By Mark Lewis
Back in the 1970s, the popular rock duo Loggins & Messina found a rural refuge on an Ojai ranch. Then the ranch was bought by a relative of Christopher Robin Milne, whose childhood friendship with his stuffed teddy bear inspired one of the duo’s most beloved songs.
In the spring of 1966, Kenny Loggins was a senior at San Gabriel Mission High School, and an aspiring songwriter. As the end of his high-school career approached, he was moved to write a song inspired by the first book he had ever read as a child.
“I wrote it during finals,” he says, in an interview published on his website. “We were coming on graduation, and it reminded me of the last chapter of the book ‘The House At Pooh Corner,’ where Christopher Robin is about to head out and leave Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood behind.”
The book’s author was an Englishman, A.A. Milne, who was inspired to write it after moving his family from London to a house at the edge of idyllic Ashdown Forest in East Sussex. Here, he took his young son, Christopher Robin Milne, on walks in the forest, and wrote books inspired by the boy’s collection of stuffed animals, which included a teddy bear and a sad-looking donkey. These Winnie-the-Pooh books became enormously popular with children, which eventually prompted Walt Disney to acquire the rights to turn Pooh and his friends into animated cartoon characters. But it was Milne’s book, not Disney’s film, which inspired Loggins to write his song. This is how it begins:
Christopher Robin and I walked along
under branches lit up by the moon.
Posing our questions to Owl and Eeyore
as our days disappeared all too soon.
In the book, Christopher Robin goes away to school, leaving Pooh behind. In real life, Loggins went off to Pasadena City College, but he took his “Pooh Corner” song with him. He already knew he wanted to be a songwriter. What he didn’t know was that he already had written the song that would launch his career.
Three years later, he was hanging around the Troubadour nightclub in West Hollywood, hustling his songs to whoever would listen. He struck pay dirt with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which was looking for material for their next album. In an interview with The Ojai Quarterly, the NGDB’s John McEuen recalls his initial impression of Loggins: “An exuberant young songwriter was hanging around our dressing room and kept saying ‘Hey! I got some songs! You wanna record some of my songs! Can I play some for you? They’re really good! I think you’ll like them!’ ”
“House At Pooh Corner,” in particular, impressed the band — especially drummer Jimmy Ibbotson, who had loved the Milne books as a child. As for McEuen, he had not been particularly fond of the Pooh books, but he liked the song’s melody and its chord changes — and the story it tells about a person longing to return to a more innocent time in his life:
I’ve wandered much further today than I should
And I can’t seem to find my way back to the wood
So help me if you can, I’ve got to get
back to the house at Pooh Corner by 1 …
The Vietnam War was raging; there were protests and riots and killings. “Pooh Corner” allowed listeners to escape from all the angst, if only for three minutes.
“It’s a good vacation song for the mind,” McEuen says. “Even if you weren’t a Winnie the Pooh fan, the song takes you away.”
McEuen took Loggins away to the living room of his Laurel Canyon home, where they recorded a seven-song demo on McEuen’s reel-to-reel. “Pooh Corner” was the first one they laid down, and it was one of four Loggins-penned songs that ended up on the NGDB’s 1970 breakthrough album “Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy.” “Mr. Bojangles,” written by Jerry Jeff Walker, was the album’s big hit, but Loggins’ “Pooh Corner,” with Ibbotson singing lead, was the follow-up single.
It almost wasn’t released. The Walt Disney Company heard about it and dispatched lawyers to assert the company’s exclusive rights to the Pooh stories. McEuen gave Loggins the bad news, and Loggins shared his disappointment with his girlfriend at the time.
“Disney lawyers?” she asked. “Let me talk to Daddy about that.”
It somehow had escaped Loggins’ notice that his girlfriend’s father was president of the Walt Disney Company. She arranged a meeting at which Loggins played him the song.
“And the next day it was OK,” McEuen says.
MESSINA SITS IN
As the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band version of “Pooh Corner” began climbing the singles charts in April 1971, Loggins already was recording his own version for his own album. The song had helped him land a recording contract with Columbia Records, which had paired him with a high-powered producer: Jim Messina.
