergency. It seems fitting, however, that Jimmy and Millie's involvement was limited to those tasks that were too dicey or downright dangerous for an impostor to pull off.
"The only serious drawback to living up here is the fires," said Millie, stroking her favorite sheepdog, Concho, who was chomping on a handful of garlic pills. "My first fire was in 1928." Just 8 years old at the time, Millie now claims to remember the scene well: standing with her two sisters in the blazing heat, watching her mother and father beat the ground furiously with wet gunnysacks, trying to smother the flames. "I was scared, and I'm pretty sure I was crying as the fire circled the ranch," recalled Millie. "I was too young to help, but my older sister was wetting the gunnysacks and taking them to Mom and Dad."
The young Millie had her own firefighting chores, like keeping the ranch's 20-some water barrels full. They were big vats, up to 100 gallons in capacity, and filling them was no easy task - Millie had to make endless trips to a nearby creek or spring. "We never had much water up here in the canyons. Even now, we don't have metered water like the people on the coast. We rely on spring water. And we still fight fires with the gunnysacks and barrels." The house we were now sitting in had been through roughly half a dozen major blazes since it was built in the early '40s, and not once had it burned. "I've been very fortunate," said Millie. "No house of mine has ever burned down."
Despite all the incongruities of living in Malibu, the Deckers were probably among the few who actually belonged. For them the canyon was more than just a posh address - more than just a scenic vista on which a mansion could be placed - it was a demanding physical reality to which they had adapted. For Millie, wildfires were a natural part of life, something to be expected, something to be lived with, and in this way, the Deckers - Millie, at least - would always belong in this canyon.
A car crunched its way up the steep gravel driveway, and a minute later, Bonnie Decker appeared. Buxom, frizzy-haired and youthful-looking for her 51 years, she wore an oversize Hawaiian shirt, blue jeans and a pair of black leather moccasins. "I've never been into fancy clothing," she later told me. For this and other reasons, the kids at school had often called her a "hillbilly." This was actually a point of pride, claimed Bonnie, in part because her cousin Donna Douglas played the role of Ellie Mae Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies. Still, there were awkward moments, like the time a truckload of hunters, toting rifles and a few bloody deer, swung by school and whisked her away. A concerned parent called the police to say that Bonnie had been abducted, but it was just Jimmy, picking her up from school.
That evening, over barbecued steaks on the back patio, Bonnie and Millie conjured one memory after another. During one of the many fires, the Deckers were forced to evacuate their two pet mountain lions, Miner and Kitty. They were big animals, 125 pounds each, and Millie used to keep them in a double gated cage. "The male I didn't trust," said Millie, "but the female used to sit on my lap and suck my thumb." As they led the two big cats out by rope, a nervous neighbor called the authorities, and not long after, Miner and Kitty were confiscated. "We should've had proper permits for those lions," lamented Millie. Bonnie just shook her head. There was nothing we could have done, she said. Malibu was just changing. Again.
Earlier in the day, the land had seemed washed-out like an overexposed photograph. But now the dim light of dusk coaxed out an astounding number of colors: deep orchard greens, blush-red dirt, sapphire sky. Before darkness completely enveloped us, we watched twilight re-paint the landscape a hundred different times.
Millie and I were sharing breakfast in the parlor the next morning, when the mail arrived. In it was a letter from Coldwell Banker offering her a free appraisal of her house. Millie already knew that her five-tier ranch was worth a total of about $2 million, but she had no interest in cashing it in. "I won't sell," she vowed. "I've told them that already!" And yet, letters like this one came on a regular basis. "It seems like I've gotten a lot more of these since Jimmy died," she said, eyeing the Coldwell letter with contempt. "Maybe they figure it's too much for me to handle." And financially it was a lot to handle. Millie already owed tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills: Jimmy had suffered a slow death from cancer, and the debt his illness created now sadly seemed to imperil his ranch as well.
Millie's determination to stay on was a long-standing Decker tradition. Ever since the mid-1890s, the Rindge family - the millionaires who once owned almost all of modern-day Malibu - had been trying to buy out the old homesteaders. May Rindge, the ambitious widow of Fredrick Rindge, was especially determined to clear out her neighbors. For the most part, she was successful. Survey maps from the 'teens and '20s show the Rindge estate steadily expanding into the canyons. The Deckers rebuffed every overture; on map after map, their plots remained intact. "There was a lot of tension between the Decker family and the Rindge family," I was later told by Glen Howell, a local historian and a docent at the Adamson House museum. "But to their credit, the Deckers were one family that refused to sell."
After breakfast, Millie threw the Coldwell letter into the trash and turned on the television set. As always, her Direct TV satellite connection was set to the Western Channel, which broadcast a marathon of saloon brawls, Indian powwows, and stagecoach romances for the rest of the day. For Millie, Direct TV was more than just television; it was a direct connection to the past. Not only did she recognize most of the actors in these Westerns, she often knew them personally and remembered exactly where they lived. "Oh, that's Dale Robertson. He lives over in Hidden Hills." A few minutes later, she would recognize someone else: "That's Buddy Ebsen. He lives over in Agoura, right next to the old Bob Hope ranch." Millie spoke of these actors as if they still lived in these places, even though most of them had long since died or moved away. (Editor's note: Buddy Ebsen died July 6.)
Later, on a walk through Nicholas Flats Park, the site of her girlhood home, it became increasingly clear that Millie's sense of place was defined by memories. The parks department had bulldozed all of the ranch's old buildings, and even redone the landscaping so as to erase any remaining structural traces. "When I first came and saw it like this, I sat and bawled for hours," she told me. Yet even now she could find hidden traces of the past - a nearby cave where 40 Chinese laborers once slept, a rock with three smooth dimples that the Chumash Indians used as bowls, and a tree with an oddly bent branch that marked the site where a treasure was once buried.
One place in Decker Canyon that still heartened Millie was Dale Rickards' ranch. Dale was a former mounted police officer who left the force to wrangle horses for the TV show Little House on the Prairie. Eventually, Dale saved enough money to fulfill a lifelong dream, and now, at the age of 80, he ran his own movie-prop business. Dale's niche, not surprisingly, was Westerns. He had transformed his property into a fake Western town, complete with a saloon, a feed store, a jail, a blacksmith's shop, a general store and a number of other ramshackle structures. So Millie and I paid him a visit.
Main Street on Dale's ranch was a dusty boulevard strewn with steers' heads, wagon wheels, cowbells, horse troughs, a cannon, and a few signs with sayings like "Trouble rides a fast horse" and "Ten miles to water, Twelve miles to Hell." We found Dale inspecting one of his many horse-drawn wagons. A tall man with a big cowboy hat, false teeth, and a cigarette bobbing from the corner of his mouth, he broke immediately into a tour. "This here was an army wagon built in 1873," Dale told us. "So it could have fought Indians . . ."
We walked the streets of Dale's small town, talking about medicine-show wagons and cowboy bathtubs. "Isn't this place something?" Millie said. "It just takes you back in time."
On our way home, Millie thought she saw smoke on the horizon. She peered through the truck's grimy windshield, straining her eyes for signs of fire. But it was just smog.
"What would you do if your house ever burned to the ground?" I asked. "I don't know," she told me. "We don't have fire insurance." Nowadays, Millie's son, Chip, handles most of the ranch's fire preparation. "You'll like Chip," said Millie. "He's wonderful with horses."
Indeed, Chip was said to be a kind of horse whisperer. People came from all over, asking him to break their horses. No, was his standard reply. Chip never broke animals - he worked with them. Chip, a lean, handsome man with deep-blue eyes, lives on a steep perch on the edge of the third tier. "I started working other people's problem horses when I was about 9 years old," he told me when I paid a visit. "My grandfather would bring me these ponies that were really rank or tough. I would work with them, and in a couple of days they would be following me all over the place."
As Chip got older, he developed a reputation as an excellent horseman. Often it was the riders who needed his help most. Many of them were poor communicators who gave their horses mixed signals - like goading them to gallop, while fearfully tugging on the reins or doing any number of things that subtly begged the horse to slow down. By the time Chip intervened, many of these horses had lost their trust and were wildly standoffish. Fixing this took time.
"Basically," Chip explained, "I communicate with the horses by recognizing their intelligence, and using that intelligence to create a language."
"Chip really knows what the horse is thinking," his wife, Claire, affirmed. "It's not ESP, it's more like reading body language or something." Chip also talked about his equally unusual relationship with fire, particularly his instincts for early detection. "I can smell smoke normally before I see any," he told me. "I know that there's a fire, and I know what kind of fire it is, whether it's a brushfire or it's some kind of domestic smoke." Yet sometimes, even before the scent arrived, Chip asserted, he could "sense" a fire. "I think you just have a knowing. I think there is an inner spirit that is constantly talking to us if we are listening. I think anytime you are sensing, you are just aware of things that are going on."
Chip insisted that his abilities were not extrasensory, but simply a heightened awareness of nature. "It's like rattlesnakes. I know if there is a rattlesnake around, and usually where it is, before I've heard it or seen it. And I can usually walk right up to where they are, without having heard them, just because I feel them. And it's the same thing with a fire."
This awareness, Chip said, was rooted in something deeper than his own experiences. It reached downward into a bedrock of family memories. "I am tied into these people that are of homestead clans. I am tied into people that were raised in these mountains and literally had to eat off of what they were able to harvest, whether it was deer or rabbit or quail or fish. They lived off the land. By being raised with those people, I was raised on the stories, raised on their memories."
When I asked Chip about fire insurance, why the ranch didn't have any, he gave me a puzzled look.
"But we do have fire insurance," he insisted. The brush was well-cleared, the water and gunnysacks were always ready, and the ranch was occupied by people who knew how to fight fires. "That's your best insurance," he told me, "not the monthly check that you send to some company."
Millie took me on a final walk through her ranch, showing me her latest preparations for fires, introducing me to her horses, and paying tribute to the rattlesnake-laden den where her husband Jimmy was buried. At Jimmy's grave there were no tombstones - just a small, half-dollar-size concrete plug in the side of a boulder. "This is it," said Millie. Then she explained how this could be: Before Jimmy died, he asked a friend to drill a hole in this rock so that his cremated ashes could be deposited within. This was actually quite a fitting end for a dynamiter, explained Millie, for the hole was made with a dynamite drill and the ashes were poured in like ammonium nitrate. Afterward, the top of the hole was sealed off with a narrow plug of concrete. "This is just the way that Jimmy wanted it," said Millie wistfully.
Later that evening, as Millie and I sat in the comfort of her parlor, she talked about her last days with Jimmy. "He died on the 8th of April," she told me. "A bunch of us were gathered around his bed when he went. The next day Neptune came and picked him up - that's the cremation people. Those Neptune people are constantly sending me advertisements," she lamented. "It's not that I mind that my time is coming, it's just that I don't like being pressured."
I asked Millie what she did with the Neptune ads. She put them in the same place as the letters asking her to sell the ranch, she explained. In the trash.
This piece has been adapted from Jake HalpernÕs book, Braving Home: Dispatches From the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Locales.