Messina already had produced (and played with) Buffalo Springfield, and had co-founded Poco, which was pioneering a new genre; country rock. But Messina had recently quit Poco because he wanted to stop touring and be a full-time producer.
“It ended up that the first artist he wanted to produce was Kenny,” says Jenny Sullivan, the actress and theater director, who was married to Messina at the time.
Unlike Loggins, Messina had not read the Milne books. His childhood tastes ran more to TV westerns.
“I must admit that at the same age that Kenny was into Winnie the Pooh, I was into Hopalong Cassidy,” he says. “Hence my subsequent interest in country-rock music.”
Loggins’ Pooh song fell more into the folk-rock category. But it was too good not to use, especially after the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had made it a hit.
Messina’s contributions to the album went well beyond producing, to the point that he and Loggins decided to release it under both their names, as a duo: “Kenny Loggins With Jim Messina Sittin’ In.” Three years and three hit albums later, Loggins & Messina was an established success. But Jim Messina had had enough of life in L.A. He wanted to live closer to nature.
“My father-in-law, Barry Sullivan, suggested we take a look at Ojai,” Messina says.
Barry Sullivan was a well-known movie actor and a golf enthusiast who had long enjoyed staying at the Ojai Valley Inn. His daughter Jenny remembered spending family holidays at the Inn when she was young, and later returning to Ojai as a high-school tennis player to compete in The Ojai annual tournament. Now, early in 1974, she found herself returning as a resident.
She and Messina found the perfect spot — the Cim-Bam Ranch, a former Arabian horse farm that sprawled across 20 acres in the hills high above Creek Road, just south of the village. They plunked down $200,000 in cash for it, and renamed it the Mother Lode Ranch.
“That was exactly what we were looking for,” Sullivan says.
Messina agreed, especially when he saw the stables, which could be converted into a bunkhouse for visiting musicians. Part of Ojai’s appeal for Messina was that he could corral Loggins and their backing band on this isolated ranch and focus on making albums without all the distractions of big-city living.
“We turned all the stalls and stables into little guest rooms,” he says. “We turned the main house into a recording facility.”
The band made three albums there from 1974 to 1976: “Mother Lode,” “So Fine” and “Native Sons.” These three years constitute a legendary era among many Ojai musicians who came of age in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, who suddenly found themselves rubbing shoulders with honest-to-God rock stars in their midst. (Loggins lived in Santa Barbara but spent much time in Ojai, where he rented a cottage in what is now the Troy Lodge Cottages (on Mallory Way). Loggins & Messina were riding high on the national charts — Their live album “On Stage” rose to No. 5 in 1974, with “Pooh Corner” as the lead-off track. Yet they happily socialized — and made music — with local musicians such as Alan Thornhill, forging connections that endure to this day.
“They were very accessible,” Thornhill says. “It was a very cool scene.”
They were regulars at the Ranch House restaurant, at the Matilija and Wheeler Hot Springs resorts, and in such places as the Solar Winds health-food store. Loggins would jump on stage at the Sand Dollar (now the Asian Fusion Garden) to jam with the Country Z Men, a local band whose lineup included Thornhill and Martin Young — and bass player George Hawkins, who later toured with Loggins & Messina as part of their backing band.
Sullivan and Messina also took an interest in the Art Center, where Sullivan tried her hand at directing plays, including a Christmas show featuring her father and a staging of “The Gin Game” featuring her mother, Marie Sullivan. “And I found that I really liked it,” she says. This was the start of Sullivan’s distinguished career as a theater director. (She directed last year’s well-received Rubicon Theatre production of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”)
“Jimmy and Jenny were top-of-the-line folks,” says Scott Eckersley, who did a lot of work for the Messinas on their ranch. He installed a hot tub, helped to build a barn, and carved a bunch of wooden signs, most prominently the“Mother Lode Ranch” sign that hung over the entrance to the driveway. He also socialized there with the Messinas and their guests.
“I was there a lot,” he says. “I smoked a joint on the porch one time with Graham Nash.”
Another time, Eckersley and his wife were hosting Loggins for dinner at their home when the singer’s muse suddenly kicked in.
“He jumped up from the dinner table and started writing a song,” Eckersley recalls. The song — “Brighter Days” — ended up on the “Mother Lode” album.
Messina, meanwhile, had written “Be Free” for “Mother Lode,” which he describes as “the soundtrack” of his time in Ojai. The song is about a man stuck in the city who yearns to escape to the country:
I want to get away and live my life
in the rivers and trees.
I want to spend the days making rhyme
and be free.
Ojai was Messina’s refuge from L.A., but at the same time, his and Jenny’s presence here brought a touch of L.A. rock ‘n’ roll glamour to Ojai — especially on July 14, 1974, when the couple hosted the wedding of Jenny’s sister Patsy Sullivan to the songwriter Jimmy Webb, composer of “MacArthur Park” and other classic hits. Several rock stars were among the reported 400 guests at the ranch that day, including Joni Mitchell, Harry Nilsson and Johnny Rivers. The bride arrived in the vintage Rolls Royce that James Dean had used in the movie “Giant,” and there was also a tethered hot-air balloon on hand (because Webb had written the Fifth Dimension hit “Up, Up and Away”).
“It was quite the splashy event,” Sullivan recalls.
It was big news in Ojai, for sure. People tried to crash the party as though it were Woodstock.
“We had guards everywhere,” Eckersley says.
The Loggins & Messina era in Ojai eventually came to an end due to two mostly amicable divorces: that of Loggins and Messina, who went their separate professional ways in 1976, and that of Messina and Sullivan, who split up a couple of years later. Whoever bought the ranch from them in 1978 did not keep it long, because a year later it was sold again — to a buyer named Milne.
Mimi Milne did not read the Pooh books as a child, but she knew she had some sort of connection with them because of something that happened when she was 9 or 10 and visiting her paternal grandfather.
“He pulled out a book with ‘A.A. Milne’ on the front of it and he said, ‘This is my uncle.’ ”
Or perhaps he said “cousin.” Anyway he asserted the family connection, which Mimi in later years enjoyed sharing with people who were intrigued by her last name.
“People would say to me, ‘Oh, are you related to A.A. Milne?’ And I’d say, ‘As a matter of fact I am!’”
Mimi’s father, Frank Milne, never talked about the Winnie the Pooh connection. He was more interested in telling stories about his own very interesting life.
Frank Stanley Milne was born in 1910 on Blue Bell Hill in Kent in England, not far from Ashdown Forest. But there is no evidence that Frank ever met his cousin A.A. Milne, and he definitely never met A.A.’s son Christopher Robin, who was born in 1920. By that point, Frank’s father already had packed up his family and emigrated from England, eventually settling in Portland, Ore.
Frank’s colorful career included a stint as a bootlegger during Prohibition. Later, he served with the Army in Europe during World War II. After the war he hired on with Harry Mann Chevrolet in Los Angeles, where he worked his way up to general manager and eventually bought the dealership.
When Chevrolet introduced its Corvette sports car in 1953, Frank Milne was quick to spot its potential. Under his leadership, Harry Mann became reportedly the largest Corvette dealer in America.
“He was Mr. Corvette,” Mimi says of her father. “When the Corvette came out, he just zeroed in on it. He said, ‘This is going to be the future of Chevrolet.’ ”
In 1979, Frank was pushing 70 and still going strong at the dealership, but he was receptive when his wife, Eva, told him she wanted to buy a ranch in Ojai. According to Mimi, Eva arrived at this decision while she was staying at the Oaks at Ojai spa. She went for a walk along Creek Road and had an epiphany near the driveway of her future home.
“She said ‘Yes, a place like this.’ She got back to the spa and she called David Mason,” Mimi recalls. “He says, ‘Oh, I have a perfect place for you.’ They drove up tdriveway and she said, ‘This is it.’ “
Mason recalls it a little differently.
“I sold it to them because of a silver teapot,” he says.
The teapot was an item for sale in his Village Florist shop in the Arcade. (Mason also sold real estate on the side.) Eva came into the shop one day and admired the teapot, and they struck up a friendship.
“She’s probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever known,” he says.
When she told him she wanted to buy a ranch in Ojai, he showed her two places she liked: The property on Creek Road and another on Carne Road in the East End. Eva then had Mason show both places to her husband, and Frank voted for the erstwhile Mother Lode Ranch. He cashed in his collection of gold Krugerrands and bought it.
“He just fell in love with it,” Mason says. “When Frank and Eva bought it, I wrapped up that silver teapot and gave it to them as a housewarming gift.”
Mimi soon followed her parents to Ojai, establishing her Bird in Paradise clothing store on East Matilija Street in the space now occupied by the Porch Gallery. (Mimi’s current business is Ojai Chocolat.) She didn’t live on her parents’ Creek Road property, which they called Oak Tree Ranch, but she spent a lot of time there.
“We used to have great parties up there,” she says.
Eva, an organic gardener, gave lessons on how to compost. Frank was notable in Ojai for his collection of sports cars — not just Corvettes but a Ferrari and a Lamborghini, most of them painted a vivid red. His brother Doug Milne moved in and spent years working on a biography of Howard Hughes, which he never published.
The Milnes became aware of the Loggins & Messina connection to the ranch when a nostalgic Jim Messina dropped by one day to have a look around.
“Years ago, he came up and talked to my Mom and Dad,” Mimi says.
None of them noticed the coincidence that linked the Milne name to the beloved Loggins & Messina song “House At Pooh Corner.” Mimi was not present for this conversation, but if she had been, she probably wouldn’t have made the connection either. She was familiar with Loggins & Messina, but had not noticed that one of their songs was inspired by the work of her father’s famous relative.
“I knew their music because it was of the time,” she says. “But I never really paid that much attention to the song.”
RETURN TO POOH CORNER
“I put in this fence.”
Scott Eckersley indicates his handiwork — the picket fence, the barn, the hot tub hut. It is May 2017, and he has not set foot on the former Mother Lode Ranch in almost 40 years. On a table near the swimming pool sits a photo album, opened to reveal a glossy of Jimmy Webb and Patsy Sullivan exchanging their vows there back in 1974, with two long-haired blondes in the background: Joni Mitchell to the left, Ojai’s own Martin Young to the right.
“That’s Martin,” Eckersley says, smiling.
Frank Milne died in 2008, at 98. Eva still lives on the ranch. There have been many changes over the years, but the same buildings are still there, and the pool, and the magnificent view.
Jim Messina weighs in via phone and email from his Santa Ynez ranch: “Please extend my love to the people of the Ojai Valley for making my life and Jenny’s a whole lot better because of their community, friendship and support.”
Messina is not just being polite. He still has all those wooden signs Eckersley carved for him, which now adorn his barn in Santa Ynez. He looks back fondly on his Mother Lode Ranch period, when Ojai played the role of the Hundred Acre Wood, providing an idyllic refuge for him and Jenny and their friends, until — like Christopher Robin — they had to move on.
“It was a really creative spot,” he says.
Messina and his second wife have put their Santa Ynez place up for sale and are preparing to move to a ranch in Montana. But he’ll take at least one Ojai souvenir with him: Eckersley’s “Mother Lode Ranch” sign.
“We’ve got to do that,” he says. “We’ll put it up on the barn someplace.”
Loggins could not be reached for an interview, but he regularly drives to Ojai from his home near Santa Barbara to make albums at Brotheryn Studios on Bryant Street.
“He still comes here constantly,” says his producer, Brotheryn’s Jesse Siebenberg (who as a musician has toured separately with Loggins, Messina and John McEuen).
Loggins also frequently revisits his song “House At Pooh Corner.” After he became a father, he wrote a new verse and re-recorded it as “Return To Pooh Corner,” the title song on his 1994 album aimed at children. Six years later he released a similar album, “More Songs From Pooh Corner.” He sang the song during his reunion tours with Messina in 2005 and 2009, and it remains a staple of his live shows.
The same is true of John McEuen, who still performs the song with his sons Jonathan and Nathan, both of who are longtime veterans of the Ventura County music scene. (Jonathan’s upcoming album currently is being mixed in Ojai.)
Jonathan McEuen says he learned the “House On Pooh Corner” song by listening to the original reel-to-reel demo Loggins recorded in John McEuen’s living room all those years ago. John, Jonathan and Nathan performed it live in Ojai last September at the Topa Mountain Winery, where they introduced the song to a new generation of Winnie the Pooh fans.
“There were a lot of kids there,” Jonathan says. “They loved it!”